Scripture – Mathew 18:21-35 – Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 17, 2017
If you don’t play Powerball, well, first of all, you never win, but if you don’t play Powerball, you never even hear about it until nobody wins. Powerball is one of our nation’s multi-state lottery games and, because so many people play, the weekly jackpots are huge. If no one wins in a given week, the jackpot rolls over to the following week and, with more people buying lottery tickets, the jackpot gets even bigger. Those of us who don’t play Powerball or MegaMillions go through life pretty much unaware of either game until the growing jackpot goes so long without a winner and therefore becomes so large that it makes the news. And that’s when it becomes fascinating because we start to hear about the significance of the magnitude of the prize: how many times around the world the paper dollars would go if they were laid end to end; how many Lamborghini’s you could buy at once. This past summer the largest Powerball jackpot ever awarded to a single-ticket holder came in at $758 million dollars. That’s a lot of money. Without considering taxes or compounding interest, If you withdrew from that jackpot at the rate of $10,000 a week, that’s about $500,000 a year, a half-million a year, it would take over 1,400 years to use it up.
That’s a ridiculously huge amount of money. Too huge to imagine. And so is 10,000 talents. In fact, 10,000 talents, based on 1 talent representing several years’ wages, at that rate could last about 2,000 years. That’s a ridiculously huge amount of money, too huge to imagine, and that’s why Jesus chose that amount in telling his parable about the Unforgiving Servant. For the king, the lord, to forgive a debt owed by a slave in the amount of 10,000 talents is so huge as to be absurd.
His point is that’s how huge God’s forgiveness is, how enormous God’s grace, how unimaginable the extent of God’s mercy. So when we receive that and then turn around and grab someone by the throat for a few bucks, and throw him into prison until he pays it, we are not living as children of the kingdom of heaven. We are not living as members of a community of faith.
The community aspect of this is important for at least a couple of reasons. One is that Peter’s question refers to living in a community of faith – “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?” – and his question is motivated by Jesus’ immediately preceding instructions in verses 15-20 which we had as our first reading last Sunday. You may remember Jesus’ telling the disciples what to do “if another member of the church sins against you”: first confronting that person alone, and if that doesn’t work, then trying with the help of one or two others, and if that doesn’t work, telling the whole church. And Jesus assures his listeners: “Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
Peter listens to those instructions and then asks about forgiveness – okay, so then, how many times do we have to forgive this other member of the church. Seven times? New Testament Professor Lewis Donelson explains that Peter’s suggesting seven times “is not an attempt to place a limit on forgiveness.” He says:
“In fact, since seven is a holy number, Peter is probably asking something like, ‘Must I practice perfect forgiveness?’ To which Jesus responds, ‘Not seven times, but…seventy-seven.’” Donelson continues: “While the exact number (77 or 70-x7) is not clear in the Greek, the point of the number is. Your forgiveness must be beyond perfect; it must be beyond counting. Forgiveness becomes an absolute.”
Well, that’s not so easy for a lot of people. Sometimes as difficult as winning Powerball. And we raise lots of questions around forgiveness: about the perpetrator’s lack of remorse, or does this mean we have to forget about the harm done to us, and what about punishment. Charlotte Dudley Cleghorn quotes Rev. Marjorie Thompson: “To forgive is to make a conscious choice to release the person who has wounded us from the sentence of our judgment, however justified that judgment may be. It represents a choice to leave behind our resentment and desire for retribution, however fair such punishment may seem…”
That does NOT mean returning 77 times to an abusive relationship; and this is where the concept of community comes in again. Kathryn D. Blanchard points to the writings of Susan Hylen who specifically lifts up abused women – who, just by their circumstances, are isolated – “who suffer from the absence of fellow servants – those with the power…to cry out on their behalf…” and calls for an interpretative emphasis here on “the community’s role in recognizing sin, requiring accountability, and exercising forgiveness.”
And then there’s this tricky last verse which challenges our understanding of God’s grace. After finishing up the parable, with the unforgiving servant being sentenced to a lifetime of torture by the previously merciful lord, Jesus says, “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
Here’s one way to look at it. Charlotte Dudley Cleghorn lifts up what she says is “the oft-told story of one prisoner of war who asked another, ‘Have you forgiven your captors yet?’
‘I will never do that,’ the second one answered.
[To which the first one replied,] ‘Then they still have you in prison, don’t they?’”
In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus is teaching his disciples the way, his way, the way live in this new community, practicing and practicing healthy, merciful confrontation and truth-telling and accountability, with the aid of others if we need it, and forgiveness. Living this way is difficult, but not living this way is torture. All of us at one time or another, maybe even right now, find it easier to avoid or procrastinate or hold on to that familiar resentment or that stubborn anger. But we’re the ones who are suffering from carrying it around.
Yes, there’s a condition in there and we articulate it every Sunday together: forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. But, oh my goodness, my friends, we’re talking about receiving from God nothing less than a Powerball Jackpot of mercy and grace and forgiveness and second, third, seventy times seven chances. Our task is simply to realize that, to take that in, to allow it to fill us up and to practice the same thing, with our human limitations, with our not getting it right the first time or having to go back repeatedly and do it over and over again. It is a never-ending practice throughout our lives. But, see, if you don’t play, you’ll never win. Amen.