(for the Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost, September 14, 2014)
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 should 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 should 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, NRSV).
Peter asks a great and practical question: ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? When he backs it up with the suggestion of ‘seven times’ he reveals the impact Jesus has made. Forgiving seven times is radically generous.
It is not, however, nearly as generous as the kingdom of heaven. ‘Seventy-seven times’ is just out-of-this world. Even then it takes one of Jesus’ most absurd, extreme, mind-boggling stories to offer the disciples a glimpse God’s forgiving heart.
Jesus’ fictional king has good reason to settle accounts with this particular slave. A talent was a fair day’s pay. ‘Ten thousand talents’, therefore, is fair pay for over 27 years unbroken service. No sabbaths. No holidays.
Our slave is in serious, un-payable, debt!
Selling him, his family, and his possessions seems to be the only way forward. How else will he make amends? Even this closing-down sale will not cover everything.
But this is no proud servant. He bows and pleads:“Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” Not likely.
This king, however, is strangely moved by his impossible situation. His response: to forgive and release. This is no offer of patience, a generous gift of time. This is a wiping clean of a tally that runs over a number of telling slates; a complete cancelling.
Yet even after all this the servant’s gratitude is not lived out. The king’s heart is not reflected in this slave’s.
The distress of those who witness the violent treatment of the one owing only 100 days wages is understandable. Where is the justice? How can he so quickly and thoroughly forget the gift of three decades and revenge a mere three months?
Our slave must be alarmed as the witnesses head for the palace. The king’s angry retracting is surely justified. Jesus concludes: ‘So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.’
If God truly eliminates our debt it is surely only natural, logical – indeed, expected – that we become a people characterised by such radical forgiveness.