The Holy Gospel According to St. Matthew, the 18th Chapter
Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘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?’ 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.”
Twenty five years ago this week I asked Kelly to marry me on top of the city hall tower in Stockholm. Spoiler alert... she said yes! One of the things we did to get ready for that trip was go to the bank for our Swedish Kronor. I remember handing over our normal, green, American money and getting back all this crazy colored stuff and thinking “How in the heck will I know what it’s worth?”
Figuring out funny money is important in today’s parable as well. The guy in the parable owed the King 10,000 Talents but what’s a Talent? Is it like Swedish Kronor? 10,000 Kronor is about 1200 bucks. Is it like that? Well, a Denarius is a day’s wages for a field worker, so in round numbers… about 80 bucks. 6000 Denarii makes a Talent. So, in US dollars, the guy in this story owed the king... 4.8 B-B-B-BILLION dollars! He owed the GDP of Albania! He had country level debt! Jesus is telling us that if we ever had to “pay up” to get right with God, it would be impossible! The Good News is that we've been made right without having to pay up!
That's not the usual way things work in our world, but there’s even more strangeness in this story than that. Did you notice... the king never asks what this guy bought with the equivalent of the entire economy of Somalia? If someone borrowed twenty bucks from me and told me they couldn’t pay it back, the first thing I’d ask is “what did you do with it?” but the king didn’t care. Jesus did that to show EXACTLY how God is with you and with me. What we’ve done or what we haven’t done… our King doesn’t care! It never comes up. Jesus tells this story about a King with unfathomable compassion… the story of a King whose love for the person is stronger than his love of balanced books, getting even or even getting back the equivalent cost of an aircraft carrier… Jesus tells this story so we would know that we have a God who makes us right, IN SPITE, of what we’ve done or not done… in spite of what we “owe”… no questions asked.
Jesus ALSO told this story because he knew we’d like receiving God’s unlimited, unconditional, 4.8 billion dollars worth of forgiveness, love and compassion BUT we’d also have trouble passing it on to others in that same, generous and unconditional way. He knew we’d be compassionate, but with conditions. We’d forgive, but with footnotes. We’d give abundantly, but with an asterisk.
Jesus knew that and he knew we’d justify it by saying its “good stewardship” or “they need to learn their lesson.” But what Jesus is telling us here is that when we pass on only PART of the forgiveness we've first been given or give compassion with conditions, the truth is, WE are the ones who will not be free. Jesus is again super melodramatic to make his point. We’re not meant to think God is going to literally send us to be tortured when we fail to pass on fully the love God’s first given us, BUT his point is clear… the more we forgive and let go of the wrongs that have been done to us… the more we strive to be generous with others, even when others have not been so generous with us… the more we will experience the freedom, fullness and abundance of life God created us to live. On the other hand, the tighter we hold those hurts, the longer we hold those grudges, the more we hold back the compassion, generosity and love we have first been given by God, the more our lives will feel tortured. Not because God sends us to be tortured but because holding on leaves us stewing in those old resentments and burning with the fear of scarcity. Really letting go and living generously, Jesus tells us, leads to an abundant life.
A quick side note here. Some preachers have really done a number on this “abundant life” thing over the years. They preach that when you are generous and buy them a private jet, God will pay you back with an abundance of MATERIAL wealth. As much as I think having a private jet would be really, really cool, I have to tell you that’s not what Jesus meant. What Jesus meant is that when we are generous with every aspect of our lives, we experience an abundant life… ABUNDANT in that it's a life filled with meaning, purpose and peace. While it’s possible for that to happen with every sort of bank balance, other parables Jesus tells warn that the bigger your bank balance, the harder it is to live fully and genuinely with generosity and that makes it harder to experience a life of meaning, purpose and peace. But that’s for another sermon.
For now we’ve got this parable to deal with and it’s not an easy one to live into. Heck, I don't seem to be able to live into this truth very well and I’m preaching it! I struggle with being generous because I fear that the bad-old-days might return when I didn’t think I had enough to take care of my family. I also hold onto those times I was deeply wronged and stewing on those wrongs in the past tortures me… and yet I continue to hold on anyway! I’m guessing, I’m not alone.
This is another reason we can’t do life alone. We all need help living toward giving generously without an asterisk and being compassionate without conditions. We all need help dying to our past hurts and our persistent fears and rising toward being even a bit more generous, a little more compassionate and holding a little less tightly onto the things that hurt us in the past every single day.
Jesus told this parable, not to threaten us with torture, but so that we might have life and have it abundantly! He told us this parable so we would understand what God has first done for us, so we would then have the courage ourselves to pass on fully what we’ve first been given. May we take one another by the hand, and together take one small step, and then another, and then another in that direction… dying to our past hurts and resentments… dying to our torturing fears about not having enough and rising each day to the new and abundant life God has already so generously given us to live. Amen.