A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor • © 2020
Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost/A • September 13, 2020
Wow: that’s a hard parable isn’t it? Here we are back after a long recess, after the summer, after months of lives disrupted by a virus. Isn’t it time for something cheerful, something uplifting? Like a movie with a sad ending, this story ends in disaster. Two of the characters are in prison; the king is disappointed. We might just say, “What goes around, comes around,” and let it go at that, move on to something happier. But often if we stay with Jesus’ difficult sayings, we come to something profound. What can we hear in this parable that can light our way?
This is a kingdom parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to…”, it begins, so right away we know we’re talking about the essential order of creation, the way God intends things to be. Ancient rulers operated through servant, here called ‘slaves’, today we call them cabinet heads: Secretary of State, Interior, and others. The amount mentioned in the story is fantastic, huge, almost a parody. The servant owes 10,000 talents; King Herod’s entire annual income, as a point of reference, was 900 talents. This is a debt that can never be repaid. Did the man embezzle funds? Was he just caught out in a boom/bust economic cycle? The story only tells us he owes the debt and pictures his plea. Notice he doesn’t ask for mercy, he doesn’t question the debt, he just asks for more time to pay. He doesn’t question the system, he just hopes to avoid its consequences. He knows what goes around, comes around, he just hopes he can delay it a bit.
But the king does something unimaginable: “…out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave the debt.” [Matt 18:27] It’s a miraculous moment. Think how the man must have worried about his debt, how frantic he was when he was summoned to account, how he must have tried to figure out something, anything. Now, in a moment, it doesn’t matter. The Lord has broken the rules: the debt is extinguished. He’s free to go. What will he do? What do you do when your biggest problem is solved? What do you feel when the thing you’ve been worrying about for moths is suddenly gone? Do you just numbly stumble out, not quite believing what just happened? Do you sing, “Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty I’m free at last??” Shout? Celebrate? Call your spouse?
What he does is get back to business. On his way out he comes across on of his own debtors. The debt is a hundred days wages; nothing compared to what he has just been forgiven. Yet he responds with violence and has the man thrown into prison. He’s still in the system of debt and collection. The man owed him the money, the debt was good. What goes around comes around.
But when the king hears about the incident, has him brought back, reminds him of how much he had owed and hands him over to be tortured. What a way to end: two men in prison, a disappointed king: disaster all around. What does Jesus mean by such a difficult story?
Clearly, we’re meant to understand something about forgiveness. Forgiveness is a core of Jesus message. Just before this, as we read, his disciples ask how much forgiveness, giving a large number; Jesus in effect replies, as much as it takes. In his model prayer, what we call “The Lord’s Prayer,” Jesus points to the mutuality of forgiveness. “Forgive us our debts as we forgive out debtors.” If we set this story against that prayer, we begin to understand it. The problem here is that the man who owed so much doesn’t forgive his debtor and loses his own forgiveness.
Why is forgiveness so important to Jesus? He’s preaching new life and forgiveness is the gate. Debts, sins, all of these are a system of accounting. You owe so much, you pay so much, on a schedule. It’s a contract. We all know how contracts work between us; how often do we import that into our spiritual lives? Have you ever come to a moment when you sought a bargain with God? “If you just do this for me, God, I’ll go to church, be a better person, pay my pledge,” whatever we think God wants. But as long as we deal only from contracts, we’re caught in a cycle: what goes around, comes around. Borrow more, owe more; misbehave, carry the guilt forever. How do we break out? How do we stop going around in circles and go forward? Forgiveness is the gate to going forward.
Imagine a different end to the story. What if the man with the huge debt was so stunned by the grace of the Lord that he was changed, that he stopped thinking in terms of debts and debtors? Suppose he went out, encountered his debtor as the story says and in that uncomfortable moment when they made eye contact and his debtor looked away, he said, “Hey, I know you’re having a tough time, I’ve had some good fortune recently so let’s do this: forget the debt, just consider it a gift.” No one ends up in prison; no one ends up tortured. Everyone gets to go forward with their lives. Isn’t that a better ending?
Why doesn’t Jesus tell the story this way? I think there’s a good reason. Jesus isn’t speaking about economics, he’s speaking about the whole system of contracts, the whole system of owing. And what he wants us to understand is that God’s free grace invites us to share grace ourselves. That’s when it’s truly surprising. In fact, we can only fully find our own forgiveness when we let go of the burden of things we haven’t forgiven. We all carry a bag of things with us: experiences, memories, hurts and hopes. If we let the things we are owed fill our bag, it weighs us down. If we carry resentments about hurts we’ve endured fester, we can’t be healed. One writer said, “No one was ever killed by a snake bite; it’s letting the venom circulate that does the real damage.” Our sense of what we’re owed and the anger over it keeps us frozen in past resentments.
A number of years ago, a member of a church where I was the pastor asked me to loan him $10.00. I thought it would be mean to refuse so I opened my wallet, discovered I only had a $20 and mentioned this; he said that would be fine and he’d pay me back. The next Sunday nothing was said about it; the next after, he said he was a little short but he would pay me. It went on like this and it made me angry. I started being tense before I ever got to church, knowing I’d see him, knowing he’d have a new excuse. Then Jacquelyn—who I think was tired of hearing about it—said, “Look, this isn’t worth the stress, just tell him it’s a gift.” So I did. I immediately felt better. I’d been caught in the debts and contract system; I’d found my way out. But the sad thing is that it took me so long to do it.
We like to operate from rules. They make us feel safe, they make us feel like we’re in control. But Jesus teaches God doesn’t operate from our rules. We see it everywhere in the Biblical story. Not long after the death and resurrection of Jesus, Peter was summoned by a Roman centurion named Cornelius. Imagine his fears; these are the people who recently crucified his Lord. Imagine how he must have hated the Romans. But he has a dream that the rules about who is fit for God are off. He goes and God moves and at the end, he baptizes the gentile Cornelius. Peter tells him about Jesus, and then the Holy Spirit comes on the whole group, gentile and Jew alike, male and female alike, rich and poor, and Acts tells us,
The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, ‘Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’Acts 10:45-47
The greatest surprise in the whole story of salvation is the resurrection itself. We know death is certain; but in Jesus Christ, God breaks the rules of life and death and gives life where all the rules people thought they had delivered the final word with his death.
We don’t have to look far to see what happens when forgiveness blooms. Today we read another story also, the end of the saga of Joseph. Remember how Joseph’s brothers resented him and in their resentment beat him and sold him into slavery when they were all young? Remember how they told their father he’d been killed, treated him as nothing. But Joseph rose up from slavery, made a life and became an administrator in Egypt. His family fell on hard times and came begging for help. At first, they didn’t recognize him; now they have. How do you think they felt in that moment? What goes around comes around, after all. Surely they must have feared his revenge. Instead, he treats them like brothers, part of his family: “So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.” In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.” [Genesis 50:21]
What goes around, comes around. But Jesus offers forgiveness as way to stop going around in circles and go forward. I think that’s why he tells this terrible story. This is the the result of going around and around, this is the story of what goes around comes around. But we don’t have to let this story be our story. The choice is clear: we can lock ourselves into circles that lead to disaster or follow him to life in the kingdom of heaven. He asks us to stop going around, holds out his hand and says, “Stop going around and around, come along with me.” Amen.