A sermon for September 17 on Matthew 18:21-35
This reading from the Gospel according to Matthew starts out in a rather straightforward, albeit still challenging way. Jesus had just spoken to the disciples about their need to practice forgiveness and reconciliation in the community, and now Peter asks for a little bit of clarification. So Jesus, if someone sins against me—breaks my trust, does me harm, fractures our relationship—how many times should I offer forgiveness? At his point I imagine there might have been a bit of a worried pause. As many as seven times? That’s fairly generous, of course; far more than our world’s “three strikes and you’re out.” “Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.’” N.T. Wright calls this “a typical bit of Jesus’ teasing”; a way for Jesus to rather vividly make that point that, “If you’re still counting how many times you’ve forgiven someone, you’re not really forgiving them at all, but simply postponing revenge. What he means, of course, is ‘don’t even think about counting; just do it.’”
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This business of forgiveness and reconciliation is meant to be your basic posture, he’s saying to Peter, and not a hard and fast set of standards for participating in the Kingdom. We’re going out of the scorekeeping business, Peter. Seven is irrelevant now, my friend. Seventy-seven is the new thing, and if you actually score-kept up that high, I’d just up it all over again. Stop counting.
It isn’t as if Jesus is telling him that he’s now condemned to victimhood, living some naïve and artificial “forgive and forget” life that is going to set him up to get burned over and over again. As Rachel emphasized last Sunday, in one hand we hold fast to this call to reconciliation and forgiveness, but there are times when that other hand must also be poised to say, “but you’re not going to hurt me again.” In fact, for something so transformational as reconciliation to take place, there needs to be movement. Which is where the parable kicks in.
“For this reason,” Jesus begins, “the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves.” As the parable begins to unfold, you realize Jesus is not interested in things like subtly or character development, but rather is working with big, broad-brush strokes. One of the slaves is brought forward, and he’s got an unimaginably large debt of 10,000 talents. A single talent was equivalent to some fifteen years worth of a laborer’s wages, meaning that 10,000 talents is actually beyond comprehension. There’s broad-brush stroke number one.
“[And when] 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.” Not that a few slaves and their possessions would come close to the value of even a single talent, but Jesus isn’t trying to make the story particularly realistic. It just sets up the next part of the piece, in which the slave falls to his knees and begs for a bit of leniency. “Have patience with me,” he pleads, “and I will pay you everything.” And even though he couldn’t begin to touch the level of debt Jesus says he owed, he doesn’t beg for mercy, but for patience; more time to try to re-arrange the proverbial deck chairs on the Titanic, I suppose. “And out of pity for him,” Jesus says, “the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt.”
They’re actually going at cross-purposes here. The king out of pity has forgiven the debt—has looked at the slave’s desperation, and basically said, “ah nuts, this is beyond balancing… forget it.” He’s gone out of the bookkeeping business, in other words. Meanwhile it is quite clear that the slave is still a bookkeeper—one who feels as if by some miracle he’s just won what amounts to the biggest lottery of all time—but a bookkeeper all the same. Though he’s just had his debt forgiven he’s still quite committed to bottom lines and bank accounts, which is evidenced by what follows.
“As he went out”—in other words right on the heels of his great lottery win—“he came upon one of his fellow-slaves who owed him a hundred denarii”. A hundred denarii, which isn’t nothing. A denarius was the wage for a day’s labour, so a hundred is a fair chunk… but not impossible; not unimaginable in the way that 10,000 talents was. “[A]nd 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.’” Recognize those words? Pretty much what the first slave had said to the king. Patience, time, and I’ll set the books straight. “But he refused,” which is the clearest indication that he’s still very much a bookkeeper in spite of what the king had just done for him. He refused, and then, Jesus said, “he went and threw the slave into prison until he should pay the debt,” which goes over in the wider slave community like a lead balloon. They make sure word gets back to the king, who has that first slave hauled straight back. “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?” I went out of the bookkeeping business for your sad sake, but you? You insist on going right back into business like that? And here comes the next big brush stroke. “In anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he should pay his entire debt.” Not sure how the endless torturing could in any way be a fund-raiser for the repayment of an impossible debt, but Jesus isn’t trying to construct a realistic story. No, he’s trying to drive a point into the thick skulls of Peter and the rest. And in case they’ve missed the point, the parable ends with a bit of a blunt instrument. “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
A sidebar on Matthew. This parable is unique to his gospel, and when that happens they tend to be tough parables with a strong emphasis on actually doing the faith. You can’t just receive; you have to give back in return. That’s definitely there in this parable, and very much so in the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25. And sometimes when Matthew relates a parable that appears in other gospels, there’s more edge, more reckoning to it. Last week Rachel made the point that in his gospel Matthew also seems to have a particular interest in tax collectors—the great traitorous villains of that society—and in particular the idea that Jesus would extend mercy to such people. It is almost as if he can’t quite believe that he—according to the tradition a tax collector himself—had been given a second chance. There is a sense that he might be carrying it as a bit of a burden—again, as Rachel pointed out, when he lists off the names of the twelve disciples, the only one who is identified by occupation is “Matthew the tax collector.” He alone of the gospel writers does that, almost as if to say “let me tell you who I am, what I’ve done, and how amazing it is that I’m now here where I am.”
Which may also be part of the reason Matthew takes the doing of the faith so seriously. When they’d been taught to pray those words we say every Sunday—“forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”—this gospel writer took it straight to heart because he knew he’d been forgiven his countless trespasses.
That hard-edged image of an angry king who tortured that ungrateful slave notwithstanding, I think if you consider the sweep of the whole of the Gospel—the whole of the New Testament in fact—what you see is not a prescriptive punishment for badly behaved people who won’t offer forgiveness one to another, but rather a description of the nature of forgiveness and the way it looses or binds us up. Here I think N.T. Wright’s comments are typically helpful. “Forgiveness,” he writes, “is like the air in your lungs. There’s only room for you to inhale the next lungful when you’ve just breathed out the previous one. If you insist on withholding it, refusing to give someone else the kiss of life they may desperately need, you won’t be able to take any more in yourself, and you will suffocate very quickly.” Yet if your heart, Wright says, “is open, able and willing to forgive others, it will also be open to receive God’s love and forgiveness.”
Notice the emphasis on the heart being open and willing. It doesn’t mean that our forgiving of others is easy or fast, particularly not when the hurt is very deep. It also doesn’t mean that there has been a full and transformational reconciliation, because that requires that the person who has hurt us or breached our trust to also be open and willing. It is that posture, though, that tries to hold fast to a willingness, and openness to keep moving toward forgiveness that keeps our lungs open, so to speak. And to return to the opening bit about seventy-seven times… well, just remember, you don’t keep count of your breaths. Keep breathing forgiveness. Deeply.