September 17, 2017

Jesus teaches us to pray, saying, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” In that same teaching (back in chapter six of Matthew’s gospel) Jesus also says we’ll be forgiven as we forgive. We know the prayer. Most of us say it every day. (Some more than once a day.) Perhaps we also remember, how, at the end of that prayer Jesus adds a postlude, saying “if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”

Now, further along on the gospel journey, the topic of forgiveness comes up again. The apostle Peter, who often acts as spokesperson for all disciples (then and now), asks for some guidelines on the limits of forgiveness.

“If another member of the church sins against me, Lord, how often should I forgive? As much as seven times?” Jesus says, “Not seven, but seventy-seven times.” Some translations say seventy-times-seven or 490 times. Either way symbolizing unlimited forgiveness… Since what Jesus goes on to say makes it clear – he isn’t talking about numerical limits on how often or how much we should forgive.

And… I appreciate what Peter’s trying to do. I, too, would much prefer to have Jesus set some reasonable limits on forgiveness.

But that doesn’t seem to be what Jesus has in mind… As he tells a parable of a King who forgives a servant an enormously large debt. Ten thousand talents – hard to measure in today’s dollars, as the value of the talent, like the value of a dollar, depends on the time period– guesstimates range from a low or half a million to a high of several billion dollars. But scholars mostly agree it would take fifteen years for an average worker to earn one talent. This guy owes ten thousand talents – or one-hundred-fifty-thousand years worth of wages.

No explanation’s given as to how this slave could have run up so large a debt. That’s not the main point of the parable. But if we like to imagine plausible scenarios, perhaps the slave was in charge of one of the king’s larger corporations – a wheeler-dealer who got too bold with the boss’s money just before the market crashed. He guessed bull the market went bear. He gambled now he can’t pay. This was long before the era of golden parachutes for CEOs who wreck a company and move on with a bonus in their pockets. In those days some kings employed torturers to extract repayment of debts. (Like if you owe the mob and can’t pay – they may cut off one of your fingers as a sign – better go find the money quick.)

But just as the king is about to sell the man and all he has to the highest bidder – not expecting much cash value – but to set an example for others who might be thinking of abusing the king’s generosity – just before the sentence takes effect – the man falls on his knees and plead and begs. And –  lo and behold – out of pity, the king forgives the whole debt. O happy day! For this forgiven debtor…

But perhaps the pleading was all an act – since if this forgiven man is grateful, we never see it. Instead, immediately, on his way out from the palace – the forgiven slave sees a fellow slave who owes him 100 denarii. The equivalent of a hundred day’s wages. On the one hand, a fair amount of money. On the other hand, about one-millionth the amount he himself has just been forgiven.

And when the forgiven servant now grabs his fellow servant who owes him by the neck, and has him committed to debtors prison–word gets back to the king. Who now cancels his order to forgive the debt of the one who pleaded with him. And gives  orders instead for him to be thrown into prison and tortured… Till all his debts are paid, or a hundred fifty thousand years of hard labor is completed satisfactorily. (Whichever comes last.)

***

This is a parable about the kingdom of heaven. A parable about forgiveness that may involve exaggeration to make a point. A parable designed to make us think and pray more deeply about forgiveness and its role in the kingdom of heaven.

And there is forgiveness… And there is forgiveness. Forgiveness that’s easy to give. Like when our daughter is scolded, and she apologizes, and it’s so very easy to say, “honey, we love you, of course you are forgiven.” If any family member, friend or colleague, anyone I think is basically good-hearted gives offense, it’s seldom difficult to forgive if they say they’re sorry. And sometimes even if someone who needs forgiveness doesn’t apologize, it’s not so hard to forgive, if it’s apparent that they really don’t know any better. It’s usually not so difficult to offer forgiveness to those we love and care for… or have natural sympathy for… In my case, especially since I know it’s me – it’s me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer – it’s me needing to be asking forgiveness from others, at least as often as they need to ask of me… And again…

There’s forgiveness… and there’s forgiveness that’s a bit more difficult. I’m remembering now a friend and fishing mentor, Kevin, who once, sitting around a campfire, talked about how, as a younger man, he once rented out a house he’d built to a tenant he didn’t know. A simple but beautiful house – expertly constructed, post-and-beam, by Kevin, an expert carpenter.

After the renter had been in residence for some time, Kevin stopped by to check on things… And found the tenant had cut a very large hole in one of the walls of the house and backed an old trailer-truck up against it and sealed it all together, making it into a really funky extra wing of the house.  “Oh no, oh no, oh no…” Kevin said when he saw it…  “So what did you do,” I asked. “Well, I had to check with my sister, who co-owned the land,” he said. “But I ended up just giving him the house. That was the least complicated solution.”

Kevin’s a good guy. But he’d be the first to tell you, he’s not many people’s idea of a saint. He himself has needed forgiveness, he’d be the first to tell you, as much as most of us. But the forgiveness he practiced in this story comes very close to taking Jesus literally at his word. As we notice –

The parable after all is about debts. And the Sabbath Year when debts are canceled is certainly meant to be in view in Jesus’ parable. Wealthier landowners often circumvented the law about canceling debts every seven years in Deuteronomy 15 that we’ve read today – refusing to cancel debts owed by poor tenant farmers. A reminder this parable Jesus tells is about forgiveness that carries real costs for those who forgive.

Jesus sure seems to be telling us we should be noticing how much we ourselves have been forgiven by God… Thinking about what our forgiveness has cost God, cost Jesus… As we think about the cost of forgiving others. And again…

There is forgiveness… and there is forgiveness. And there’s also the whole issue  Jesus raises here, of what happens when we don’t forgive. Again, I’m definitely in no position to give any lectures. Again, it’s me, it’s me, it’s me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer and forgiveness…

And I’m remembering now another story Kevin told, around another campfire, set again in the same small-town Adirondack-setting. And as Kevin told it… “There was this couple living in a really old run-down trailer, who I would sometime hear fighting with each other when I drove by on the way home at night…Often they’d be hollering and shouting at each other…”

“One night in the middle of winter really late at night… I was going home on that road… Snow on the ground… And there was this big over-weight guy – stretched out in his underwear, lying in the middle of the road.”

“I stopped the truck,” Kevin said, “got out to see if he was alright. The woman – who was also rather heavy-set and tough-looking – came out of the trailer and hollered, ‘Leave him there!’”

“What did you do?” I asked. “What she said. I left him. I wasn’t about to be inquiring too closely.” (For all he knew the man might have deserved worse than to be left lying in the middle of the road…) Such a sad, sad story…

But Jesus does seem to leave the forgiven debtor who refuses to forgive – lying where he lays. In the middle of this mess of his own making. No happy ending in sight.

***

And yes, this is a parable. And since this is Jesus talking… We can be sure the intent of the story is to keep us from unhappy endings. While warning us rather sternly at the same time, as theologian Gracia Grindal says Dante, the writer of antiquity taught her (quote) – “sin is simply the Father saying to the sinner, Thy will be done. The unforgiving heart is a proud heart that stands over and against the community, refusing to bow to community and instead casting itself out of the circle. Although this story is terrible news, it is also the truth that will finally make us free.” (Unquote.)

The story is terrible news because most of us have seen some of what happens when people don’t forgive. One church I served was almost killed by a few members who bore grudges going back more than fifty years. That’s part of why Jesus is not telling us forgiveness is optional, or just a nice idea, or only for people easy to love.

To be sure, this parable is not all Jesus ever says about forgiveness. Among other things, this is not about us forgiving those who have sinned against others. This is not about forgiving without consequences. Even the forgiven will have to stand before God and give an account (as Paul reminds us in Romans today). But this is a story about the costs of holding onto personal grudges and old offenses, and wanting mercy for ourselves that we deny others. And…

This story is the good news that sets us free – because giving and receiving forgiveness is the key that unlocks the very doors of Christ’s kingdom. Doors that stay shut tight without forgiveness…

There are many people it’s easy to forgive. Many others not easy to forgive. Sometimes I still think there’s people on earth only Jesus can really love and forgive. But Jesus never said any of this would be easy. And here he goes again, still telling us we need to keep learning from him how to do what he does also. Because we are his people, the body of Christ. All of us a work-in-progress in Christ… As we, his people pray the prayer he taught us… Praying to live ever more deeply into his story…

And as a small epilogue… I should probably mention… The next time he drove down that  road past that trailer…Kevin eventually did get around to saying… the guy last seen lying in the road was up and around, dressed, and alive…

Which I interpret as a parable of great hope for forgiveness for all… Maybe.  Eventually…. So let’s keep praying – and forgiving – and asking God’s help from the depths our hearts… Remembering to say early and often –

Thanks be to God.  Thanks be to God.        Amen.