The Rev Jennifer L. Adams, Rector – September 14, 2014 – Proper 19, Year A: Matthew 18: 21-35
So the parable in the passage we just heard is relatively straightforward – almost too straightforward by the end of it in fact! So before we dive in, let’s a take a minute to remember the context of Jesus telling this story. . .
This passage follows directly after last week’s which involved Jesus telling his disciples and others who had gathered that if they were sinned against, (or better when they were sinned against since it happens to everyone, right?) they needed to take that offense to the person who had done the offending. And if that didn’t work, the person who had been sinned against was to ask for help from another person and they were to approach the offender together. And then if that didn’t work, the people were to ask the church for help. And so the church “whenever two or three are gathered” was how Jesus put it in that passage– the church was to take an integral and participatory role in the work and project of forgiveness. And so Peter (in true Peter fashion,) wanted to know just how much of this work they were supposed to do. “What are the limits on all of this forgiveness stuff?” was essentially the question we heard him ask in the follow up today. “Just how many times do I have to forgive?” Peter wanted to know. And so Jesus, (in true Jesus fashion,) responded with a parable. Here’s how it went:
There was a king who wanted to settle his accounts with all his slaves so he called these slaves in to make good on their debts. And one of the slaves who owed 10,000 talents which was A LOT of money, millions – couldn’t repay him. And so one of the lords, a manager who had been appointed by the King, ordered this slave to be sold along with his wife and children and all his possessions and for payment to be made. But that slave upon hearing that he was to be sold, begged for patience, promising that he would repay the debt, although the amount was so outrageous that both the slave and the manager knew it was impossible to actually meet the debt. Nevertheless, “out of pity for him,” the parable says, in a show of mercy, “the slave was released and the debt forgiven.”
OK – this is a nice parable so far. Forgiveness asked for. Forgiveness received. This would have been a good place to end it. But in good parable fashion, there’s more. . .
After that forgiven slave was released, he came upon a fellow slave who owed him 100 denarii (about 1/600,000 by the way, of what the first slave had owed the king.) And the forgiven slave in a very unmerciful like manner, grabbed the other slave by the throat and basically told him to pay up. And when the slave asked him for patience the first slave refused and threw that slave in prison until he could repay his debt.
You’re tracking right? Nice parable just took a turn for the dark. The person who had been forgiven refused to pass it on. But it’s not over yet. . .
Word spread fast about what the forgiven slave (now known as “very obnoxious slave”) had done and word got back to the king’s manager. And so the manager yelled at the obnoxious slave, “You wicked slave,” he said. (Which is far worse than obnoxious.) “You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have shown your fellow slave that same mercy?” And then he handed that slave over to be tortured until he could repay his debt.
So it’s really not such a nice parable after all! I thought if we kept going maybe there’d be some sort of redemption or something. Is a happy ending too much to expect? Instead, the highlights of the not so nice parable read like this:
Forgiveness asked for.
Forgiveness asked of the forgiven one.
Forgiveness denied by him.
Formerly forgiven one handed over to be tortured, presumably for a very, very long time.
“The gospel of the Lord.”
With this take home we’re given in the very last line in case it wasn’t yet clear enough: “So my heavenly Father will do to each and every one of you unless you forgive your brother and sister from your heart.”
And so perhaps some parables are just meant to scare us into shape? One of my thoughts this week was that this was Jesus being as extreme and overly exaggerated as he could be simply in order to get people’s attention. He made the amounts of debt very, very huge and very, very small and he used language of threat and torture just to make them open their eyes. Sort of like you do with kids (minus the torture part, just for the record.) But think about it, if a child is on the edge of doing something dangerous, something harmful to themselves or someone else you use extreme examples and you shout, LOUDLY. Even the most non-violent of parents will toss out a threat in order to stop a child from hurting themselves. And maybe that’s what Jesus was doing here.
He was saying (using a bit of exaggeration in order to prove his point) that the most harmful thing we can do in this world is withhold forgiveness. And so he said that we’d be tortured if we failed to show mercy to one another simply hoping that the threat would result in us changing our ways. Slightly ironic but that’s one possible interpretation.
But then again, maybe it wasn’t an exaggeration at all. Maybe there is truth more than threat at the heart of this uncomfortable parable. Maybe we are tortured when we refuse to offer forgiveness. Maybe Jesus was simply, profoundly stating that reality. When we refuse to participate in the offering of forgiveness, we are tortured by our own withholding. Period. It eats us up. It hardens us. It actually hurts us – right along with the sin done to us, it hurts us. What if that’s what Jesus wanted us to know? Maybe he wasn’t actually trying to threaten people in to forgiving one another. Maybe he was trying to protect everyone from the torture that results from withholding mercy in this world.
And I actually think that’s something to think about and sit with more than it is something to explain. Releasing others actually results in showing a mercy on ourselves too. And as hard as it is to acknowledge, there are some debts that we can never repay and some debts that will never be repaid us. And letting those debts linger only eats away at everyone involved, sort of like torture. Regardless of their size, debts are hard to carry by both parties involved, and I think that’s the point Jesus might have been trying to get across in this parable.
Which doesn’t mean to oversimplify the work that is forgiveness and some debts, some sins are bigger than others. But the parable tells us very clearly that forgiveness is the context in which God is working in this world and it should be our context too. The good news is that redemption has already been set in motion. It’s not something we are moving toward; it’s something we’ve been invited to be embraced by and to live within now. And so the ending isn’t a happy one that is yet to be; it’s a surprisingly holy one that is present today.
“You are forgiven,” the first slave was told. “Everything you’ve ever owed. Everything you’ve ever done.” You are forgiven. You are free. Let that sink in to your heart. It needs to run that deep – because when that happens, hearts change. Debts are released. And we discover the graceful reality that neighbors, friends, leaders, even enemies can be forgiven too.