The Forgiveness Dance
A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor – Copyright 2017
15th Sunday After Pentecost/A • September 17, 2017
Click below to hear the sermon preached
“I’ve told you a million times…” Have you ever said this? It’s what gets said about those little things someone does out of habit that annoy us until it boils over. “I’ve told you a million times…” I’ll let you fill in the detail.
Once I was talking to a couple planning their wedding. They’d both been married before and we talked about those relationships and what had made them end. She was quiet at first, reticent, but as she talked about her marriage, she said, “It was little things. His socks: he never picked up his socks. It sounds silly but it became a big issue.” We were talking about their wedding vows, at least I thought we were, and as we moved back to that topic she brought up the socks again. So it was that on their wedding day, as part of the ceremony, her groom stood before a whole congregation and said solemnly along with promises to love and cherish her that he would always pick up his socks.
“I’ve told you a million times..” Of course, no one says something a million times. We exaggerate and this scripture begins with Jesus doing the same thing.
Forgiveness: How Much?
Last week we began to talk about forgiveness as the path to Jesus. Now Matthew imagines Peter stewing about this and trying to get a fix on just how much forgiveness is required. That’s the problem, isn’t it? It’s not forgiving the one big hurt that hangs us up; it’s the million times bump, the thing that happens over and over again. “Do I have to forgive as many as seven times?” he asks. Jesus replies with something hard to translate; sometimes it comes across as 77 times, sometimes 70 times seven. The meaning, though, is clear: there is no limit to this forgiveness.
Does that make any sense? At some point, don’t you have to just say, “Look, this person is never going to do the right thing,”? I imagine Peter and the others looking with that disbelieving, “I can’t believe you said that” look people get about Jesus. So he tells them a story, a parable, about forgiveness.
The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant
Imagine a rich, Gentile King. Maybe it’s the Persian King; maybe it’s the Roman emperor. We know it’s not a Jewish king because the things that happen in the story are not according to Jewish law. Imagine the Emperor, the King, having one of his key administrators arrested, brought before him, because the taxes he was supposed to pay aren’t paid.
We don’t know what happened. Did he embezzle them, was it a bad year, is it simple theft? No details. We just know he is brought before the King. This isn’t the oval office; this would be a palace full of people, guards in armor with sharp swords. Surely this man, this servant knows some these people, was friends with some of them. Now they look away, now no one reaches out to help when he stumbles as the guards roughly bring him in.
A richly dressed guy stands by the king with a document recording the debt: 10,000 talents. Do you know what 10,000 talents is? It’s all the money in the world. Literally: a talent is the largest unit of money Jesus and his world knows. Ten thousand is the largest number they use. So it’s the largest number of the largest amount of money. It’s huge.
No one could ever pay it off; no one could ever work it off. You could work your whole life and not make a dent in it. So the King orders a punishment that takes his whole life: selling his wife and children, something so awful, so terrible, Jewish law forbade it. But Gentiles did it, Kings did it. Now the debtor stands there quaking, fearing, losing everything. What would you do?
What he does is the only thing he can do. Flinging himself on the floor the way they do in Eastern courts, he begs for mercy. He makes a promise everyone knows is ridiculous that he will eventually pay it off. There must have been a moment of silence. Think of the embarrassment of his former friends; think of the tension in the room, the fear of the debtor. As he lies there, something comes into the King, some impulse. He pities the man; he knows he’ll never get his money. Suddenly he does something no one would have expected. He tells the man to get up, to get out and he forgives the debt.
Wow. Can you imagine that moment? Can you imagine that man, lying there on the floor, on the cold stone floor, afraid for his life, afraid for his family, barely able to believe what he’s just heard. “Get up and get out, I forgive you and your debt.” It’s more than he asked. The best he hoped was to stay out of jail; instead, he’s just been given a whole new life, like someone born again. “The Lord released him and forgave the debt.”
Imagine having your biggest problem something you’ve worried about, something that kept you up nights, suddenly solved. Imagine having all your debts paid off; imagine having whatever scares you solved. Imagine being given a whole new life. Don’t you think that’s what this guy must have felt? How incredible would that feel? How new? How different?
So there is this stunned, amazing moment and then he must have gotten up. The King and his advisors are already going on to the next thing. Before the King can change his mind, I imagine the man walking out, still afraid of the guards that only a moment before had been a threat, now ignoring him. Perhaps slowly at first, not wanting to attract attention, he begins to back up, to move out of the crowd, and then faster. Smiling now, feeling the joy of it, the release of it. Everything paid off; everything taken care of, solved. He moves back through the crowd, mind whirling and then settling down, wanting to tell his wife, his family everything is ok, everything will be ok. He moves out of the crowd, down the corridor, outside into the market. What would you do? Where would you go? How would you feel?
Leaving the Moment
There he is, coming down the steps, there he is, jostling in the crowd, and just as he walks through the last people in the palace crowd, he bumps into someone he knows, someone who owes him a little money: a hundred denarii, that is to say about three months salary. It’s nothing, compared to what he’s just been forgiven. It’s pocket change.
Yet in that moment, all the new life, all the possibility of his forgiveness seems to fall away. He grabs the guy by the throat, calls for a guard, demands immediate payment.
Now this man makes exactly the same plea the first man had made to the king, word for word the same plea. Did you get that when I read it?
Just like the first man before the king, he’s caught short of funds; just like that man, he’s about to go to jail. Just like the first man before the king, he begs for time to pay. That first man has just been forgiven all the money in the world and now he’s being asked to forgive a trifling amount but he hasn’t learned anything. Instead of passing on the forgiveness, he refuses and has him thrown into prison. Stunning, isn’t it? He was forgiven everything; he forgives nothing.
What happens next is a cascading disaster. People from the court see this performance and tell the King. The King is offended, angered, and he has the first man arrested, brought back. The new life is over before it began. He’s sent off to be imprisoned, tortured, the point is clear: “I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ [Matt 18:32] I imagine the disciples leaning in, listening, trying to follow this story, trying to follow Jesus, just as we are doing and suddenly he looks up at them, his eyes searching, and says quietly, “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” Wow: ouch! How did we get from more forgiveness than Peter could imagine to such a disaster?
What is Jesus teaching?
To see what Jesus teaches, we have to let go of trying to reduce it to a set of lessons and let ourselves experience what he asks us to imagine. If we take seriously the experience of this parable, what we find is that the unmerciful servant was confronted by the possibility of new life. That’s what it really means to take our own forgiveness seriously. It’s what Peter missed when he asked his question. Peter was still focused on how much forgiveness he has to dole out: seven times? Seventy-seven times?
Jesus wants him to realize the issue isn’t how much forgiveness he does, it’s how much he has received. Forgiveness isn’t first about what we do: it’s first about what we receive. It’s suddenly understanding that despite all our flaws and failures, the one Jesus calls our father in heaven has forgiven us and still loves us. It’s realizing we are, each one of us, just like that debtor before the King: failed at times, yet loved beyond failure.
Feeling Our Forgiveness
That’s the experience he wants them to have. And to see also: that our forgiveness invites us to be transformed. Until we know ourselves forgiven, we will never be able to fully forgive, we will always be grabbing someone else, demanding payment.
The final note about torture isn’t a moral, it’s a fact. If we don’t learn to accept our forgiveness, we don’t learn to forgive others. The burdens that pile up from that torture us, imprison us, like the old cartoon of the prisoner with the ball and chain.
Jesus means us to experience this embrace, this forgiveness and then live it out day to day. For the way of Jesus isn’t a doctrine, it isn’t a set of directions you follow, it’s love itself.
The Kiss of Christ
Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov contains a long section imagining a Grand Inquisitor questioning Christ, like a Communist or Fascist or CIA interrogation. At the end of all the questions, at the end of all the darkness and threats and fear, Christ replies. And the reply is simple, wordless: Christ kisses the Inquisitor.
Lord Have Mercy On Me
There is a spiritual discipline that can help move us toward this. It’s very simple, a short prayer: “Lord have mercy on me.” That’s it, the whole prayer. It’s meant to be prayed over and over; some teachers suggest synchronizing it with your breath or your heartbeat. “Lord have mercy on me.” Over and over. You can pray this in the car, at a stoplight; you can sit quietly and say it over and over. What this prayer does is to focus us on our own forgiveness. It opens the door of the soul and lets things out.
We need this because so many of us owe so much, are burdened by so much. What are you carrying around that needs forgiving? What would you like to lay down, what would you give to get rid of the bonds of that burden?
Forgiveness isn’t about what we do for someone else; it’s what we experience through Christ from God. And if we live in that experience, we will stop asking how often to forgive others because we can’t focus on limiting forgiveness if we are living in the fullness of it.
That’s the tragedy of this unmerciful servant. He has the greatest prize of all given to him and he lets it slip through his fingers in the moment when those fingers grasp his own debtor. Just as Jesus says: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive others.” We say that every week, perhaps you say it at other times. Forgiveness is a dance, a rhythm of receiving and giving. We can’t do one without the other; the dance is both or neither.
Lord have mercy on me: this week, may you feel the embrace, the kiss of Christ in your life. May the forgiveness and new life he offers overflow like a wine glass poured too full until you have no choice but to share it.