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
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
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
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.