The following sermon was preached by Rosanne Swanson, Visiting Lecturer of Pastoral Theology, in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on Wednesday, September 17, 2008.
Matthew, Chapter 18
Genesis 50:15-21; Psalm 103:1-13 Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35
For all our unforgiveness, gracious God, forgive us. Grant us new and clean hearts - ones that reflect the mercy and grace given to us. Help us to forgive, even as we have been forgiven for Love's sake. Amen.
Perhaps one of the greatest delights and maybe even one of the greatest frustrations for the preacher is to sift through the countless ways to spin a sermon. Or, even the numerous possibilities for sermon topics. Take today for example. This week on Sunday, many of you heard the texts for Holy Cross day. We have not read those texts this morning, but it would not have been impossible for me to choose to focus on the cross as a sermon topic after all, Lutherans take the cross seriously!
Or, today we remember the life of Hildegard von Bingen - a woman saint who lived in the 12th century. She had early mystical visions and used her gifts to help form, correct and honor the medieval church. She had an irresistible spirit, and a vibrant intellect and she worked to overcome social, physical, cultural and gender barriers achieving a timeless transcendence which is well recognized even in this 21st century. She could make an interesting topic for a homily!
Choices abound, directions for sermons, while maybe not limitless, are nonetheless numerous. But I've chosen neither of those two roads to travel down for this homily. I want to spend a few minutes with you this morning reflecting on the Gospel reading for today.
Chapter 18 of Matthew's Gospel begins with the question from the disciples about who is the greatest in the realm of heaven? This question implies some need for rank and order - a kind of eternal pecking order. It is a question about power - who might have it and who might not and maybe, even about how one can get it. Does your MOM have to ask Jesus for favors? Do you have to give the "right answers" to important questions, like "who do people say that I am?" Jesus, who will be the greatest in the realm of heaven? It is not such a silly question, if you consider that the disciples were using their knowledge of the world as they knew it - using their own experience of life - to figure out what this "realm of heaven" was really all about. Jesus doesn't answer their question directly, but rather Jesus puts a little child in their midst and says that if you want to be great - become like this one. Huh? Can you really be serious, Jesus?
So also, then, the question that begins our text for this morning about how many times to forgive a brother or sister is Peter's attempt - based on the world as he knew it - to understand the realm of heaven. Based on his understanding of the law and forgiveness within it , it seems that Peter truly thought he was being generous is offering to forgive seven times. It is not particularly important whether you read Jesus' response to mean "seventy-seven" times or "seventy times seven" - 490 times. The point here is that Jesus is saying to Peter, your reckoning of what the realm of heaven is all about is simply wrong-headed if you insist on trying to understand it though the eyes of the world as you know it.
Now please don't misunderstand me here, we are very much like Peter - oftentimes the only way we can make sense or give meaning to something that we do not understand is to use those symbols, rituals or thought processes that we do know and understand. It is not that our use of them is inappropriate, but sometimes even they are not enough to give real meaning and direction to our experience. This is what Jesus is saying to Peter - the worldview that you have fits well into the world as you know it, but this is not the reality of the realm of heaven. Jesus then tells Peter a story - a parable - in order to begin to set his thinking in an entirely different mode. Jesus' parables, as you know, were ordinary stories about ordinary events that always turned the world upside down and inside out. As you read to the end of the parable, you may wonder, how it is that Jesus, who in Matthew five - the Sermon on the Mount - blesses the peace makers; tells us to turn the other cheek and not to repay evil for evil, can be the same Jesus who in this parable says that the God of heaven will condemn to the jails those who do not forgive their brother or sister from the heart. Are we to simply understand that justice is finally a matter of people getting what they deserve? It is ultimately an eye for an eye? I think not. But it would be easy for us to think that and to fear for our own lives - how will we ever know if we have truly forgiven a brother or sister from our hearts? Yet, we, too, would be wrong-headed in our understanding if we finally believe that this is what this parable is about.
Jesus begins the parable by saying, "the realm of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants." Jesus, shrewd teacher that he is, begins by laying out the "law" in the parable - not grace. This king is a bookkeeper - pure and simple. Please don't misunderstand me here - bookkeeping is an honorable profession. Lord knows that some of our present day financial institutions could probably have used better bookkeepers! But that's not what I am talking about here. I'm talking about an attitude of score-keeping that doesn't let go. He has kept a record of how much, how long and for what purpose money has been lent to his servants and now he wants to settle up the accounts. If a servant is honest, upright and above all solvent - there will be no problem in repaying the debt of money and the king will have kind words for them. However, that is not the case for those who are in any kind of real trouble. The king will have very little care for them except to get his money back as best he possibly can. Enter the stone-broke servant, who owes the king a bundle - 10, 000 talents - the equivalent of more than a day laborers wages for 150,000 years. He owes the king bazillions - and given his circumstances, has no way to repay.
The bookkeeper king orders all that the servant owns is to be sold and the servant to be tossed into debtors prison, along with wife, children and family, until this enormous debt is paid off. There is no forgiveness in the story so far and there is no reason to expect it. It is all a matter for the king of cutting his losses and getting out. This sentence of judgment must have been a hard blow for the servant - there is now really no hope of ever being clear of this debt - there is no opportunity to even begin to go to the financial consultants and to get debt counseling - set up a payment plan by which life can be lived and still over time pay off the debt. No, the sentence of liquidation and jail cuts off any possibility of hope.
In such a state of shock, the servant falls to his knees before the king and begs for patience - for the king to have a big-heart - with him until he can repay what is owed. Upon hearing this plea, the kings suddenly moves from the determined bookkeeper of accounts to a king who exhibits compassion and pity - one with a soft heart. For reasons known entirely to the king, the king cancels the debt. Notice, here that the servant has done nothing more than to ask for mercy in order to receive grace and mercy. It is not that he earns such grace and mercy by extravagantly promising to repay everything at some future date - there is no possible way that he can to that - it is merely the king who through whatever logic possess him gives grace and mercy.
You might expect that at this point in the story there would be some sort of rejoicing with family and friends the great good fortune that has befallen the servant. If there was, we are not told about it. The servant simply does not seem to fully comprehend what has just transpired. No doubt he thinks that the king in forgiving him has merely responded to his ridiculous offer to repay the debt. He simply has no notion of the grace, mercy and forgiveness that has been offered him. So, the servant can still only imagine the king as a bookkeeper, interested solely in the money owed to him; but now, also a stupid bookkeeper, who bought into a losing proposition, hook, line and sinker.
But this is not so for the king. The king has simply ignored the nonsense about repayment - after all, he knows that never in all his years to come, could this debt be paid. No, he makes no calculations at all about profit and loss. Rather, he simply gives up the whole notion of bookkeeping and forgives. He wipes out the debt; forgets that it ever existed. He does what the servant cannot even imagine doing because he is willing to give up the old life of bookkeeping and the servant was not. Indeed, the servant was so busy trying to hold together his own bookkeeper's existence - so unable to imagine anything even vaguely like giving it up - that he never saw what the king had done. All the servant knew, is that the heat, which had formerly been very intense, was now cooled down. He would not be burned up in its flames, but the servant had no idea what it had cost the king to put out the fire.
The servant, closet bookkeeper that he is, still in the mindset that he needs to find the money to repay his debt, encounters another servant who owes him a small amount of money and demands payment. The second servant does precisely what the first one did, drops to his knees and begs for patience and mercy. Not to be given. The first servant sends him to debtors prison until payment can be made. There was no mercy in his actions - there is no forgiveness. There was no giving up or death to the life of "bookkeeping."
I know that if you think hard enough, you might be able to think of someone you could name - maybe even yourself - who lives or has lived a "bookkeeper's life" - someone who can name all the wrongs done to them by others. Oftentimes in marital counseling before any forgiveness or healing might be possible, one listens to the litany of wrongs done, slights given, abuses endured. The love that keeps no account of wrongs in such a situation is at best, utterly strained, but often has died. It is our human condition that wants the scales to balance - we want a proper sense of retribution and justice to be made. We want to know that people get what they deserve; we want to understand the world in a cause/effect manner - it makes life simpler; it does not challenge our sense of justice, our way of working and being in the world.
Our daughter, when she was much younger, was what I called a "bean counter" - a child "bookkeeper." She kept track of the number of times when Mark or I would spend time with one of her siblings as over against time spent with her. She was very vocal about making sure that we knew who had the most times and that she wanted her fair share. Now, she would say that this was simply her defense as a middle child - it was her way of not being squeezed out - not being invisible. For a couple of years, we set aside time each evening to be with one child exclusively for anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour. On a rotating basis over six nights of the week, each child got private time with Mom or Dad twice during the week. On the seventh day, we rested!
I won't say that my daughter gave up bean counting over these couple of years; rather, it became less important to her as she grew older and had more outlets for her time and energies. In the end, finally, bean counting as a way of life, became dead to her.
This is finally what Jesus is telling Peter - bean counting or bookkeeping as a way of life in the realm of heaven simply doesn't exist. Forgiveness is the way it works. If you want to operate on some other basis, of scorekeeping and payback, you yourself would be in a whole heap of trouble. To not forgive is really to set ourselves up as an idol - to think of ourselves as greater or better than God. You see, the one who could and should keep track of all of this has chosen to die to such a life in order to live a new kind of life. The one who could and should keep track chose to hang in the dust and the wind outside the city gates - to die to this world's notion of retributive justice and power. This is the one who said to the thief on the cross - a thief who knew that he had gotten just what he deserved - "today you shall be with me in paradise." This one - Jesus - now lives beyond death and invites you and me and all the bean counters and bookkeepers of this world to give up that old life for the debt has been forgiven. Grace and mercy have been offered so that you and I are freed in Christ's love to live in love for the sake of the world. Amen