Forgiveness Cancels a Debt
Matthew 18:21-35 NIV’84
21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?”
22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.
23 “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talentswas brought to him. 25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.
26 “The servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ 27 The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.
28 “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.
29 “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’
30 “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened.
32 “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ 34 In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”
The 10th Anniversary of 9/11
We are gathered here today as we usually are at this time on a Sunday morning. But by this time of the morning 10 years ago, we knew that American was under attack.
For those of my father’s generation, the question had always been, “Where you were when you heard that Pearl Harbor had been attacked?” Of course, Pearl Harbor became the moment that our nation realized that it could not remain a spectator in the conflagration that had begun with Adolph Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, and the rise of the Axis Powers in Italy and Japan. Pearl Harbor changed America. Tom Brokaw correctly titled his book about those who faced up to the challenges of that time, The Greatest Generation.
For my generation of baby boomers, the question was asked 22 years later, “Where you were when President Kennedy was assassinated?” I do. I was in eighth grade social studies class. Mr. Shannon, our social studies teacher, had left the room. In a moment he returned and told the class that the President had been shot. Televisions were turned on in classrooms that had them, and for the rest of the day we watched live television as Walter Cronkite tried to piece together the fragmented reports coming from eyewitnesses, reporters on the scene, and law enforcement officials.
The Sunday following the President’s death, my family, along with the families of other church members, were gathered at Dalewood Baptist Church in Nashville, Tennessee. As the service came to a close that day, someone handed our pastor a note. He stood and informed the congregation that Lee Harvey Oswald, the accused assassin of President Kennedy, had himself been shot while being transferred at the police station in Dallas, Texas. For my generation, President Kennedy’s death marked the first of many assassinations, and attempted assassinations of public figures. In April, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee. In June of that same year, Robert Kennedy was shot and killed after celebrating his victory in the Democratic primary in California.
President Kennedy’s death marked the beginning of the end for my generation of an innocence that had seemed to pervade the 1950s, and the post-World War II prosperity of the United States. The war in Viet Nam, the Civil Rights struggle, and the emergence of an alternative culture of “flower children” opened a new chapter in American civic life. President Kennedy’s assassination changed our country, but in different ways than Pearl Harbor had.
And then came September 11, 2001. Debbie and I were at our daughter Laurie’s home in Greenville, South Carolina. We were there because that September 11, 2001 was the first birthday of our granddaughter, Vivian. We had arrived the night before and had just finished breakfast when the phone rang. Laurie answered it, and our son-in-law, Steve, told her to turn on the TV. New York was under attack, he said.
We turned on the television, and watched in stunned silence as the twin towers of the World Trade Center burned. And then the unthinkable happened. The towers came down, one at a time, in an unbelievable cascade of steel, concrete, dust, and paper. I think I remember the papers the most. Hundreds of thousands of 8 ½ by 11 sheets of paper. Papers that had been on desks, in copiers, in printers waiting to be sorted and filed, papers that floated to the ground representing for me those lost in the tragedy that day.
After the towers fell, Laurie, Debbie and I still had some birthday party shopping to do for Vivian’s party that night. We arrived at the mall near their home, and were only there a few minutes when we noticed that stores were lowering their security gates and closing. We left mall and returned home. By mid-afternoon we turned off the TV. Despite the tragedy, and perhaps because of it, we decided to focus on Vivian’s first birthday.
Her party was that night, and her other grandparents were there, too. Somewhere in the chaos and sorrow of that day, our daughter managed to write Vivian a letter. She explained to her that something very sad had happened on her birthday, which had nothing to do with her. But that from that day, and for all of her birthdays to come, the date of September 11 – 9/11 – would be remembered as a very sad day in the life of our country. But, she told Vivian, there was still a future, a future that held promise and hope and love and possibility. Laurie told Vivian that even though the events of 9/11 might have overshadowed her first birthday, that she was loved by her parents, her grandparents, and her family. Vivian, Laurie said, could face the future knowing that there were those who loved her, and that her life could be a life of hope and promise.
That’s where we were on 9/11. I’m sure you remember where you were, too.
Today’s Lectionary Gospel Reading
All of that brings me to the Gospel reading for today, Matthew 18:21-35. One of the things I like about preaching from the revised common lectionary is that the passages that have been selected often seem divinely appointed for that particular Sunday.
But, of course, God uses even our unintended choices to communicate with us.
Today we read the words of Jesus about forgiveness. Peter – isn’t it always Peter who asks about these things? – asks Jesus how often he should forgive someone. But not just any someone, Peter asks how often he should forgive a “brother.” Thinking that he knew the answer, and I’m sure also thinking that he would impress Jesus with his knowledge, Peter answers his own question by saying, “Seven times?”
By offering an answer to this age-old question of how often should we forgive someone, Peter exceeded the common wisdom of the rabbis of his day. They thought no one should ask forgiveness of another more than three times. I suppose their thinking went something like this: If someone needs to ask forgiveness for a mistake that caused another harm in some way, that is understandable. After all, we are all human and anyone can make a mistake.
The second time someone asks for forgiveness, perhaps he or she is struggling to get under control some character defect, or habitual behavior. One can certainly understand how that could happen.
But the third time someone has to ask for forgiveness of the person they have twice wronged, they better get it right this time. Although this was long before baseball was invented by Abner Doubleday, the rabbis had a kind of “three strikes and you’re out” approach.
But Peter ups the ante. He latches onto the number 7, and who knows why. Some have indicated that this was also rabbinical teaching, but I think Peter was going for an answer to impress Jesus. By doubling the rabbis common answer, and throwing in one more for good measure. Perhaps Peter had the days of creation in mind. Or perhaps Peter knew that the number 7 represented perfection and could not be improved upon.
Whatever Peter’s thinking, he poses a question, provides the answer, and then waits smugly for the amazed Jesus to commend him in front of all the other disciples.
Only, that’s not what happens at all. Jesus tells Peter, “not seven times, but seventy seven times.” Some translations have “seventy times,” or “seventy times seven.” Either way the numbers are not the point. The point is that forgiveness is to be infinite, inexhaustible, and always available among Jesus’ followers.
To further illustrate exactly what he means, Jesus tells a story, a parable, about what life is like in the kingdom of heaven, or the kingdom of God.
And the story is meant to drive home the point of the infinite scope of forgiveness as it should be practiced by those who would come after Jesus.
A ruler is settling accounts, Jesus says, and calls in a servant who owes him 10,000 talents. Okay, let’s stop right here, because this is the point of the story. “10,000 talents” is a meaningless phrase to us in 21st century America. We are used to much bigger numbers than 10,000, especially when it comes to our government. As the late Senator Everett Dirksen is quoted as saying, “A billion here and a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking about real money.” (Incidentally, there is disagreement about whether Dirksen actually said that, but it’s still a good quote.)
To help us understand what Jesus was saying, one talent, probably a silver talent, was the equivalent of 20-years’ wages for the servant in question. Okay, you do the math. Multiply 20-years by 10,000, and you get 200,000 years of wages! Which makes one want to ask the question, “Why did the ruler loan this guy so much money, and what in the world could he have done with it?” But that’s not the point of the story.
The point of the story is that the servant owed a debt he could not pay. He could not ever have paid it, not in his lifetime, the lifetimes of his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. Which actually sounds like our national debt, but that’s not the point either.
No, the point was that this servant owed a debt he could not pay. Ever. The ruler, realizing this, ordered that the man, his wife, and his family be thrown in prison until he could pay. (Which seems counter-productive to me, unless the earning potential of first century prisoners was much greater than it is today.)
But, the servant fell to his knees and pleaded with his master. “I’ll pay every cent,” he promised. And, did the master believe him? Of course not. Matthew says the master canceled the debt. He knew the servant could never pay it, and I’m sure he knew that the servant would never pay it from jail either. So, he canceled it. Wrote “Paid in Full” on it in big letters, and gave the canceled note to the servant. Or something like that.
Ecstatic the servant rushes from the master’s presence, out into the street, and whom should he run into almost immediately? Why another servant, of course. Only this servant owed our friend some money – about a hundred denarii. Again, this is meaningless to us, until we understand that a denarius was about one days’ wage. Of course, that makes 100 denarii about 100 days’ wages. That is not a small sum by any means in the first century, but it is a debt that could conceivably be paid by a fellow servant.
But rather than share his good fortune with his fellow servant, our friend the now-debt-free servant has his debtor thrown in jail until he can pay. Very unfair, it seems, and those looking on thought so, too.
These other servants of the master run and tell their master what has just happened. “Sir, do you remember Jacob, your servant, whose debt you just canceled?” (I made up the name Jacob, but seems fitting because the original was a schemer, too.) “Of course,” the master said. “Well, he just sent poor old Simeon to prison because he couldn’t pay him 100 days’ wages.”
With that news the master was livid. He sent runners to find and bring back this ungrateful and unmerciful servant, whatever his name was. “Didn’t I just forgive you?” I am sure he asked. “And, now you have refused to forgive someone who owes you such a little sum?”
With that that master had the unmerciful servant thrown into jail, not just to be held, but to be “tortured” by the jailers until he could pay. That’s the last we hear of the unmerciful servant.
Jesus does add one interesting footnote to this story. “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”
I think the point here is not that God will hand us over to be tortured, but that God takes a very dim view of those who are shown mercy and forgiveness, but who do not show mercy and forgiveness to others in return.
Forgiveness Cancels A Debt
What does this mean for us today? The story is a story that Jesus himself says represents life in the kingdom of heaven. We have to ask ourselves in what way this story tells us about the kingdom of God and how life is to be lived in that kingdom.
First, we are the servant who is deeply in debt. That should be obvious. We owe a debt to God we cannot pay in many ways. It was the same in the first century as it is in the 21st century. Israel as a nation had returned God’s love with rigid legalism. The rulers of Israel have betrayed their purpose and their calling as the people of God by aligning themselves with the Roman Empire. They have sold out their own people by guaranteeing that taxes will be collected, and that the region will remain under Roman rule without incident.
Our debt, and theirs, to God was immense, unfathomable, and uncollectable. There is no way they, or we, could ever set the account right. As one preacher put it, “Jesus paid a debt he did not owe, because we owed a debt we could not pay.”
Secondly, God is the master. That should be obvious. The master is infinitely rich, so much so that 10,000 talents, or 200,000 years’ wages, is insignificant to the master. The master is so rich that even this mind-boggling amount of money is not going to bankrupt him, or even make a sizeable dent in his financial situation. God who owns the cattle on a thousand hills (which is a poetic way of saying “all of them”) is not threatened by our debt.
Thirdly, mercy and forgiveness is God’s response to our hopelessness. While we might plead with God that we’ll do better, we’ll make him proud, we’ll pay him back, the fact is that we will for the most part continue to do exactly what we have always done. That is, we will fail to be all that God has called us to be and created us for. But rather than wipe us off the earth, God wipes our debt to him off his ledgers. God’s mercy extends to us in our helplessness and hopelessness. God forgives our debt, wipes the slate clean, and gives us a new start.
That’s the good news. Jesus paid our debt. Jesus died in our place. Jesus did for us what we could not have ever done for ourselves. And he did it willingly, lovingly, and intentionally.
Finally, now that we have been forgiven, and our debts have been canceled, we are expected to do the same for others. We are expected to show undeserved mercy and grace to those who do not have the capacity or the will to repay our act of kindness and love. That is what life in the kingdom of heaven is like. That is one way in which we can “love God and love others” according to Jesus.
What Does That Have To Do With 9/11?
What does this have to do with 9/11? There are a lot of things that you and I cannot control. We are not the ones who decide if and when our nation will go to war. We are not the ones who are privy to classified intelligence information. You and I are not in a position to take on the safety and security of the nation as our responsibility. We elect our leaders, and entrust to them the power and authority to make those decisions. And we honor those who keep us safe and secure, even in this age of uncertainty and insecurity.
But there is something you and I as followers of Jesus can do. We can extend grace and mercy to those who need it, because we ourselves are the recipients of God’s grace and mercy.
Jesus gave us examples of what that might look like. He told the story of the Good Samaritan at a time when all Jews thought the words “good” and “Samaritan” did not belong in the same sentence.
Jesus forgave a woman caught in the immoral act of adultery when the religious leaders who accused her were will within their rights to demand that she be stoned for violating the accepted Biblical standards of morality. He simply said to her, “Go and sin no more.”
Jesus told Peter to put up his sword, and he healed the high priest’s servant whose ear Peter had lopped off. And, later Jesus forgave Peter for betraying him and abandoning him to be flogged and crucified.
And, while he hung on the cross, Jesus last prayer was for those who were torturing and killing him. He prayed, “Father, forgive them, because they do not know what they are doing.”
In our own small ways we can extend to others the same mercy and grace that God has extended to us. Rather than reacting in fear and anger to the growing number of Muslims in America, or the world for that matter, we might start to think of them as persons whom God loves.
Rather than rail against the working immigrants in our country, we might remember that most of us are from immigrant families, unless we are Native Americans, and that those who preceded us and made life in America possible for us endured the prejudice and unkindness of those who also called themselves Christians. I remember by grandmother telling me that her family name of Callaham, had been changed from O’Callaham because the Irish were discriminated against when her family first came to America.
We live a world that is flawed and dangerous, but we serve a God whose love, mercy, and forgiveness we have experienced. And, we have the words of Jesus to remind us that God expects, as part of life in God’s kingdom, that we as God’s ambassadors will live our lives differently. That we will extend to others the same forgiveness that we have experienced, that we will nurture the same mercy toward others that we have been shown, and that we will live our lives as grateful and merciful servants, rather than like the unmerciful servant of Jesus’ story.
Will that make a difference in our community and our world? Will it prevent another 9/11, or another Pearl Harbor, or another presidential assassination. Perhaps it will, but even if other horrific things happen, the presence of evil does not invalidate the purpose of God. If anything, the presence of evil reminds us that love wins, that God is present with us, and that we are the ones who will demonstrate to the world that there is a way to live life as God has intended it, and that that life is possible through Jesus Christ our Lord.
The first words that came to Colleen Kelly’s mind when she realized that her brother was gone were, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”
Colleen’s brother Bill worked for Bloomberg as a financial services salesman. He didn’t work at the World Trade Center. But on that day, September 11, 2001, Bill was attending a conference held at Windows on the World, the restaurant on the 107th floor of the World Trade Center.
After the Towers fell, and when she could not contact Bill, Colleen rushed from one New York City hospital to another in a desperate search for her brother. At each hospital she saw scores of doctors and nurses, but realized that few were actually being admitted because there were no survivors.
According to Ellis Cose, who tells Colleen’s story in his book, Bone To Pick: Of Forgiveness, Reconciliation, and Revenge, Colleen knew that the prayer of Jesus made no sense. The terrorists knew exactly what they were doing, she would later learn.
But those words – “Father, forgive them…” – seemed to help her hold onto her faith and the values she cherished. The terrorists took her brother, but Colleen was determined that they would not take anything else.
So, Colleen and others founded September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows. Colleen was determined to do all she could to stop the cycle of international violence and death.
That meant that when the United States was preparing to attack Iraq several months later, Colleen and other September Eleventh Families made the trip to Iraq to assure the Iraqi people they met with that there were Americans who did not hate them, or wish them dead. They also met with the mother of Zacarias Moussaoui, the alleged 20th hijacker, in an attempt at dialogue and reconciliation.
Did Colleen’s acts stop a war or prevent other suicide missions? Probably not, but the point is not that we are successful as followers of Jesus. We will not be judged by our success, only by our faithfulness. Only by the ways in which we have forgiven others because we ourselves have been forgiven.