Forgiving an $8,000 Debt

This is an adapted form of the sermon I preached this morning. The gospel lectionary text was Matthew 18:21-35

Forgiveness is hard. It’s challenging.

Let’s look in the gospel. Peter asks Jesus, “Lord, if someone sins against me, how often do I have to forgive? Seven times?”

Ah-ah. Nope. Not seven. Seventy-seven. In fact, the number in Greek is a bit obscure. It might be seventy-seven, or it might be seventy times seven. Either way, it’s a lot. A whole lot. Enough that you’ll lose count. And I think that’s the point. Jesus tells us that we are called to forgive one another over and over and over again, until we lose track of how much forgiveness we’ve given.

That’s hard. I can think of several people I have not yet forgiven for things, not completely. I have failed to fulfill Jesus’ command here. Have you?

Then Jesus tells us a story about forgiveness. He tells us about a king who forgives one of his servants a debt of ten thousand talents, but that servant then fails to forgive one of his fellow servants a debt of one hundred denarii. But what’s a talent? What’s a denarius? Well, I looked it up. The best guess I can make is that the 100 denarii the second servant owed the first one is about $8,000 in today’s money, more or less. Not a paltry sum. But how much did the first servant owe the king? 4.8 billion dollars. Not million, billion. And listen to this. He says, “Have patience with me, and I’ll pay you!” Really?

I don’t think it’s even possible to go that far in debt. What bank, what investor, would ever allow someone to owe them that much? Eight thousand dollars? Sure. That’s a modest car loan. But 4.8 billion? I don’t think this is really about money, or about a king and his servants. I think this is about another kind of debt, a kind of debt that we do owe, a debt we can never pay ourselves.

The debt we owe to God. God made us, and made us to be his servants in the world. But how many times do we fail to do that? How many times already today have you failed to trust that God will take care of you? How many times today have you failed to love God with all your heart, and all your soul, and your mind? How many times today have you failed to love your neighbor as yourself? And that’s just in a few hours. How many times have you failed God this year? How many times have you failed God since you were born? I don’t know about you, but for me, that number is uncountable. It might as well be 4.8 billion. That’s the debt I owe to God. And what did God do with that debt? God forgave it. Through the death of Christ, God has forgiven us for all of it. All of it. Including the sins we haven’t even yet committed. Those are forgiven as well. All of it. Just like the king forgave the servant.

All of it.

And how do we know this to be true? Through our baptism. Through the water that poured over our heads, also pours the gift of forgiveness, the forgiveness only God can give, the forgiveness of 4.8 billion dollars’ worth of sin. And it is through that same baptism that we are called to forgive one another. That we are called to forgive the eight thousand dollars’ worth of sin that we accrue against one another. And boy, does it sound like Jesus is threatening us if we don’t do that. The king throws the first servant in prison. And Jesus says, “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

At first glance, it sounds like Jesus is saying God will take back forgiveness if we fail. But that’s not the God we see throughout scripture. Throughout scripture that God is overflowing with grace and love and forgiveness, and that there is nothing that can separate us from that. Nothing at all, including our own failures. Failing to forgive our neighbor is in fact among the sins God forgives.

No, I think Jesus is telling us what failing to forgive does to us. I think he knows that if we do not forgive, we will feel like we are imprisoned.

Rabbi Harold Kushner tells this story:

A woman in my congregation comes to see me. She is a single mother, divorced, working to support herself and three young children. She says to me, “Since my husband walked out on us, every month is a struggle to pay our bills. I have to tell my kids we have no money to go to the movies, while he’s living it up with his new wife in another state. How can you tell me to forgive him?” I answer her, “I’m not asking you to forgive him because what he did was acceptable. It wasn’t; it was mean and selfish. I’m asking you to forgive because he doesn’t deserve the power to live in your head and turn you into a bitter angry woman. I’d like to see him out of your life emotionally as completely as he is out of it physically, but you keep holding on to him. You’re not hurting him by holding on to that resentment, but you’re hurting yourself.”[1]

Or, in the words of a famous quote, “Resentment is drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.”[2] Forgiveness is something we have to do, because the alternative is our own suffering. Forgiveness is something we have to do, not primarily for the sake of the other person, but for our own sake. And that’s also why forgiveness does not always mean continuing in a relationship with another person. Someone who is being abused should not stay in that relationship. He or she deserves to get out. In a case like that, forgiveness does not mean returning for more abuse. In a case like that, forgiveness means getting out, but then letting go of the anger, the hurt, the desire for revenge. In a case like that, forgiveness is really, really hard, and it usually takes years. But Jesus tells us that it is possible.

And I think a clue to how is in the story Jesus told. What the wicked servant failed to see was that because he’d been forgiven the enormous debt he owed, he didn’t need the money from his fellow servant. He didn’t need it. The gift he received from the king was enough. It was simply enough. But he didn’t see that. And he got stuck in a violent and self-destructive cycle.

The gift that we have received through Christ is enough. It is enough. It means that we do not need to hold onto our pain. We do not need to hold onto our anger. We do not need to be justified before others, because God has justified us. We do not need to keep ourselves curled up in a ball of resentment. Christ has set us free from that. Thanks to Christ, we have everything we need to share his love and grace and forgiveness with each other.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy. No. But it means it’s possible. And it starts with saying thank you to God. Thank you for forgiving me. Thank you for filling me with grace. Thank you for your undying love. And then the next step is saying, “Help me. Help me, God. Give me the ability to do this. Help me to find the strength I need.” And over time, over time, God will. And we can trust that, because we’ve received that promise in our baptism.

I pray that we all grow in our baptism today and tomorrow and each day. I pray that you experience God’s forgiveness in your life. And I pray that you experience the grace of forgiving others, that sets us free.

[1] Harold S. Kushner, “Letting Go of the Role of Victim,” Spirituality and Health, Winter 1999, 34 (quoted in Feasting on the Word).

[2] Attributed to Nelson Mandela, Carrie Fisher, and many others.

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