by David Baer, February 22, 2015
Text: Matthew 18:15-35
Jesus came to be with real people. He didn’t come to be with Hallmark card people, who always say and do the right thing, who never let you down, who never hurt anyone. He came to be with real, flawed people who fall short. That’s why the beginning of our text this morning has some practical advice. Jesus is not talking about the perfect church community we might imagine in our heads here. He’s talking about a real community of real people who, much as they love one another, also get jealous of each other, resent each other, hurt each other, and neglect each other. This is not a pie in the sky teaching Jesus offers. He’s not talking about how things are going to be some day, when God’s kingdom is perfected. He’s talking about how we can treat each other here and now when our relationships fall apart.
This is a practical teaching, isn’t it? First you go and try to resolve your differences one-on-one. If that doesn’t work, you involve a one or two other people as mediators. If that fails, and there’s still a serious breach of relationship, it becomes a matter for the whole community to deal with. And if even that doesn’t bring reconciliation, then you go your separate ways. “Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector”, Jesus says. Gentiles and tax collectors aren’t enemies to be defeated. They’re outsiders, folks who aren’t part of the community. Jesus’ teaching recognizes that in the here and now there are some wounds that are so deep that they are beyond our power to repair and need to be left in God’s hands.
Now, you would think this was all pretty clear. But Peter wants more information. “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?” Peter’s question is practical. It’s a fair question. Jesus has already told us that there are limits to our duty to seek reconciliation with someone who won’t admit to having done anything wrong. But this is a different case. Peter is talking about someone who hurts him and then, filled with pain at having caused the hurt, returns to him and asks forgiveness. How many times, Peter asks, do I have to forgive? What about seven? That’s a nice, solid, sacred number.
“No,” says Jesus, “not seven. Seventy-seven.” He doesn’t mean literally seventy-seven. Here’s the point he’s trying to make–whatever number of times we think is the limit for forgiving, Jesus has a higher number. If this were a game of poker, he’d see our forgiveness and raise us eleven times, no matter how often we bet.
So Jesus tells a story. A king called in all the debts his slaves owed him. One slave owed him ten thousand talents. This is a fantastic amount of money, by the way. Ten thousand talents of silver is worth about $105 million today. I’m not sure how he ran up the tab that high, but I know that when you get into debt it creeps up on you. I’ve got no credit card debt now, but I’ve been tens of thousands of dollars in the hole, little by little, and it’s not a good feeling. So this slave is in trouble. There’s no way he could ever pay off his debt–where would you come up with $105 million? As the king is ordering him to be sold together with his family–most likely into a much harsher form of slavery, he begs, “Have patience with me, and I will repay you everything!” It’s a lie, of course, because he could never repay that debt. But out of sheer pity, the king releases him and forgives the debt.
What the slave does next is just bizarre. You’d think he’d want to celebrate. When Amy and I paid off the credit card, I think we did a little dance. At the very least, we jumped up and down and said, “Woo-hoo!” We started thinking about new possibilities–how to take the money we’d been spending on our credit cards and save it. It was as though we’d passed through a door into a new future. But the slave doesn’t get it. This morning when he got up he owed $105 million to the king. His debt was about to destroy the life of his family. And now, through the king’s generosity, there is no debt to pay. That’s an amazing gift. It should have changed his whole outlook, given him a whole new life. But what does he do?
“… 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.’” Seizing and choking somebody over a hundred denarii. That’s like $5000. It’s not nothing, but it’s a lot less than the $105 million the first slave owed to the king. And what’s with the seizing by the throat? With all the money he owed the king, the king didn’t treat him with violence and contempt. The king was just following the rules. And now, this other slave uses the same words the first slave said to the king, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” You’d think the forgiven slave might have resonated with the fear and desperation you can hear in these words. But he didn’t. He had his fellow slave thrown into debtors’ prison.
So it’s no wonder the other slaves are upset. It’s no wonder they go and tell the king what he’s been up to. But you might find it a little bit surprising what the king does next. You might have thought that when the king forgave the loan, he let bygones be bygones. You might have thought he ripped up the promisory note and forgot about the whole thing. Turns out he didn’t. He hauls the forgiven and unforgiving slave back in front of him and says, “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?” What happens next isn’t pretty–the king turns him over to be tortured until he can pay back the whole $105 million dollars he owed in the first place–which means forever. What the slave didn’t realize was that there were strings attached. The king had expected that his gift of forgiveness to the slave would make the slave more kind and generous with others.
Jesus wants us to understand that there are strings attached when God forgives us. God never gives any gift that isn’t meant to be shared in some way. God never blesses anyone without intending that blessing to be spread around. God never forgives except with the expectation that God’s forgiveness of us will touch others beside ourselves. God’s gifts come with obligations. And the obligations are so tightly tied to the gifts that we can’t accept one without the other. The gift doesn’t stand on its own. It’s meant to change you.
When I was in sixth grade I spread a nasty story about a friend of mine. It was all the more hurtful because the story was true. But it wasn’t anything I had any right to share. Our teacher found us, his fist raised to hit me, his face streaming with tears, and she sent us to the guidance counselor’s office, saying, “Whatever it is, work it out!” I think it was the band teacher who found us there first, and got me to admit, over my own tears of regret, what I had done. I apologized to my friend, and the teacher sent us back to class. But I’ll never forget the gift my friend offered me as we walked back. He said, “What if we say this never happened?” I don’t think he was proposing that we actually forget. I think what he meant was that he wanted our friendship to go on unburdened by what I had done. And it did—we continued to be friends, right on into high school. He didn’t have to release me, he didn’t have to let go of what I had done to him, but he did anyway. It’s probably the first time I was conscious of receiving grace. And I don’t forget it—in part because I don’t want to forget that I’m capable of causing others great hurt, but also because of the incredible reversal that his gift accomplished.
Our gospel story ends with some troubling words. Having told us that the unforgiving servant was turned over to be tortured until he could repay his entire debt, Jesus says, “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 think we need to acknowledge that forgiveness is not easy, and it’s not something I expect everyone is capable of right now, just through an act of will. Jesus is talking about the choice we have of what kind of system we want to live under. If we choose to live under a system where every last debt that is owed must be repaid, if every last injury has to be answered, then we’re going to be stuck, imprisoned, and tortured by our own guilt. But even in the absence of being able to offer full forgiveness right here and now, we can live in a reality that God makes possible by forgiving us, where debts and sins and hurts can be released so that they no longer determine the way we relate to those who have wronged us. The heart was seen as the seat of will, and so what Jesus is saying is that you can make a choice to live toward forgiveness.
As Christians, we should understand that we’ve been treated far more generously by our God than any rules of simple fairness would allow. God sees all our hidden weaknesses, cruelties, acts of indifference. God sees all our woundedness, sickness, brokenness. God sees everything about us that we want to keep hidden, and God embraces us, accepts us, and calls us beloved children. By all rights, we should owe God way more than $105 million, and yet God points us out there, beyond the church walls, and says, “Don’t pay me. Pay them.” Pay it back, pay it back to the people who hurt you, forgive them, not because they deserve it, but because God has given you an excess of grace, and you’ve got to give it away. You’ve got to give it away, because that’s the test of whether or not you really received the gift in the first place. So keep looking! Pay it back to the hungry who need something to eat. Pay it back to the homeless who need a place to stay. Pay it back to immigrants, gays, teenage moms, and anyone else who’s despised and scapegoated and in need of a friend. Pay it back to everyone who needs it, because that’s how we know for sure, that’s how we can tell, that God has lavished mercy and grace and abundant love on us. Amen.