What was your reaction to the fate of the first servant in Matthew's gospel 18:23-35? I think a common human response would be "Hooray! He got exactly what he deserved!" It is probably safe to say that at least a few of us here would agree. There's a certain sense of satisfaction when the bad guy gets punished.

I mean for goodness sake - look at the huge discrepancy! He owed the king 10,000 talents. And, his fellow servant only owed him 100 denarii. Surely he could have spared him at least that much. Well, not that 100 denarii is anything to sneeze at. The slave would have had to work for three months just to repay him and that would leave nothing for himself. And, I suppose we could assume that the first slave being so careless as to allow so much money to slip away in the first place might not have anything left to his name and needed.

Course, there is nothing in the story though to suggest this. In fact, some commentaries indicate that the first servant was probably a contracted tax collector who for various reasons such as drought or blight was not able to extract the money from the peasants under him. And, while he probably had "some" of the money, he could not produce it all and was begging the king to give him until next year - Surely next year there will be more rain. Surely next year the locusts won't be so bad.

But even this explanation is unsatisfactory. For the dollar amount of his debt is phenomenal. Let me give you some reference points. For example, one talent is worth 20.4 kg of solid silver. The annual tax income for all of Herod the Great's territories was only 900 talents per year. 10,000 talents would have exceeded the combined taxes for all of Syria, Phoenicia, Judea, and Samaria. The Greek word used is murias which is similar to our word myriad and meant the largest possible number conceivable. I'm not done! The buying power of this slave's transgression had the potential to affect everyone in the nation. If this debt equaled ten times the average income tax of his country, just think of the social services that the king might not be able to provide that everyone was expecting of him. Kings were supposed to build and maintain roads, develop safe and abundant water supplies, maintain the peace, and provide security. Obviously, this debt was something no one human being alone would have been able to pay in an entire lifetime. And, yet it was forgiven. The man was free and clear. That is until the king discovered the slave's inability to extend the same mercy to one of his own companions. And, then, well - - - you heard what happened to him.

So, Matthew is relating to us a parable of extremes in order to demonstrate something of great significance. He has already told us that an element in this story is comparable to the kingdom of God and said quite specifically that if his hearers could not forgive from the heart then the servant's fate would be theirs. Now, that kinda gives me pause. I don't know about you, but I certainly like getting back money that I've loaned out. And sometimes when someone has hurt my feelings or done something that has harmed me in some way, I have a hard time forgetting. Yea, they've said "sorry" and I've said "Oh, its okay." But sometimes when I see them - I remember. yeah, the painful memories come back. And things just are never the same. You know how that is? We just don't hang out together anymore. And that's too bad. Cause we used to have so much fun.

So, I ask myself. If I remember with pain and sadness, and the pain affects the relationship in such a way that the joy that once was cannot return, have I truly forgiven? Or its partner question, am I even capable of forgiving? If either question is "no" then this parable is a frightening scenario. For it appears we have a very unpredictable king who forgives one transgression but seems to severely punish another. What happened to the seventy seven times that Jesus told Peter?

I think it is a significant question to be asking considering the transgressions that are committed daily all around the world. We are not talking just of small individual crimes, but crimes against thousands of people at a time and entire nations. In Matthew's day, a Christian community would have been a microcosm of the global community of today. Made up of people from all walks of life - the extremely wealthy and politically influential to the homeless and powerless. Criminals, handicapped, differing ethnic groups, cultures, and religious backgrounds. All had been called by the same Spirit into Christian service. They struggled just as we all do with how that can become a peaceful loving reality. Matthew's gospel is filled with admonitions on how to be a strong unified Christian community in a world of diversity and human sinfulness.

Part of the difficulty lies in the fact that at the root of most aggressive acts is an inability to forgive what is perceived to be (real or imagined) unfair, unjust behavior on the part of individuals, communities, organizations, governments, nations, races, or religions.

Let's examine this for a moment. Most people in the United States attempt build up financial security to protect them against the day when they no longer are able to go to work and bring in an income. They know that retirement homes, and medical facilities charge huge amounts. They are pretty sure their children won't or will not be able to take care of them. They have observed how little the government offers and so they tuck it all away for that rainy day. Yet, there's a rainy day just a couple miles down the street. There are people who are out of work, hungry, homeless, dying for lack of medical care. Why such disparity? Where is our advocacy? Can we not forgive unfair systems? Where is our generosity? Will we ever forgive that person who cheated us? Where our charity? Can we never forgive those people who abuse the welfare system? Where is our sense of brother and sisterhood? Where do we fight for fairness and justice? At the bank because we cannot forgive others for their inadequacies - for not measuring up to our standards and we cannot risk having less so that others might have more. It's only fair and just if a person takes care of themselves.

What we are doing is setting up a world of inequality and perpetuating unjust systems. Here are some results. Gary is a very unhappy young man. All of his life he only wanted quality time from his mom and dad and affirmation that he had value. But they were too busy - working for the big house, the cars, the computer systems, the fancy vacations. They knew he would thank them someday. He wanted love but got stuff. He cannot forgive them and decides to do something drastic.

Sam's family was very poor. All through his school years he was picked on and humiliated because he didn't fit in. He was unable to forgive them or himself. They found him one day.

Sally's husband died because of a doctor's mistake. It didn't matter that he had pioneered a life saving surgical procedure and had saved hundreds of other lives. She sued him for an amazing amount of money and ruined his practice leaving many patients without a doctor.

Old man Jack finally got his gun out because he cannot forgive the kids with nothing better to do than scare his chickens every night and open the gate to his livestock pen.

Gangs retaliate against other gangs because they cannot forgive infringement on their territorial rights or crimes against their pride and honor.

Nations rise up against other nations because they are unable to forgive the inequality of their economies or relative safety. They cannot forgive those who have so much more than they.

Now, in each of these cases, someone committed an action that we would consider unforgivable. Each of them responded to behavior that they considered unforgivable. And if we dig deeper we will find something unforgivable that affected and altered the way that individual relates to others.

But what makes something unforgivable? What is forgiveness anyhow? Surely, it doesn't mean we just sit back and keep on taking abuse. Being stepped on, cheated, and robbed, does it?

No. Forgiveness is not a passive word. It is an action word. It is a process that passionately seeks reconciliation. There are three parts to it. The first is restoring or maintaining an attitude of love toward the wrongdoer. Wrong behavior is not a valid reason for not loving the individual. Love is an attitude that reaches out for restoration. The second is working together through the pain and anger. Painstakingly uncovering the real root of the offense and repenting together for the harm done. Third is being willing to trust and risk the possibility of further failure or conflict. Otherwise the question would never have come up, "How many times must I forgive?" And Jesus' extravagent answer, "Seventy seven times." Forgiveness is hard work. Just ask God. God paid dearly with the agonizing death of Jesus on the cross. Like the King who was willing to carry the burden of that slave's debt and the resultant loss to his people, God forgave us our sins. Jesus was willing to offer the ultimate sacrifice of love. God freed us from our penalty and asked in return ONLY that we forgive and free others.

And, still we don't understand. Still we don't respond to God as we should. Our story is no different than the slave's story. The slave saw his opportunity to get ahead, to gain some financial security - but at the expense of a fellow human being. Forgetting so quickly that true security lies in our King's magnificent grace. Our story is also no different than that of the slaves who reported the evil deed. Oh, yes, they were distressed. They were probably afraid. We don't hear of any attempt to mediate. To resolve the conflict within the community. They too were unable to forgive. Forgiveness can be dangerous. It's risky to negotiate with someone like the unforgiving slave. It was easier to report him to the King. What an affront that affair was to someone who had just been so generous! Even witnesses are called to participate in the process of forgiveness. It is a community affair.

If our forgiveness came at such a price to Jesus our King, what will it cost if we are unforgiving? The scriptures say the King handed the slave over to be tortured. It makes us wonder if he had a chamber all outfitted and ready for the task? But a careful reading of the Greek says he was handed over to his tormentors. Can you picture the King letting him loose on the crowds who had observed and experienced his cruelty. Imagine the unique experience a murderer might have in a room filled with recent mourners.

What then the cost of our unforgiving? To be allowed to live out the natural consequences of our actions. To be allowed to live in the world we have devised. In a society where forgiveness is so difficult, someone will always be waiting for payment for transgressions - no matter how small - no matter how long ago. No matter that we no longer know why. The cost of unforgiving will be much greater than the cost of love's reconciliation. Usually it leaves human carnage in its wake. If nothing else, it leaves us angry, depressed, and lonely. If there is no joy in our lives, then there is probably something in our lives that needs forgiveness.

We are even reminded that before we come to worship, before we dare lay our gifts before God, that we go home and resolve any complaints a brother or sister may have against us. Justice and mercy are true worship to God. And that begins with forgiveness. For there is where we will begin to know real peace. There is where we will begin to know the depth of the phenomenal gift of Jesus' life and death. Take the risk. It is your life's great challenge.

Read other sermons by Pastor Joan