This morning we begin a series on the parables of Jesus. Not all of them, because there are a lot. But a few of them. A few parables of grace and a few parables of judgment. Grace first, so we are grounded in the right thing. This is how we are going to spend Lent and wrap up our study of Matthew. Parables are fascinating. Jesus told lots of them; all the gospels record at least some of them. The Greek word for parable simply means comparing one thing with another. But parables are NOT simple. We often assume they are simple because they are stories and they are short. But in truth they are often complicated and confusing once you scratch the surface. They say things we agree with and things we disagree with often in the same parable, which is probably how some of you will feel this morning. So why do we tell them. Well an Episcopal priest named Robert Capon* has written three totally awesome books on parables and he compares them to the art we display in our houses. Sometimes we understand what a piece "means" and sometimes we don't. But we still know it's good art. Parables are the art that Jesus wants on the walls of our minds. The stories he tells and the stories about him are somehow exactly what we need to shape our Christian imaginations. We don't have to immediately understand what a parable means, but we do need to know that it exists so that it can work on us and shape us.
The parable we will hear this morning comes on the heels of a few things. The disciples are having a discussion about who is the greatest among them. And Jesus says they have to become like children in order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. And that anyone who makes it difficult for others to enter the Kingdom of Heaven is better off dead. God wants people in the Kingdom so much that, like a shepherd, God is willing to leave 99 sheep to go find the one that is missing. And then Jesus starts talking about how we should treat one another if someone sins against us. Try to handle it privately, then take a couple other folks with you to help arbitrate, and then if necessary, present it to the church. Now we're not going to address all of that this morning, but I wanted you to know that's what happens leading up to the question Peter asks Jesus and the response Jesus gives.
"Let us listen now in the reading of Scripture for the Word and Wisdom of God." - Iona Community Worship Book
Scripture Reading: Matthew 18:21-35 (NIV)
When Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus replied,
Jesus: “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.
At this the servant fell on his knees before him and begged,
Servant 1 (Sharon): ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay back everything.
Jesus: The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go. But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him and demanded,
Servant 1 (Sharon): ‘Pay back what you owe me!’
Jesus: His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him,
Servant 2 (Brian): ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’
Jesus: But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened. “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
This is the word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.
This is a story about bookkeeping. Where are my accountants, CPAs, payroll folks in the house? Where are my numbers people? There are times in our lives when the numbers matter, when we want to be accurate and keep track. In general, it's a pretty good idea. It's what Peter is suggesting. He would forgive someone seven times. He's keeping good books, and honestly, that's pretty generous. Most of us wouldn't even forgive three times, much less seven.
But Jesus is not interested in bookkeeping. Jesus is interested in grace. And bookkeeping is totally incompatible with grace. The greatest, most shocking explanation of grace is that God is not keeping track. Jesus essentially says to Peter, "Well if you want to keep track of how many times you forgive, go ahead. But it can't just be seven. It has to be 77. Or the translation could also mean 70 times 7, which is 490. So go ahead and get out your little green book and keep track of how many times you forgive, but it better be at least 490." See how ridiculous it is?
And then if that's not enough, Jesus drives it home with a story about bookkeeping. He says you better be ready to keep track of at least 490 episodes of forgiveness. Therefore, the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. Now first, remember that Kingdom of Heaven does not mean the place with streets of gold where we go when we die. It means God's will being done on earth as it is in heaven. Jesus makes it a reality and also it's not quite fully realized yet. So the realm of God's will can be compared to a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants.
First, let's compare the servants. Jack owes money to the king and Jill owes money to Jack.
Next, let's compare the amounts. If we translate the amounts in the Bible into Ohio minimum wage, Jill owes Jack 6,840 dollars or 100 days of wages. Jack, who is also making minimum wage, owes the king 2.67 BILLION DOLLARS. That's 150,000 years of wages. Not 150 years. 150,000 years of wages. 2.67 BILLION DOLLARS.
Next, let's compare the requests of the servants who owe these debts. When confronted with their debts, both Jack and Jill ask for more time. Jill says to Jack, "Have patience with me and I will pay you." She could, maybe. $6,840 is not a small debt when you're making $8.55 an hour. But she can probably manage to pay it back somehow. Jack, the one who owes 2 BILLION DOLLARS says to the king, "Have patience with me and I will pay you EVERYTHING." Is there any way in the world that Jack is ever going to pay off that debt? Jesus wants you to say, No, there's not.
And now, let's compare the responses of the lenders. First the king, who is owed 2.67 BILLION DOLLARS, responds with what can only be called stupid grace. Jack says, "Give me more time and I'll pay back the 2.67 BILLION DOLLARS." And the king's response is, "Nah. Forget about the money. I forgive the debt." Do not miss what happens here: Jack did not ask to have his debt forgiven. He knows he owes the money and he know that nobody who is any good at keeping track is going to let him off the hook. So he asks for more time to pay back everything. And the king, instead of granting that request, does him one better: for mysterious reasons entirely of his own motivation and simply because it is his own prerogative, the king forgives the ENTIRE DEBT. The king is done with bookkeeping.
But how does Jack respond when he is the lender? When he receives the exact same request from Jill, "Give me a little more time and I'll pay you," which is as we said, something she can actually do, Jack says, "NO. You owe me. I want what's mine. You're going to debtors prison." Jack, who received MORE than what he asked for, gives LESS than what someone asked of him. Jack is obsessed with the bookkeeping.
Now for the part that makes us uncomfortable. When the king finds out that Jack did not extend even a little bit of the same mercy that he had received, the king throws Jack in jail after all. Now I have heard other people get very upset and say that the king is not forgiving. That is not true. The king forgave when nobody asked him to. The king gave up his right to be paid back. The king quit bookkeeping. The grace already happened and it came first.
What happened is that Jack rejected grace. He missed the point. The king's invitation was not to get out of paying him back. The king's invitation was to give up bookkeeping entirely. In general I try to stay away from black and white thinking, but I really think that this parable is telling us we only have two options. When it comes to our relationships with others, we can be bookkeepers or we can be gracious. Those are the choices.
Many times in the Bible we see a principle at work of God giving us what we actually want. Not what we say we want, but what we demonstrate. Our actions speak louder than our words. Often our actions display our true intentions and our true motivations, and God will respond to us the same way. This is a perfect example. What Jack actually wants is to keep the books. And the king says, "Either you will live free of the account books, or you will die by them. The choice is entirely yours."
Hear this, friends: the grace has already been given to us. It's a better offer than we even think to ask for. We offer to earn it, to pay for it, and God says, "Don't even bother trying to pay for it. Just receive it. You don't have to do anything else. That's it." The only way to miss out on grace is by refusing to accept it. And the only way to refuse to accept it is by refusing to give it to others. It's entirely up to us."
Now just to be really clear, I don't think this final image is about bad people going to hell when they die. That's a leap our minds make because of the type of Christian theology that gets the most air-time in our culture. I think this is an image of the very real emotional torture that we experience when we hold unforgiveness in our hearts. Forgiveness is complicated and hard. I have struggled with it in my life. And we can't unpack it all here this morning. But I think we all know what it feels like inside us when we are willing to forgive and trying to forgive, or at least wanting to want to forgive, versus deliberately holding grudges and anger and refusing to forgive. In the first case, there is room for God to help us, to work in us and through us. In the second case, we have closed the door on our own prison and we hold the key. Notice nothing bad happens to the one who forgives. The king is out a whole lot of money, but he has his freedom. It's the one who rejects forgiveness that winds up imprisoned.
The Greek word that's translated as "forgive" is a really interesting word. I did a whole paper on it in grad school if you are interested. It means "to release, to let go, to set something down and walk away from it." For those of you familiar with the Old Testament, this is the word for the Jubilee year. It's the word used in Matthew when the disciples leave their nets to follow Jesus. It's the word used in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus says if someone takes your inner garment, to release your outer garment as well. It's the word most commonly used for what happens when Jesus heals people from illness and casts out demons. Release. Freedom from the past. Set it down and walk away. Let it go.
That's what God wants for us. That's the grace God offers us. We don't have to earn it in advance. And we don't even have to try to earn it after the fact. We just have to accept it and pay it forward. God will always give us something better than we even think to ask for. It's such amazing grace that we don't even get it. The only thing that makes sense to us is that Jesus saves the good people. We think God forgives the ones with the $6,000 debts, not the $2.6 billion debts. That's not the gospel. The gospel is that Jesus saves everyone first and in the way that Jesus wants to save them, which is exactly the way they are without having to earn anything. Period. Now we can choose to act like that's not true. We can choose to act like we are still in bondage, by holding others in bondage. And if we do that, we will not experience the reality of our freedom. But that's not what God wants for us. The work is already done. All we have to do is trust that it's real. Amen.
* Robert Farrar Capon, "The Parables of the Kingdom" (1985), "The Parables of Grace" (1988), "The Parables of Judgment" (1989), published by Eerdmans.