Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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Matthew 18:23-35 The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant
‘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.’
Oh, my goodness. It has been a challenging couple of weeks to talk about debt forgiveness. On June 30th, 2023, the US Supreme Court shared its verdict on a lawsuit brought by 6 states’ attorneys general to stop the implementation of the president’s student debt relief plan. In that plan, some people would qualify for $20,000 of debt forgiveness and more would qualify for $10,000 of debt forgiveness. The court split along ideological lines 6 to 3, with the majority saying that federal law does not authorize the Department of Education to make that much of a change to loan agreements. At least one of the dissenting judges said that she didn’t think that the states had the right to sue at all. They were just attorneys general who didn’t like the plan for ideological reasons, not because it was without legal merit.
As you have probably seen, the public’s response to this ruling has been... contentious. If you know as many people as I do with loads of student debt, you probably know a lot of folks who were looking forward to that debt relief. You might also know or even be someone who wasn’t in favor of the plan because you might think at least some people should pay their debts without government assistance. The most interesting series of responses I saw to this ruling came from members of congress who celebrated the ruling, usually sharing a post on Twitter saying something about how people who haven’t taken on debt or who have paid theirs off shouldn’t be asked to pay off someone else’s.
Very soon after they’d made their post, someone else would chime in sharing that that very same legislator had recently had hundreds of thousands of dollars of Covid emergency loans forgiven. Those loans are also backed by money collected by taxes. Or, maybe they were large scale wealthy ranchers or farmers and had received millions of dollars in agriculture subsidies. Their businesses would fail without these subsidies. These subsidies are also funded through taxes. Having these two facts laid beside each other... that each person didn’t believe it was right for certain kinds of loans to be forgiven while also having personally had hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars of other kinds of loans forgiven... was powerful and kind of funny. And, as I read today’s scripture, it also seemed familiar.
Today’s reading is Jesus’ response to a question about forgiveness. Now, Peter’s question isn’t necessarily about financial debt, but Jesus uses financial debt as a metaphor to help people understand forgiveness of a broader nature. Peter asks, in the verses just before our reading, “Lord, if another sibling (meaning fellow believer) sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said, no. Even more. Like 77 times. Or, as some ancient sources say, 70 times 7 times. That is so many instances of forgiveness! That is so much grace shared! How is that even possible?
In her commentary on this text, Audrey West talks about how when we can count something, at least for some people, it is easier to get our head around something. You should forgive. How many times? A lot. How much is a lot? 77 times. Some people might even be tempted to keep a tally. “Ok, that’s forgiveness number 76. You only have one left. Better make it count.” West thinks the numbers aren’t exactly the point here. Jesus isn’t telling you to keep a tally of how often you forgive someone on a spreadsheet on your phone. She says, “The forgiveness to which Jesus points is beyond one’s capacity to keep tabs, beyond one’s capacity to offer on their own strength or ability.” The story Jesus shares to highlight his ideas about general forgiveness involves an unimaginable level of debt forgiveness. He seems to hope that listeners can figure out how to apply this to their own lives.
Ten thousand talents is a lot of money. More money than anyone in this room will ever see. In her commentary, West says that ten thousand talents would be an amount so large that it could be greater than the national debt of a small country. It would be impossible for one person, especially someone who was enslaved, to pay that off. When we hear how much this person owes, we should understand exactly why he is terrified of his debtor: he cannot pay and will never be able to pay. In fact, according to Eric Barreto, he may actually be enslaved because he sold his own self and possibly his family, into slavery to try and pay the accumulated debt.
The possibility of being sold was terrifying, as was the possibility of having your loved ones sold. We should never forget about what utter power enslavers have over the people they own. This, itself, is an injustice. The ruler, though, is able to be moved when the indebted one pleads for more time. The ruler must know that more time won’t help. Repayment of this amount is impossible. And, yet, the ruler is moved. In a shocking move, he forgives all of the debt and release the man and his family from slavery. We should understand that this action would be considered miraculous.
What happens next is far from miraculous. In fact, it is shockingly common place. The formerly indebted person runs into someone else who owes him money, about a hundred day’s wages. This is a fair amount of money, but, importantly, an amount that someone might be able to actually pay off. And, almost nothing compared to what was owed to the king. And yet, when given the option to share the same kind of grace he had been given, the formerly indebted person physically assaults the one who owes him money and gets him thrown in jail until he will.
Snitching will not always get you many friends, but some people who were still enslaved felt like they needed to snitch on this man. He had been given so much mercy and had not passed it along at all. They ran straight to that ruler and tell him about the shady and cruel thing the forgiven man had done. The ruler opted to rescind his forgiveness: “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?” Then the ruler turned him over to be tortured until he would pay. Remember, he will never be able to pay. There is a great price in choosing not to be merciful.
According to Eric Barreto, this story indicates that Jesus understands forgiveness to be a serious matter with which his followers must contend. It is also, as Barreto reminds us, a commitment that is often abused. People are encouraged to forgive great harm with little promise of change or reparation from the one who caused the harm. Barreto doesn’t believe that’s what Jesus is calling us to do here. This passage follows a passage about how to faithfully confront someone who has sinned against you. In that passage, people who do harm are confronted and given the option to repent. In today’s reading, Jesus encourages his followers to be committed to the act of faithful confrontation, and, within that process, being committed to forgive those who ask for it.
I don’t know exactly what forgiveness looks like in every case. Frankly, I don’t know that it’s possible for humans to forgive some wrongs, at least not in a way that lets them maintain relationship with the one that harmed them. West talks about “forgiveness from a distance” in her commentary. That seems pretty necessary sometimes. But, what is clearer to me is that those of us who have received life-saving mercy will, at best, look like fools and hypocrites if we don’t extend mercy to those who owe us far less than what we have been forgiven. At worst, our lack of mercy will land us in eternal torment. So, we must be serious about this matter of forgiveness, even if we aren’t always sure what it will look like in practice. Jesus will be alongside us while we try to figure it out.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
About the Supreme Court ruling: https://www.npr.org/2023/06/30/1182216970/supreme-court-student-loan-forgiveness-decision-biden
Some Tweets pointing out what kind of loans politicians had forgiven:
Eric Barreto: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-24/commentary-on-matthew-1821-35-5
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.