The Rev. Matthew Cowden
Executive Council Liaison to the UTO Board
Diocese of Northern Indiana
Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times? Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven. Therefore is the kingdom of heaven likened unto a certain king, which would take account of his servants. And when he had begun to reckon, one was brought unto him, which owed him ten thousand talents. But forasmuch as he had not to pay, his lord commanded him to be sold, and his wife, and children, and all that he had, and payment to be made. The servant therefore fell down, and worshipped him, saying, Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay thee all. Then the lord of that servant was moved with compassion, and loosed him, and forgave him the debt. But the same servant went out, and found one of his fellowservants, which owed him an hundred pence: and he laid hands on him, and took him by the throat, saying, Pay me that thou owest. And his fellowservant fell down at his feet, and besought him, saying, Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all. And he would not: but went and cast him into prison, till he should pay the debt. So when his fellowservants saw what was done, they were very sorry, and came and told unto their lord all that was done. Then his lord, after that he had called him, said unto him, O thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all that debt, because thou desiredst me: Shouldest not thou also have had compassion on thy fellowservant, even as I had pity on thee? And his lord was wroth, and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due unto him. So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses.
This summer I had the opportunity to share a conversation with friends who are leaders in an endowed Episcopal parish. We were working on getting our heads and hearts around the sometimes difficult topic of stewardship. As sometimes happens in deeply endowed congregations, the sense of giving and financial stewardship in this parish has been declining. “The church doesn’t need me to give,” so the thinking often goes, “they don’t need my money in order to keep the church going, they already have enough.”
My friends were aware that this underlying attitude was in need of change, for both spiritual and financial health (even the best of funds don’t last forever). We wondered together how we might address this underlying attitude in the congregation. I shared with them what I have come to learn in my own soul, my conviction that we don’t give our treasure because the church needs it but because, as Christ followers, we need to practice letting go. Letting go, especially as thankful giving, is part of our core spiritual discipline as Christians. Giving through voluntarily letting go forms us for all the other giving and letting go that life asks of us.
As I put it to my friends more succinctly, we don’t give because the church needs it, we give because we need it. Regular, holy giving is a deep practice that comes from and leads to spiritual maturity. The financial health that a congregation experiences is simply a byproduct, the flower from the root of our giving. Congregations flourish in ministry and our surrounding community flourishes from our outreach not because we have more resources to share but because, at our root, we are nourishing and practicing the kind of gratitude, giving and letting go that is called upon by the reign of God in our midst.
Developing this kind of holy giving practice, though, takes a transformation of heart. Learning to give from the heart is often a process of moving from feeling like we are losing something by giving to recognizing how grateful we are for everything we have; learning that letting go brings more peace than holding on. The same dynamics that are true in the transformation of heart in our giving are also at work in our call and practice to be forgiving.
The kind of forgiveness that Jesus is teaching Peter in today’s Gospel operates in the same way as Godly giving does in good stewardship. When Peter begins asking Jesus about forgiveness he does so in a way that limits the act of forgiving. Forgiving is limited in Peter’s question because it operates on the assumption of the worth of the person who is to receive it and to the limited resources of the person offering it. As with the stewardship concerns in an endowed parish, offering such conditional forgiveness might ask, “how much does this person need or deserve my forgiveness; how worthy are they to receive it?” or, “how much do I have to give or give up for forgiveness?” Just as we may be afraid of losing too much by giving ten percent of our treasure, so in forgiveness we often don’t want to forgive because we are afraid of losing too much.
When we struggle with forgiveness we often fear we are might be losing our sense of self worth, or we fear that we will be invalidating the hurt that has been done to us. We fear that by forgiving we will lose our comprehension of what is truly right or that justice will be undermined. Or perhaps we feel like we just don’t have it in us to forgive; we don’t have the resources to commit; our well is only so deep and there’s not enough in us to be able to forgive. Focusing on the worth of the other or on the worth of our personal resources available misses the greater gift that is offered in Jesus’ call to forgive and to forgive always. Just as a transformation often needs to take place in our hearts for giving, a similar transformation is often necessary for receiving the gifts of forgiving. Rather than focusing on the worthiness of one who has committed the offense or on our limited capacity, heart centered forgiveness is a transformative, deeply spiritual practice that is meant to heal us.
Brother Curtis Almquist of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist (SSJE) describes it this way,
“By forgiving someone, you unbind yourself from the residual power this person – from whom you have experienced an injury, offense, or disappointment – continues to have on you. To not forgive will leave your wound vulnerable to infection, which eventually can metastasize into resentment.”
We forgive not because our “trespassers” need it but because we need it. Like Godly giving, our own flower and flourishing depends on our letting go of our debtors at the roots, forgiving from the heart, as Jesus says. Jesus, and the Evangelist Matthew, knows that, like letting of of treasure, the byproduct and further flower of forgiveness also benefits the wider community. Healing at the heart within naturally producing healing in others, over time.
Jesus’ parable about the forgiving king and the “wicked slave” is meant to underscore this reciprocal nature of forgiveness, the context of the wider, interconnected community of “debtors” that we are in relationship with, and also how the benefits of forgiveness are meant to be for our own wholeness and well being. Limiting forgiveness and holding on to hurts ultimately hurts us and our wider community. Letting go, unbinding others, is an act that leads to our wholeness and Godly growth.
Regular, heart centered forgiving is a deep practice that leads to spiritual maturity and our own greater health. May we give and forgive from our hearts, always; not because others need it but because we do.
 Br. Curtis Almquist, Cowley Magazine, Reconciliation Presumes Forgiveness, published April 18, 2013 and accessed at