The Fifteenth Sunday after the Pentecost, Year A
[Texts: Genesis 50:15-21; Psalm 103:1-13; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35]
As We Forgive
Please pray with me:
O Lord, take my lips and speak through them;
Take our minds and think through them;
Take our hearts and set them on fire with love for Thee. Amen.
The parable Jesus shares with us today begins with a man who owes the king money.
A lot of money.
Ten thousand talents, to be exact.
Since you and I aren’t as familiar with first-century Roman currency as Jesus’s disciples were, we’ll have to do a little detective work to put this number into perspective:
One denarius– the plural of that being denarii– is roughly the amount that a laborer could expect to earn per day for their work.
One talent is equal to six thousand denarii. Six thousand days’ worth of pay. Working six days a week– nobody was allowed to work on the Sabbath– six thousand working days comes out to about sixteen years on the job.
After sixteen years of hard work, you could expect to have earned about six thousand denarii: one talent. (And that’s before taxes!)
The man in the story Jesus tells us doesn’t just owe the king one talent, though; he owes him ten thousand talents!
He would have to work for a hundred and sixty thousand years to earn that much!
That is an absolutely unfathomable amount of money. No one could ever pay that back. Under Jewish law, the king had the right to sell this man, his wife, and his children into indentured servanthood for as long as it took to repay the debt– which, as you can imagine, would be their whole lives and then some.
I’m sure the disciples were pretty shocked by the sheer amount of money the man owed, but they were about to be even more shocked by this next part:
The man begs the king for mercy, and the king is moved by his humility and sincerity. In a stunning turn of events, the king chooses to fully forgive the debt, and the man is free to go.
Be kind; rewind. A man, who is gazillions of dollars in debt and has no bargaining chips whatsoever, asks the king to give him another chance, and the king’s response is, “You know what? Sure. Why not?” and totally cancels the entire debt.
I can’t even think of a word for how crazy that is.
And can you imagine how that man must have felt? He was doomed to generations of lifelong slavery for himself and his descendants because of a situation he got himself into, and all of a sudden, he’s free to go! Just because he asked!
How would you feel if you were in his position?
More importantly, how would you react?
Newly forgiven, freed from his debt, he goes on his way. The first thing he does, it would seem, is go looking for a fellow servant of the king– a coworker, perhaps a friend of his– who owes him some money.
Jesus says this friend of his owes him a hundred denarii– about three months’ salary before taxes. It’s not an insignificant amount of money, but compared to ten thousand talents, it’s nothing!
So, how does he respond to this other servant who owes him a hundred denarii?
Surely our friend has learned something from the king’s act of mercy toward him, right?
Well, unfortunately, it would seem he hasn’t. Look at verse 28.
He grabs him by the throat–physically grabs him; that word is a form of κρατέω (krah-TEH-oh), the same word that’s used in the Passion narrative when Jesus is seized and arrested in the Garden. This is clearly not off to a good start.
Angrily, he demands to be repaid. His coworker pleads with him, using basically the same words he used to plead with the king. If this were a movie, I’m sure there would be a flashback to the scene where he was begging the king for the same mercy for which he himself was now being asked.
But he said no, and had his friend thrown in prison!
Can you believe that?
He had him thrown in prison over three months’ wages when the king had just forgiven him a debt of a hundred and sixty thousand years’ wages!
You’ve got to be kidding me!
Some of the other men who worked with them saw all of this, and went and told the king.
As you might guess, the king was furious, and dealt very harshly with him. He said, “You wicked servant! Should you not have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?”
It actually says that the king handed him over to be tortured. This is interesting from a legal standpoint.
The Romans, as you probably know, had somewhat of a flair for coming up with colorful, inventive, and frankly revolting ways of torturing people. (It was kind of “their thing”.)
But torture was a punishment reserved for criminals, and sometimes prisoners of war, but not debtors.
The punishment for owing a large debt, as we learned just a moment ago, was simply that you’d have to work off the debt, generally as an indentured servant.
We can deduce, then, that this man was being punished not as a debtor— his debt had been forgiven– but as a criminal.
Failure to extend to his fellow servant the mercy which the king had shown him.
This, in the king’s eyes, was worse than owing someone more money than you’d make in a hundred and sixty thousand years.
Each of us finds ourselves, as Christians, in the very same position as this man in the parable.
We find ourselves at the foot of the King, begging for mercy and forgiveness and grace.
We have nothing to offer Him.
We have no bargaining chips.
There is no reason why we should be forgiven.
But God, in His outrageous goodness and love, has mercy on us.
As we say each week in the Prayer of Humble Access– my favorite prayer in the whole prayerbook– “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs from beneath Thy table. But Thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy.”
We then remember– and, in fact, participate in- Christ’s sacrifice for us each week in the Mass. His Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity are made accessible to us, broken for us, poured out for us, given for us.
As we kneel to receive the Blessed Sacrament, we are the debtors kneeling at the foot of the King, witnessing the most outrageous act of grace in all of history being worked out before us and for us. And then, with a blessing, we are sent out into the world.
So… what now?
What do we do we do with that?
Where do we go from here?
We step out into the world, where we will encounter people who have, intentionally or unintentionally, wronged us, and people who will wrong us in the future. We encounter systems by which we have been hurt. We encounter human sin, human brokenness, human fallenness.
This is where things started to go wrong for our friend the debtor, right?
This is where he conveniently forgot about what had just happened back there with the king and started grabbing throats and demanding what he felt he was owed.
And, unfortunately, we’re often not so unlike him in how we respond to what awaits us outside the church doors.
Our human nature tells us things ought to be fair– We should get what people owe us. People should get what they deserve. People should be paid back for what they do wrong.
But, as counter-intuitive as it is to our broken nature and our finite minds, we know that’s not how God works.
Otherwise, we’d get what we have coming to us, too, and what we have coming to us isn’t pretty.
Whatever we offer others, that is our response to what Christ has offered us.
When we are not reflecting how Christ responds to us in the way we respond to others, we are responding incorrectly.
Every word we say, every interaction we have, every choice we make is a direct response to that moment when we knelt at the feet of the King, and instead of giving us what we deserved, He gave us Himself.
When we lay aside our pride, our need to be right, our need to feel vindicated, our desire to play the victim, our desire to see someone get what they have coming to them, and truly forgive, we are responding as Christ did– by laying down our lives.
Because we have been forgiven, we must also forgive.
Because we have been shown mercy, we must also show mercy.
Because He gave Himself for us, we too must give ourselves for one another.
Lord, forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.