Pentecost 14, 14 September 2014
Matthew 18:21-35 INI
When you first read it, this story is ridiculous. A guy with a multi-billion dollar debt? I mean, we’ve all gone a little crazy with the credit card, but how do you even get a debt of several billion dollars? And just after he gets forgiven that bizarre debt he turns around and puts a choke hold on a friend for a few grand? Come on.
The strange thing about this story, though, is how close to life it is. Can you really get a debt that big? Well, imagine this. You are camping out west, and it’s not clear whether you missed the memo about no camp fires or just decided to ignore it because, doggone it, you know how to manage a fire. At any rate, when your little s’mores maker finally goes out it has become a wildfire that burnt out 40,000 acres, destroyed 5 towns and killed 13 people. You didn’t mean to do all that. It just resulted from one almost innocent thing you did.
Now take this back into daily life. Over the years I’ve heard hundreds of stories about how folks have been badly hurt and their lives damaged. There have been a few stories about real evil. But for the most part, the people who did the damage were not bad people. They did not intend to do harm – in fact, they usually cared about those they hurt. And though they did do unwise and careless things, the harm they did was not due to clearly bad conduct. A rash promise that was not kept. An assumption that was not checked. An unkindness that grew out of ways they them-selves had been hurt. Nothing really big. But permanent damage results.
And what was the value of those lives they damaged? God considers them priceless. He is willing to ransom even the lowliest human life at
the price of his Son’s death. So if human lives are so tremendously precious, and so easily, so routinely damaged, it is not so hard to build up a huge debt over the course of a lifetime. Even if you don’t mean to. Even if you don’t notice. When I reflect on how people have hurt me over the years, I often wonder just how much damage I have done over the course of my lifetime. Someday I will find out.
And there is the harm we are part of because people like us profit from the unjust suffering of others less fortunate than we are. When I eat a can of pineapple, I wonder whether it was grown on land the fruit company stole from native people who had lived on those lands from the dawn of time. Our faith teaches us that we are not responsible just for the wrong we do as individuals. We are responsible for the wrong that is done by others in our name and for our advantage – especially if we have done nothing to prevent it. So a billion dollar debt is not so hard to imagine.
So what about the other bit, where the guy goes right out and demands immediate repayment? Well, I’ve studied forgiveness for almost 20 years. I’ve picked up some interesting facts from psychological research about how we deal with wrongs we do and wrongs done to us. For one thing, we tend to remember serious injuries more vividly than we do nice things, because such memories may help us avoid danger next time.
But here’s another interesting thing. When I do wrong, I am inclined to minimize it – Aw, it was nothing. You’re just making a mountain out of a molehill. And I’m less likely to think I really did it on purpose. It isn’t the sort of thing a nice guy like me normally does. But when someone hurts me, I am more inclined to see it as serious, deliberate and the sort of thing you would do, you dirty creep. This is how we are wired.
So he walks out the door, still a little frightened, ashamed and angry,
still not quite convinced that he really owed that much, and he meets a guy whose ‘debt’ of a few thousand is very plain, very concrete, and very annoying. I have no trouble believing that he did what he did.
But let’s turn now to the master and ask a fresh question: what does it mean to forgive? What does forgiveness look like, feel like? We may imagine that the master felt a moment’s pang of anger and loss as he had to write off a few billion dollars. Forgiveness does have in it an element of suffering as we sacrifice something we do in fact have a right to, whether this be the loss we have sustained or the proper anger it stirs.
But we see something else. We see that he was deeply moved with pity. He saw clearly how badly this poor servant had ruined his life. He could feel the man’s pain. This servant had become a real human being for the master, not just an employee with a bad record. He could see the family behind him and sense the danger hanging over them. And because he saw the great value of his life, he decided that he would exercise the great power he had to protect this man from his own folly. Forgiveness is truly an act of power and freedom, a freely-chosen act of restoring life and freedom to one who has hurt us. And in the process he too was freed – from his rage, and from obsession with how he’d been cheated.
In other words, this master looked at his servant with love and, because he did, he saw what was really there. I believe that this is one of the deepest truths of our faith. We say love is blind, whatever that means. But I think that we cannot see reality, we cannot make sense of what is around us, unless we learn to see it in the light of God’s love for the world. We may see many facts. But without love we cannot see reality. And when we look upon each other in love, we see the deeply flawed
and valuable creatures that have so much in common with us.
But now, one last thing. The master sees how badly the servant treats his friend and promptly flings the wretch in jail. And this right after Jesus had told Peter that there really is no end to forgiving. Isn’t that a little inconsistent? Shouldn’t the master have forgiven him for being such a jerk? I don’t think so. See, the real question is this: what rules do you choose to play by? If you think it over, and decide that you are going to reject the rule of God’s mercy and play by the rules of strict justice instead, God in the end will say – all right. That’s how you want it, you can live with your choice. If that’s what you want.