"Forgiveness" by Pastor Kinsey
Sometimes, forgiving even one time, is pretty hard!
Today, Peter has a question about the Gospel story from last week, where Jesus teaches about how church members should take care to resolve difficult situations when someone sins against you. First of all, by going to that person directly and discussing it; and if that fails, taking a witness or two with you, and hopefully that should do it. But if not, bring it up to the whole church, at a called meeting of the whole Assembly. And no one wants to go there!
Peter listens carefully, and has a rather interesting follow up question for Jesus, which is where our reading begins today:
I can see how forgiveness is so very important in community, says Peter, and how it keeps trust between one another. But how many times do I have to forgive? I mean, one time can be pretty hard, but I’m going to go big here and say, 7 times!?
And Jesus is like, (thumbs pumping upwards) more.
How about 17 times?
Jesus is like – ya, keep going!
Are you kidding – 27 times, Jesus?
Jesus says, try 77 times!
No way, that’s like, too many to keep track of, says Peter it’s darn near impossible!
Now you got it, says Jesus! Forgiving, like God’s grace-filled forgiveness, is unbounded. Forgiveness is foundational for community, the type of community that embodies the realm and kingdom-of-God-community.
Then Jesus tells a parable about forgiveness. A king wants to settle his accounts, and collect from all his debtors. Kings did that, and, temple priests, even more. The first guy owes him big bucks, 10,000 talents, which is an impossibly large sum, more than 150 years of wages for the average worker! And as he could not pay it, the king orders him to be sold into debtor’s prison, which was what every priest and king did. In Jesus’ time you’d be incarcerated until the Sabbatical year, the 7th year of a society-wide forgiveness, and all the debtor slaves in prison were set free!
But the servant of the king fell on his knees asking for patience to repay his debt. And the king had mercy and released him, and forgave him the debt! Beautiful, right?! How much should we forgive?
Then Jesus gives us the surprise twist. As soon as the servant gets set free, he goes out, runs into a guy owing him just 100 denarii – a relatively small amount, like three months wages – and this servant of the servant, begs for time to pay, just like he did with the king. But mercilessly, he hands him over to the prison guards. His colleagues, who no doubt were appalled, and afraid they’d be next, went and told on the unforgiving servant, to the king.
And when the king heard it he had his secret service agents track down the servant he forgave. And then the king told 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?' And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt."
In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray, forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Some older versions say, forgive us our debts…! Both are right. The word in the bible, in the original language – can mean either sin or debt. As we see in the parable, Jesus’ illustration of forgiveness – and its lack thereof – is about forgiveness of debt, money owed.
The prophets, who preceded Jesus, also railed against those who profited off the people, making them debtor slaves and putting them in prison. The rich concocted and proposed clever new laws for getting around the command against charging interest, at the expense of the poor. The Mission Statement of Jesus, of course, which he openly borrowed from the prophet Isaiah, was “to proclaim release to the captives,” “to bring good news to the poor,” and “to let the oppressed go free!”
It is no secret that domestic economics, then as now, are based on loans, and debts repaid. Until recently, loans in our society, were largely structured so that most of us could actually repay them, unlike in Jesus’ time. It seems like only a short time in history now – about 60 years – when borrowing to buy a home, or a car, was affordable for many, and steadily raised the standard of living. Taxes were progressive, and the gap between rich and poor was reasonable. Until, that is, the large banks twisted politicians arms in the 1980’s, to deregulate their industry, which all came to a head as they began to fail in the Great Recession of 2008, when the Collateralized Debt Obligations they constructed out of thin air, came due. All debts come due, sooner or later. And as Margaret Atwood has said in her book, Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, “[This is] the time when whatever is on one side of the balance is weighed against whatever is on the other side – whether it’s your debts, or your heart or your soul – and the final reckoning is made.” Perhaps she had the king and his servant from Jesus’ parable in mind!
To save the economy in 2008, tax payers were called upon to forgive the failing banks. Banks had caused the problem, as it would increasingly become clear. They had rigged the game in their favor so that good paying jobs were already scarce, and they were fabulously rich, well before the Recession. People were in debt like never before, trying to keep family together, and banks were loaning to people without anything much to back it up, as the bankers gambled on Wall Street with our money. And here the word “sin” works best – the tax payers who now lost pensions and homes, were asked to forgive the bankers sins. We were promised that if we bailed them out, they would save us and our economy.
And then, as soon as the banks were forgiven, their sinking boats bailed out, they turned around, and told most everyone whose house was underwater, whose job was lost due to the Recession, to pay up! No, we won’t forgive you! Into debtors prison you go, they said mercilessly.
And when we tried to tell the king that they weren’t forgiving as they had been forgiven, there was little more than lip service paid. No one who sinned against us, was punished, or imprisoned, themselves. As Woody Guthrie knew already back in the Great Depression of the 1930’s,
Yes, as through this world I've wandered
I've seen lots of funny men;
Some will rob you with a six-gun,
And some with a fountain pen.
[But] You won't never see an outlaw
Drive a family from their home.
Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. That’s how Matthew’s translation goes. But when the servant who has power over his debtors does not forgive, Jesus is angry, he dramatizes what will happen to that one, in a society that honors justice – the tables will be turned, the lowly will be lifted up, and the mighty will be brought down.
Forgiveness is hard enough for each of us individually. But for the society we live in, it is structurally necessary, as well. Otherwise, corruption continues to proliferate from the top down, which exploits individual forgiveness, creating a non-biblical, turning the cheek, to our abuser, kind of system. Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors, Jesus taught us. Forgiveness in an open society can only succeed if it is built on the power of love and justice – for all, from all.
Today I invite all of us to experience the forgiveness that comes from God, and from your neighbor, when your debts and your sins are canceled and wiped clean, and you are released! Simply fill in the Forgiveness form, handed out. And when you come to the table for holy communion you can give it to Trudy, and she’ll put it in the paper shredder, and shred it up! [holding mine up] I’ve filled out mine, and I encourage you to try it too!
Forgiveness is hard, sometimes even, one time. But a more loving and just society, where each of us lives richer and more deeply spiritual lives, one that lives into the realm and kingdom of God, is often, hard work. We don’t count the number of times we forgive, literally. Jesus does not condone bean counters, or those rigidly and heartlessly enforcing the rules. Forgiveness, Jesus suggests, is way of life. We forgive, because God forgives us, in the death and resurrection of Jesus. We forgive, because others forgive us, as the Lord’s Prayer goes. When that is happening, shalom and life can flow, and we can grow in grace. This, then, is the feast of victory for our God!