Rev. Susan’s Sermon for Proper 19/Pentecost 15 – September 13, 2020
You’ve got to love Peter.
So intuitive one minute, so thick the next. No sooner has Jesus given detailed instructions about how to behave in community, and how to overcome differences and disagreement, than Peter wants to know how to get out of it. I imagine Jesus shaking his head as he says ‘seventy seven times” then proceeds to tell a parable to explain himself.
So I say, you’ve got to love Peter, because we are exactly like he is: One minute we’re basking in God’s grace and mercy; the next, we want to make sure no one else gets it, or no one we don’t think is entitled to it, anyway.
We know this parable well.
The king allows a servant to accumulate a great debt. It’s an unimaginable sum. Astronomical. In Jesus’ day, a denarius was about a day’s wage, and one talent was about 6,000 denarii. “Ten thousand talents,” then, would be about six million denarii. Can you imagine that amount of debt? He owes what a whole country might owe. And that’s the point. He is so deep into the hole that it’s impossible for him to pay it back.
Perhaps he realizes this and so opts for the long shot: mercy.
The king, realizing he’s not going to make good on the bad debt, decides to do good instead: he listens to the servant’s appeal and forgives him everything, no strings attached. He releases the servant from it all.
Note that in the parable, forgiveness goes beyond even seventy seven times!
If the story ended there, we’d be talking about how the good king restores the in-over-his-head servant. We’d have a lesson in mercy and generosity. We’d have a picture of how someone lives in the light of grace.
But no, for as soon as the servant is cleared of his incalculable debt, he demands that a reasonable debt owed to him be repaid, going so far as to putting the man in prison until the debt is satisfied. The nerve!
The issue is, while it’s his right to be able to collect on the debt, following the letter of the law, he goes wrong in not following his master’s lead: he’s been given the example and the power to forgive, he chooses not to. Even though he’s received mercy, it doesn’t necessarily follow that he should be merciful –at least not in his mind.
It’s hard to figure the servant out. Clearly, he doesn’t need the money, clearly he hasn’t learned from his own lesson. His actions are not only disproportionate, they discredit the actions of the king towards him. And so, when found out, he receives what he was due all along.
Peter comes up with his own version of how to mete out forgiveness, and falls short. His calculation is –on the human scale– virtuous, even generous. He can forgive someone every day of the week! But on the divine scale it is miserly. Similarly, we take God’s mercy towards us, showered on us abundantly, and then meter it out with a dropper.
Forgive seventy seven times and then some, says Jesus.
With the parable he’s not only showing the extravagance of God’s grace, he is attempting to overturn the very way we account for mercy. It’s a new kind of ‘divine math’ one that seeks to overturn the transactional ‘eye for an eye’ dynamic of social relationships, but also an economy of revenge that plagues us.
The seventy seven times phrase Jesus uses as an illustration we might hear as “all the time.” But, “seventy-seven times” is something Peter would have heard differently. It is an allusion from Genesis (4:24) to Lamech, Cain’s great-great-great grandson, and an heir to Cain’s violent, self-centered ways. Lamech boasts of how he takes ruthless revenge on anyone who hurts him: “If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold” or an ‘eye for an eye’ to the seventh generation. Jesus makes sure that his hearers know this type of thinking has to stop. The cycles of vengeance are seductive and endless. And deadly
So he tells a story of incalculable debt matched by even greater forgiveness, with a twist at the end so that everyone might think, reconsider what forgiveness is all about.
In light of this parable what do we think forgiveness means? I ask this with the full import of the 9/11 memorials just passed and its mantra: “Never forget!” As if we could! The wound still seems so fresh, the images so vivid. The crime, so unspeakable.
Perhaps that’s why Peter wants to set some limits. Don’t we all? There are things that are unforgivable. Which is why we need to be reminded over and again, of God’s mercy for us all.
Forgiveness doesn’t mean that because God is merciful, God isn’t grieved and angered by injustice –indeed, the wicked servant ends up in jail and owing everything to the king. It means that some judgements aren’t ours to make. It also means that to choose forgiveness is to be released from the tyranny and torture of bitterness and revenge. I think that’s the hardest lesson the parable tries to teach: once imprisoned, forgiveness sets us free.
After being released from prison after 27 years, SouthAfrican Nelson Mandela wrote: “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”
What Jesus tries to teach Peter is that forgiveness isn’t about math because life isn’t a zero sum game. You can’t quantify forgiveness. Counting, after all, is an avenger’s game. Instead, Jesus calls each of us to leave the quantities behind, abandon tit-for-tat reconings and embrace forgiveness as a quality of mind and heart, a way of being in the world, a skill set for living, seventy times seventy times seven.
For then forgiveness won’t be something we do, it’s something we live, the prison we escape by walking directly into the hands of mercy.
In Jesus’ name