Kingdom Stories: The Unforgiving Servant
As I continue to work on my Doctor of Ministry research and project, I have to admit that I’ve been doing a lot of checking on the exact requirements the school has for every step of the project. For example, I recently had to submit my project proposal and portfolio, and before I sent in my work, I read the student handbook carefully to make sure that my work complied to every standard. There was a required length – my proposal had to be a certain number of pages long. There were required sections that the proposal had to have. Each section had to answer certain required questions. I was required to have an annotated bibliography with a certain number of sources. My footnotes had to be formatted in a certain required way. I want my research project to be compelling, interesting, worth my time. I’m not required to complete this degree program – I’m doing it because I want to learn more, not because I’m required to learn more. But there are parts of it that I will tell you bluntly that I’m only doing because I’m required to do them. I could have gotten the point of my proposal across in a lot fewer pages, but because a certain length was required, I made sure I kept writing until I had enough content to get my work approved. We all have to deal with that, don’t we? Times and situations when there are things that we are doing only because we are required to do them. Sometimes there are laws that we follow only because we’ll get in trouble otherwise. There are rules or procedures in our workplaces that we must follow because someone else has told us we must – someone who has some form of power in our lives. Sometimes, of course, rules and laws tell us to do or not do things we’d want to do or not do anyway. We might want to support our public schools, most of us want to live peacefully with one another – it’s more than a law that keeps us from stealing or lying or hurting each other. But often, the law tells us what is required, and we do no more than that. Not many people elect to pay more income tax than they have to, for example.
This month we’re focusing on kingdom stories in the gospel of Matthew – Jesus’ teaching that tells us about what the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven is like. And usually, what Jesus says has some surprising element to it. Often, when Jesus tells a parable, he tells it in response to some situation we encounter in the gospels, and in particular, he often tells them in response to a question someone has asked him. The funny thing about the questions that people ask Jesus is that most of them have a common theme running through them, even though that theme might not be obvious at first. The theme of many of the questions, besides that basic, “Huh? What do you mean? I don’t get it” question is: What’s required? What do I have to do to still be ok, “in,” doing “enough” to please God? Which commandment is most important? What must I do to inherit eternal life? Is it right to pay taxes? Who is my neighbor? What reasons are ok for a man to give to divorce his wife? Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath? Why don’t you and your disciples follow the rules? How often do I have to forgive – is this enough? And Jesus’ answers to these questions comes to us in parables about the kingdom.
Before our text for today, the disciples have asked Jesus some questions, and he has responded, teaching about not being stumbling blocks for one another, talking about it being better to enter God's kingdom without a foot or hand rather than to stumble and stray because of it. He speaks about conflict in the community, recommending a course of action if someone has sinned against you. And then, perhaps in response to this teaching, Peter asks Jesus: ʺLord, if another member of the faith community sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?ʺ Now, the way Peter asks his question gives you an idea that he thinks he is being pretty broad in his suggested response. As many as seven times? Peter asks and lets Jesus know he thinks seven times is a lot. See, Peter is learning, even though he stumbles. He is learning from Jesus and has learned that Jesus is pretty extravagant sometimes – not when it comes to having things and possessions and money. But extravagant about his relationships with others. Jesus is pretty extravagant with his compassion, justice, and mercy. Always going farther than anyone else was prepared to go. Peter, I suspect, thinks he will impress Jesus, by saying he suspects you might need to forgive someone up to seven times if they sin against you! Seven times!
Jesus replies, “Nice try, Peter. Try seventy seven times. Seventy seven.” Not because Jesus actually wants us to count up to 77 in the number of times we forgive. But because Jesus wants us to stop counting. Because we’re asking the wrong question. Jesus tells a parable, about the kingdom of heaven, saying, “It’s like this. A king wanted to settle his debts. He called forward a slave who owed him 10,000 talents. The slave could not pay, so the king prepared to sell the slave, his family, and his possessions to make the payment. But the slave begged for mercy and patience, promising to pay. The king had mercy and cancelled the entire debt and released the slave, beyond what the slave asked for. But later, the same slave encounters a peer who owes him a small sum of money, a hundred denarii. He violently demands payment, and when his peer can’t pay, and begs for mercy, the slave denies him mercy, and has him thrown in prison. When the king finds out about it, he calls the slave before him. ‘How could you not show mercy to your fellow slave, as I showed you mercy?’ Finally, the king hands the slave over and requires payment for the debt.” Jesus concludes, saying that this is how it will be with us if we do not forgive one another.
I have a small group of people working with me as research participants for my project, and we’re spending a lot of time talking about mission, charity, and justice. In our Bible Study last week, I talked about justice and righteousness – they’re almost use synonymously in the Bible, and I understand their meaning when I think about how you can justify text on word document on a computer. You can make the margins all line up evenly – that’s justified text – or you can let the lines end in a jagged sort of way, all out of line – that’s unjustified. I always like both of my margins justified. When we talk about justice and righteousness, we’re talking about getting things set right, set in line with God’s vision for us. Justice is when God’s will is fully carried out here on earth.
We talked in our study about how charity is optional – we can choose to give or not give to others as we will. But justice is what God requires. Sure, we can fail to achieve it, fail to participate in it, but justice is God’s aim and intention for our world. Justice is a requirement of God’s world when it is set right. We talked about Micah 6:8, where God answers the question of what is required of us. God says what is required is to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.” So, justice is a requirement. But God doesn’t stop there. It is justice, accompanied by love and humility. Justice isn’t when we seek out the minimum we can do and still get by. It is when, with humility, and full of love for God and one another, we seek after justice as a way to have the world, and our hearts, set right in line with God.
This parable focuses on forgiving debts. And when the gospels talk about forgiving debts, the financial kind, we find the same words in Greek that are frequently used for forgiving sins – released from debt, released from sin – the language of forgiveness is the same in both contexts. In the United Methodist tradition, we say “trespasses and trespassers” in the Lord’s prayer, but in other traditions, people pray, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” With our financial debts – when you borrow, you owe the money until you repay it – or, rarely, until someone else decides to cancel your debt! So it is with sin. Sin is when you find yourself in debt to God, neighbor, or self, because of the harm you’ve caused. You are in someone’s debt when you’ve sinned against them. Their forgiveness releases you.
To experience justice when it comes to debt or sin and forgiveness, what needs to get “set right,” in line with God is as much, maybe more about the hearts of those who feel that forgiveness is theirs to extend or withhold as it is about those who feel they have debt that needs cancelling, forgiving. Do you want to know how much to forgive? Tell me at what point you’d like God to stop forgiving you, loving you, offering grace to you – and you’ll touch on the answer. If God ever stopped forgiving us, no matter how high the count of our sins, if God ever stopped loving us, or extending grace to us, we are beyond lost. And when we stop forgiving each other, when we stop releasing each other from real or perceived debts we are owed, when we cannot stop counting the wrongs others have done – then we have lost each other and tried our best to lose God. How much should we forgive? How much should we let go? How high should we count when it comes to forgiveness? God says we’re just asking all the wrong questions. Instead, how much can we love? How transformed by grace can our lives be? What miracles will forgiveness work in the world? The possibilities are limitless.
How much should we forgive? Who is our neighbor? What’s required? We’re already asking the wrong questions! As soon as we wonder first about the requirement instead of the love and grace that motivates forgiveness, that motives our relationships, that motivates our following Jesus, we’re asking the wrong question, and we’ll never find the answer that satisfies. What is the kingdom of God like? What would it be like to experience the kingdom of heaven on earth? Those are the questions that will keep our lives in an endlessly unfolding conversation with Jesus, as we experience the kingdom that is already at hand. Amen.