© 2020 Evan D. Garner
Last Sunday we heard Jesus tell the disciples that they must go to great lengths in order to maintain the spirit of forgiveness that exists between them. If someone sins against you, go to that person in private and point out the wrong and see if you can win that person back. If that fails, take two or three with you. If that won’t work, get the whole church involved. And, if the offender won’t listen even to the whole church, let that person be to you as a tax collector and a Gentile. If someone will not seek forgiveness, that person cannot remain a part of a community that is defined by forgiving love.
Naturally, Peter wanted to know if the same thing applied in reverse: “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” If a person is given three chances to repent before they are cut off from the community of faith, how many chances are we supposed to give an apologetic repeat offender before we kick them out as well? Should we forgive them as many as seven times? But Jesus replied, “Not seven but seventy-seven times.” If the need for repentance and reconciliation is unequivocal, the demand for forgiveness must be limitless, too.
To get his point across, Jesus told a story that dabbled in the absurd. When a king began to reckon accounts with his servants, he found that one of them owed 10,000 talents. That’s roughly 164,000 years’ worth of wages or more than $5 billion in today’s money. More than a mere slave, this servant must have overseen a major operation within the kingdom. Somehow, over time, his negligence accumulated until he owed a staggering amount—more than any servant could have ever repaid. When confronted with his gross mismanagement, the servant fell down on his knees at the king’s feet and begged for more time: “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” Perhaps realizing that the man could never have come up with that much money, the king did the almost unthinkable: he forgave the entire amount.
Later on, that same servant came across a man who owed him 100 denarii or about three months’ worth of wages—around $12,000 in today’s money. That was no small amount, but, in comparison with $5 billion, it was almost nothing. This time, as before, the second debtor fell down on his knees at the first servant’s feet and made an identical plea: “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” But the first servant refused to show mercy. He had his fellow servant thrown into prison until the debt was paid off. And you remember how the story ends.
I don’t know what’s harder to believe: that a servant could ever amass a debt that big or that a servant who had a debt like that be forgiven could ever be so blind and hypocritical. It’s hard to imagine anyone being so obtuse. What kind of person would ever receive a gift of that magnitude yet fail to show even a fraction of the same generosity to another person? No one would ever act like that. No one would ever be that self-absorbed. No one would ever be that blind to their own dependence upon the goodness of others. Would we?
On whose generosity is your life built? On whose forgiveness and understanding are the relationships you value established? On what privileges is your success manufactured? How much of what you have and who you are and where you live and what doors have been open to you is an accident of birth? And how much of it is what you have earned all by yourself?
My parents helped me open a savings account when I was in the second grade. When I was in middle school, my father gave me $500 to invest in a guardian account, which he opened on my behalf. Although I recognized that going to college could cost my family a lot of money, it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t be able to go to wherever I chose because we couldn’t afford it. It certainly never crossed my mind that I might not go to college at all. I have had my share of hardship, by which I mean that I have applied for jobs I didn’t get and that I have had to forego things I wanted because I didn’t have the money to buy them. But I have never wondered what would happen if I went to the doctor or the hospital or the pharmacy and could not pay. I have never needed to know where to get clothes or food or Christmas presents for my kids because I couldn’t afford them. I have never worried that, if I were the victim of a crime and called the police, I might be the one who was taken to jail or, worse, shot before I had a chance to explain myself.
You can call it generosity or mercy or forgiveness or privilege, but, whatever you call it, my life has been built on a lavish gift that I do not deserve, and I trust that, in at least one or two ways, yours has, too. We are judged—we are held accountable—not because we have received such a gift but because we have failed to recognized it as such. And, because we have not recognized the gift that we have been given, we are judged for not using that gift for good. We are the merciless slave. As hard as it is to believe that anyone could be so blind, we are the ones who blind ourselves to the magnitude of the gift that we have been given. We hide our eyes from it because to see and recognize how much we have been given is to see and recognize how little we can take credit for all on our own. We live in a world that assigns value to human beings on the basis of how much they have achieved and attained and accomplished. Any head start or leg up or free pass undermines our worth in worldly terms. But that isn’t true in the kingdom of God.
In the kingdom of God, a person’s worth isn’t measured in dollars earned or decisions made or work performed. When God’s authority and God’s economy are operative, a person has value because that person has been made by God and loved by God. Are we willing to live in that reality? That’s the first step—admitting that each one of us is equally precious to God. If we can believe that, then we can let go of the notion that our output—our résumé—is the ultimate measure of our status. And, if we can stop evaluating ourselves on the basis of what we have accomplished, then we can begin to recognize and admit how much we have been given. And, if we can start to see how much of our lives has been built upon that gift, then we can break the cycle. We can receive mercy and show mercy. We can forgive as we have been forgiven. We can love as we have been loved.
The only thing more absurd than the parable that Jesus told is our collective failure to show mercy to others despite all of the mercy that we have been given. Why do you think the economic and political systems of our day are resisting those who would ascribe equal value to people whose lives have always mattered less? If you think that 10,000 talents is a great sum of money, try calculating the economic impact that four hundred years of slavery, segregation, discrimination, redlining, mass incarceration, and police brutality have had on America. Far more than $5 billion, it has produced a debt that none of us could ever repay. For many of us, whether we are the direct descendants of people who owned other human beings as property or are those who have benefitted from our race in other ways, our prosperity has been built, in part, on the backs of others. We are judged by God not because we were born into that advantage—not because we have been given that privilege—but because we have been unwilling to acknowledge it and to use it to show generosity to others.
Jesus came to welcome us into the kingdom of God—the reality in which love abounds, in which forgiveness is limitless, in which mercy is overflowing. The magnitude of that gift is unfathomable, but the consequences of that gift are very real and very measurable. No one who has received a gift like that has ever failed to reflect its power in their daily lives. No one has ever been loved like that without showing that kind of love to others. To do so would be unthinkable. To do so would be absurd.