The Hardest Question was an experiment in preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. All posting is finished, but the content will continue to live here in archive form. You can discover new content by former THQ curator Russell Rathbun at Question the Text.


Kinda Dark in There

 There are so many disturbing questions to choose from.

by Nadia Bolz-Weber

Gospel Reading: Matthew 18:21-35

For Sunday, Sept. 11, 2011 Year A—Ordinary 24

Let’s be honest. The hardest thing about deciding what the hardest question is about Matthew 18:21-35 is that there are so many disturbing questions to choose from.

That’s a Lot!

How many times must I forgive? Peter comes to Jesus with a complaint we’ve all had: someone at church is being an ass. It happens. So, how many times shall we forgive the whiner, the gossip, the embezzler, the adulterer, the woman who doesn’t recycle? Seven seems a lofty number. What do you think Jesus? Seven times? And of course without blinking an eye Jesus says, “Seventy-seven!”

Seventy-seven times we are to forgive. That’s a lot of forgiveness. But the little Kingdom of Heaven parable that follows doesn’t feel like it’s about forgiving seventy-seven times. Which brings us to the…

Candidates for Most Disturbing Question:

#1 If the king represents God then is it true that, like the king, God’s first instinct is to sell us off to another (king?, God?) if we cannot pay God back?

#2 If so, then can we really talk the God of the universe out of this by making some kind of flimsy promise to be good?

#3 If this is a parable about forgiving people ”77″  times, then why is it that the King only forgave the slave once then the next time he slipped up the King sent him off to be tortured? That feels like it’s about “76″ short of what Jesus is telling us to do.

#4 Seriously? God will hand us over to be tortured if we too do not also forgive those who sin against us? And not only that—we have to forgive them from the heart.

What’s Really Hard

Any of the above would be great candidates for most disturbing question for this text. But this isn’t “The Most Disturbing Question” blog. It’s “The Hardest Question.” And when it comes down to it none of these is the hardest question, these are red herrings—ways to distract ourselves from what’s really hard here. And what’s really hard is forgiving people who have sinned against us. What’s really hard is to know what to do when out hearts are filled not with forgiveness and mercy but with rage.

On this, the 10th anniversary of September 11—something that for many marks us Americans as people who have been sinned against in a profound and unforgettable way—a text on forgiveness, the likes of which we have here in Matthew 18, might be the perfect opportunity to speak a little truth about what is really in our hearts.

The Hardest Question

The hardest question is this: From where will we attain this forgiveness for those who have caused us harm? I’ll tell you one thing for sure. It ain’t in my heart. No sir. It’s kinda dark in there.

Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber is the founding pastor of House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, Colorado. She is the author of Salvation on the Small Screen? 24 Hours of Christian Television (Seabury, 2008) and blogs at and Jim Wallis’ Nobody really believes she’s an ordained pastor in the ELCA. Maybe it’s the sleeve tattoos or the fact that she swears like a truck driver. Either way…she’s fine with it. Nadia lives in Denver with her family of four.


  1. Fergie says:


    I appreciate your honesty, as I sit here trying to formulate my sermon for this coming Sunday (9/11). Your thoughts are my thoughts exactly. I pray that the Holy Spirit will work in my sermon what I cannot rectify in my mind and heart. That is the one thing I am certain about.

  2. Helen Tervo says:

    I’ve used this text often in ministry to prisoners. And when I teach forgiveness I always start at the place of “who do I have to forgive”. Everybody seems to want to be forgiven – especially those of the criminal persuasion – but the real work of forgiveness is to be a forgiving person. And it seems to me that when we learn to forgive the ones who have harmed us deeply, we are able to receive forgiveness in a deep and profound way. This is when we learn that forgiveness is a process, not a moment of minimalizing or discounting pain. We learn the cost of forgiveness. Still, Jesus never says, forgive others when you’ve got it altogether or when you have forgiven yourself (psychologists really like it when people forgive themselves but I’ve never understood what that means). Jesus continually asks us to be forgiving people. Thanks Nadia – beautiful reading of the text.

  3. Leslie Clark says:

    Matthew rarely gives us any wriggle room in the parables of Jesus he relates to us.

    I like the reminder that it is a story filled with exaggeration, and that any facile correlation of the details between God and the king or us and the unforgiving/unforgiveable slave is gonna fall flat. It’s meant to give our usual perceptions and understandings a shake.

    One possible translation of the Greek word “aphiemi,” or “forgive” as it shows in the NRSV is “release.”

    From a Sister of St. Benedict i learned that the “The prayer for God’s presence in our life is already God present and working in us.” Maybe it’s true for forgiveness too, especially where the harm done has been acute.

    Maybe even the prayer “God, make me WANT to forgive…” is already grace at work in us, releasing us from our enslavement to events of the past and the self righteousness we sometimes develop out of acts of harm against us.

  4. Susan Beck says:

    Thanks for this honest look at a hard scripture. As i’m thinking about what to say this Sunday, I’m thinking about forgiveness and healing…how”being handed over to torture” sounds so un-Jesus…but maybe its about us taking a step toward the healing God wants us to have. If living with the ache of bitterness, hatred and vengefulness isn’t being handed over to torture, I don’t know what is.

  5. Grant says:

    I am challenged because there are so many to forgive, so much anger in my heart. Where do I start? Do I begin with politicians? That’s somewhat easy. Nobody has a clue how to solve world problems. What about denominational leaders? Should they not know better than creating new Talmuds and placing burdens heavier than the Pharisees? No they don’t. It’s just the way we humans think. Legalism is in our DNA. What about the jerks on the freeway who drive like murderers? Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing? What about the CEO with his entitlement mentality, thinking he is entitled to $600 million bonus and benefits? That’s hard to forgive, but he may be the poorest of all, pitifully poor and except for a miracle, almost deluded beyond help. Sigh! I wish my heart were clean. God help me to forgive so many people from the heart.

  6. Tom Peitsch says:

    “something that for many marks us Americans as people who have been sinned against in a profound and unforgettable way”…

    It is just this thinking that is so amazing. Do Americans really believe that this is true? That somehow or in someway the whole 9/11 things is somehow worse than the atrocities of any war? That the innocent Americans who died in the Twin Towers collapse are more innocent than the thousands who have died in other countries as a result of terrorism or, dare I say it, covert and overt military action by the US or through starvation and suffering resulting from the greed-filled lifestyles of the western nations??? One of the keys to forgiving others is accepting one’s own sinfulness and need for forgiveness. The unforgiving servant didn’t get this lesson. Maybe that is a good place to start.

  7. Marianne P says:

    Lyle Lovett wrote one of the best songs ever on forgiveness entitled “God Will” Lyrics are as follows:

    Who keeps on trusting you

    When you’ve been cheating

    And spending your nights on the town

    And who keeps on saying that he still wants you

    When you’re through running around

    And who keeps on loving you

    When you’ve been lying

    Saying things ain’t what they seem

    God does

    But I don’t

    God will

    But I won’t

    And that’s the difference

    Between God and me

    So who says he’ll forgive you

    And says that he’ll miss you

    And dream of your sweet memory

    God does

    But I don’t

    God will

    But I won’t

    And that’s the difference

    Between God and me

    The issues are little rather than the big ones of the twin towers, but then I am often small minded.

  8. Jim says:

    I am expanding on Leslie’s point that the Greek means “release”. This is a long quote from Caroline Myss. She talks about going down into our dungeon — the place where we incarcerate our ex-spouses, the people who fired us, the friends who betrayed us, the girl/boyfriends who abused us — and releasing them one-by-one.

    “With your soul, dialogue with each prisoner, one at a time. Recall why and for how long you have been holding each person in your dungeon. You are seeking to discover your need for vengeance and personal justice and your obstacles to forgiveness. Do not disguise your vengeful motives in phrases such as, “I simply need to bring this matter to closure.” Closure is often just a soft word for “I simply need to fire the last bullet. I need to hurt that person—and that will close the book on this incident just fine.” Review the quality of energy, emotions, and thoughts that you have generated within your soul as a result of holding this person in your dungeon. What do you need from each one to allow you to release him? Be honest—do you need to humiliate or hurt him? Do you need to punish him because he hurt you? What will it take for you to release these people? If you are waiting for them to admit that they harmed you, chances are that will never happen. There comes a point at which you have to let go and forgive. You can start your prayer with, “Help me to forgive because I don’t want to forgive. I feel entitled to be angry even though the anger is killing me, not them. And no one really cares that I’m angry. It’s destroying my life, not theirs. I want to punish someone, so I punish my kids or I punish other innocent people who have never harmed me because it is my way of punishing them. So I really don’t want to forgive because then I think all my hurt will be forgotten and that feels so unfair. But what is fair? No one’s hurt is fair. I just think that justice should revolve around me. So, help me to forgive, one person at a time, beginning with———.” That’s your beginning. You take it from there until you have emptied your dungeon. Whenever you add new prisoners, you will have to revisit your dungeon.”

    Myss, Caroline (2007-03-06). Entering the Castle (pp. 147-148). Free Press. Kindle Edition.

  9. Leslianne says:

    Reading this, the question that keeps popping up is: “and who is it that needs to forgive me?” I am so blind to my own need to seek forgiveness.

  10. John Golden says:

    As I’m preparing a men’s and youth study, what’s really hitting me is the connectedness of our accepting forgiveness and our giving forgiveness. The servant is judged harshly because he demonstrates that he does not understand what the king’s forgiveness means. When we forgive others, we’re working on our own acceptance of God’s forgiveness for us. We can’t truly accept it until we know what it means to give it. And when we are truly accepting it (always in process), it’s impossible not to extend the grace to others. I’m going to have the kids make a Möbius band to try to get at the idea. For the men, considering 9/11.

  11. Michele Rowe says:

    Thank God and thank you for this place of thoughtful community.

    Alcoholics Anonymous focuses on the idea of “making amends” – going beyond asking for forgiveness to actively seek to make the relationship better. Amends are often more than verbal; they are ‘living amends’ in which we change the ways in which we relate to others and our world.

    I need to ask myself what amends I need to make to those in my family, community, world and creation itself.

  12. Nadia says:

    Wow. Just, wow. Thanks to everyone for a great conversation. Here it is Saturday early in the morning and I have nothing on paper. I have no idea what to write other than I think that forgiveness is fidelity to something bigger than who you are forgiving. Are we going to give our loyalty to their sin and darkness ir are we going to give our loyalty to what is holy and redeeming and of God? Which ever choice we make we are forever connected to it: sin or life, harm or good.

    Good luck preacher friends and know that your sermon can’t do everything tomorrow. Be good to yourselves.

    Pax, Nadia


  1. [...] anniversary of the 9/11 attacks — is about forgiveness.  Happy coincidence?  Maybe so.  At The Hardest Question, Nadia Bolz-Weber has some thoughts on how she’s going to preach it:Any of the above would be [...]

  2. [...] pastor Nadia Bolz-Webber notes in her blog post on the lectionary text that the ability to forgive is not in our human [...]

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