September 20, 2020 Sermon: A Billion To One
The concept of forgiveness seems to be everywhere these days, if not entirely overtly. This morning, if you look up forgiveness on Amazon, you’ll find just over 35,000 results - most of the books are same day delivery, so if you’re needing a quick guide on forgiveness, well, you’re just a couple hours away from satisfaction. As I was skimming through some of the titles, I found that most of that had to do with the individual reading the book - that is, what happens when I’ve been offended? Apparently, if I am willing to forgive, then I’ll feel better. I won’t be so given to anger, to resentment. My best life is the one where I am willing to forgive for my benefit.
However, certainly, we struggle with that. Otherwise, there would not be a market for forgiveness essential oils and earrings. How do we conceptualize forgiving someone seven times? In the text, Peter certainly thinks he’s going above and beyond the call for forgiveness - later writings by rabbis suggest that the most one ever needed to forgive was three times. Peter doubles that and adds another time for good measure. But, according to Jesus, he’s about 532 times short...
As we walk through this part of Matthew, we’re waiting for a thorough explanation about how to forgive, and yet Jesus seems to take a hard left turn, into a story of a king and servants.
As Jesus begins to unfold his story, we are presented with a king who seems by all indications is doing a very mundane job - a type of accounting, where he is managing his assets, and trying to settle all of the his debts. Shortly after, we hear of the first servant entering into the king’s presence. We are told that he owes 10,000 talents. While I was preparing, I was trying to get a sense of how much that was. While there are plenty of different ways to consider it, the best way to imagine the amount that this individual owes the king is that the number that Jesus uses is the largest single number that Greek could express, and the talent was the largest currency for the time. Even the whole of tributes of Galilee and Perea during the time would have amounted to 200 talents. In other words, it is almost as if Jesus is saying that the servant owes elevenseventygoogletrillion dollars. Another source said that it would have likely taken the servant 60 to 100 million days to pay off the debt.
Moreover, as a servant, the individual had forfeited all of his rights - he had no claim on his own life. He is an asset. Given the nature of the relationship, it was completely within the king’s purview to have ignored the servant, and to have just have him pay.
Yet the king listens. And the king has mercy. In the NRSV the word is rendered pity, but that word pales in the depth of what Matthew was trying to say. The Greek esplanchnisthē (ἐσπλαγχνίσθη) is a rare and extremely emphatic term, which means, literally, ‘his guts were ripped out,’ or even, ‘his guts were devoured.’” The word is not used often in Scripture. Used a dozen times in Protestant canon (once in 2 Maccabees), and exclusively in the Gospels, nearly all express Jesus Christ’s feeling towards those following him, and nearly always precedes miraculous acts of care (feeding the multitudes) and healing (restoring sight to the blind). When it doesn’t refer to Jesus, it refers to feeling the prodigal father had when he saw his son, the feelings of the Samaritan towards the person on the side of the road, and the king’s feeling towards the servant. The king was moved viscerally by the servant - he was pained in the same way Jesus was when he saw thousands of hungry people. His feeling was a deep towards the servant as the prodigal father was as he saw his once-thought-dead son came to him.
This feeling was sufficient that the king was willing to move beyond the power of his position, beyond the economic systems at play, and connected with the servant person to person and forgave him. This was not about the king feeling better about himself - in fact, when we consider what he lost - it’s probably the opposite. The king lost an unspeakable amount. But he did it anyway, because the feelings deep in his body would not allow him to do anything else.
However, Jesus doesn’t grant us much time to bask in the moment, because immediately after we are presented with a new scene with the newly forgiven servant confronting a peer. It’s clear from the outset that the dynamics between the two individuals is different. This is not a king to a servant - the forgiven servant has no claim over the other, except a pittance of a debt - if you remember the 100 million years of debt the first servant had, the comparison to the second servant is somewhere around one day’s worth of minimum wage. One day’s debt. And, interestingly enough, the second servant pleas with the same words as the first one - please have patience with me! But, clearly, they make no impact with the forgiven servant. He instead imposes his will upon the second servant through violence, and through legal means to be able to exact his repayment, and have power over the other servant. And, if any of you have ever been harassed by a credit collector over and over on the phone, I think you may have just a glimpse of what the second servant went through - and yet we consider that a part of the way our system works. It doesn’t seem as though the first servant did anything illegal.
Yet the end of the parable leaves us with a difficult resolve. The curtain closes with the wrath of the king coming upon the first servant, and both of them are given over to the debt warden, and it’s not likely that either is going to see peace or freedom. In fact, if we take Matthew’s retelling at its word, at least one of the servants is headed towards torture.
So how do we resolve this beyond some kind of scary story that we might be apt to tell our bickering children, that “if you don’t forgive your brother, you’ll both be in trouble!”
In the end, I think it comes down to our compassion, our humanness, and our recognition of both. In Jesus’ story, the forgiven servant is not evil because he ran up a large debt. He isn’t evil because he had begged for relief from his debt. He is only considered wicked when he is unwilling to extend the same gut-wrenching concern to another that leads to forgiveness. Even though the first servant was simply taking care of what was his (and could have rightfully earned), his actions were performed in such a way that ignores the shared humanity of his peer.
Our moves away from communal deep concern, joy, and pain for another irrespective of social and political position is a zero sum game, rendering us only to a series of numbers and accounts; entries on a balance sheet. And, if any of the political rancor of the last year may indicate, there are many who feel the same way in 2017. And when we live into a world that emphasizes our own lives, our own concerns of “getting up” by satisfying our needs, we are thrown into the same prison that we sent others, abdicating the forgiveness that deep love grants us.
And so, in the end, forgiveness isn’t about the oil you put in your diffuser, or the way in which it changes your life - if this parable is any indication, forgiveness may actually cause us to lose more than we might gain. But Jesus demonstrates that forgiveness is about a love of the person beside us that permeates every fiber of our being, overcoming all of the means in which we lord over each other. Through unconditional love, we are no longer required to keep track and make amends for each individual wrong and sin, but instead respond to God and the other with the same body-rending compassion we have been given. Our life work becomes the joy and celebration of welcoming one another back in from the cold that we have placed upon ourselves; self-determined prodigals all, and erasing the never-ending debts that are impossible to pay back. Christ’s presence in the world and his work amongst us as the conduit in which God explains Godself demonstrates this as a reflection of God’s character, and once again are given freedom to be, and not to just do. We can enter in the world fully aware of our imperfections, yet given permission to suspend their weight and live into the play of the work of Christ. Thanks be to a God who loves us with such overwhelming passion that we are forgiven, no matter what our debt. Amen.