The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost: September 17, 2017
Preacher: The Rev. Katharine Flexer, Rector of St. Michael’s Church
Last week our gospel reading pointed us toward how we deal with conflict in the community, and reminded us that when we come together, even in our humanness and our bumping up against each other, Jesus is with us. This week we go further in the same theme, with Paul warning the Romans against judging one another and Jesus teaching his disciples about forgiveness. All this emphasis on what can go wrong between us – I’ll admit, I’m kind of wishing we had some happier material to work with for our first day of Sunday School. But there it is. And yes, these are certainly words to live by. Stop being so judgy against each other, says Paul. Forgive each other, says Jesus. Or else. There’s a moral to the story – and you’d better get it.
The story in question is a parable – although unlike most other parables, the meaning of this one seems pretty clear. A slave who owes his king an absurdly huge amount of money is forgiven his debt when the king takes pity on him. That same slave turns around and refuses to forgive the much smaller debt a fellow slave owes him. He’s thrown into prison and tortured for his hardheartedness. And so it will happen to you, Jesus says, if you don’t forgive from the heart.
Ok, so let’s check in: how are you doing on forgiveness these days? Let’s have a number – what percentage of wrongs have you forgiven? Are you at 75%? 50%? We don’t usually aim to quantify such things, but there’s a lot of quantifying in this passage. Peter wants to know how often to forgive – give me a number, Jesus, I’m guessing seven times? – which would really be quite a few times to forgive the same person hurting you over and over again. Peter’s offering a pretty generous, spiritually mature number. Jesus’ story offers some specific numbers in return, so let’s look at them: a slave owes his king 10,000 talents, a “talent” being a measure of weight, close to about 130 lbs. As a weight of silver, this would be about equal to 15 years’ worth of wages for the typical worker. 10,000 talents, then, is about 150,000 years’ worth of income, like, say, $15 billion if you use the median income of our neighborhood. (How did the slave borrow this much? Beside the point.) The king forgives his slave this colossal debt, this mind-boggling amount. Meanwhile, another slave owes this one 100 denarii. A denarius is a small silver coin, roughly the daily wage for the typical worker. 100 denarii, then, is 100 days’ wages – maybe around $15,000 or so, still a significant debt, but one that’s more reasonable. So to compare the two: One talent is equal to 5,475 denarii. A debt of 100 denarii is not forgiven; a debt of 54,750,000 denarii is. The first slave would rather throw his fellow slave in jail than forgive him 100 coins; the king holds the slave’s life as more precious than 54,750,000 coins.
Ok, so the math majors are still with me, right? The rest of you are glazing over. Peter must have been glazing over too when Jesus finished telling him this story. You want a number, Peter? Jesus is saying. Here’s a whole lot of numbers. Overwhelmed? Well, yes, that’s the point. We might feel overwhelmed at the numbers too. We’re even more overwhelmed by that imperative command to forgive – and how hard that feels for us to live out. But I think Jesus is actually saying something more than this: what’s really overwhelming is how much we ourselves are forgiven. 100 days’ wages is a lot. 150,000 years of wages is overwhelming.
So yes, first of all, we do need to acknowledge that embedded in this story is the command and the expectation that we forgive. We’ve heard about that. It’s central to Christian practice that we are supposed to forgive one another. And yes, it’s hard to do. Forgiveness, true forgiveness, requires us to be honest with ourselves and with the other person about the hurt of what happened. We have to tell the story, to investigate it deeply enough within our selves that we know just where the hurt really lies. It takes bravery to face that, and to say it aloud to someone. And then it takes the effort of letting it go – of looking at it clearly, and then setting it down and moving on, so that new life can happen for us. It takes work to do this.
But ironically, so does not forgiving. Not forgiving, holding onto something, a grudge, anger against someone else, for a long long time – that takes work – work to keep stoking our feelings and riling up our animosity toward that other person or group. Over time things tend to fade, but if we don’t let them fade, they stay just as bitter as they were at the beginning. Sometimes the hurt just stays intense on its own, if the violation is terrible enough. But whether we try to keep the flames fanned or not, the anger and the hurt take so much out of us. Holding onto hurt holds us captive, it clouds everything else, it turns all the water bitter. It takes more out of us not to forgive than it does out of the one who offended against us.
All of this is true, and all of this merits real meditation and inner work for us – because we all have something to forgive someone else for, or maybe a lot of somethings and a lot of someones. But again – 100 days’ wages is a lot. 150,000 years of wages – that’s overwhelming.
It’s not that this parable isn’t about how we should forgive one another. That ominous or-else ending makes that clear. But it’s also telling us that there’s a prior step. I think that slave would find it easier to forgive 100 denarii if he really took in the amazingness of being forgiven 10,000 talents. But he hasn’t – his behavior toward his fellow slave shows that. He’s taken the king’s mercy for granted, perhaps, or he’s focused on the money, gathering as much of it as he can to himself. He hasn’t stopped to realize with deep gratitude the gift he has been given. The king has released him, and released his wife and children also, given him back all of his possessions, everything that was seized from him. He has been set free from this enormous burden – literally set free, rather than sold into slavery. He’s been given a new start, a new life. It’s a gift beyond measure. And he’s acted like it’s all been owed to him all along.
And all too often, so do we. One basic biblical principle is the idea that everything we have is a gift, that we are not owners but stewards of what we have – caretakers of all the resources we have, of the bodies we live in, of the very air we breathe. But we more often feel like owners, entitled to what we have, possessive of it, afraid of losing it and unwilling to give it away. It shows up in how we deal with money, but it’s just as real in how we treat other people. When we fear scarcity, we can’t be generous, whether that’s with our money or with our love. If we don’t see that we have been given a great gift, it’s next to impossible for us to give greatly to others. Which is where we usually are with forgiveness. It’s hard to forgive. We talk a lot about how hard it is to forgive. And instead of starting with the great gift of our own forgiveness, we tend to start with our hurt and our loss, what we lack, what has been taken from us. And it’s very very difficult from there to give much of anything to others.
What the parable points us to is that what undergirds our ability to forgive is the vast overwhelming generosity of the forgiveness that we are offered. The overwhelming generosity of the love that gives us life. When we can accept this kind of forgiveness, then we are free. Free to forgive others without losing out ourselves. The first step, the biggest and truest and most important step of all, is to know for ourselves how profound God’s love is; to know how fully and completely we are forgiven for not measuring up; for all the stupid and mean and nasty things we’ve said and done; for all the hurt we’ve caused and all the ways we’ve been something less than what God would have us be. To feel the overwhelming-ness of powerful, profound, unconditional, neverending love – the love that God has for you, for me, for every single human being in this world. That’s more than 150,000 years of wages. That’s everything.
We are trained and habituated to start from the place of lack and scarcity – to think we don’t know enough, don’t have enough, just simply aren’t enough, without some long list of things that other people have and can do. It’s what fuels us in this city and this country, after all. And yet the gospel, Jesus’ good news, tells us that instead the opposite is true. We are enough, because God says so. We have enough, because God has given us all we need. We know enough, when we rest in the great goodness of God’s presence, quieting our minds and our worries and filling us with the peace that passes all understanding.
So let that be the message as we begin this year together: that we are enough. We can let go of the anxiety and the fear. We can treat each other with love and respect, forbearance and even forgiveness, because we are all of us safe; safe and held as God’s beloved children, forgiven and free. Thank God for that.