Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, Lectionary 24, September 17, 2017
Genesis 50:15-21, Psalm 103:[1-7]8-13, Romans 14:1-12, Matthew 18:21-35
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
The first thing you have to understand about this parable is that in the ancient world—and up until the 20th Century—debt slavery was the norm in pretty much every society in the world much more complicated than hunting and gathering. If you couldn’t pay your debts, you became a slave. In places where slavery was outlawed, you went to some sort of a debtor’s prison, where you were effectively a slave of the prison until you paid your debt … which was generally impossible, since people in prison can’t earn much money. This was normal. This was proper. This was the way things worked, on a fundamental level. If you can’t pay your debts, you lose EVERYTHING. Even your own freedom. Everything that makes life worth living, you lose. So when Jesus starts talking about someone being enslaved and sold, along with his wife, children, and all his possessions, because he couldn’t pay his debts, it may sound shocking to us but the people who were there actually listening to Jesus would have thought it boringly ordinary. Yeah, sure. Of course a debtor is being sold into slavery. And water is wet, and the sky is blue. This is the way the world works. And it is terrible, but it’s normal. There are a lot of terrible things in the world that we accept as normal.
In the ancient world, debt was a life-or-death issue, and certainly a life-or-freedom issue. We don’t have debt slavery today, but money problems can still ruin your life. A lot of us have been where that debtor has been. Bankruptcy may be better than a debtor’s prison, and a lot better than slavery, but you still lose everything and have a hard time starting over. Half of all bankruptcies in the US happen because of a medical problem, and in half of those cases, the person even had medical insurance. It just wasn’t enough, and didn’t cover things like travelling for care. And what about the people who are accused of a crime but are too poor to pay bail? They languish in prison until their trial simply because they are poor, whether or not they are guilty. Or what about the person who went to school and has lots of student loans, but hasn’t been able to get a job that pays well enough to pay them off, and spends their whole life slaving away to service the debt, with the weight of it dragging them down no matter how hard they work. If you haven’t been in the position of that debtor, you probably know someone who has. The shame. The fear. The helplessness in the face of life’s disasters. Begging that someone will have mercy. Just a little, just enough that the axe doesn’t fall today. Even if it has to fall sometime, just please let it not be today. We know what that’s like.
The surprise comes in the next part. The debtor falls to his knees before his lord and begs for time to repay the debt—no shock there—and the lord listens. It’s ludicrous. This debt is far, far too big. The debtor could work for thousands of years and still not be able to pay it back. But the lord listens to his pleas. Not only that, he cancels the whole debt. That’s the shocker. That’s what would have made Jesus’ original hearers sit up and take notice. More time to pay back the debt, sure—if a rich person was feeling particularly generous. But to completely cancel it? This is not pocket change, here. This was serious money, even for rich people. A talent was the largest unit of money, and ten thousand is literally the largest number in the ancient Greek language. If you had asked someone in Jesus’ day to count larger than ten thousand they could not have done it because the numbers literally did not exist. This is the largest possible number of the largest possible unit. There was no way to owe more money than this. There were kings in Jesus day who didn’t have that much money in their treasuries. And this lord is just going to … let it go? Wipe the slate clean? Not collect it? How much is that going to cost the lord? What other things is he going to not be able to do because he lost all that money? What are people going to think about this? Are they going to call him soft, weak? Are other people going to try to cheat him because they think he’ll let them get away with it? This is baffling. Strange. It makes no sense.
Can you imagine how the forgiven man felt? With the weight of all that load just suddenly … gone? All the worry that his world was going to come crashing down on him vanished? It must have felt like winning the lottery, but a lottery that you didn’t even buy a ticket to. It was that kind of good fortune. Or like a tornado that comes and picks up the house right next to you and tosses it for miles, leaving you untouched. Unbelievable. What do you do with that kind of grace?
Then the guy sees someone who owes him money. And this is a much smaller sum. I mean, it’s still big—about four months’ wages—but not ludicrously big. This is an amount that someone could repay, although probably not all at once. Set up a payment plan, and it could be done. But when debt collectors come looking for their money, a lot of the time they aren’t particularly interested in the slow, long repayment. After all, it’s a chancy thing. What if the person can’t do it? What if they run away, leaving their debt behind? And, you know, you have to make an example of people, otherwise other people will be tempted not to pay their debts, and then where would we be? The whole system would collapse! Chaos! Sure, it would be better for the poor schmucks who owe money, but what about the people who lent it to them in good faith expecting to get their money back? Don’t they deserve consideration, too? The system has to be maintained. And so the first man—the man who was just forgiven a greater debt than he could ever possibly repay—he has the man thrown in jail. He was given a grace beyond measure, and he isn’t willing to pass it on and pay it forward. He thinks it’s a one-off gift, not a radical change in the way the system works.
Well, word gets around, and the lord finds out. And he’s angry, because he did mean it to be a change in the way the system works. Because the system is bad. The system grinds people up and spits them out. The fact that we are used to it doesn’t mean it’s good, and it doesn’t mean that’s the system the lord wants. If he liked that system, if he wanted it to exist in his lands, he would never have pardoned the first slave in the first place. So the lord took back his gift, and handed him over until he could pay that horrendous, huge, impossibly large debt. Which, of course, he’ll never be able to do. But the problem isn’t the first man’s debt. The problem is that the first man was so used to the way the system worked that even the gift of the most massive grace anyone could ever receive didn’t make him stop and question it.
The debt in this parable, of course, symbolizes sin. There are a lot of different metaphors for sin in the Bible: debts, trespasses, and so on. There are a lot of different types of sin, and some of it is the ordinary everyday type that we don’t even notice, and some of it is the deep and violent and obvious sin that can’t possibly be mistaken. Sometimes, the metaphors fit very well, and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes the hurt done is deeper than money lost and trust betrayed. Sometimes, especially when violence is done, forgiveness is not something that can—or should—come quickly or easily. In some cases, being pressured to forgive too quickly or easily can actually cause psychological damage to the victim. There has to be safety, and healing, and growth, before forgiveness can happen. And forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting; neither the lord nor the other servants forgot the debt that had been forgiven.
But whatever the type of sin, we need to remember that we ourselves have been forgiven. We ourselves have done things we shouldn’t, and we have failed to do the things we should, and we have hurt ourselves and others in the process. And God has forgiven us everything we have done, because God loves us. Moreover, the whole system of judgment and punishment that we take for granted isn’t God’s final say on the matter of sin and evil. God hates the evil that we do, the ways we hurt ourselves and others; but God takes no pleasure in the suffering of anyone, even sinners. And God did not come into the world in the form of Jesus Christ to condemn, but to save. To remake not just a few sinners, but the entire cosmos. To take the whole dog-eat-dog world of winners and losers, rich and poor, bullies and victims, hate and fear, and completely remake it. To break the power of sin and death. Not appease it, not punish it, wipe it away forever.
Hate will have no place in that new world that God is making. Neither will old grudges, no matter how well-earned. Neither will the kind of self-righteous judgmentalism that sees the flaws of others, but cannot see its own. If we are going to fit into that new world—if we are going to be who God created us to be and live the lives God has created us to live—we can’t cling to the ways of the world. We can’t assume that our norms are God’s norms, or that we have the market cornered on God’s love and grace. May we always remember to see things through God’s eyes, and forgive as we ourselves have been forgiven.