Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

Sunday, September 17, 2023

YEAR A 2023 pentecost 16

Pentecost 16, 2023
Exodus 14:19-31
Psalm 114
Romans 14:1-12
Matthew 18:21-35

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

There are many Sundays when the lessons kind of speak for themselves.  We hear them read, one after the other, and they all kind of make us nod and say to ourselves, “That makes sense.  Sure.”  And in those cases, the best thing a preacher can do is just say, “You know what I mean?”  But, as usual, I have a bunch of stuff I want to say.  So, let’s jump in for a few minutes and take a closer look . . .

The reading from Exodus, you’ve all heard it before.  It is the only required reading at the Easter Vigil, and is a defining moment in the life of the Jewish people, and thus for Christians as well.  You know the whole setup . . . God tells Moses to tell Pharaoh to let his people go; Pharaoh refuses, then relents, then sends his army to chase them.  They get to the Red Sea, Moses does his best Charlton Heston, and the Hebrews escape, unlike Pharaoh’s soldiers.

There’s a lot to be said about this story, but for this morning, I just want us to notice one important thing: The Jewish people did not manage this escape by their own effort and skill.  In fact, they seemed pretty certain they were done for just a few verses back.   In one of my favorite bible taunts, they ask Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die?”  A classic!  And then God tells Moses to stretch out his hand, the sea parts, and it’s on to chapter 15.  But as I say, we should be sure to note that it is God who saves Moses and the people.   As far as they were concerned, “It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!”

And then we heard from Paul, writing to the Romans.  Paul’s main point is that none of us knows what wonder God is working in the lives of those around us.  What is mandatory to some is acceptable to others and forbidden by still others.  We are not to judge what God is doing in our neighbors’ hearts, but we are to welcome all people just as God has welcomed us.  That could be like a church’s mission statement!  And the main take-away from this section of Paul’s letter might be this: When it comes to religious practices, all may, none must, some should.  This is the Anglican way to approach the sacraments, and everything else: all may, none must, some should.

Which then leads us to this gospel reading we just heard.  You’ll remember, Peter has come to Jesus, asking how many times he should forgive his neighbor.  And Peter really ramps it up, when you think about it.  Forgiving someone seven times is no small amount!  Just picture: Sunday morning, your neighbor throws a rock through your window.  They say sorry, you say hey, it’s okay.  Monday afternoon, the neighbor throws another rock through your window.  They say sorry, you forgive them.  Tuesday after work, the neighbor throws a rock through your window.  Then Wednesday, then Thursday, then Friday, you’re running out of windows, then Saturday . . .

Peter is, understandably looking for a limit.  He’s trying to find the place in a relationship where enough is enough.  When it is time to choose justice over mercy.  He wants to know at what point it is okay to give up on his neighbor.  And I imagine Peter thinks he is being quite merciful when he suggests, “As many as seven times?”  Seven rocks through seven windows?

But no, Jesus says.  Not seven times, Peter, 77 times.  77 rocks?  I don’t even have that many windows! And, just in case people weren’t following his meaning of absolute limitless unconditional forgiveness, Jesus tells them a story, or a parable as we call them.  

A slave is brought before the king for an unpaid debt, he pleads for mercy, and the king forgives him his debt.  As soon as the servant leaves, he runs into a guy who owes him some money, and has him thrown in jail.  The king hears about it, has him thrown into prison and tortured.  The end.  Cool story, right?  Well, maybe not a cool story.  But kind of an obvious one.  Or, at least, it seems obvious.  The danger is that we might be tempted to think the point is that forgiveness is conditional.  That is, God will only forgive us if we also forgive our neighbor.  Or worse, that if we don’t forgive our neighbor, God will somehow take back forgiveness, and torture us forever!

So we need to look at this story a little more carefully.  First, we need some specific translations of the money involved.  In Jesus’ day, a denarius was what a laborer earned for one day’s work.  6,000 denarii would get you one talent, which is like 20 years’ worth of work.  So 20 years of hard labor would earn you one talent.  The slave owes 10,000 talents . . . that’s 200,000 YEARS of work!  Or, in dollar terms, one talent is about a half a million dollars.  10,000 of them comes out to $5 BILLION!  This is a slave who somehow owes his king FIVE BILLION DOLLARS, and when he is brought before the king he says, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.”

For context, with $5 billion dollars you could buy Buckingham Palace.  And the Atlanta Braves.  And the White House.  And DaVinci’s Salvadore Mundi painting.  And still have a billion dollars leftover.

200,000 years of work.  $5 billion.  And a guy with no income is going to pay everything?  Nobody in their right mind is going to believe for one second that he can pay off this kind of debt.  No way, no how.  And justice?  Justice says the king should proceed as planned: sell the man and his family to someone else and just take what he can get.  “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.”  Riiiight.  

“But out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt.”  The king is saying, this game of forcing people to pay debts they cannot possibly pay is not going to work.  I’m cancelling the game itself.  The rules of justice no longer apply.  Mercy is the new game in town.  You are free to go.  Free to go.

Now this is where we need to hit the brakes hard and be sure we understand what just happened.  The slave was never going to pay his debt.  He and his family should have been sold.  A just king would send them away, collect what he could, and move on.  That’s justice.  That’s fairness.  That’s what we expect in our own society.  People pay their debts, one way or another.  “But out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt.”

This slave is suddenly given a second chance.  More than that, the entire system has been cancelled.  His debt isn’t just reduced, like our bizarre system of medical debt; he isn’t told to declare bankruptcy, which in our system wouldn’t include back taxes anyway; he doesn’t even have to start working more overtime or take on a second job.  Because, “out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt.”  

I can’t emphasize this enough:  He didn’t get a second chance to try to stay in a game he can’t win.  The game itself has been cancelled.  There is no $5 billion debt to work off over 200,000 years, or to laughingly promise to work off.  The whole system of debt and debtors was deemed invalid.  That’s it.  The king has declared that mercy will rule in the place of justice.  You are free to go.

And as the slave leaves, he runs into someone who owes him 100 denarii . . . which is about $2,000.  (I remind you the other number we were working with was $5 billion.)  Now, under the old system of justice, the slave had every right to throw this man into prison until he could pay the $2,000.  Which, if he gave it all to the king, would mean he only owes 4 billion, 999 million, 998 thousand dollars.  But, the rules of justice say that this is his right.  Throw him into prison until he can work off the debt, which of course he never can, because he’s in prison.

But listen to this again:  His fellow slave—a person just like him—fell down and pleaded, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.”  The king chose mercy.  The fellow slave chose justice.  And if he really wants to go back to the rules of justice, where nobody is free to go, well . . .

The amazing thing about this story is that it is in the slave’s hands to decide how the world will work, which set of rules will be in force.  He can choose mercy, and have those rules apply, and removing his own impossible $5 billion debt.  Or he can choose justice, as he did with his fellow slave, and have those rules apply.

Justice is an option.  And mercy is a privilege.  We can choose daily which system we want to live under.  Which street we want to live on.  And part of God’s plan of mercy means your debt is cancelled.  All your own promises to straighten up and fly right, to finally be the person you claim to be, to pay your own impossible $5 billion debt . . . that is all set aside as well.   You are free to go.  Because there is a new king in town; a king whose nature is always to show mercy.  We are free to choose which system we want to live under: mercy, or justice.  May God give us the grace and wisdom always to choose mercy over justice, forgiveness over retribution, and to forgive others, as we have been forgiven.


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