The disciple Peter is someone whom many of us relate to. He was eager to please Jesus and really tried hard. In the gospel reading for Thursday he made what probably seemed to be a very generous offer: the idea of forgiving another person as many as seven times. Jesus, of course, raised the stakes a great deal higher than that and told a parable to show what he meant. In Jesus’ economy, forgiveness is extravagant.
The readings were Psalm 103:1-18, Ephesians 2:1-10, Matthew 18:21 – 19:1. My reflection is given below:
The most recent report from the Bank of England on the state of the UK economy suggested that it will take longer to recover than the similar report three months ago suggested. We are warned of a choppy ride ahead. There was some good news also as in the last quarter the number of unemployed fell by 49,000 which is the biggest drop in three years. The total number of people employed rose by the largest amount since 1989. There has also been a fall in the number of houses repossessed as a result of the owner being unable to make their mortgage repayments.
You could say that on balance things are looking up. However there are still record numbers of people contacting various groups which help with problems of debt. Many people are barely coping financially. They dread letters arriving and often avoid opening them so that they don’t have to see how much they owe the credit card company, utility company or mortgage lender. If someone knocks on the door the assumption is that it will be a creditor’s representative. Perhaps the bailiffs have finally arrived to remove what possessions they still have of value. And so the family hides, silent and anxious until the person goes away. The strain on marriages, the effect on health, the damage to children in these situations is enormous. Those who do have the courage to seek help testify to the relief they feel once the truth is known and a plan is put in place to deal with the debts. It may take 5 years or more of very careful budgeting with little in the way of treats for anyone before the family is debt free but all the effort is worth it.
The slave who is the subject of today’s gospel reading was in a similar position to the many families in debt today. In fact what he owed makes most other debts fade into insignificance. 10,000 talents was the equivalent of 150,000 years’ wages for a labourer. Even the best debt advice in the world, the most stringent family budget imaginable, is not going to arrive at a way to pay that debt off. Jesus has purposely chosen to quote a quantity which is an unpayable debt. Like today’s struggling families, the slave’s family would be aware of the issue and be suffering because of it. Also, as a slave to the king, there is no way that the man could hide from the person he was so heavily indebted to. He would have seen him regularly.
Imagine the slave’s state of mind when he was called in to see the king. Perhaps the word had gone round that the king was having a time of settling accounts. What could the man possibly say in his defence? The inevitable happened of course. The king, knowing that the debt could not be repaid, was prepared to settle for what he could get by selling the man, his family and all that he owned. It would be a mere pittance compared to the debt. Throwing dignity to the winds, the slave begged for mercy, offering to pay off the debt, a task that both he and the king knew was impossible. Instead of laughing at the absurdity of the offer, the king took pity on the man and forgave him the whole debt.
You can imagine that the relief felt by the slave would have been so great that he went out of that meeting with a spring in his step and a smile on his face, radiating goodwill to all as a result of his own good fortune. Sadly nothing could be further from the truth. His fellow slave owed him a mere 100 days’ wages, enough but not an impossible amount to repay. The scene so recently played out between the king and his slave is mirrored in that between slave and slave. The difference is that there was no forgiving of the debt. The debtor was thrown into jail until he paid up, but as he was not working there was very little chance of the debt ever being cleared.
It comes as no surprise that the other slaves reported the matter to their master. The second audience with the king was a very different affair from the first. The ungrateful slave faced the full anger of the king and was given a life sentence of torture.
Jesus told this story in response to Peter’s question about forgiveness. Seven being the number of completeness in Judaism, no doubt Peter considered he was offering complete forgiveness in suggesting he forgive seven times. Jesus of course raises the stakes significantly. One possible translation of the number of times he says to forgive is 77, but the alternative rendering is 77 times 7 i.e. 539 times. Jesus uses the language of completeness just as Peter does but his completeness is of an entirely different order. As with the debt in the parable, so with the number of times to forgive – the number is so big that it’s off the scale.
Unlike Peter, Jesus is talking of forgiveness in terms of the Kingdom of God or Heaven, not in mere human terms. The reckoning that went on in the parable and that which goes on in God’s Kingdom are based on God’s standards of behaviour, not human ones. As Isaiah tells us: For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.
Like the first slave, we have no way to repay God for all the debts, sins, trespasses in our lives. We cannot work to earn our way back into God’s favour. When finally faced with the situation that we are powerless, stuck with no way out, we have no option but to throw ourselves on God’s mercy. God, in his outrageous generosity, forgives us and makes us debt free. What Paul reminds us of is that this freedom is not of our doing; we have nothing to boast about at all. It is God’s love and mercy which restores us from our condition of being condemned to death by our actions to being raised to a new life in Christ. It is by grace we are saved.
Having been brought into the Kingdom by God the expectation is that we now live according to the ethos of grace which characterises the Kingdom. We don’t do this in a vacuum but in the context of what God has done for us. We prove the genuine nature of our dependence on God’s grace by interacting with others as God does. This is something the ungrateful slave totally failed to do. Very quickly the great mercy of the king was forgotten as he exercised his right, as he saw it, to be paid by the unfortunate slave who owed him a little money.
It is inevitable that other people will sin against us in some way. It may be knowingly or inadvertently but it will happen. What Jesus teaches Peter and us is that when it happens we are to forgive extravagantly, just as God has done for us. If we choose not to live that way, we should not be surprised if God finally becomes angry, for in so doing we prove our lack of gratitude towards him.
As Micah 6:8 says: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor