Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 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. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 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. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”Matthew 18:21-35
My sermon from the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (September 17, 2023) on Matthew 18:21-35.
So something I don’t know much about is whether professional athletes – or their agents – get to choose the picture used on their trading card? I would think, on some level, that they’d want the chance to select a photo showcasing their strength, confidence, and athleticism. An action shot showing a diving catch, an incredible dunk, or an unbelievable kick, combined with an intense emotional stare, would be the shot every athlete would pick. But if they don’t choose, then their card might look like it belongs in the 1973 edition of Topps baseball cards. Most of those cards are pretty basic, with the ballplayer either holding a bat, fielding a ball, or posing as if they’re taking a photo for their driver’s license. Yet there are other cards which are a little different. Steve Garvey, 3rd baseman for the Los Angeles Dodgers, was photographed strolling down the baseline towards home plate. However, standing in front of him was another Dodgers player whose backside practically hid Steve Garvey from view. Willie Davis, who also played for the Dodgers, was immortalized for all time on his card with a photo of him in shock after nearing being hit by the ball. Ellie Rodriguez, catcher for the Milwaukee Brewers, wasn’t even on his card, replaced by the butt of an umpire and the catcher for the Minnesota Twins. All of these athletes probably had a million other athletic snapshots they wish were highlighted on their baseball cards instead. But what they got was that one moment when they were anything but their best.
Today’s parable – the short story we just heard Jesus tell – pictures someone who also wasn’t at their best. It began in a very Jesus-y way by telling us what the parable is about. It’s not merely meant to be a description of God’s reign in heaven. Instead, it’s about what life is supposed to be like when God shows up. We meet a king – a ruler with incredible power – who enslaved a number of people. At some point in the past, he gave a few of them an unknown task that involved the handing, or creation, of a lot of money. The king brought the entire community together and decided, in a very public way, to go over everyone’s books. The first enslaved person we hear about is one who managed to create a financial obligation of almost unimaginable size. We don’t need to know how much a talent was actually worth since Jesus simply took the largest named numerical value in his world, aka 10,000, and attached to it the largest monetary value as well. If Jesus was telling this story today, he’d probably use a similar number in the range of $10 trillion dollars – or higher. The king chose to empower someone with no social power – to generate a debt that, in reality, could never be paid back. Even though the king knew this, he ordered the slave to be imprisoned and his family sold. Desperate, the enslaved person made a promise – saying they would find some way to pay it back. The king, after listening to this promise they also knew would never be fulfilled, then did something that none of the people listening to Jesus’ story – the enslaved, the tenant farmers, those who lived with immense debt, and those who could make other indebted to them – something none of them had ever experienced. The king forgave it and canceled the entire debt.
Now if Jesus’ story had ended there, we’d have a short parable that could easily fit on anyone’s spiritual baseball card. The picture on the front for the king would be filled with grace and the newly forgiven slave would be shown having this immense emotional, spiritual, and financial weight lifted from their shoulders. Jesus’ parable could then be defined as a feel-good story about paying attention to the kind of forgiveness we receive from God. The story, though, continued and we saw the one who was forgiven refuse to offer that same forgiveness to others. Before the gathered community, he grabbed the debtor by the neck and threw him into prison. That behavior is pretty shocking though we, in our own ways, have experienced that or done the same thing to others. It’s not difficult for us to blame the newly forgiven for their behavior yet those who heard Jesus tell this story also recognized within it the environment that shaped that enslaved person’s action. In the greco-roman-near-eastern culture that surrounded them, creating specific obligations between people was how relationships were defined. Those with power – and those who society said had none – were constantly negotiating with each other the opportunities and privileges that would enable them to survive. Being in-debt and or having the options to make folks indebted to them was often how people formed the kinds of social bonds keeping their community together. It was more than simply scratching the back that scratches yours since it determined who you talked to, hung out with, where you worked, and who you married. When the newly forgiven had their debt wiped away, they probably felt as if they had now had a new obligation to fulfill with their king. He, after all, still owned him and had the power to upend his life. Everyone, including those listening to the story, assumed that the normal social contract was still intact even though the irony of the forgiven not forgiving was obvious to see. When the king learned what happened, he was furious and invited everyone to discover just how unbelievable the forgiveness he offered truly was. The king didn’t just simply cancel their debt; he also shifted the obligation that defined their relationship. The practice of forgiveness didn’t just change the enslaved person’s life; it was also meant to change the community’s life too. In the words of Richard Lischer, this parable “is not merely a story of God’s forgiveness wasted, or a tale of human fallibility, but” an illustration of what happens within communities where forgiveness isn’t found. “When we refuse, [within the Christian community], to forgive we cancel the [very] identity of God.” Forgiveness isn’t merely something we do; forgiveness is what happens when God’s kingdom comes near.
Now forgiveness, itself, is complicated since the forgiveness we need and the forgiveness we offer is always going to be very specific. Yet within Jesus’ story we glimpse a vision of what this forgiveness is supposed to do. Forgiveness isn’t forgetting nor is forgiveness primarily the responsibility of the victim rather than the one who did harm. Forgiveness isn’t about returning to how things were but, instead, makes us free by breaking what binds us and others. Forgiveness is gracious, transforming and making holy the ways we relate, listen, and live with each other. Forgiveness empowers us to take full responsibility, in a very public way, of the harm we cause others. And forgiveness refuses to keep score because, through Christ, it knows we’ve already won. If what we’re asking for or offering to others doesn’t free them or help them or repair the harm that’s impacted their lives, then what we’re giving isn’t forgiveness at all. Forgiveness helps us – and others – thrive – and is supposed to be front and center on our spiritual baseball card. If we could choose the picture on the front of that card, we’d probably pick something showing us offering forgiveness, love, or grace. But what we’d actually get would probably be a picture of when our choices, behaviors, points of view, actions, and inactions – showed how we needed forgiveness in the first place. It wouldn’t be the kind of set we’d spend money to collect but it would be one that’s truly honest because it would reveal why we’d need Jesus on the front of that card too. We often struggle practicing forgiveness since we refuse to truly admit the harm we cause, often acting as if our intentions matter more than the impact of our actions. We, like the enslaved man, quickly forget what forgiveness feels like. Yet we, through baptism and faith, have already been wrapped up in a forgiveness that doesn’t end. It’s through God and in Christ where we discover a grace that is not defined by our obligations but by an abundance that focuses us on our Lord and on our neighbors. It’s never too late for us to own the harm we cause, repair the relationships we’ve shattered, and lean into the limitless love that has a hold on us. We can, when it’s safe and holy and sure, learn how to forgive because our God is already head.