Sermon: "What Debt! What Grace!"
St. Paul’s Episcopal – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Exodus 14.19-31; Psalm 114; Romans 14.1-12; Matthew 18.21-25
Last week’s gospel lesson from Matthew 18.15-20 dealt with the actions we should take to promote reconciliation when another member of the church sins against us. Jesus outlined a three-step process: 1) we are to privately discuss the matter with the person who sinned against us; 2) should this fail, we are to take one or two others who can confirm our attempt to reconcile; and 3) should this fail we are to take the matter to the church. If the offender refuses to listen to the advice of the church, she is to be treated as a Gentile or a tax collector, i.e., as an outsider. We are to take these steps to preserve the sacredness of Christian community. As I mentioned last week, we may not employ this process because we have lost sight of the sacredness of Christian community. I doubt that many of us think of the church in such terms. We should, for we are the body of Christ.
Peter then asked Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus replied, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18.21-22; NRSV).
Let’s pause for a moment. Rabbinic tradition called for a person to forgive another four times. That seems reasonable – if one is serious about reforming one’s action, four times should cover it. Although Peter moved beyond rabbinic tradition, Jesus didn’t stop there! What Jesus actually said is a bit uncertain. The Greek can be translated as “seventy-seven times” or as “seventy times seven.” Although commentators may quibble over the matter, the exact number is inconsequential, for Jesus is saying forgiveness should be unlimited. The parable Jesus told bears this out.
Jesus said “the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves,” or servants. The first to be brought before the king owed the king 10,000 talents. A note in the NRSV tells us a talent was equivalent to more than 15 years wages! Say what? Jesus says the servant owes the king 10,000 talents! That is the equivalent of 150,000 years wages. In today’s terms, if one earned $50,000 / year, we would be speaking of indebtedness to the tune of 7.5 billion dollars. This is an exorbitant amount of money! How could he amass that much debt?
Since the servant could not pay the debt, the king ordered “him to be sold, together with his wife and his children and all his possessions.” Perhaps the king realized that although he could not begin to recover the debt, he could set an example for others. The servant fell on his knees before the king and said, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything” (Matthew 18.25-26; NRSV). This would have been impossible! Jesus then said, “And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt” (Matthew 18.27; NRSV). Imagine that you owed an immense amount of debt, for example, five million dollars and you had a reasonable expectation of being able to pay off the debt. But alas, tragedy strikes, and you are unable to do so. Think of the relief you would feel if the lender were to tell you the debt was canceled! Had the parable ended here, we could say it ended on a happy note, a note of rejoicing, and we could celebrate the king’s magnificence.
But the parable continues … the slave who had been forgiven so much went out and spied one of his fellow slaves who happened to owe him 100 denarii (roughly equivalent to 100 days of labor). The slave seized him by the throat and demanded that he pay his debt. The indebted slave begged for patience and promised to repay the debt, but the slave who had been forgiven had no patience and threw him into prison until the debt was paid. As this troubled his fellow slaves, they reported the incident to their lord. The lord called the slave who had been forgiven much and said, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?” (Matthew 18.32-33; NRSV). The lord then handed him over to be tortured until he could pay his entire debt. Then Jesus said, “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart” (Matthew 18.35; NRSV).
What can we learn from this account? How are we to understand and apply what Jesus is saying? Let’s consider a few things.
First, the nature of forgiveness. We should bear in mind Jesus’ words, “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared…” occur immediately after he said we were to forgive seventy-seven times. We might render this as “If we are to understand forgiveness, the kingdom of heaven may be compared…” The debt the slave owed was beyond reason – it was exorbitant. Yet the lord forgave the debt out of pity.
We should also remember that Jesus came to usher in the kingdom of heaven on earth; the kingdom of heaven is embodied in the Church, in the body of Christ, which stands in sharp contrast (or should stand in sharp contrast) to the kingdom of this world. Even the details of the parable stand in sharp contrast to the world’s practices. What institution would permit one to accumulate such a vast amount of unsecured debt? What institution would be willing to forgive such a vast amount of debt?
Second, problems with the standard interpretation. The standard interpretation sets forth the view that the king is none other than God. In our sinful nature, we owe God an immense debt that we cannot repay. When we come before God, we can only beg for patience and mercy. Through the grace of God, our debt is canceled when we choose to believe in the atoning work of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. In accepting and bearing all the world’s violence on the cross, and in rising from the dead, Jesus Christ has opened the way of eternal life and salvation. Having received such mercy, we are to extend it to others.
Yet a problem arises with this interpretation – what are we to make of Jesus’ words, “And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart”? Do we simply believe that on the one hand our God is a God of mercy and love but on the other hand our God is a God of anger, wrath, and violence? Doesn’t this create an image of God fraught with inconsistency? As fallen creatures, we may grant mercy in one moment and be wrathful and vengeful in the next. Might we have created God in our image? This conflicted view of God is the commonly accepted view of all too many Christians. I was raised with this view and subscribed to it for most of my life. My view has changed as I have wrestled with understanding the image and character of God.
Let’s consider the parable in the following manner. In God’s forgiveness, our debt is canceled; we fully encounter the love and the mercy of God. We enter the life of God’s kingdom. Now, what happens when someone egregiously sins against us? Can we readily grant forgiveness? I am sure all of you have been terribly wounded -- it is hard to forgive in such circumstances; in cases like this, forgiveness is more of an ongoing process than a one-time event. In such cases, we have to ask God’s Spirit for the willingness and the strength to forgive. If we refuse to forgive, we have once again reverted to the spirit of the world from which we were called, and we experience all of the torture and hell that goes with it. God does not hand us over to such torture. No, such torture is the ensuing consequence of our refusal to forgive.
Last, God’s forgiveness carries a set of expectations. In that we stand forgiven before God, in that God has granted us such mercy and love, we are expected to grant that same mercy and love to others. We routinely fail, but God is a forgiving God who helps us to pick up the pieces and to move beyond the hell we choose to create. When we pray those words, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” we need to be aware of what we are asking. Let’s face it, what we would like to pray is simply “forgive us our trespasses.” But God calls us to live a life of forgiveness, to grant unto others the same forgiveness, love, and grace we have received, and God stands ready and willing to help us when we choose to live in such a manner. The sacredness of Christian community can only be achieved if we stand ready to forgive over and over and over again – up to and beyond seventy times seven. Our debt is exceedingly great – so too is God’s mercy!