Matthew 18: 21-35
Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church[g] sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ 22 Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven[h] times.
23 ‘For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents[i] was brought to him; 25 and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26 So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” 27 And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow-slaves who owed him a hundred denarii;[j] and seizing him by the throat, he said, “Pay what you owe.” 29 Then his fellow-slave fell down and pleaded with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” 30 But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he should pay the debt. 31 When his fellow-slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32 Then his lord summoned him and said to him, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?” 34 And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he should pay his entire debt. 35 So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister[k] from your heart.’
Today’s readings continue on the theme of forgiveness. In Genesis we heard about the nervousness of Joseph’s brothers, who want to hear again Joseph say that he forgives the wrong they did to him.
In our reading from Romans 14, we heard Paul warning against judging others, which in a way is what we do when we refuse to forgive. We should perhaps forgive Paul for his comment that those who eat only vegetables do so out of weakness – not a point of view I particularly want to share with my vegan daughter.
And then there is Jesus’s parable about the forgiving of debts, which will be my focus for today’s sermon.
But first I want to acknowledge Alma’s sermon last week, facing up to the difficulties in forgiving, when those who have wronged either won’t or can’t ask to be forgiven. I recognise what she powerfully described as the corrosiveness of injured feelings, of anger and hate, like powerful waves which can overwhelm us. Injury is familiar I suspect to us all, of differing severity, but it feels the same. We seek a way through such stormy seas, as she says, in prayer.
So to the parable of the unforgiving debtor. I enjoy the fact that so many of Jesus’s parables are about financial dealings. I recall a nun I met once, curious as to my dual life as both priest and venture capitalist, commenting, “so you forgive debts on a Sunday, but not Monday to Friday?” This is a parable which seems firmly set in the world of Monday to Friday.
The King I imagine as an ordinary property owner, drawing up his accounts at month end. A servant is brought before him to whom for some reason he has lent an absurdly large sum of money. The servant cannot make the monthly payment. So the King sets in motion his usual enforcement measures. But the servant pleads for him to reschedule his repayments. Then, out of nowhere, the King offers to write off the whole enormous debt. Where did that come from? We have no idea. There is no expectation and no explanation.
The astonished servant emerges from the King’s palace only to meet someone who in their turn owes him a tiny sum by comparison. The servant reacts violently, and again the debtor attempts to negotiate more time to pay. But the forgiven servant, unlike the King, is not inclined to an act of generosity. He isn’t even willing to discuss more time.
In the final resolution, when the King hears what has happened, he flips back to his first instinct, enforcing the debt he had offered to write off earlier that same day.
At the centre of this story is a servant who cannot or will not see what is obvious to Jesus’s audience – the connection between how he was treated and how he then treats the other. Here is a caricature of blindness. I am reminded of Jesus’s other absurd and vivid parable, about the man with the log in his eye. Or in our own times of getting children at the pantomime to shout, “he’s behind you!” There is an engaging comedy to it, though with a tragic aftertaste.
What the characters do not show, I suggest, is much wisdom. And the King, in my view, does not represent God in any conventional way.
Let us go back to Jesus’ introduction: “the Kingdom of Heaven may be compared to…” He teaches through comparisons: unlikely, striking comparisons. For those drawn in by his playful stories and willing to reflect on them, he shows us a surprising but thought-provoking resonance.
So what are the unlikely common threads in this story? Firstly, I suggest to you the king’s reckless generosity. He is willing to give far more than the servant deserves or expects. He gives unasked. And in a strange way, he gives of himself. For in the world of the story where money dominates, he is an owner, and in writing off the debt, he is writing off part of who he is. Do that a few more times and his living will be destroyed, he will go bankrupt - you might say he will be as if dead. So this pantomime figure prompts us to draw a comparison in the spiritual world, with the infinite and self-giving love of God, in his creation, and in Christ, who was willing to die, to becoming nothing, for us.
Secondly, there is the servant. When he comes before the King, his life is in danger. In the world of money, to be sold into slavery is also to cease to exist, to die. And so to suddenly be set free from this fate, to be forgiven the debt, is to be granted his life anew. I am reminded of the words of the Father of the prodigal son: “He was dead, but now he is alive.”
The comedy which turns to tragedy then, of the servant, is that he does not see this. His blindness is not merely a case of bad behaviour, of not being brought up properly, to do as you would be done to. It is existential.
And so we are invited to reflect: “What is it about my identity that is so fundamental, but that I lose sight of?”
Unlike the illusory world of money, in the spiritual realm, where we find real meaning, our identity is not determined by spiritual assets we can either accumulate or must repay, for in truth there are no such things as spiritual assets. Our true identity, our soul, is not something we own, it is an ongoing gift from God, in a strange way not unlike the surprising, unmerited gift of life the servant receives.
We are not separate. We are channels for God’s life-giving love. The continuing, unconditional flow of that love of God, from which we are never excluded, is our daily, foundational experience of acceptance and forgiveness and new life.
If this, then is who we are, we are invited to live out this new identity in gratitude, in allowing that love, mercy and forgiveness expression in our dealings with others and with the world.