"Freed from Our Old Way" - Pentecost 15A
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Delivered By
Pr. David Fleener
Delivered On
September 17, 2017 at 10:30 PM
Central Passage
Matthew 18:21-35

Pr. David Fleener

Sermon: September 17, 2017; Pentecost 15A

Romans 14:1-12, Matthew 18:21-35


Freed from Our Old Way


            Like a lot of kids, I was bullied. While the bullying rarely extended to physical violence, it did involve a fair amount of verbal abuse. Unwelcome nicknames, jeers from open bus windows and cars driving past. In one particularly terrifying incident when I was in 6th grade or so, I was walking home from school with my sister when some guys drove by and screamed insults at me. As they went past, I turned in a rage and gave them the finger. Well, that was a mistake. To my horror, the car stopped, and two teenagers got out and started running toward me. Abandoning any thought for my sister, I turned and sprinted faster than I had ever had in my life. I reached the house where my family’s babysitter lived, and burst in the door, much to her surprise! The boys gave up the chase after that and went on their way. Fortunately, my sister was also unhurt, no thanks to me.


            It’s been nearly 25 years, and I still remember that incident. And while I think I have forgiven those guys (and they me for flipping them off!), I would probably just as soon not see them again. In fact, it can be difficult for me to go back to Northeast Iowa if I know I might run into certain people. I can feel the feelings of anger, fear, and disgust well up from the pit of my stomach. Almost unbidden, the judgments come leaping from my brain. It is clear that I have quite a bit of work left to do in the forgiveness department.


            Forgiveness is clearly not a natural thing for human beings to do. Our impulse is to hold onto the slights and sins of others, even minor ones. And if the sins we are holding on to are those of family members, friends, or members of the church, it can be even more difficult to forgive those, because the sin is then coupled with a sense of betrayal. And if the sin of the family member or friend or church member is especially heinous, that makes forgiveness almost impossible. On our own, we find it very difficult, if not impossible, to forgive others. We stew and relish in how others have wronged us. We entertain fantasies of revenge. And we find that as we do those things, we spiritually poison ourselves. We become less human, and more like a ravenous animal when we hoard the sins of others.


            This isn’t to deny that justice is necessary. Too often (and especially in the church), forgiveness is demanded of the victim without appropriate confession and repentance by the offender. And sometimes, as Jesus indicates in the previous verses in Matthew, firm boundaries are necessary. Sometimes for our own health, we have to separate ourselves from those who harm us, especially if they will not take responsibility for their actions.


            Nevertheless, Jesus calls Christians to forgive each other. And he does this by way of a strange and disturbing story. A king, who is clearly a Gentile ruler, decides to “settle accounts” with his slaves. These slaves are not household slaves, but are more like participants in a grand pyramid scheme. In the ancient Mediterranean world, a tax collector would be responsible for collecting a certain amount of revenue from a geographic region. He was expected, then, to pass on a certain amount “up the pyramid”, to the governors of regions, who then would pass on a certain amount to the emperor. The job of the slave here is to make sure cash keeps flowing to the king.


            When the king begins settling accounts, he finds that one of his ministers has failed to forward 10,000 talents. This is a ridiculous amount of money. One talent equals fifteen years’ wages by a common laborer. To put this into further perspective, the annual income tax from the Herodian rulers in Jesus’ day was less than 1,000 talents per year. It is an amount that is far beyond most of the 1%, so to speak. He prepares to sell this minister along with his wife and children. The king won’t get much out of him, but at least he’ll rid himself of a wasteful, fraudulent minister.


            The minister falls before the king and begs for time, making an equally ridiculous promise to match his ridiculous debt. “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” Of course, he cannot pay everything. He can never pay everything. The king knows this. And so, the king does something even more ludicrous. He forgives the minister every single penny of his incredible debt. He doesn’t suggest a percentage. He doesn’t suggest an extended payment plan. He simply forgives – and completely upsets and undermines the entire pyramid scheme on which his cash flow depends. The king has no desire to be in the debt collection business anymore. He chooses a completely new way of being king.


            This king’s minister is utterly and completely free. But when he meets another minister, probably lower down on the food chain, it is clear he has taken his freedom and forgiveness for granted. He decides that while the king’s forgiveness is good for him, it isn’t good for him to forgive this lower minister’s relatively minor debt. (A debt which, while not insignificant, is 1/600,000th of his own.) The lower minister begs the greater to have patience, almost mirroring his own plea to the king. But the greater will have none of it. He’s determined to live by the old system of retribution and revenge. And he throws the lower minister into prison.


            Big mistake. The greater one’s forgiveness was not a private matter, but public. The other subjects of the king knew about it. So disturbed, they return to their master and give them a report of what happened. The greater is summoned. Since he is determined to live by the old system of retribution and revenge, the king will treat him accordingly. Since the greater one did not imitate the king in forgiveness, the king will now imitate him in vengeance.


            Frightening indeed. Jesus’ closing words don’t make it any better. “So will my heavenly Father do to you if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” It seems to be so…uncompromising. There are no “but what abouts” or “what ifs” in this story. Jesus seems to be saying, “Forgive from your heart or burn.” Not exactly good news.


            But Jesus tells this shocking, uncompromising story to jar our senses and to wake us up to what God is doing. Jesus is using language like the Old Testament prophets. Nice, sweet stories don’t make people think about God’s reign breaking into their world. No. Jesus wants to wake us up to the fact that heaven does not work according to a pyramid scheme! As adopted children of God, we have been utterly and completely freed from any kind of works-based system for our salvation. There is nothing we can do for God to earn forgiveness of sins or salvation from death. God is out of the debt-collection business altogether. It would be like finding out that your bank had completely forgotten your mortgage records and decided that you were paid in full. Or that the student loan company had lost the whole record of your debt. God’s debt-collection shop is out of business.


            And because we have been forgiven such a tremendous debt, because we are free, we can treat our brothers and sisters in faith in the same way. This doesn’t mean that we don’t treat sin as sin. Sin needs to be acknowledged. There is a reason we still have confession and forgiveness before most of our services. There is a reason we still come to the Communion table. We need forgiveness, and we need it constantly. And there is a reason for Jesus setting up boundaries in the previous verses. But there is a call for each and every one of us to act differently toward each other. To not hold onto each others’ sins as debts owed. Because God has freed us, we are given the power to free each other – and ourselves – from the old system of vengeance.


            Let us pray.


Holy God, help us to have faith that you have truly forgiven and freed us, so that we may truly forgive others. Amen.


© 2017, David M. Fleener. Permission granted to copy and adapt original material herein for non-commercial purposes with appropriate credit given.