Paying It Forward

Matthew 18:21-35
David A. Davis
February 14, 2016
Lent I

This morning we begin to take a look at the parables of Jesus in the gospel of Matthew. The parable series will guide our preaching life here at Nassau all through Lent up to and including Palm Sunday and Easter. The preaching texts read a bit like a greatest hits collection of the parables: the parable of the talents, the parable of the wise and foolish maidens, the parable about doing unto the least of these, the one about the wedding banquet when none of those invited would come, the one about the owner of the vineyard who sent his son to collect the harvest, the parable about laborers in the field who all worked different lengths of time but were paid the same, and the parable of the unforgiving servant, our text for this morning. Seven parables all from the gospel of Matthew. Each Sunday between now and the end of March, we’re going learn about the parables of Jesus and how they function, how they serve the gospel. We’re going to ponder Matthew’s gospel and how these parable serve his message. In these parables we are going to encounter Jesus in a way that may make us laugh and cry. Maybe we will get frustrated and have more questions than answers. We’re probably going to learn a bit about ourselves and our faith. It’s all going to happen as the cross of Christ once again appears on the horizon of our life together, as we are drawn to it together, as we stand beneath together and then, and only then, proclaim together, Christ is Risen. He is Risen indeed. So, don’t worry about your hats, but hold on to your hearts. Here we go.

(Matthew 18:21-35)

So I am going to jump right in. “In anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until could pay his entire debt. So may my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you if you do not forgive from your heart.” If you ever want an example of Jesus the preacher going for a bit of rhetorical flare, preacher’s license, and hyperbole, here it is. Another sample in Matthew would be right here in the eighteenth chapter right before this morning’s text, “if your hand or foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It’s better for you to enter life maimed or lame than to have two hands or two feet and to be thrown into the eternal fire.” When you find yourself confronted by one of the parables of Jesus, a good lesson to learn early on is that an allegorical approach—this means this, this means that, this character is God, this one Jesus, this one me—doesn’t always work. Even though that’s how Jesus himself interprets the parable of the sower, the parables as a collection are more complex and mysterious than that. One cannot be snookered by a tyranny of interpretation and tricked by the irony of taking an allegorical approach literally. If the God we know and worship in and through Jesus Christ is going to torture us until we forgive from the heart, let’s call it a day and all go home right now. Even some sort of psychologizing of the text, as in “when you can’t forgive it is torturous for your spirit, your soul,” even that misses the hyperbole and the meaning unleashed in a parable of the absurd.

The slave who is at the center of what the parable describes as “the reckoning” owed the king an absurd amount of money. Math doesn’t do justice to Jesus’ exaggeration. The man owed a million, gazillion, zillion dollars. That’s the only way to say: a million, gazillion, zillion. He asks for patience which is absurd because he would never, ever, ever be able to pay off that debt. “I will pay you everything.” Ha! No way! Not in a million, gazillion, zillion years. Out of pity, the king released him and forgave the debt. That’s absurd.

Just on the other side of “the reckoning,” the slave comes upon a fellow slave who owes him not an insignificant amount of money. It’s about a half-year’s wages. To make his message clear, the debt-free slave grabs the man by the throat and demands to be paid. The plea for patience this time isn’t absurd, it’s a synonym for a payment plan, a loan extension, a second mortgage. The plea is ignored as the second slave is tossed into prison. The community gets involved. The king comes back and is furious with the first slave. Torture is invoked for the aforementioned debt that, you will remember, can never actually be repaid. A million, gazillion, zillion. Torture for what can never be attained. It’s absurd.

Take a step back with me from the parable and from Jesus the preacher “pushing the envelope” oratorically. Right before Peter asks Jesus how often he has to forgive, Jesus gives instructions about how to approach a member of the church who sins against you. Its basic and practical. First, go to the person alone and point out the matter. If that doesn’t work, take one or two others with you to try to work things out. After that, let it go if you have to. The teaching ends with the iconic “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Before it was the tradition affirming Christ’s presence when we gather for worship, it was Jesus teaching about forgiveness in the community. That’s what comes before the parable.

Right after the parable, at the beginning of the nineteenth chapter of Matthew, Jesus leaves Galilee and sets out for the region of Judea beyond the Jordan, which means that Jesus was off to Jerusalem. So the last thing Jesus teaches his disciples before they leave home and head for Jerusalem—and the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane and Gologtha—is forgiveness. In Matthew there’s plenty of teaching yet to come, plenty of parables yet to come. But the last thing, there in the community, surrounded by friends and family and all that is ordinary in life, the last thing Jesus teaches is forgiveness. He gives them a bit of process. He tells Peter to forgive 77 times, which is biblical dialect for forgive every time. And he tells them this absurd parable about the unforgiving servant.

This parable about the unquantifiable, indescribable, unimaginable, ridiculous, absurd love and forgiveness of God that pours over you and me in a sort of a gully washer kind of way that we so don’t deserve and so don’t earn. This parable about how Great God Almighty, the Creator of Heaven and Earth, expects that you will pass it forward. Pass forgiveness forward. That you will forgive as you have been forgiven. That your forgiveness will be sign of the kingdom, of the kingdom of God in your neck of the world’s woods. That by the grace of Jesus Christ, God’s mercy will flow through you as you are able to forgive. Passing forward not just the price of coffee at the drive-thru Starbucks, but passing forward a very extraordinary experience of the gospel in and through the very ordinary places of our lives.

In my preparation this week, the unforgettable forgiveness story of Chris Singleton came to mind. He is the young man whose mother was shot and killed in the murderous rampage at Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston last summer. Of him and the other families of those who were killed displaying what could be nothing other than a God-given act of mercy. A forgiveness that’s just wondrous. Chris Singleton and his forgiveness. Maybe it isn’t an example of forgiveness to the millionth, gazillionth, zillionth degree, but it is certainly one to the zillionth degree.

As I read commentaries and found other sermons on the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, it struck me that every preacher, every scholar was citing some extraordinary example of forgiveness. A litany of citations from Apartheid and South Africa, from victims of violent crimes or their families, stories from World War II soldiers and Holocaust survivors. Each example more remarkable than the next. Each forgiveness story so compelling you can’t hear it, you can’t tell it enough. Like Chris Singleton surrounded by his college baseball teammates less than 24 hours after his mother was shot and killed and telling reporters that his mother would want him to forgive, that she taught him that “love will always be stronger than hate.” Awe-inspiring vignettes of forgiveness beyond what most of us can even begin to imagine because on most days you and I are striving for a life of forgiveness that reaches across the dinner table, or a forgiveness that makes its way into the office next door at work, or a forgiveness that anoints a morning conversation with your child, or a forgiveness that inspires a long-put-off phone call to a friend, or a forgiveness that ripples through a group text among high school sophomores, or a forgiveness that saves a roommate situation about to be broken forever, or a forgiveness that warms the hearts of siblings separated by a lot more than miles.

Which brings me back to the absurd parable about passing forward the very extraordinary forgiveness of the gospel of Jesus Christ in and through the very ordinary places of our lives. You and I should never stop looking for and telling those stories of forgiveness that reach to the zillionth degree. Such forgiveness is real and godly and momentous. But the unquantifiable difference in the parable between what the king forgave and what the unforgiving servant went after, ten thousand talents versus a hundred denarii, the difference between what is incomprehensible and what can be counted up and put in a wallet, leads me to conclude that the parable is less about miraculous forgiveness among God’s people and more about an everyday forgiveness that can sometimes feel just like chump change. God knows the world we live in and humanity as we know it needs such miraculous forgiveness multiplied to the nth degree but you and I survive on, thirst for, thrive on, depend upon forgiveness of a much more ordinary kind. And both of them, all of it, comes from God.

At the end of his recent book, The Road To Character, David Brooks offers a list of propositions that take the form of what he calls a “humility code.” The code sort of pulls together, sums up, the qualities of the people of character he writes about through the book. That final list includes things like moral imagination, community, grace, wisdom, vocation, maturity. Brooks’ final thought is that since all of us are flawed when it comes to character and being human, we should acknowledge that we are all stumblers. The beauty and meaning of life, he suggests, are to be found in the stumbling. And when it comes to stumbling, Brooks writes, “We [stumblers] lean on each other as we struggle against sin. We depend on each other for the forgiveness of sin.” Now to be fair to David Brooks, he talks about God often enough in the book. His thoughts on grace are theological. And I am shamelessly lifting one sentence from the whole book. But if you and I are dependent on each other for the forgiveness of sin, we are in deep trouble. That whole book on character and forgiveness is mentioned once on the next to the last page. Maybe that’s because forgiveness comes from God. Forgiveness comes from above, from beyond humanity’s family system. Before forgiveness can be about us, it’s about God. You and I are called to pass it forward.

The only way to forgive is to remember, draw upon, live into, know deep within, tell yourself over and over again, learn from, give thanks for… how much God has forgiven you. And there’s no better place to remember, to taste and to see, than right here at this Table.

It’s a simple meal but it tastes like a million, gazillion, zillion bucks.

© 2016 Nassau Presbyterian Church
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