Sunday, September 11, 2011

13th Sunday after Pentecost - September 11, 2011

I’m of a mind to be blunt this morning.  If someone comes to you for forgiveness, you have to forgive them.  You have to.  If they did something terrible, you still have to.  If they hurt you, you still have to.  If you’re not ready to forgive yet, you still have to.  Are there exceptions?  No.  If someone asks for your forgiveness you have to give it to them period.  Well, not period.  You have to do more than that.  Not only do you have to forgive them, you have to forgive them from your heart.  That means you have to do more than simply mouth the words, you actually have to let go of your grievance.  That is what this gospel lesson is about.  You have to do this because you are the one who needs forgiveness.  To make this point, Jesus tells the parable of the Wicked Servant.  There are three layers to the story that I’d like to talk about, one at a time.

First Layer:
The parable is a straightforward story that Jesus tells in order to convey an ethical teaching.

In this parable there is a king.  Generally speaking, kings are bad news.  Kings are rich, demanding and greedy.  Kings don’t usually show mercy.  So here’s what happens.  The king wants to settle up his accounts with all of his slaves.  That means that he wanted to collect all of the money that they owe him.  There is one particular slave who is brought before him and it turns out that this fellow is very deeply in debt to the king, ten thousand talents.  Just how much money is ten thousand talents?  Let me explain it this way.  If a regular working guy in the time of Jesus saved every penny of his paycheck, it would take him about 200,000 years to come up with 10,000 talents.  Roughly translated, then, 10,000 talents means billions of dollars.

So this slave is brought before the king and he is billions of dollars in debt.  And so the king is ticked off.  And he orders that the slave be sold along with his wife and children.  But the slave starts groveling, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.”  This is an example of the Bible telling a joke.  The slave will never be able to pay back the debt or even make a dent and everyone hearing Jesus tell the story would have laughed at the idea of the slave saying something so ridiculous.

At this point, the expectation is that, groveling or no,  the king will punish the slave.  But something unexpected happens.  The king says, “Never mind.  Go home.  Your debt is forgiven.”

Now this is an example of forgiveness!  This is what we are to do.

So the slave leaves the palace of the king and it must have felt like he had just won the lottery.  No more debt!!!  Hallelujah!  And he runs across another slave who owes him a hundred denarii, which is a few thousand bucks.  Not chump change, but a tiny drop in the bucket compared to his debt that has just been forgiven. 

So the first slave grabs the other one and starts choking him and screaming, “Give me the money you owe!!!  Give it to me!  If you don’t pay by yesterday, so help me, I’ll throw you into prison!”  The other slave begs for mercy, “I don’t have the money on me, but I will pay you.  I promise.  Be patient and I’ll get it to you.”  Well that wasn’t good enough and so the first slave throws the second slave into prison.

This, of course, is an example of unforgiveness.  Clearly we are not supposed to do this.

The last part of the parable relates how the king punishes the first slave for being such a terrible jerk, for not forgiving as he has been forgiven.  Jesus finishes off by telling the disciples that they too must forgive each other.

This is the first layer of the parable.  It’s pretty straightforward.  It’s a morality tale.  And the moral is this: “Be like the king who forgives.  Don’t be like the slave who refuses to forgive.”  When the parable is explained like this, it encourages (or you could say threatens) people to be forgiving. 

2nd Layer
The parable is a straightforward story that Jesus tells in order to show both Law (what we are commanded to do) and Gospel (what God has done for us.)  This layer focuses on slightly different things and delivers a different message because it uses a Lutheran understanding of reading the scriptures.  So let’s go back to the beginning.

The slave is brought before the king.  He owes an enormous amount of money.  He cannot pay it.  Therefore he is guilty.  Therefore the Law condemns him.  This is the way the Law works.  It is pure reason and logic.  There are no exceptions.  There is no mercy. 

Surprisingly, however, the king decides to have mercy on the slave.  It’s not because the slave might be able to pay him back if only he had a little more time.  No, the debt is way too big.  It could never be repaid.  The king has mercy on the slave because he has compassion for him.  He has mercy because he decides to have mercy.  Period.  This is the gospel.  The slave does nothing to earn it.  Mercy is a pure gift.  So far, so good.    

In the second scene, the first slave leaves the presence of the king.  He is no longer in bondage to the debt.  He has been set free from it.  And then he comes upon his fellow slave who owes him some money.  So far in this parable, we have seen how the law works (it condemned the first slave) and we have seen how the gospel works (it set him free when the king decided, out of the blue, to have mercy on him.)  What will happen in this new situation?  Will we hear the law or will we hear the gospel?

The first slave insists on his rights according to the Law.  The other slave owes him money and he demands to be paid.  And we must understand that he is fully within his rights.  The first slave is playing the game according to the rules, according to the Law.  The Law says that the second slave owes him the money and must pay it.  Period.  Remember, the Law has no mercy. 

What happens then?  What happens to this one who desires to live according to the Law?  He is condemned by the king.  We must understand that the Law can only kill.  It can never bring life.  The slave clings to the Law and demands his rights.  Fine.  He has a right to be condemned because he has not kept the Law.  That is the only possible option.
The Law has no mercy.

This second layer of the story explains how two things work.  First, mercy comes from outside of us like an undeserved gift; this is the gospel.  Second, the Law can only bring condemnation.

3rd Layer
The parable isn’t a straightforward story used to convey information, like a moral or an explanation of how things work.  Instead, Jesus tells the parable to DO something to his disciples. 

Our gospel lesson actually begins with a question from Peter.  “How many times should I forgive someone?”  The assumption in the question is that there is some kind of limit, that forgiveness should be given and then at a certain point the guilty person no longer deserves to be forgiven.  Jesus responds by saying, you must forgive seventy-seven times, which is another way of saying, infinitely.  You must never cease to forgive.  There is no limit on forgiveness.  And then Jesus tells the parable.

As we listen, we initially feel mercy for the first slave.  He is in a tough spot and we can relate to that.  And so we are glad when the king forgives him his debt.  Hallelujah!  Forgiveness is truly a wonderful thing. 

But then, as the story progresses, we come to understand that the first slave is actually very wicked.  Having just received forgiveness, he refuses to do likewise.  If you are like me, you want to give him a good kick in the butt. 

Instead of feeling mercy for the first slave, now we feel mercy for the second slave who surely deserves it more.  And so when the other slaves turn the first slave in for being so unforgiving we are glad.  He refused to forgive and so he will not be forgiven.  This is the way things are supposed to work.

Except that it makes no sense at all.  Before Jesus tells the parable, he has just told Peter than we must forgive and keep on forgiving.  And then in the parable, the king forgave the slave only one time, not seven, not seventy-seven.  He forgave him one time and then when he screwed up...... BAM.  Judgment. 

If you are like me and if you felt some sense of justice that the slave has been condemned, then you have been taken in.  You have been taken in by Jesus’ parable.  We have just condemned ourselves.  People who think like us are willing to forgive, but we are also quick to judge.  We were glad that the wicked slave was forgiven the first time, but once he proves himself unworthy of this forgiveness, then our sympathy runs out.  He deserves what he has coming.

What Jesus has done is turn the tables on Peter and on us.  Or to use a different metaphor, he has held a mirror up for us to look into.  Peter asks, “How many times should I forgive someone?  When those other people sin, how many times should I give them pardon?”  Peter is focusing on someone else’s sin.  Jesus replies with a parable that shows him his own.  It’s as if he is saying to Peter, “You ask me about how many times you should forgive.  Let me show you that it is you who need forgiveness.” This parable works by inviting Peter (and us!) to condemn the wicked servant in direct contradiction to what Jesus has just said.  Jesus preaches mercy, and we are happy to have it for ourselves.  But in the unguarded moment, we are all too willing to clamor that justice be applied to another person, instead of mercy.    

In the parable, none of them are following the command that Jesus has given.  None of them forgive as he calls us to forgive.  The first slave doesn’t forgive.  The other slaves don’t forgive either; they hand the first slave over to be judged.  The king forgives for a moment, then goes back on his promise of forgiveness and condemns the slave to be tortured.  The whole thing is an awful, terrible mess.  Unforgiveness spirals out of control and destroys everyone.  This whole scene dramatically illustrates what Jesus has just told Peter.  We must forgive. Why must we forgive lest unforgiveness destroy us all.   

And so I stand before you today and I point my finger at you and I point it at myself.  We are the guilty ones.  We are the ones who haven’t had mercy.  We are the ones who have held the grudge.  We are the ones who are deeply in debt, over our heads, with no hope to ever pay it back.  We are the ones who forgive with our mouths and then go back on our promise.  And so long as we do not forgive, we destroy ourselves and others.

Is there any good news today?  Is there any gospel here?  Or as the Apostle Paul asks with such force in his letter to the Romans, “Who will rescue us from this body of death?” 

“Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”  Yes, we are rescued from this terrible situation.  Jesus Christ himself breaks in and for his sake God forgives.  God forgives us, yes, over and over.  And God forgives those whom we would still condemn.  And so we also must forgive.  We will forgive because we have been forgiven.  God help us.  

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