Matthew 18:21-35 Pentecost 13A
Once upon a time. Jesus is telling parables again today. It’s a good idea, too, since a lot of what Jesus has to say today is difficult for us to hear. Coating it in a nice story might make it easier to swallow. It is made all the more difficult to hear today. Forgiveness is not a word that is quick on our lips on this day.
Once there was a king who wished to settle up all the debts owed to him by his slaves. When he began to total things up, he came across one slave who owed him ten thousand talents. This slave was brought to the king and when it was discovered that his debt was far beyond what he could ever pay, naturally, the king decided it would be best that the slave, his wife and children and all that they possessed be sold. But the slave fell on his knees before the king and begged, “have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” Out of pity for him, the king released him and forgave all the debt. A great act of mercy and grace.
But then, when this slave went about his personal business, he came across another slave who owed him a hundred Denarii. The forgiven slave seized the man by the throat and told him “Pay what you owe me!” He fell down before the forgiven slave and pleaded with him “Please have patience with me and I will pay you!” But he refused the plea for mercy and threw him in prison until he would pay his debt.
When all the other slaves saw what had happened, they were very upset and went to the king to tell him what the forgiven slave had done. The king summoned the slave he had forgiven and told him, ‘I forgave you all the debt because you pleaded with me. Shouldn’t you have done the same for your fellow slave, showing him mercy as I showed you?’ In his anger the king imprisoned the slave he had forgiven until he could pay his debt.
One of the interesting things about this story that is not readily recognizable to us is the huge disparity between the two slaves’ debts. A Denarii was about 1 day’s wage for an average laborer, around $20. A Talent was about 1,000 days’ wages, around $20,000. So the debt the second slave owed the first was 100 Denarii or $2,000 or 100 days’ wages. The debt the first slave owed the king was 10,000 Talents which would be $200,000,000 or 10,000,000 days’ wages. The king forgave a debt that was equal to thousands and thousands of lifetimes’ labor, while the one he forgave would not forgive a debt worth about three month’s wages.
Jesus tells this story to Peter and the rest of the disciples as part of a longer conversation about human relationships, getting along with others and forgiveness. All throughout scripture, and often with Jesus in particular, we are faced repeatedly with the question: what does it mean to forgive? This story is an illustration of forgiveness and Jesus tells it in response to Peter’s question of how often he should forgive someone who sins against him.
How often, Lord, Peter asks, should I forgive someone who offends me in some way? As many as seven times? Seven is one of those symbolic numbers in scripture and it means more than just the number of occasions to forgive but it means over and over again. It is symbolic of completeness. So should I forgive someone who sins against me over and over again? Completely? Jesus’ response is, Not just seven times but seventy seven times.
And then Jesus tells the parable about the forgiven slave. How foolish does the forgiven slave look when he refuses to forgive a debt that is miniscule in comparison to that which was forgiven by the king? Jesus uses this story not to illustrate how many times one should be willing to forgive but the foolishness of calculating how much we are required to forgive when we have been forgiven so very much ourselves.
Of course, this has to do with what we “owe”, right? For example, we “owe” God everything because he gave us everything. We “owe” God our very lives! We “owe” God a staggering debt because of the price paid by Jesus for us—the costly price of his very life! For us. If we had thousands and thousands of lives to give, it would not be enough to make up for this gift; this debt we owe. With the knowledge of such a gift as this, it seems hardly reasonable for us to demand a payment from someone who owes us a pittance amount in comparison. Why shouldn’t we be free to forgive such debts when we have been forgiven a nearly unimaginable debt?!
But, there is something else here as well.
Jesus not only uses this story as a metaphor to talk about the great debt we owe to God and therefore, how minuscule the debt owed us by others, he also used the debt itself as a metaphor for sin. This isn’t the only place he does this either. The most notable place is in the prayer he teaches his disciples to pray to God.
Growing up in the Presbyterian church, I learned to say the Lord’s Prayer a little differently. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. But whether it is debts or trespasses, the meaning isn’t about a financial obligation or exchange of goods and services nor is it about walking on someone else’s property. It is about sin. Forgive us our sin as we forgive the sins of others. Jesus continues to use this metaphor for sin as a “debt” in other places too.
So the picture slightly changes a bit with this doesn’t it? Forgiving debts is one thing—and a hard thing at that—but when you extend that to forgiving sins, forgiving wrongs, forgiving mistakes, forgiving intentional actions, it becomes far more difficult.
In the story Jesus tells, the King forgives the slave because he asks for mercy. The king has every right to demand payment and pretty clearly the authority to make him pay in some manner. But only because the king wishes to be merciful is the debt erased. God, like the king, has mercy on us and forgives our debt—all we owe him—and forgives our sins. Things for which we could not pay if we had a thousand lifetimes in which to do it. God wants to forgive everything not because he has to but because he can; because he wants to.
However, God’s actions always have a consequence or purpose. God also wishes us to exercise the same kind of forgiveness with our fellow human beings.
This is a hard thing to think about when it comes to any time when we have been wronged or when we have been hurt. God does not say that giving mercy is easy, merely that we are called to be merciful. God does not say that forgiving is easy, only that we are called to reach out in forgiveness to those who have wronged us. Not because it is required but because we can.
This is not the same thing as saying that an unjust thing is ok. The king in Jesus’ story did not make a decree that stated incurring massive debt to the king is now a good thing. The king did not change the ‘wrongness’ of debt (or sin) but rather extended mercy in spite of the wrongness. Forgiving someone does not mean we say that whatever they did is ok, acceptable or even good. It simply says that, in spite of not being required to do so, we give mercy and forgiveness as God has given to us.
This sounds so simple, though we know that it is, in many ways, not simple at all. How do we actually go about forgiving? What if we are still angry? Can you forgive someone and not forget? What about justice? While God clearly wishes to extend the most gracious mercy possible, he also seeks for us to do justice as well. Does forgiving someone mean that there are no longer consequences for the actions others take against me? Against us?
Of all days of the year, today is most difficult to speak of forgiveness. And yet, of all days of the year, it is today that we must speak of forgiveness. Even though it is hard. But it is not only today that we confront times we need to forgive. It is not only great national tragedies and global troubles that cause us to face people whom we must forgive, but we meet such times in our every day lives as well.
I wish that I could have good answers about what we should do, how we should forgive, how it is possible. I do not know the answer to all those questions. But what I do know, what we can all know, is that God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The king in the story did not react so angrily with the forgiven slave because the man said, ‘I do not know how to forgive this debt’ or because he said, ‘I do not know what to do’ or ‘I am angry and hurt and do not want to forgive.’ The forgiven slave seized the other man by the throat and demanded he pay the debt immediately and forced him to pay the kind of penalty he himself had been spared for a far greater debt. It was not because the forgiven slave sought to struggle with how to forgive but because he voraciously refused to extend mercy.
Years ago, I had a friend who had always had a terrible temper. He had lived a rough life and suffered a great deal of injustice throughout his childhood and young adult years and much of his anger and resentment was completely understandable. Over time, though, he began to be a calmer, gentler person. We talked about it once and he said that he realized that much of his anger grew from his unwillingness to forgive those who had wronged him. He said, ‘Each time I feel overwhelmed with anger I pray ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me!’ It is an ancient prayer of the church called the Jesus Prayer. Over and over,’ he said, ‘over and over I pray it until my anger subsides. It reminds me that I need mercy from God as much as they need it from me. I need him to teach me how to be merciful and to give me merciful relief from my unforgiving heart.’
Would not the God who is so merciful as to forgive our immeasurable debt be also so merciful as to help us learn to forgive? God is gracious and merciful to us and I believe that if we go to God when we are angry, hurt, damaged by others, too angry to forgive, treated too unjustly to forgive, to afraid to forgive, and tell God these very things and ask God how to forgive, I believe he will help us find a way. God will help us find how to balance justice and mercy, how to forgive debts as we have been forgiven.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on us all!