Throwing Out the Record Books

Sunday, September 17, 2017
15th Sunday after Pentecost

Listen to today’s gospel reading and sermon:

21Peter came and said to [Jesus], “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
23“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 31When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ 34And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” – Matthew 18:21-35

The kingdom of heaven is practically impossible for us to imagine because it is so completely and radically different from the kingdoms in which we live our daily lives. In today’s gospel, the disciples, now well into Jesus’ ministry, are trying to figure out what kind of kingdom Jesus is trying to usher in and among other questions they want to know just how many times they should extend forgiveness. They are ready for a challenge. They are expecting Jesus to tell them an absurdly high number. I think they are all still more or less nodding their heads when Jesus tells them to forgive their neighbor not seven but seventy times seven. That’s 490 times for those of you keeping score. This kind of number, symbolic or not, is exactly what they expected. They mentally pull out their forgiveness logs and start adding up names and numbers, perhaps ready to show how generous they are or perhaps to see just how much longer they have to put up with some people.

My next door neighbor has been parking just at the edge of the end of my driveway every day for the last month, and I have forgiven him 30 times that I remember, that’s another 460 to go before I can write him off for good – a year and a half is a long time to put up with that, but maybe I can do it, you know, for Jesus. And my little brother has been pestering me to borrow my stuff since we were little, but he always breaks it or forgets to return it. I’d say that’s happened at least 452 times in my lifetime – only 38 more to go. My spouse has been doing that little annoying thing every day since we’ve been married, and surely I’m well over the limit on forgiving that one…

It sounds absurd, but in some form or fashion that’s how we’ve learned to live. Counting up rights and wrongs. Weighing always what we’re due from someone else. Even the most magnanimous, the most spiritually grounded people I know fall into the trap. If you read things by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who is world-famous for his work on forgiveness and reconciliation in the face of decades of violent and systemic oppression and genocide, he lets it slip that he still finds himself holding on to small grievances and petty squabbles with the people closest to him. We probably don’t actually have a little log where we keep track of these sorts of things, but we know in our heads what we think we’re due.

And at the same time we keep another book, a record of things we’ve done wrong, times we’ve needed to ask forgiveness. A list of wrongs big and small, often from years ago that have lodged in our memories. Our brains have a way of pulling these things up in the middle of the night, or driving along an empty highway, or in the middle of trying to accomplish a big project. And soon our brains are racing with shame through a logbook of our past wrongs. How many confessions and proclamations of forgiveness are needed for us to let it go? Maybe buried in the disciples’ question is a deeper question about how many times will can repeat our own wrongs before we have to give up on ourselves?

We know that Jesus holds us to high standard of radical discipleship, but we tend to express that within the accounting structures of our everyday lives. We have trouble imagining that Jesus might actually have something entirely different in mind. So Jesus tells a story:

“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle his accounts with his slaves.” And here things get absurd. Because the king opens his logbook to see that a slave owes him something along the lines of several trillion dollars. No king in his right mind lends a slave trillions of dollars to begin with, and even if he did, he certainly wouldn’t forget about it until he just happened to open up his record book. But with the threat of being sold off or maybe even killed, the slave begs for his life. The king doesn’t just have compassion on him and expect him to simply remain a slave to the debt the rest of the life. Instead the king throws his book of accounts casually over his shoulder into the fireplace with such ease that you get the sense he does this on a pretty regular basis, and says to the utterly surprised slave, “Ok. Just forget about it. Go, your debt has been forgiven.” This not only gives him a reprieve, but it frees him from slavery into new and abundant life. The king has welcomed him into the same generous kind of life that the king himself has been living in all along, shelling out trillions of dollars to anyone who asks and even some who don’t.

But the slave just can’t live there in the king’s world. He’s lived too long in the world of accounting books, and he simply can’t figure out how to let go of his. Maybe it’s that he doesn’t really trust that he’s been set free. Maybe it’s that he can’t forgive himself for the life that got him to that debt in the first place, or maybe he’s just a stingy, greedy, and an all-around less-than-ideal person. But instead of trying out this radical new way of living, he opens up his account book with renewed zeal and makes life hell for everyone around him, the people who owe him a few thousand here and there. But what he misses is that in the process he’s made life a torturous hell for himself, too. Here, in the more distressing words of the parable, I don’t think we’re meant to believe the king goes back into accounting mode so much as he is trying desperately to help this man realize how futile this whole bookkeeping business is.

And it’s sad. Because the gift is so incredible and to realize the fullness of the gift is to be set free not only from a world of bookkeeping but from a world of death and pain, a torturous life burdened with guilt and shame, and the sadness of having missed entirely the profound forgiveness that is already true but not yet understood.

This parable proclaims not just a truth about what the kingdom of heaven is, but also a truth about how devastatingly sad the kingdom we live in every day can be. But through baptism we have been invited into that kingdom of radical forgiveness and absurd generosity. For the baptismal life is not a life in which God is more generous with the accounting of who we are and what we do. The baptismal life is one in which we have already died to a life of accounting and been raised to live in a kingdom without any record books at all. Sometimes we live out of that radical gift, and sometimes we torture ourselves instead. But sooner or later we give up the fight and rest in the one who long ago got rid of the accounting books in order to throw open both arms and welcome us home again to the kingdom of heaven.

-Pastor Steven Wilco