An unreasonable mandate

A sermon on Matthew 18:21-35

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efore I plunge into the parable from the Gospel according to Matthew, I want to offer just a brief observation on the reading from Exodus. What we heard read aloud was an excerpt from a text known as “the Song of Moses” (Exodus 15:1-11), a passage celebrating the liberation of the Hebrew slaves by way of their passage through the Red Sea. It is a victory song, which uses language—“The Lord is a warrior”—that may well seem a bit jarring to a people whose imaginations have been formed by the non-violence of Jesus. That raises the prospect of a pretty serious tangent regarding the way in which that ancient biblical people understood God to be acting, and tonight I’m not even going to begin to go down that trail (though we’ve invited Dr Gus Konkel to do just that when he speaks at an ideaExchange session this winter…). Instead I just want to note that where Moses sings a long piece of theological text, when Aaron’s sister Miriam responds it is with just one sentence—“Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea”—which is accompanied by “all the women… with tambourines and with dancing.” I find it striking that the man articulates his theology in words, while the women do it largely through music and dance. And both ways of “doing theology” are remembered and honoured in the biblical tradition.

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With that, let me turn to the reading from the gospel. Here we find Jesus teaching in his familiar and artful way, namely in the form of a parable. This passage continues to build on the issues of transgression and forgiveness that were addressed in last Sunday’s texts and sermons, opening with Peter’s question, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” To this Jesus responds, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” And in some of the ancient sources, this even reads “seventy times seven times.” Abundantly, endlessly, and tirelessly.

The urgency of this is unpacked in the parable that Jesus then tells. “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves,” Jesus says, and then gives us a picture of a slave who owes the master “ten thousand talents.” In purely monetary terms, a “talent” was worth about fifteen years of worker’s wages, meaning that this particular slave was into his master for roughly 150,000 years of work. An exorbitant and impossible sum, in other words, which effectively carries the parable into a kind of intentional absurdity.

Being that the slave could not make repayment—no kidding—“his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made.” But even then, the slave would be nowhere close to repaying this enormous debt; the selling of wife and children and possessions strikes me as being then quite frankly punitive. At this, Jesus continues, “the slave fell on his knees before the master, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’” Seriously? The payment can never me made, which is the point Jesus is making by setting the debt so absurdly high. The slave is on his knees, desperate, willing to promise anything. “And out of pity for him,” Jesus says, “the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt.”

In doing this, the master is basically declaring that at least on this day he is prepared to override his master/slave practices and get out of the business. He has pity, which in itself is not particularly effective practice for a slave-owner, and as an act of sheer mercy he simply forgives the debt.

“But that same slave,” Jesus says, “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.’” A denarius was the average daily wage for a worker, so while a hundred denarii is not a small sum—think of it as being three or four months of work in a minimum wage job—but it is also not an impossible sum. You can imagine how someone could get five or six thousand dollars in debt, and you can also imagine how that person could arrange to repay that kind of money. As Jesus tell his parable, this second slave did pretty much what the first had done when he was confronted with his debt; he went to his knees and begged, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.”

The thing is, the slave who had been forgiven so much by a master prepared to declare himself out of the debt/debtor business insists on himself staying in that very business, offering not even a hint of mercy.  He has the second slave tossed into debtor’s prison, which gets some of the other slaves sufficiently indignant that they report the whole works to the master, who immediately goes roaring right back into business. “‘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?’” Adding a particularly gruesome little detail—the master “handed him over to be tortured until he should pay his entire debt—Jesus sums it all up by saying, “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

I can only imagine the look on Peter’s face at this point. After all, the parable had been told in response to the question about how many times he needed to offer forgiveness to those who had wronged him. I suspect Peter had really been really stretching himself when he suggested that seven times was a reasonably merciful number, but of course Jesus is not particularly interested in talking reasonably about mercy. A major thrust of the gospel tradition is its insistence that God is actively getting out of the god-business, and is opting instead to run things according to the irrational standard that is grace. He is the Lord who, when confronted with the plea for patience and the promise that we’ll repay it all and do better next time, replies by saying “Debt? What debt?”

Funny thing, though, that people keep insisting on pushing God back into the religion business. That is the what is at the heart of Jesus’ ongoing disputes with the Pharisees, who can’t stand the idea that prostitutes, tax-collectors, and other no-counts and low-lifes could ever be a part of God’s kingdom, and so keep pressing for a more reasonable and exclusive god who will only accept the rigorously righteous. In trying to pin down the number of times he needed to be forgiving, Peter in his own way was pressing for God to remain in the religion business, and in telling this parable Jesus essentially says to him, “Peter, be careful what you ask for.”

And so with us. We delight in the proclamation that says that through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, God has torn up the ledger sheet that records humanity’s ten thousand talent debt. But it is so tempting to place a hedge around our own willingness to tear up the much more modest ledger sheets we use to keep count of who is into us and for what. You know that line we say each week in the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us?” That’s our regular reminder of the force of this parable. We have been, are, and will be forgiven, and the corresponding mandate is that we do likewise. An unreasonable mandate, to be sure, and as for Peter it is the one which places on us the deepest claim.

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