Forgiven and Freed

Our gospel reading picks up right where we left off last week, when Jesus gave us nice and difficult instructions for dealing with sin and conflict in the church.  Jesus explained that any community that is shaped by him, that reflects his will and way in the world, any community that gathers and prays and worships and works in his name, will have grace as its default.  Forgiveness will be basic. 

Of course that doesn't mean that we turn a blind eye to hurtful or inappropriate actions.  It means that the church of Jesus Christ will be a community that acknowledges sin and deals with it--not because we have a perverse obsession with sin, or we're overly anxious about it, but because we gather in the name of the One who has destroyed its power over us. 

Sin is the ultimate divider.  Sin, in its most basic sense, is the breakdown or distortion of relationships, beginning with our relationship with God, which flows down into our relationships with ourselves, each other, and all of creation (that's the witness of the Genesis story). Sin is a failure, in some way, to love God and our neighbors with everything we've got.  It's like a wall of sludge that gets between us and God, between one another.

One of the earliest claims of the Church, reflecting on what happened in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, is that through him, God was reconciling all things, in heaven and on earth to himself.  God has made a way for things to be the way they ought to be.  In Christ, God was healing and restoring his relationship with us--and so with everyone and everything else--in a way, and with a depth, that we couldn't have hoped for, or accomplished on our own.  God was dealing with sin with a power greater than we can imagine: a power that raises the dead!  The God who made all things, the Lord of heaven and earth, was refusing to be without us, refusing to be separate from us. 

In Jesus we see the lengths to which God will go to be with us and for us.  Jesus, in turn expects the Church that gathers in his name and walks in his presence, to be a living sign of that reconciliation, that astonishing grace, in the way that we are with each other, and in our posture towards the world.  With and through him, we are perfectly free to live in love and grace, to repent and forgive.  Every sin, every weight that holds us downs, every chain that binds us, separating us from God and each other is destroyed.  If the Son sets us free, we are free indeed!  Among our most significant tasks as people and as a community being shaped by Jesus is choosing that freedom.  Jesus gives us a sketch of what it looks like to live in harmony, to love relentlessly; for righteousness and peace to kiss each other, as the psalmist so beautifully puts it.

And when he's done, it's not hard to imagine the disciples looking a bit puzzled.  One might picture them trying to figure out if this is another bit of Jesussy exaggeration to make a point.  'Cause, this isn't really the way the world works, Jesus.  "An eye for an eye" makes a bit more sense.  And Peter, who has a bit of difficulty when things aren't spelled right out--bless his heart--has a question.  "So, just how many times do I have to forgive someone who sins against me?  Like, what's the cut-off?  Three strikes and you're out?  Maybe seven times?  That seems pretty generous; seven's a good, holy number, right Jesus?  Right?  Jesus?" 

Let us pray:  Holy God, speak to us this morning by your word.  Help us to know you more, that we might make you more fully known.  Comfort, convict, and compel us this today, that we might live more faithfully, that we might live life that is truly life--your desire for all things.  Give us hearts open to your freedom, for us and for each other.  Bless the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts and minds, that they might be acceptable in your sight.  Through Jesus Christ, our Lord, our Rock: Amen.

Frankly, I want Peter to be right.  Seven times seems like an awfully generous number of chances to give someone who sins against me.  If the person hasn't learned their lesson by that point, it feels like I should be well within my rights to wash my hands of them.  That's reasonable; more than reasonable! 

And Jesus makes it fairly clear that our sound reason is somewhere near the bottom of the list of things that ought to animate our lives together. 

Jesus reminds us that we're called into cahoots with the God who is prepared to give and to do more (abundantly far more!) than we would dare ask, or risk imagining.  Not seven times, but 77 times--or, depending on the translation, 70 times 7 times!  Suffice it to say, (in case there's any doubt) Jesus still not inviting us to keep a forgiveness tally; even if we hit 490 instances of forgiveness, we're not done.  Multiply it by 70 again. 

Jesus is relentless in his insistence that we come to see the way things are, not the way we think they should be.  Jesus is calling us into kingdom of heaven stuff, lives infused with divine grace and love, not limited by our best efforts and intentions, or our most reasonable reasons.  He tells us a parable that gets us seeing more clearly. 

There's a king who's ready to settle some accounts with his servants.  And "when the reckoning began" a servant shows up in front of him who owes him 10, 000 talents.  And we have to pause here.  Because this would have floored the disciples.  Since we don't deal in talents anymore, we may have a hard time understanding what Jesus has just said.  A talent is equivalent to more than 15 year's wages, for an average laborer.  This guy owes more than 150,000 years worth of wages.  Jesus might as well have said, "A servant who owed a hundred billion dollars showed up."  The number is so extreme, so startling, that some ancient scribes helpfully lowered the number, on some manuscripts--presumably to make it a bit more palatable. 

That clearly misses the point.  Jesus is reminding us just who it is that we're dealing with, when we deal with God; just what kind of King.  I don't know about you, but my first instinct is to focus on the debt.  But let's take a step back and consider that the king gave this money in the first place.  What kind of extravagance, what kind of lavishness is this?  It's breathtaking.  To reasonable minds it seems like utter recklessness.  It's generosity run amok.  This servant has been given full access to an abundance he could not possibly have established on his own.  He's got his own key to the royal safe.

I think Jesus is reminding us that this is where we begin.  Our starting point is the extraordinary, breathtaking generosity of God towards us.  Before we ever consider the debt, before we think about trying to return what we've been given, we're confronted with the staggering open-handedness of God.  Jesus disintegrates any thought that who we are or what we've got has its origins in our best efforts, or our own righteousness. 

All we are and have begins in the lavish love of God.  It is not too much to say that everything we are and have properly belongs to God.  To forget that is actually to undervalue ourselves, to limit what gifts we do have; it's to forget that we'd still be lifeless clay if it weren't for God's breath, but by the wondrous outpouring of God's love, by God's creative extravagance, we are alive!  As Jesus draws Peter, he draws us into a wild truth that we are the objects of incredible grace--grace so enormous that it defies credibility.  As the great hymn puts it, "Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all."

But of course, the servant has been wasteful, in some way or another, with what he's been given.  He can't pay the money back.  He can't meet the king's generosity with appropriate responsibility.  He's failed in some way to maintain his side of the bargain.  I don't think it's an accident that Jesus doesn't tell us what this guy did with the money.  All we know is that he's not able to give back anything near what he's been given.  And so, we're not let out of this scene by any particular conditions.  The possibilities for what's gone wrong are wide open.  There's no loophole for Peter, there's no loophole for us to imagine that maybe we're not also the servant in the presence of the king.  He won't let us turn from the truth that we haven't responded to God's grace with our souls, our lives, our all.  In our own ways, we are in deep debt, when we're in the presence of the King.  We all sin, and fall short of God's glory.

And there is a reasonable response for the king to have: he should actually demand everything--take the servant's life by force, bind his soul (sell him and everything he owns and loves!), get back what can be got!  Let justice be served.  To which we get this priceless response from the servant, who seems not to understand the situation very clearly.  He's either deluded or lying, when he starts to stammer about how if the king would just give him a bit more time, then he'd pay back what he owes.  He'll work something out.  Confronted by his complete insufficiency, he falls to his knees and promises he'll try harder.  (This sounds uncomfortably familiar to me.)  And that's followed by the impossible: the king forgives the debt.  Just wipes it out.  Forgives completely.  It's the scandal of grace; the foolishness of God's love.  The servant, somehow, matters more than the money.  The king forgives the debt (150, 000 years worth of wages) to keep this one servant in the household.

We have to pause and marvel at this, too.  I'd encourage you to meditate on this passage this week--I can't do this justice.  At some point words fail.  Pray with this passage.  Let Jesus' words wash over you.  Let this scene stun you.  Stand in the servant's spot, as this massive debt is wiped away. 

Of course, to say the debt is wiped away is not quite accurate.  The king absorbs it.  Forgiveness is never free.  It always costs.  The king is out 150,000 years worth of wages for this one servant.  And you get the feeling that if the next servant comes in and pleads for forgiveness, the king will act the same way.  It's a stunning picture of how God is with us, the length to which God will go to be with us, to be for us, to free us from every clinging weight, every crushing debt--even taking on the form of a slave and giving himself, absorbing our debt, destroying its power over us on the cross.  As St. Paul says in Ephesians, "In [Jesus] we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us."  The King absorbs the debt, just to keep us in the household, just to have us in the kingdom: grace is lavished.  This should drop us to our knees, not foolishly pleading for more time and promising to do better, but overwhelmed by God's extravagant love, and God's breathtaking grace.

It's the king's wild grace that makes the rest of the parable so startling.  The servant becomes grotesque.  Instead of rushing into the world, bounding in lightness, overcome with gratitude and wonder at the kind of kingdom he's found himself in, he immediately tries to choke a miniscule payment out of a fellow servant.  And it's clear that this is what we look like, this is the way things really are with us, when we refuse forgiveness, when we insist on binding others in debt, in sin.  It's just as ugly.  It's just as clear that we haven't grasped the enormity of the grace we've received--that we've forgotten that we have been treated as those worth more than any debt, that there's no length to which God won't go to keep us in the household, even if it costs him everything.

On the other hand, when we allow God's grace to wash over us, when we come into God's presence, made aware of both our insufficiency and God's overwhelming love--God's completely unreasonable grace, God's unfathomable concern for us--then forgiveness "from the heart" (real, genuine, humanity-restoring, relationship-enlarging forgiveness) becomes a reality that maybe we couldn't have ever imagined.  Our capacity to forgive becomes startling, as we grow in Christ.  Of course this isn't easy; the severe way that the parable ends should snap us awake to the urgency of our task.  But, as we are drawn into the presence of the King, as we reckon with the King of kings, who can and will do more in us and through us than we can ask or imagine, then lavish, life-giving grace becomes more and more the shape of our lives, the new breath in our lungs.  It becomes the supernatural response of wonder, love, and praise; it becomes the default--a sign of God's kingdom coming to life among us, of the breathtaking grace in which we stand, forgiven and freed.

Thanks be to God.