Sermon Pent 16,yr A, 2023
Some weeks I look at the readings and just want to stay in bed. Either the readings are too personal, too complex or like today…just seem too awful to deal with.
The last few weeks our readings have focused on identity and community, on forgiveness and grace in community. Then today in our gospel Peter asks how often to forgive another member of the community, seven times Peter asks…trying to be generous. Seventy Seven times Jesus answers…a ridiculous number, meant to be unrealistically extravagant.
Excellent ! I can work with that…if only Jesus had stopped there, but he didn’t. Jesus continues with a parable often titled the Unforgiving Slave which ends with the delightful morality statement.
“And in anger his lord handed (the unforgiving slave) 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.’”
Ummm harsh?! What happened to forgiving 77 times?? Where is the mercy? Why the contradictory messages? And this is paired with the Exodus reading detailing the drowning of the Egyptian army.
Seriously, I wanted to stay home, what was I to preach?
It was clear that the theme to these challenging readings was found in the end phrase of Romans “So then, each of us will be accountable to God.” However, I struggled with God is portrayed in these readings… because on the surface it’s not so nice. I don’t understand God to be a vengeful God, I don’t believe God is a God of punishment and retribution.
I struggled with reconciling such an image of God with the understanding I have gained of God over my years of studying the bible.
So, as I do anytime I struggle with the bible, I dug deeper. I read the scripture before and after to get the context and I spent time in research, in study and meditation.
What I found and am confident with is what scripture, church tradition, my experience and a rational mind tells me, that God loves and values the relationship God has with creation and that scripture is truth and truth is reinterpreted through thousands of years and millions of people’s perspective.
So, here’s what I did when I looked at our Gospel reading today.
First the context. It is a story, a parable…told by Jesus to disciples who still don’t get what he is teaching. After discussing the unending forgiveness we are called to, after the parable of the lost sheep and details on how to carry out reconciliation in community, Peter still wants to quantify how often one should forgive. Peter wants to know when enough is enough.
Which brings us to the parable of today, the Parable of the Unforgiving Slave, or what could be called the Parable of the Ridiculously Generous King.
To recap: A King wished to settle accounts with his slaves.
Firstly, The King himself? is dealing with his slaves? Face to face? And why the need to settle accounts between slave and owner? There is usually not much of an account…owner /king owns everything including the slave, perhaps they are bond slaves working off a debt. Interesting.
Next, one slave owed the King 10,000 talents. This is a ridiculous number, 10,000 talents would be equivalent to billions of todays money… and the king had given that to the slave? Entrusted the slave with billions? Clearly Jesus is over exaggerating to prove a point…this isn’t meant to be realistic.
Then we read…the slave had squandered it, lost it or bought a small country, in any event the Billionaire slave no longer had the billions that the king had given him. And when the slave couldn’t pay, he asked for mercy and the king forgave him that debt. Forgave that debt of billions and billions of dollars. Now perhaps this was King Midas and gold was no problem, but in any event just as the debt owed was an over the top extravagant amount, so too was the act of forgiveness. Forgiveness beyond measure. Beyond comprehension. Forgiveness that is plainly ridiculous.
So far this King has been generous beyond comprehension… the parable is ridiculous in its exaggeration of grace, generosity and forgiveness. The listeners must be smiling and scoffing waiting to see where this fairy tale goes.
Then the page turns, we get the twist in the story. the slave that received the ridiculous forgiveness is found demanding repayment from a fellow slave. A slave who owed about 6,000 of today’s dollars and couldn’t repay it. Just a drop in the bucket compared to the first slaves debt.
Now any listener to the parable would have understood that in the light of the King’s generous act of forgiveness that the first slave received he ought to ‘pay it forward’.
Yet, we read that the forgiven slave did not pay it forward, or follow his King’s example. The debt was not forgiven and the debtor was thrown in prison, Which everyone in the parable knew was wrong.
Consequently, the unforgiving slave received the sentence that he had pronounced on his fellow slave and the listeners were admonished to remember this story and forgive as generously as the King does, from the heart, else they receive what they dish out.
When I first read this parable, I and perhaps you were horrified by the final lines,
“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.’”
In our horror at the extreme punishment that slave was given we may forget the extreme exaggeration at the start of the parable. This is a parable, not a reality and the ridiculous out of proportion billions at the start are paralleled by the out of proportion punishment at the end. It is an exaggeration to prove a point…but what point?
We also may have missed the very familiar pattern of story telling that prophets used to shed light on injustices that Jesus peers would immediately have recognized.
There are many, many stories in the Hebrew scriptures that tell of a prophet who confronts a person of authority with parable. It is a parable that tells of someone who did a bad thing and this authority is asked to pronounce justice. Often the authority proclaims a harsh judgement in their righteous indignation, not recognizing that the parable is a reflection of their own misdeeds, the prophet then announces that the judgement given will be the judgment received.
This gospel parable is meant to be read in that same light. It is not meant to be a story of God’s judgement and anger but a reflection of how poorly we can respond to the generosity and grace we have been given. It is meant as a mirror to see ourselves in and an opportunity to see where we have acted unjustly in our own lives.
It is a parable that reminds us that we wish to be forgiven 7 x 77 times, but struggle to forgive even 7 times. A reminder that we are called be like the King in the parable generous and forgiving to the extreme, because we too often act as the unforgiving slave instead.
Is this the true meaning of the gospel today? Perhaps. However, the joy and frustration of parables are that they are up for interpretation. We can only interpret their truth through the eyes of our own understanding. What I have done is interpret this parable through the eyes of some one who has the blessing of some thousands of years of church traditions, a grounding in scripture and an experience of the ridiculous generosity and grace of God, as seen through the cross.
After all this is said and done here is my summery for you, and yes that means I could have gone with a 30 sec sermon, but it’s like long division…I gotta show my work.
We know how much our King of Kings has both given and forgiven and it is scripture like todays that is meant not to threaten us, or put the fear of God in us, but rather to reflect to us our own inconsistent response to God’s grace.
If we are made in the image of God, if we are recipients of God’s grace and forgiveness then we should reflect that to others. Not passing judgment, not meting out playground justice but doing our utmost to be a mirror image of God’s gracious, extravagant and frankly ridiculous love towards us.