Proper 24, September 17, 2017
Ex. 14:19-31, Romans 14: 1-12, Matthew 18:21-35
"A happy marriage is the union of two good forgivers." –
Without a doubt forgiveness is a powerful dynamic in our world. Regardless of what we believe – the ability to forgive, the act of forgiveness, the very thought of forgiving evokes strong emotions in most people.
If love is considered the currency of faith – that which makes faith exciting and believable. Forgiveness – it is argued – is the heavy lifting / hard work of such loving. Whether it be individual forgiveness – I forgive the harm you have caused me, or an institutional or community act of forgiveness – we the community of Japanese Canadians forgive the government for interning us during World War 2 - forgiveness is simply a lot of hard emotional work.
Forgiveness can also be an extraordinarily effective tool of control. The power of forgiveness – when controlled and regulated within – for example – organized religion – can influence behaviour and manage dissent within a community of faith.
Jesus teaches several times throughout the gospels that what his disciples forgive on earth will be forgiven in heaven – and its opposite – what is not forgiven here is not forgiven – “up there”.
It has always been the prerogative of the clergy to either extend forgiveness or withhold it. In the good old days of religion, if you as a parishioner sought forgiveness for certain acts and I decided you were not repentant enough – I could not only withhold the churches forgiveness – I could also banish you from church. I could condemn you to purgatory thereby placing in jeopardy the health and well-being of your immortal soul (ah for the good olde days).
For many – today’s gospel parable is all about forgiveness. Depending upon which form or iteration of the Lord’s prayer you use - many connect today’s parable of the king and the indebted slave as an extension of the Lord’s prayer – when it teaches - “forgive us our debt’s as we forgive our debtors”.
And for many – the teaching of today’s parable stops there. And if it does – we may lose sight of the radical power of today’s parable – and the subtly nuanced mirror today’s parable holds up before us.
The power of today’s parable lies not so much in the King’s generosity of forgiving his slave the debt he owes – but the size and scale of his action.
The slave owed the king ten thousand talents of either silver or gold. Let’s assume the talents are of silver as silver is cheaper than gold. A talent is – or was – a measure of weight – approx. 130 lbs. – so we are talking about the King forgiving a debt of one million, three hundred thousand lbs. of silver – or as some historians suggest – with 130 lbs of silver being equivalent to 150 years of an average workers salary – one hundred and fifty thousand years worth of income.
Sizable to say the least.
The slave meanwhile is owed 100 denarii. One talent equals 5, 475 denarii. As such the forgiven slave refuses to forgive a debt worth less than one percent of the debt he owed the king. There is no equivalency here. Its impossible to balance the two debts in any way. Where then might the teaching be found.
Possibly that forgiveness has nothing to do with the size or depth of the harm done.
The debt forgiven by the King was monumental in size. The King forgave the slave because somehow, he was moved to care about his slave. The King resonated with the slave’s fear, anguish and desire to protect his family. The King was moved by compassion – some might suggest love – for the slave.
And so, forgiveness of the debt was secured.
Where did such love – such compassion come from? Some suggest that it arose from within the King’s ability to love himself – to be so self aware that he knew if he was in a similar state of distress and debt he would hope someone would forgive him – give him a second chance. It suggests to us that forgiveness can only rise out of those who truly love themselves – which is – as we know – a fundamental dimension of being faithful to Christ. Here lies the power of forgiveness – not so much as the size and degree of the act of forgiveness – but the power of love – love for oneself and love for the divine - which makes forgiveness even possible.
The second more nuanced teaching of today’s parable is the mirror it throws up in front of us.
When the slave refused to forgive the relatively minor debt of another slave – he gave witness to his inability to love not only a fellow slave but God and himself as well.
Both St. Augustine – a hugely influential 4th century theologian and John Wesley, the 18th century founder of the Methodist Church – refer to today’s parable story as the most terrifying test of faith we face.
Captured in todays gospel – and within the Lord’s prayer is the mirror which reflects to us – the reciprocal nature of the act of forgiveness. God forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtor’s.
Does this mean God will only forgive us to the degree that we forgive those who harm us? This teaching reflects the challenge of Jesus’ great commandment – love your neighbour as yourself.
And here we go again – faith requires us to relate to others as we relate to our self. The more we love ourselves and God – the more we can love our neighbour. The more we can forgive of our neighbour because we love our selves – the more God forgives us.
Rats! Here we are trapped again. The fundamental teachings of Christ lead back to the believer once more. Faith starts and ends with you and me – so how deeply do we believe we are loved and forgiven by God?
As deeply as we love ourselves and forgive others.