(Begin by reading the Gospel. Sometimes it is good to have someone read it to you. The Word is meant to be heard.)
Last week we considered the Plan of God to bring all people into the full life of God. We have been given the gift of participating in this plan. We can bring back the lost, the ones who have sinned against us, just like the Good Shepherd does. In the Gospel for this week, Peter considers how very difficult this work can be. What if someone continues to sin against us? At what point do we give up on them? He asks,
“Lord, a brother or sister sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”
What is this math?? In the Bible, 7 is a perfect number. It refers to God. In one account of Creation, we hear that on the seventh day, God creates sacred time--holy time. So shouldn't 7 be the perfect number of times to forgive? Why does Jesus multiply by 11? What if we lose track of how many times we have forgiven? When can we give up?
Jesus follows up this math with a parable:
“For this reason the Kingdom of God may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made.
Let's be clear before we get too far. Is Jesus saying there are slaves in the kingdom of God? No. But he is making a comparison. A slave is a person who owns nothing, not even his or her own life. It belongs to another. As we consider this parable, we can ask ourselves, who owns their life? And how could they have paid for it?
In this parable, the slave not only owns nothing of his own, but he has a debt--he owes 10 000 talents. A talent is a large quantity of money. It would be how much someone would earn after 15 years of work. This slave owes 10 000 talents to the king. He has something belonging to the king that is worth so much. How could he ever earn enough? Even if he worked his whole life, he could never pay enough. I wonder if the slave feels desperate, carrying that heavy burden.
So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ The lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt.
What can we say about this king?! How could we describe him? The slave has something of his that is worth so much, and the king just cancels the debt. Never mind. You do not owe me anymore. It is all forgiven.
What must that feel like? How must it feel to have that huge burden lifted from his shoulders? It must feel like the biggest gift ever. He is free! Free of the debt! Before, they were master and slave. What about now? What will the slave do with this freedom he has been given?
“But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’
The slave who was forgiven his debt meets another slave of the king. This second fellow owes him 100 denarii. A denarius is the amount of money someone would earn after working for one day. This second fellow owes a little over three months work. Compared to the 10 000 talents that the first slave owed the king, how big is this second slave's debt? If we made two piles of money, could we even see the 100 denarii?
(If I've done the math correctly, the second slave owes the first slave 100 denarii, while the first slave owed the king 54 million, 750 thousand denarii. Just saying.)
Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt.
We wonder how he could pay a debt when he is in prison. I don't think the first slave has thought this through. What will happen to the relationship between these two slaves?
“When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’
The king uses a word there that is very interesting. Mercy. Mercy is the forgiveness given despite the power to punish or to do harm. The king has power to punish and harm, but instead he forgives the incredibly huge debt the first slave owes. The first slave has some power, too, doesn't he? In his freedom, he chooses to punish. He does not show mercy.
What is Jesus trying to teach us in this parable? What can we learn?
First, who do we think the king is like? The king shows great mercy. He gives this incredible gift. I wonder if we can agree that in this way he is like God. We can think of the huge gifts God has given us: (I'm sure you can think of way more)
All that we have, all that we enjoy, comes from God. God who gives and gives. God who forgives and forgives.
If the parable stopped after the king forgives the slave's debt, who might we say the first slave is? The slave owns nothing of his own, not even his own life. There is no way he would ever have enough to pay for the gifts he enjoys. And all that he owes is forgiven by the king.
Aren't we all like that first slave?
If we were to write the second half of this parable, with ourselves as the first slave, what would our response to the gift be? What would we have him do when he meets the person who owes him? We remember that Jesus tells this parable when Peter is asking how many times he has to forgive someone who has sinned against him, because frankly, forgiving is hard. Peter suggests 7 times; Jesus says, LOOK AT THE DIFFERENCE IN THE DEBTS!!!
What would happen if, when someone sins against us, we consider not the sin, but the gift of mercy we have been given by God? Would this make it easier to forgive? It would take a huge shift in thinking. Imagine if everyone in the world tried to shift our thinking about forgiveness and practiced mercy...a colossal shift! What would happen?