Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
There are at least three topics about which I am supremely, spectacularly unqualified to offer any thoughtful, nuanced perspective: football, finances, and forgiveness. Fortunately, none of today’s texts require me to offer any insight about football. Unfortunately, I do need to address both finances and forgiveness. Just know this sermon is as hard for me as it is for you.
The Gospel lesson from Matthew challenges me both with its insistence on forgiveness and by using a lot of numbers. The good news for me is that the numbers here are symbolic rather than literal. In the Bible, the number 7 generally stands for the idea of completion, of wholeness. That’s why when Peter asks Jesus how many times one should forgive someone who has wronged him, the highest, most unrealistic number he could come up with was seven times. I probably would have asked if we had to abide by the “three strikes and you’re out rule,” but Peter starts more nobly. He asks if Jesus expects him to perfectly and completely forgive his neighbor.
Jesus responds with another number—not 7 but 77. Again, the number is not meant to be taken literally. Jesus isn’t instructing his disciples to stop forgiving after 77 attempts. Instead, he is commanding his disciples to forgive beyond perfection. Jesus sees Peter’s impossible number and raises it to impossibility perfected. And he doesn’t stop there. Jesus tells a story about extravagant numbers of both forgiveness and finances.
His story focuses on a slave who owes his master 10,000 talents. A talent (the largest monetary denomination available at the time) was valued at roughly 15 years of laborer’s wages. Feel free to check my math, but I think what that means in today’s parable is that the slave owes the king 150,000 years of labor to pay his debt. (Which sometimes feels like only a slight exaggeration of what I owe on my seminary student loan.) How does this master think his slave (who, if I understand the word SLAVE properly, wouldn’t actually be making any wages for his labor) will pay such an exorbitant amount?
The king suggests that in order to regain his money, he’s not going to sell just the slave, but also the slave’s wife and children. This practice was forbidden by Jewish law and—although it was allowed by Greek and Roman law—rarely practiced. Before this master begins this wretched auction, the slave asks for patience; he promises he will pay back all he owes. It’s an impossible promise, of course. Even with my weak math skills I know that, and I’m sure the king knew it too. But suddenly, just as quickly as he was going to sell the slave and and his family before, now the master pours out extravagant mercy and forgiveness on him. The slave’s debt is forgiven, no strings attached.
While we’re still reeling from the rapidity of this turnabout, and wishing Visa and MasterCard were taking notes, Jesus throws another number into the story: 100 denarii. This is the amount of money that another slave owes to the forgiven slave. A denarius was about the equivalent of a day’s wages for a laborer, meaning Slave #2 owed Slave #1 about 100 days of wages if I have done my math correctly—again, always an iffy proposition. Moments before, Slave #1 had been forgiven a debt of about 54,750,000 days of wages. Somehow blind to the irony, the first slave throws the second slave into prison until he can repay everything that he owed (again, not sure how he expects that to work, as Slave #2 could hardly have been expected to make an income in prison even if he could make one outside of it).
Hearing this news, the strict master who had just shown great mercy now hands Slave #1 over to be tortured until he pays his entire (previously forgiven) debt, which looks like a very long time indeed. With a final flourish, Jesus explains that this is what God will do to anyone who does not forgive from the heart.
How awful is this parable? I know what I am expected to say about this parable—that it instructs us to forgive and forgive again, as we ourselves have been greatly forgiven. It’s what most pastors say about this text. It’s what I myself usually preach about this text. But this week I just couldn’t go there because what really got to me—what really shook me and wouldn’t let me go— was the bizarre character of the king. He’s simultaneously demanding and cruel (I’m going to sell your children!), and unimaginably merciful (I’m going to eradicate your huge debt completely). He liberates his slave from the weight of his debt, and then moments later, demands he be tortured. What are we supposed to make of such a king?
It made me question why it is that we always assume that the most senior or wealthy character in any parable is God. Is it fair to cast God in the role of this fickle, tyrannical king who owns and emotionally abuses people? How can we equate God with a rich man who somehow allowed one of his servants to get so deeply in debt to him that there’s never going to be a way out? Sounds to me like the master set up the slave whose knowledge of finances might have been as feeble as my own. How can I worship such a greedy, manipulative, and unkind God?
People usually assume that this parable is an invitation to reflect upon how our human sin racks up to a enormous debt that only God can forgive. After God does, God turns around and demands we live that way too or else. Is this the God of grace we adore? Does this sound like King Jesus who prayed from Calvary, “Father, forgive them; they don’t know what they’re doing”?
I truly do wish that I could forgive on command and without limits, but I already told you I’m not good at this. There are plenty of offenses I’m still not over, and even though I know that forgiving them would set me free, even though I’ve heard a million times that failing to forgive is like drinking poison and expecting someone else to die. In spite of knowing all that, I am simply not able to be as gracious toward certain others as God is toward me. And if God really is like the master in this parable, who clearly allowed his slave to fall so deeply in debt that it could never be repaid, then I feel set up in a system where I’m doomed to repeatedly fail, drowning in infinite debt to God and to my neighbors.
So what if this parable is not intended to be read that way at all? What if this story is not meant to beat us up for not being forgiving enough, but is, instead, intended as an indictment of ANY system that sets God up as one who keeps score? What if we’re meant to see the king in today’s parable not as God, but as our own culture, a primitive creation of abusive power that can only be appeased through a blood sacrifice? What if the example we are meant to follow is not that of the king, but the other slaves, who appeal to the domineering ruler for mercy when their peer is in trouble?
If we look at Matthew’s Gospel as a whole—a book full of contrasts between our earthly kingdoms and the kingdom of heaven—we see an arc of story-telling that prods us to look down rather than up the social ladder, to notice and uplift people who are overlooked or oppressed. Perhaps this is one more invitation to see that penalizing the poor is a terrible representation of how God wants us to be in relationship with one another and with God.
After all, Jesus himself did not rule over us, but willingly accepted the role of scapegoat rather than victimize people who were already weak and needy.
Jesus came not to be served but to serve. Not to reinforce the patriarchy or a society based on hierarchy that demeans those we fear or dislike while glorifying people with money and clout. Jesus did not come to reinforce the domination system, but to overthrow it. Not to make anyone feel enslaved, but to set us all free from the burden of needing financial or ethical “success” in order to be found worthy of God’s love.
Maybe this parable is meant to remind us of the words we hear every week—that “It is indeed right, our duty and our joy, that we should at all times and in all places give thanks and praise to you, almighty and merciful God, through our Savior Jesus Christ.” In all times and places Jesus calls for forgiveness—of others and of ourselves. Meanwhile, Jesus forgives us all the way to the resurrection. Every time we gather, we find new life coming out of death, new mercy coming out of old pain. I’m definitely not there yet, but I’m willing to keep on trying to mirror Christ’s compassion and grace to others, willing to employ my finances not as a weapon, but an opportunity to care for others.
This week, let us pray by name for all those we find it difficult to forgive, trusting that God is at work in ways we cannot even imagine, to bring about renewed relationships and limitless life.