“Debt Forgiveness is Not Just for Student Loans”
A Sermon on Matthew 18:21-35 for the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
preached by the Rev. Matthew Emery, Senior Minister, on September 14, 2014
It is interesting, when you think about it, how reasonable Peter’s question to Jesus sounds to most of us. “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?” How often should I forgive? This really does sound like a reasonable question, even if perhaps a bit of a stingy one. How often should I forgive? If our liturgist over here, Sue, if she keeps sinning against me, how many times should I forgive her?
This seems like a reasonable question because of the whole host of other questions we tend to think of when the topic of forgiveness comes up. Does my forgiving of Sue depend on her being remorseful or sorry? And if I keep forgiving Sue and she just ends up doing it over and over again, then how can I make her accountable…? What about some need for punishment…, or for justice? With those questions coming quickly to our mind, that basic question Peter asks, “how often should I forgive?”, it seems so reasonable.
But imagine if Peter had asked that same sort of question back when Jesus told him to love his neighbor. ‘Excuse me, Jesus. How often should I do that? How many times should I love my neighbor?’ If Peter had asked Jesus how often he needed to love, how many times he should love, I think most of us would have caught on to how strange a question that is… how odd it would be to talk about numbers in reference to love. Love can’t be counted and quantified, like so many widgets passing down the assembly line. To ask such a question about love would simply seem absurd.
The way that Jesus responds to Peter’s question, though, shows you that Jesus apparently thought that the question of “how often?” is just as absurd about forgiveness as it is about love. First you get the direct answer to Peter’s question. Not 7 times, Jesus says, but 77—or perhaps it is 70 times 7; the original Greek words can actually be read either way. In either case, though, whether it’s 77 or 70 times 7—which comes out to 490, by the way—the point seems to be the same: it’s more times than you’re going to bother counting. Forgiveness isn’t about keeping score. If you’re keeping a tally, and after some specific point the game is over, then that’s not forgiveness. And, as one pastor observes, “Forgiveness is also not a matter of putting other persons on probation, waiting for them to do something wrong so we can take it back.” Forgiveness is a gift, a pure gift, it would seem, or else it’s not forgiveness.
Jesus, then, drives home the point with this parable story we’ve heard. Perhaps we might hear it even better if we re-imagine it in today’s terms. A credit card review board began checking through all the accounts and sending the past due ones into collections. As they were doing this, an ordinary office clerk working for minimum wage was brought before the board. She owed just shy of 3 billion dollars. Two billion, eight-hundred-and-fifty million to be more precise. Indeed, that’s what the value of the 10,000 talents referenced in the story would be today. Three billion.
In the parable as we heard it, Jesus says “and, as he could not pay”… which, when you know just how much money was owed, you realize is more than obvious. The slave with his 10,000 talents, or our secretary with her 2.9 billion dollars, of course they cannot pay. How would anyone be able to pay a hundred and fifty thousand years worth of income?
So, back to the story, our office clerk is ordered to be sold together with her family and all her worldly possessions. She falls on her knees and pleads with the credit card board: “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything,” she tells them. Credit card companies may not always be the most compassionate of institutions, we know, but this particular review board is not beyond all feelings of pity, and with this woman, they decide to simply forgive the debt and release her. They write it off completely, and she is free and off-the-hook entirely.
As the woman makes her way home from that meeting with the credit card review board, she stops into the grocery store and runs into one of her co-workers. A while back, she had loaned this co-worker of hers about $700 to help out with a car repair bill. Seven hundred dollars… not a completely trivial amount, of course—after all, it’s about 100 days worth of work for her—but still, an almost incomparably small amount next to the nearly 3 billion dollar debt she’d just been forgiven. Anyway, she sees this co-worker in the parking lot at the store, and threatens him, demands that he pay, and ends up taking him to small claims court. The judge not only orders the man to pay the $700, but throws him into the county jail until he can do so… which, of course, being in jail doesn’t exactly make it easy to earn money to pay off a debt.
The credit card review board finds out about it all—perhaps they saw it on Judge Judy on television one night, who knows… They summons the woman back in, call her out on her hypocrisy: how could she be so unmerciful when she herself had had so much more forgiven her. They throw the book at her: they put her indebtedness back on the ledger sheet, and hand her off to the authorities for punishment.
Now, this story may seem a bit far-fetched when put into these terms. Obviously, certain details don’t translate to modern times completely, since it does seem a little unrealistic to imagine a credit card review board finding out about what one of their clients did at the grocery store and in small-claims court, and calling her back in to change their minds about a write-off. The amount that she owed in the first place—the 10,000 talents or nearly 3 billion dollars—that seems unimaginable no matter what century you’re in.
But on the other hand, the fact that the first debtor, having received forgiveness, doesn’t pass that along, doesn’t “pay it forward,” to the second…? If we’re honest with ourselves, that doesn’t actually seem so far-fetched at all. We do hold on to our grudges, we cling to how we have been wronged.
You might think that seems justifiable. After all, the word ‘forgiveness’ has often been mis-used as a club beaten over the head of someone who’s already hurting or victimized. In the past week, we’ve heard much in the news about domestic violence, and there have been times when domestic violence victims were told they were required to forgive their abusers, as though it did not matter what had been done to them.
But when we object to forgiveness in light, it’s not actually true forgiveness we’re objecting to, but rather some diseased mis-use of that concept. Well-known author and Jewish 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.
Forgiveness isn’t about denying our pain, or pretending that the wrong wasn’t wrong. We must remember that this whole episode of Peter’s question of how often to forgive, and Jesus’ telling of this parable, it’s all following right after the bit we heard last week where Jesus tells the disciples that they have to handle conflict head-on. If someone sins against you, go to them directly, and if that doesn’t work, bring some others in, and so on… The forgiveness that Jesus calls for can’t be separated from the truth-telling and accountability that he also calls for.
If you look around you today, you’ll see 8 photographs which feature a pair of people. Each of these pairs are people who made it through the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, in which half-a-million to a million people were killed. You may remember the movie from about 10 years ago called Hotel Rwanda, based on a real-life story from that tragic period. In each pair of people you see in the pictures around us today, one is the perpetrator and one is the surviving victim of that perpetrator’s deeds: the survivor of a house-burning, the brother or daughter or sister or mother of people killed. In each of these pairs, though, there has been some sort of forgiveness requested and granted between the two of them. When these photographs were published in The New York Times Magazine back in April, the photographer noted that “the relationships between the victims and the perpetrators varied widely. Some pairs showed up and sat easily together, chatting about village gossip. Others arrived willing to be photographed but unable to go much further. ‘There’s clearly different degrees of forgiveness,’ [the photographer] said. ‘In the photographs, the distance or closeness you see is pretty accurate.’”
Peter’s question about how many times he should forgive, it seems reasonable to us whenever we lose sight of forgiveness being about relationship rather than rules. Forgiveness is about how we choose to be in relationship both to the other person and to God. The truth, my friends, is that we always occupy both places: we are always ones who need forgiveness, and we are always ones with the opportunity to offer forgiveness. Perhaps more to the point, we are ones who have already received great forgiveness, from the God who always reached out to us again and again to restore relationship… the God who chooses not to be imprisoned by the sins we perpetrate against God, but rather chooses the freedom of reconciliation.
The difficulty that the unforgiving slave faced in the parable Jesus told is that he was unable to see himself as either of the others. He could not get past his own self-interest to imagine himself as either the indebted co-worker or the forgiving king. We have the opportunity, sisters and brothers, to be co-creators with God, to be in that place of offering the generous gift, knowing ourselves as having already received it… actually, knowing ourselves as having already received the gift of life itself.
The famous Protestant reformer John Calvin put it this way: “Assuredly there is but one way to achieve what is not merely difficult but utterly against human nature: to love those who hate us, to repay their evil deeds with benefits, to return blessings for reproaches. It is that we remember not to consider [others’] evil intentions but to look upon the image of God in them, which cancels and effaces their transgressions, and with its beauty and dignity allures us to love and embrace them.”
My friends, will you pray with me? (The sermon concluded in prayer)
 Thanks to David Lose for the observation about the comparison between how we hear the question in reference to forgiveness versus how we hear it in reference to love; David Lose, “Pentecost 14 A: Forgiveness and Freedom”, … in the Meantime (DavidLose.net), 7 September 2014, accessed 13 September 2014
 Charlotte Dudley Cleghorn, pastoral perspective on Matthew 18:21-35 for Proper 19, in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, ed., David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Year A – Vol 4: Season after Pentecost (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 70.
 A minimum wage worker in Connecticut in 2014, working full-time every week of the year, would earn just shy of $19,000. A “talent”, as referred to in the biblical text, was worth approximately 15 years worth of wages for an ordinary worker. Thus, $19,000 times 15 years (to get to 1 talent), times 10,000 talents total, comes out to $2,850,000,000.
 Harold S. Kushner, “Letting Go of the Role of Victim,” Spirituality and Health, Winter 1999, 34; quoted in Charlotte Dudley Cleghorn, Feasting on the Word, 72.
 Susan Dominus, “Portraits of Reconciliation”, The New York Times Magazine, 6 April 2014; accessed 13 September 2014 at http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/04/06/magazine/06-pieter-hugo-rwanda-portraits.html. Photographs by Pieter Hugo.
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, III.vii.6; as quoted in Lisa Kenkeremath, “Unrelenting Mercy” (sermon on Matthew 18:21-35), in Lectionary Homiletics 25:5 (August – September 2014), 53.