Pentecost 14 A: Forgiveness and Freedom

Dear Partner in Preaching,

This is one of the hardest parables we’ll ever preach on. Actually, that’s not quite true. The parable itself is actually pretty straightforward; it’s the reality the parable describes that’s hard.

The parable itself, we should keep in mind, comes on the heels of Peter’s question to Jesus about how many times he should forgive. When Jesus stuns him by multiplying Peter’s generous suggestion of forgiving someone seven times to seventy-seven (or, probably a better translation, seventy times seven) times, Jesus then illustrates the importance of forgiveness by sharing this parable.

While the overall message is pretty clear – echoing the Lord’s Prayer’s petition that we should forgive others even as we have been forgiven – there is still great value in opening the parable up for people. Let them know, for instance, that a talent was about 130 lbs. of silver and was the equivalent to about fifteen years of a laborer’s wages. Which means that the servant owed his master about 150,000 years of labor. In other words, he would never, ever, not in a million years, be able to pay his master back. A denarius, by comparison, was worth about a day’s wage, which meant that the second servant owed the forgiven one about a hundred days of labor – no small debt. But still…and everyone who hears this parable gets it…how could he possibly not overlook that (relatively) minor debt when he had just been forgiven an impossibly huge one?

The answer, I think, has to do with our penchant for counting, calculating, and keeping track. For while the unforgiving servants debt to his master has been wiped clean, he immediately moves on to the ledger he is incessantly keeping and focuses on the debt his fellow servant owes him. Nor is he alone in this penchant. Notice, for instance, where Peter starts this conversation: he asks Jesus for a number. He wants to know just how much will be expected of him, how much is reasonable, how much is required. And so he suggests what by all accounts is a more-than-sufficient amount of forgiveness.

Jesus, however, turns Peter’s question on his head by replying with a ridiculous, even impossible, reply. “You want to play the numbers game?” Jesus more or less asks, “okay, how about this one?” It’s not that Jesus wants Peter to increase his forgiveness quota, you see, it’s that he wants him to stop counting altogether simply because forgiveness, like love, is inherently and intimately relational rather than legal and therefore cannot be counted. Had Peter asked Jesus how many times he should love his neighbor, we’d perceive his misunderstanding: love can’t be quantified or counted. But he asks about forgiveness and we miss his mistake.

Why? I think that it’s because we tend to treat forgiveness as a response to the law. You know, when someone screws up we can either punish or forgive that person. But I’m not sure that’s a helpful or accurate way to size things up. Because whereas law regulates behavior by holding us accountable to certain prescribed and agreed-upon values and morals – and in this way makes room for relationships to flourish – the law does not constitute or govern actual relationships. The law can declare to us that it is right to help someone in need and wrong to hurt that same person, in other words, but law cannot make us friends with that person, let alone make us love him or her. Forgiveness, as an expression of love, ultimately, is not about regulating behavior but rather about maintaining and nurturing our relationships.

Here I should be clear. It’s not that there is no place for the law in our relationships. There is, indeed, a need to count. If someone is repeatedly unkind or hurtful, let alone mean-spirited or violent, we may very well want to put some distance between us. But even that decision doesn’t completely define either our disposition to or relationship with the other person, only how we conduct that relationship. We may continue to love a child or sibling or friend who is abusive, but we don’t have to put up with the abusive behavior. Indeed, the most loving and forgiving thing to do may very well be to stop putting up with the behavior.

Do you see what I mean? I know this is complicated, but I think that at the heart of Jesus’ parable is the invitation for Peter to see that there are always two dimensions to our lives, and both are important. The legal dimension of counting and keeping track and holding accountable – all of which matters – and the other, perhaps deeper relational dimension of our lives that is no longer simply about behavior but about being: that is, about how we regard ourselves and others as valued people worth of dignity and love.

Which is why it’s so important to God. Because while God gave us the law to create space for relationships and even civilization, God created in us the capacity to love and forgive and accept forgiveness that we might be drawn into relationship with each other and with God.

All of which brings us to the rather harsh ending of the parable. It seems that the only thing this forgiving king cannot forgive is the inability of others to forgive as they’ve been forgiven. But keep in mind that this is a parable, and therefore lives in the world of parabolic and hyperbolic exaggeration. No one lives according to Jesus’ seventy-times-seven kind of forgiveness perfectly, which means that if we want to read this parable literally – that is, make forgiveness into a law – we are all doomed.

But what if we read the judgment of the king another way? What if we imagine that rather than inflicting some new (or old) punishment on the unforgiving servant, the king is actually only describing the condition his servant already lives in. That is, he is already a slave to the world of counting and calculating and reckoning everything according to the law and will therefore remain a slave to that way of being until the end of time…or when he can forgive others, whichever comes first.

This isn’t, I think, a softening of the parable but rather inviting the parable to push us to the very brink of our being. Forgiveness, you see, is ultimately a decision about the past – the decision to accept both that you cannot change the past and also that the past does not have to hold you captive. Forgiveness is a decision about the past that ultimately determines the future. When you forgive, you release the past and enter into an open future. When you cannot forgive, you remain captive to that past until the end of time. Forgiveness, in this sense, is freedom, freedom from the past, freedom for the future, the kind of freedom God wants for each of us.

But please let me be clear: if we want to avoid hearing this parable as saying that we should allow people to treat us badly, we also want to avoid commanding people, let alone threatening them, that they have to forgive. Forgiveness, like love, cannot be commanded or forced. But we can pray for it, for the ability to forgive those – alive or dead – who have hurt us, even if we have distanced ourselves from them for good reason. And we can pray that we forgive ourselves some of our own regrets, mistakes, and hurts, and even the inability to forgive others. And we can pray that we are able to accept the forgiveness of others when it is extended. And above all, we can pray that God keeps bringing us to church week in and week out so that we hear of God’s intention and promise us to forgive us and to form and fashion us into a community of love and forgiveness, a community, that is, that sees in Jesus’ cross the token of God’s pledge to forgive all and in Jesus’ resurrection the always present possibility of an open future.

This is big stuff, Dear Partner, and so perhaps we might move at the end of our sermon to something a little more concrete. Perhaps we might, for instance, ask people to call to mind one person they are having a hard time forgiving and invite a time of personal prayer. And perhaps we might save the rite of confession and forgiveness that opens many of our services for this time, moving from our silent prayer to a time to hear audibly God’s forgiveness of us once again and tangibly.

As I said at the beginning, the reality this parable bespeaks is not easy. At the same time, it is so incredibly central, even essential, to our life in this world and in God’s kingdom. Thank you so much for taking on the challenge of opening up this parable that we may see and hear both God’s amazing desire that we live by love and forgiveness and God’s own promise of forgiveness and freedom when we fall short and feel captured by the past. Your words matter, Dear Partner, and I know God will use them to good effect.

Yours in Christ,

Note: Three years ago, this parable was the appointed Gospel on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, and my Dear Working Preacher letter that week took on the challenge of preaching this text on that occasion.