Sunday, November 5, 2017

The Three A's: Amnesia, Assault, and Arithmetic

The envelope must have crinkled as he ripped open the top. The sheet inside – a statement from the royal loan agency – was folded in thirds. Gordon unfolded it – and screamed. He should never have placed a bid for the contract as the province's tax collector, responsible for turning over the revenues to the king. Because he had been an utter failure – shirked his duties in every way. Now he was on the hook. But even so, Gordon couldn't believe he'd managed to drag it out this long, this far; he couldn't believe he was so far under. He'd known he had a debt to pay. But he'd ignored it, put it off. And now the king expected a pay day. Gordon opened his eyes, wishing desperately that they'd see something else. But there the figure was again. His total debt. There was the 'one,' followed by a string of altogether too many zeroes. Ten of them. You know what number a 'one' followed by ten zeroes makes? Gordon knew. Ten billion dollars. That's what he owed. And he didn't have it.

The next day, an armed escort arrived. The king didn't mess around – didn't take a chance of Gordon fleeing. It was time for all debts to be settled. And so six soldiers marched Gordon into the royal palace. And Gordon fell to his knees, admitting he didn't have the money. He knew what the custom was in this place – for debtors and their families to be sold into slavery, to have everything they own confiscated, to have their entire lives ruined by the debt. Gordon begged. Gordon pleaded. Gordon wept. What he blubbered made no sense. “Just give me more time, I'll come up with the money, I promise!” He was a pitiful sight, and his words were nonsense. A spare ten billion dollars isn't something one fishes out of the couch cushions.

He was a pitiful sight. So pitiful, the king felt bad for him. Gordon kept begging, making every sort of terrible argument, all manner of cockamamie excuses, until finally Gordon was reduced to crying out, in heaving sobs, “I have nothing, I have nothing, have mercy!” The king's heart was moved. And so the king rose from his gilded throne, marched past his guards and down the steps. He came to where Gordon was and knelt down with him. And the king placed a hand on his shoulder and whispered consolingly, “I will have mercy on you. Listen, this is an incredibly large debt. It's clearly impossible for you to pay. But not for me. I'll cover the costs of it; all I ask is that you remember this. I'll cover the cost and suspend your debt; I won't demand payment from you for it, since you can't give it. So go in peace. Back to work with ya, eh?”

A rejoicing, grateful Gordon felt the crushing weight of his turmoil roll off his shoulders at the king's bidding. He was a free man. The soldiers released him from custody. And you'd think it would make all the difference in Gordon's life. After the weekend, he went back to work at the royal tax agency. Passing by the water cooler that very Monday, Gordon spotted Eric. And the sight filled him with rage and resentment. A month ago, he'd loaned Eric a thick wad of cash – $600 – and so Gordon confronted Eric. “When am I going to see that?” Eric protested he didn't have it; he'd blown it all, he was broke. “Not good enough,” Gordon muttered through gritted teeth as he slammed Eric against the wall by the throat. Eric squeaked out, “Come on, man, just give me another month to come up with it!” Gordon refused. That very day, Gordon retained legal counsel and had Eric arrested in a debtor's prison until Eric's friends and family could come up with the money. Serves Eric right, Gordon thought to himself. But when the king heard that an employee of the royal tax agency had been jailed in debtor's prison, he was shocked and concerned. When he read the court transcript and found that Gordon had filed the charges, the king was furious. And so the king revoked his verbal offer to assume Gordon's debt. If Gordon wants to live in a world where people get what 'serves them right,' then so be it, mused the king. His soldiers arrested Gordon that very day. And soon Gordon was in a cell down the hall from Eric's, until such time as Gordon could gather the ten billion dollars for his release – and not a penny less (Matthew 18:23-34).

Ten billion dollars... Can you imagine that? Can you imagine being ten billion dollars in debt? I mean, my student loans are no small change, but they're a lot less than ten billion! But that's just the sort of extravagant picture Jesus used when he told the parable on which the story of Gordon, Eric, and their king is based. When Jesus told it, the tax official – a 'servant,' he's called – has a debt of “ten thousand talents,” we're told (Matthew 18:24). The footnotes in your study Bible might explain that, for a poor manual laborer, even one talent is about the equivalent of twenty years of wages.

But we also know that the sum total of tax revenue that Herod the Great's administration took in – from all of Galilee, Samaria, Judea, Idumea, and Peraea, all the multiple provinces under his rule – in a given year was about 900 talents. And so realize that, when Jesus is describing the indebtedness of this civil servant, the picture he's painting is one who somehow manages to owe the equivalent of almost twelve years' worth of the national budget. Can you wrap your mind around that? I sure can't!

Why do you think Jesus paints such a ludicrous picture into his story? There's nothing realistic about a tax official managing to owe eleven or twelve years' worth of the national budget! This may be more money than they had in circulation; some commentators suggest this is the largest sum of money that could be expressed in language at that time without doing multiplication! But Jesus uses this financial exaggeration as a symbol of our very real debt before God. No real tax collector owes the king ten billion dollars, no real civil servant owes the king ten thousand talents, but no tamer figure, no lesser scale, can capture the extent of how deep our sin goes. Calculate our sin in numbers and put a dollar sign on it, and you're looking at a number like this one.

The truth is, each and every one of us, each and every relative or neighbor, has gotten those notification letters with the royal seal, whether we realize it or not. We owe, and we owe big, for all that we've borrowed, all that we've done that merits a penalty fee or a fine. Facing God, each and every one of us is ten billion in the hole, at least. – deeper than we could ever hope to escape. And when that comes due, the pretense of being good, upstanding, a responsible person – that'll be all stripped away. Our sin-debt is vast orders of magnitude beyond our comprehension, and there's no denying it. And yet our King's heart was moved. He got off his throne, he descended to our level, he knelt with us in our blubbering shame, and when we confessed we had nothing to give, he touched us, he showed mercy – and he showed mercy by agreeing to personally eat the cost of our debt. That is the gospel message. That is how the kingdom works: In mind-boggling mercy from the King. We had a debt we couldn't pay, so the King paid a debt he didn't owe, back into the royal coffers.

But it's after that where the parable takes a sharp turn down a dark road. A servant of the king, forgiven his ten-billion-dollar debt, accosts a fellow servant for a measly six hundred bucks – and takes him to court and has him thrown in jail for it! It makes no sense: Hasn't the first servant stepped into a new world of mercy-getting and mercy-giving? Forgiven as much as he has been, shouldn't he be extra willing to forgive? Yes – but he suffers from a bad case of selective amnesia about it. He forgets he's entered a new world of mercy. Once seemingly in the clear himself, he goes right back to his old patterns of resentment and ruthlessness.

And how often we see people – how often we see believers – and sometimes the believer we glimpse in the mirror – do likewise! We develop a selective amnesia, where we conveniently forget how much we owed to our King. Our selective amnesia blots out the hefty degree of what he's forgiven in us. We begin to have a sense of pride that can be offended; a sense of entitlement that demands satisfaction; a greed for gain at others' expense, when we should be rejoicing eternally just to be in the clear. And just like the first servant in the story, when we nurture a selective amnesia about our debt, we're likely to assault those we see as owing us. Oh, it isn't always a physical assault of violence. But when we think someone owes us, has wronged us and not made up for it, we assault them verbally with our words of biting criticism. We assault them socially with our exclusion. We do it emotionally, attitudinally, even if it's only a sense of resentment we nurture in the quietude of our own hearts. There, in the secret place, we assault them with our feelings. They may not even notice it consciously, but it's our assault all the same – because they owe us something.

Amnesia – the first 'A' – leads to assault – the second 'A' – and that brings us to the third 'A': arithmetic. Jesus spun this parable because Peter approached Jesus one day, while he'd been teaching about how to handle sin in the disciples' community, and suggested a guideline to forgiveness: he could imagine himself forgiving a person all the way up to seven times, if Jesus told him to (Matthew 18:21)! When you think about it, that sounds like a lot to forgive somebody for the same sin, over and over. Compared to the next verse, it sounds petty. But Peter thought he was being very generous; he thought he was about to get a congratulatory pat on the back from Jesus for saying it. Because the common opinion of the rabbis of the time was to set the bar lower than seven, at two or three. We have multiple warnings against forgiving somebody more than three times. “If a man sins two or three times, forgive him. But a fourth, do not forgive him” (t. Yoma 4.13) – you find that in early collections of rabbinic law. And in twenty-first-century America, it might be a rare person who even live up to it.

But Jesus is having none of it. Because when he thinks about his Father's mercy, he doesn't see biblical poetry about God rescuing someone two or three times (Job 33:28-29), or God punishing Israel for four transgressions (Amos 2:6), as establishing a limit to mercy. Jesus knows full well that he was sent to pay a far greater cost than for just the fourth sin or the eighth sin, a greater cost than merely a $700 debt. He was sent to bail us out of a hole deeper than all the wealth of creation. That's the measure of our debt. And our debt, unthinkable as it is, is orders of magnitude less than the King's mercy. So when Jesus hears the speculations of the other rabbis, or even the self-satisfied musings of his dear friend Peter, Jesus holds it up to his Father's mercy and deems it far too little. Holding a fourth or even an eighth sin against our neighbor, our brother, our sister, and drawing a line in the sand beyond which our mercy won't pass, falls way too short.

In Genesis, when Lamech twisted God's offer to protect Cain with sevenfold vengeance, Lamech proposed unmitigated revenge: seventy times seven, a symbol for the unyielding completeness of his wrath (Genesis 4:24 LXX). So Jesus inverts it: if Peter proposes being the anti-Cain who offers sevenfold forgiveness, Jesus calls him to be the anti-Lamech who forgives, not just three, not just seven, but seventy times seven times (Matthew 18:22). Unyielding completeness in mercy and forgiveness toward those we see as owing us. Anything less, any limit at all we might concoct, is selling God's mercy short – betraying the forgiveness he extended to our far greater debts we owed to him. And the King is deeply grieved when those in his employ assault each other and when those he calls his family bear a striking resemblance to his bitter enemies. Jesus offers his parable as an exhortation to forgive without limit, and as a warning: “So also my Heavenly Father will do to every one of you if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (Matthew 18:35). Perhaps we should take that seriously.

Jesus warns us that, if we don't take up a lifestyle of mercy and forgiveness, the King may well be within his rights to reinstate our own debt and enforce it after all. If you had to stake your eternal destiny on whether you forgive those around you who sin against you... where would you be headed? And yet, here's the truth. Over the past three years, as I've gotten to know the wonderful people of this church, as I've rejoiced with you and mourned with you, I've noticed that for some of us, this verse, this parable, should cut very deeply. Because in some of our families, there are cases where we refuse to release debts, real or imagined, that have been incurred by our own relatives and professing fellow believers. There are so many forms it can take. Friction and hurt feeling between siblings. Turmoil in marriages, where one spouse won't overlook the other's perceived flaws and infirmities. Resentment against harsh insults and opposition from stepchildren or parents. Longstanding grievances against unpleasant aunts, uncles, neighbors, co-workers, even other congregations. Think long and hard about any broken relationship in your life, one where you're owed something different than what you got.

That's the story of the unmerciful servant, right out of Jesus' lips. And let me tell you, it's not worth it. It's not worth it to not forgive. It's not worth it to try to recoup your losses and collect on all those petty debts. Release them. Let them go. Don't set boundaries to your forgiveness. Keep reminding yourself of the mercy of God – the mercy he showed you when he wiped your ten-billion-dollar debt clean with the blood of his Son, when he ate the cost himself. And for all the lesser debts you're owed, go and forgive likewise.

Does that mean there's no way to resolve hurtful issues? No. This parable is mainly about what happens inside the disciple-community, what we call the church – it's between those who claim to all be believers, brothers and sisters in the Lord, children of one God as Father. And right before Peter made his proposal, Jesus had just explained the right way to resolve these issues. If a fellow believer wrongs you, go and humbly show them that they've sinned against you (Matthew 18:15). If they don't listen, enlist a couple other believers to mediate with you (Matthew 18:16). And if that doesn't work, take it to the church, which has authority from God to handle it – Jesus says so, and you can read it for yourself (Matthew 18:17-20). But for your part, release the debt: it has nothing to do with you anymore. Release the debt without regard to how big it is, or how repetitive the figures, or how many times it's been incurred. Don't be like the unmerciful servant. If the King has forgiven you, let imitation be your sincerest form of thanks. Seventy times seven – no limit. Thanks be to God. Amen.

No comments:

Post a Comment