14 September 2008 - Proper 19A * Matthew 18: 21-35
The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, Saint Peter’s at Ellicott Mills, Maryland
The Parable of The Forgiving God
This parable is called the Parable of the Wicked Servant. This title is not helpful to our knowing what this story is really all about. It is the story of an extravagantly generous and forgiving God. It is about our ability to accept God’s mercy, and accepting that God’s mercy always means being able to extend it to others. After all, we are imago Dei, made in the image of God.
If we examine the details of the story it becomes overwhelming. It was the custom to forgive someone three times in those days. Peter has correctly deduced that Jesus is looking for more than that from his disciples. So Peter suggests seven times as a generous improvement on custom.
Jesus blows that away with the formula seven times seventy! You may as well say infinity! More times than you can count would be an adequate translation. Or, you will forgive and forgive and forgive until you forget what you are forgiving.
Then the servant in the story is forgiven $10,000 talents. That figures out to be 150,000 years wages for the average worker in that day and age! Makes seventy times seven look pretty puny by comparison.
The offer of the servant to pay off the debt over time is of course ridiculous, suggesting the kind of unrealistic boldness that comes of human desperation. Most of us have been there before. Undoubtedly those listening to Jesus could relate.
To be forgiven all that debt with no conditions, no strings attached, is beyond belief.
Here we are all meant to pause. For the repentant among us, even the desperate and unrealistic among us, God wants to love us that much and to forgive us that much. It has been suggested by many more insightful than I that what is at stake here are not huge, gigantic, overwhelming sins on our part. It is all the little things that add up.
As a friend has observed upon taking a sweater out of storage, when we see one or two holes in the sweater we think, “This can be repaired.” But when we discover the moths have literally eaten dozen of holes out of the sweater, we consign it to the trash.
Lots of little holes make the garment appear worthless. Lots of little sins make repentance look ridiculous. Evidently God does not see it that way. Evidently God does not mean to consign us to the trash.
We say this forgiveness is without condition, but by the end of the story we learn there are in fact two conditions. For those of us who accept such an overflowing measure of God’s mercy, the condition is that we extend an equal measure of forgiveness to others. “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us,” Jesus teaches us to pray.
There is a video that shows a woman alone in church saying the Lord’s Prayer. Each time she says a line, God speaks to her. When she gets to, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us,” she tries to sneak out. God stops her, and asks, “What about your brother?” “I knew you were going to say that,” she blurts out! “How can I forget what he has done to me?” “I don’t know,” asks God. “How do you want your forgiveness: with or without forgetting?” Long Pause. “How about you just begin to think about forgiving your brother, and I’ll do my best to forget all the times you have forgotten about me?” “You got me again,” she says, and the dialogue continues.
The second condition is that this forgiveness we extend to others must come from the heart. That is not out of duty or from some reasoned argument. If accepting such generous and extravagant forgiveness is difficult, extending it to others is even more so at times. Having it come from the heart is often beyond the pale. Yet, as Christians, this is our calling.
To put our metaphorical arms around all of this is challenging. Add to that the very challenging and complex times in which we live.
This week collectively we remembered 9/11. We are quick to want to pass judgement on those who have afflicted our nation with immeasurable hurt. Yet, we have been slow to even begin to examine all the tiny moth holes in our own garments of policy and life- style, not to mention our disregard for the global ecology. There is much for which we can all ask for forgiveness, as individuals, as a church, and as a nation. “Forgive us our sins,” teaches Jesus.
It is as difficult to grasp the measure of mercy God willingly extends to us. It is even more difficult to imagine just how we might extend the same measure of mercy to others.
Yet, our individual and collective health and security depends on gaining some understanding of this and acting on this. Holding onto all the hurt, anger, and judgment of ourselves and others just gets exhausting as time goes on. Letting go and letting God hold onto it and take care of it all in the end may be the only thing that makes any sense at all.
L. William Countryman in his little book, The Good News of Jesus, begins the book this way. “What God says to you in Jesus is this: you are forgiven. Nothing more. Nothing less. This is the message Jesus lived and spoke….There are other things God could conceivably have said to us. And we may as well face it, most of us know forms of Christianity that relay a message quite different from this one. They say things like, ‘Good News, if you are very very good, God will love you.’ Or, ‘Good News, if you ave very very sorry for not being very very good, God will love you. Or, (most insidious of all), ‘Good News, God loves you. Now get back in line before God’s mind changes!’ These messages may be good news for somebody….God might have said it more simply, ‘You are loved. I love you.’ This message is true, but it would have been ambiguous. It might have meant,’I love you because you’re good.’ It might have meant, ‘I love the nice bits of you, but I really wish you’d clean up your act.’ It might have meant, ‘I still love you and would like to go on loving you, but I won’t tolerate your behavior much longer.’ Instead God says something quite unambiguous: ‘You are forgiven.’ What this means is, ‘I love you anyway, no matter what. I love you not because you are particularly good nor because you are particularly repentant nor because I am trying to bribe you or threaten you into changing. I love you because I love you.’” p. 3-5
Turns out God does not wish to toss us into the trash bin of moth eaten sweaters after all!
The Parable of the Incredible Amazing Forgiving God! Let us bless the Lord!
Thanks be to God! Amen.