The Village and St Luke’s | Matthew 18:21-34 |
Reflection by Dan Spragg
Sharon and I are the recent owners of a new mortgage (nervous celebration…). It’s quite easy to look at the balance owed and wonder if it will ever be paid off! Who here has a mortgage or has had one at some stage? They can be quite daunting things! I want you to imagine what it might feel like if you arrived home one day to a letter in your mailbox from the bank and this letter said, “Dear so and so… we have decided that you will come and see us in two days, at which time you will pay back the entirety of your loan in full. No correspondence will be entered into on this matter.” It seems ridiculous, but just for a moment I would like you to imagine what it might feel like. I can imagine if this happened to us, I’d be very tempted to take off in the other direction, go bush and try my luck at living in the wild! There’s no way that I could pay! 30 years seems doable, but two days? No way! It is a ridiculous request!
Imagine then what it might feel like if when you went to that meeting to explain to them how there was no way that you would be able to pay, they turned around and said, ‘Well, that’s ok, forget about it, your mortgage has been wiped…” I imagine my reaction to this might be one of disbelief, confusion and wonder. I imagine I might be extremely grateful! What about you?
As ludicrous as it sounds, the servant in this passage is in a far worse off position. It’s safe to say that we’ve always thought about this poor guy owing quite a large sum of money. Well I did the math because I wondered how much it was in today’s money. It says he owed ten thousand talents, a talent was worth 15 years wages. In our terms, with the average New Zealand Salary of $49,000 that amounts to $735,000 which is not an unheard of house price, or it might be about 40,000 servings of Avocado on toast. But here’s the kicker – it says ten thousand talents… that’s 10,000 x $735,000 which is $7.35 billion! (just let the demand to pay that off in one go sink in for a moment…) Now that is ridiculous! Do you know how many days it would have taken him to pay it back, like he offers to do by the way? Taking the average salary of NZ at $49,000 which works out to be about $134 per day. It would take him 54,850,000 days to pay it back. With the average life span today of around 81 years, he would have to live 1855 lives. It’s simply absurd!
Jesus of course tells this parable like this on purpose, he was a master story teller. Our reaction to the absurdity of the situation is exactly how those first hearers of this story would have reacted. The amount of debt was pretty big. The demand to pay it back immediately was ludicrous. The counter offer of the servant promising to pay it all back was stupidity! The story continues past this point and we see this man failing to reproduce the compassion that was acted on towards him. He demands that his fellow servant who owes him money pay up. This news gets back to the King who isn’t happy about it and the first servant ends up rotting in jail being tortured for his actions until his original debt is paid off… in other words, for the next 54,850,000 days.
What was Jesus pointing to with this story? I think it’s a story about someone who completely missed the point. The King was simply reconciling his accounts. He opened up his books, looked at the left hand column, then looked at the right hand column and wanted to make them square. But then it is as if, moved by compassion at the situation of this servant, he simply closed the books and threw them out the window. It was like he simply said, ‘meh… I can’t be bothered with that, let’s do things a different way.’ The King, changed the game, he rewrote the rules and he stepped into a different way of doing things. He made a shift, he moved from bookkeeping to grace, from keeping accounts on who owed what to freedom. We could say the King died to one way of doing things and started living in a new way. The King offers this servant a new mode of being in the world – one of grace, one of freedom, one of hope for the future… but the servant misses it completely… By not stepping into the new mode of being that was offered by the King he stepped into the rest of his life tortured by the consequences that come with holding on to debt, with holding on to the old way. The King died to bookkeeping as the way in which he ran his affairs and stepped into grace. He didn’t simply erase this debt, or stop keeping score on who owed him, he threw away the scorecard altogether. The servant on the other hand stayed firmly in the world of keeping accounts, of settling scores, and of holding on to debts owed and received and in doing so committed himself to a life of torture until death. Death it seems will take care of all debt, it just depends on what kind of death is chosen. Which one would we say is more life giving? The King’s death, one of dying to a way of life defined by keeping score, by keeping a ledger of debt for and against and rising into a life of freedom and grace? Or, the way of the servant, which was to stay in the old mode of keeping account, tracking who owed him what, and demanding payment in order to be satisfied, so that he lived out the rest of his days in resentment, anger and bitterness until he literally died. Which death is the most life giving?
I hope you understand the metaphor at play here. Bookkeeping or balancing the books, is a good way to deal with money when running a business or a household or other organisations, especially if you want to keep the IRD happy (I’m not so sure they’ll ever throw away the books…) but Jesus wasn’t talking about money he was talking about forgiveness where the debts owed are ones of wrongdoing against one another. Jesus was talking here about what he spent most of the time talking about, the way to live life to the full found in stepping into life lived with God. Which is the ways of grace, not of keeping score against those who wrong you.
Forgiveness of course is a lovely idea, but it’s hard to put into practice! It does seem that the bigger the wrong done against us the bigger the will and the energy that is needed to forgive. It’s often a process, it often takes time and it doesn’t often come naturally. It is like we need to practice it, to repeat it over and over in order to get more familiar with it, to get better at it.
As I was working on this passage and reflection this week I was reminded of a situation where I had not forgiven someone for their actions against me. It occurred about 15 years ago but all the disappointment, the anger, the sadness, the resentment and the ill feelings towards them came right back to me. It is amazing how something so long ago could come back to me in such a fresh way. In a way though it didn’t come back to me because I have been carrying it around with me all this time. As I reflected on it this week I have decided I want to forgive this person not simply because it’s the right thing to do, but because I don’t want to carry the heaviness of it around with me anymore and because I don’t want to impose the heaviness of it upon them. I want to forgive them and I will get there but it’s certainly not something that happens with the click of the fingers. What I have noticed about forgiveness though in working through this is that it isn’t forgetting that I was wronged, it isn’t justifying their behaviour or saying that what they did doesn’t matter. Forgiveness is rather about letting go. It is about dying to that part of me that says I deserve pay back, or that it wasn’t fair. I also realised that I need to forgive myself for the times when I’ve beaten myself up, for blaming myself for what happened.
In this parable Jesus is making a point, he is illustrating how the economy of the Kingdom of Heaven works. He is saying that there is a whole new mode of being in play. The King has changed the game and the way this game works is that we simply need to accept that the old game of bookkeeping, of keeping account of wrongs done for and against has been superseded. The Apostle Paul talks about the shift from Law to Grace. This is the shift that Jesus is saying has happened. The way of the Kingdom of Heaven is about grace which exists not dependent on our ability, or on our promises, but rather simply just because the King of Heaven has made it so. This is the reality that God calls us into through Jesus Christ. The thing of course about God’s grace, is that it is given through love and love leaves us with a choice. We don’t need God to send us to hell for we are it seems, quite good at sending ourselves there when we chose to carry on carrying grudges against those who have wronged us. I don’t believe we wait until we die to experience hell, anything that anyone did to wrong you doesn’t really matter once you’re dead, but it certainly takes its toll if we carry it around with us while we are still alive. It’s not that if we don’t forgive others we will go to hell but rather if we don’t forgive others we will experience hell as the pointless torture of a life lived while holding onto a grudge. Heaven on the other hand Jesus is saying, is where the King has already died to our debts, and we participate in this way of living by letting grace have its way through us, towards one another, so that we can fully experience the joy of grace working in us.
So where on earth do you start? Well it might be enough to consider questions like, who do you no longer talk to? Is there something that comes to mind regularly and weighs you down? Who do you avoid? What do you resist doing because of who else is doing it? These could be some questions to consider. The other thing to keep in mind is the one who is calling you into this mode of grace. Jesus encourages us to take his yoke upon us, for it is easy, the burden is light. So you start with these questions knowing that Jesus is with you, grace is calling you forwards, wanting to raise you into a life of joy not one of bitterness and resentment.
Our loving Creator, in Jesus Christ has changed the game for us. We no longer live under the law of balancing the scales. We no longer have to work to prove and earn our worth. There is a greater power at play. One in which we can participate if we choose to step into it and live in its flow. It is here, in this flow of life where we will see grace at work in us and through us. We can choose heaven or hell as the way in which we experience our lives and we can choose the way in which others experience us too. Love of course will win in the end, but don’t we want to live in that love now?
Imagine yourself as the servant in the parable. What is your response to the King?