Today I participated in a pulpit exchange, where I led worship at St. Peter’s Lutheran in Highspire, the pastor at Trinity in Steelton led worship at my two congregations, and the pastor of St. Peter’s Lutheran went to Trinity. St. Peter’s Lutheran uses the Revised Common Lectionary, and so I preached on the gospel lesson from the RCL today. Next week I will be back to the Narrative Lectionary.
Pulpit Exchange—St. Peter’s, Highspire
One of my favorite TV shows is The Big Bang Theory. And as I read this week’s Gospel text and commentaries on it, one of Sheldon Cooper’s speeches came to mind. You see, Sheldon does not like giving other people gifts. When asked why he did not get his friend Leonard a birthday gift, Sheldon speaks about how giving a gift always puts you in debt. For example, if he gives Penny a gift on her birthday that’s worth $50, then there is an obligation placed on her to get him a gift on his birthday that’s worth $50, and each year this debt to one another goes on until one person dies and the other person is $50 richer. Only when Sheldon is told that giving Leonard a gift on his birthday is a “non-optional social convention” does he relent and go with Penny to the mall to get Leonard a birthday gift.
While this is a rather pessimistic way of looking at the concept of giving one another gifts, there is a sort of shrewd common sense to it as well. And believe it or not, this is the way that Jesus presents the concept of forgiveness in our parable today: as a debt that is owed to one another. Most of the time when we read this parable, we say, “OK, the king represents God and the slaves represent us, and if we don’t forgive one another, this is the kind of thing that God is going to do to us.” In fact, that’s what Matthew has Jesus saying at the end of the parable. But what if we read this parable simply as it is: as a king and his slaves, without having them represent God and us? What would it do to this story, and what kind of meaning would it still have for us?
So, let’s take a closer look at this story. The first question that we should be asking is this: how did the slave come to owe the king 10,000 talents? One talent was worth 15 years’ wages of a laborer like the slave, so ten thousand talents would have been worth 150,000 years of a laborer’s wages. No one lives for 150,000 years. No one could ever earn that much money, no matter how hard he worked. So how in the world did this poor slave come to owe his master such an astronomical sum? One answer would be that Jesus was exaggerating to illustrate his point, and that is a valid interpretation, but it doesn’t give as much depth to this story as we would like. Another interpretation would go something like this: perhaps the rich king entrusted the slave with that amount of money and told him to invest it. Perhaps the slave did invest the money as the king directed, and the investment was not a good one, and all of that money was lost. It’s kind of like a stock broker who takes his client’s money and invests it in what he thinks is a good deal, and then the market tanks and he loses the money. But instead of being fired, his boss, for whatever reason, bails him out. But the stock broker now knows that he owes the boss that money. And now, the boss—or the king—decides it’s time to collect. And the stockbroker—or the slave—has no way to pay back the debt he owes.
In this story, the king is complicit in the slave’s debt to him. We know that there is no way that the slave could have gotten all of that money on his own, so the king must have had some role in the debt that the slave now owes. The king somehow set the slave up to fail. And that’s why we should think twice before we automatically say that the king in this story represents God. Many of us would have no problem with saying that we owe a debt to God that we can never repay, and that’s why Jesus came—to pay that debt for us. But we would have a problem with saying that God set us up to fail; that God designed things so that we would fail and that we would have this enormous debt hanging over us. God should not be the bad guy in our story.
But, let’s continue on with the story. When the king decides to collect the enormous debt that the slave owes, and the slave begs him for mercy, and the king relents, what does that do? Not only does it free the slave from this crushing debt, the entire community knows that the slave has been freed from this debt. And there is an expectation that this slave’s good fortune should be extended to those who owe the slave money. Therefore, when the slave who did not have to pay the enormous debt back to the king did not forgive the debt of one who owed him money—and the second slave owed him only a hundred denarii, the wages that the worker would have received in a hundred days—this was absolutely appalling to the rest of the community. Without this kind of reciprocation, there would have been all kinds of upheaval in the community of the king and his slaves. And so the king reinstates the punishment of the first slave.
When we think about it, this is a really terrifying parable, and one in which we want to ask Jesus all sorts of questions. Is God really like this? Will he punish us so terribly for failing to forgive someone? What happens when the offense is so terrible that it’s not healthy for us to forgive until we deal with the emotional consequences—such as a person who has been abused forgiving her abuser? Is there a deadline for forgiveness—say, if you don’t forgive someone after 10 years, will you suffer the punishment that the king meted out to his slave? Where is the good news in this Gospel lesson?
I think that the good news comes in the first part of Jesus’ answer to Peter’s question, “How many times must I forgive?” when Jesus answers, “Not seven times, but I tell you, seventy-seven times.” In Jewish culture the number seven was considered to be the perfect number, and this way of answering Peter’s question is a way of saying that forgiveness should have no limits. So perhaps this parable is, in a way, saying that forgiveness should not be a transaction and it should not be a quid pro quo, like Sheldon Cooper’s explanation of why he does not like giving gifts. Rather, forgiveness should be like the king when he first forgives the slave the debt of ten thousand talents. Can you imagine the joy of the slave when he first receives mercy? And perhaps the king was joyful, too, as he saw the relief on the face of his slave. I know that if all of my student loan debt was forgiven, I would be jumping up and down for the joy of having that burden lifted from my shoulders.
And I think that Jesus knows that forgiveness is hard. We have stories in our culture of extraordinary examples of forgiveness. A local example from several years ago was how the families of the Amish children who were shot in the school at Nickel Mines forgave the shooter. Another example is the families of the people who forgave Dylann Roof for murdering their loved ones at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. Most of us look on in admiration and wonder how they could have done it, especially when the perpetrators don’t seem to want that forgiveness from them. I honestly don’t know the answer to how to forgive in situations like that. I don’t know what I would do in a similar situation. Perhaps it’s a matter of knowing yourself and knowing how much sinfulness Jesus has already forgiven you. Perhaps it’s a matter of being so in love with Jesus that you want to show that love in extravagant ways to everyone you meet, witnessing to them about the power of Jesus’ love in your life. Or perhaps it’s a matter of faith—saying the words, “I forgive you,” and trusting that one day, Jesus will bring about the feeling to go with the words.
Another one of my favorite shows on television these days is “Outlander”. Based on the best-selling series of novels by Diana Gabaldon, the show chronicles the adventures of Claire, a nurse who travels through time from post-World War II Scotland to the 1700s, and who marries a Scottish Highlander named Jamie Fraser there. In one of the episodes in the first season, after Claire asks forgiveness of Jamie for something she had done and he gives it, we hear him saying, in a voice-over, “She asked forgiveness and I gave it, but the truth is I’d forgiven everything she’d done and everything she could do long before that day. For me, that was no choice, that was falling in love.” What if forgiveness is a matter of falling in love? Not falling in love with a human being, but falling in love with Jesus, our Savior, who fell in love with us and forgave us everything we would ever do by his death on the cross? Perhaps that is the good news in this story: Jesus has forgiven us everything we have ever done and everything we will ever do, and therefore he tells us that this is the kind of attitude we should have towards our brothers and sisters in Christ. Idealistic? Yes, it is. Our sinfulness means that we will not always forgive when we should. But even that, Christ forgives, and the Holy Spirit continues to inspire us with that love for others so that, on some days, we may just get it right. So, as Martin Luther once said, let us sin boldly—but, I would add, let us be even bolder in forgiving those who sin against us. Amen.