Risky Business, Part 2
A message by the Rev. Dr. Bruce Havens
Arlington Congregational UCC
September 13, 2020
Matthew 18:21-35 - NIV
21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”
22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. 23 “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. 25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. 26 “At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ 27 The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.
28 “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded. 29 “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’
30 “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.
32 “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ 34 In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
Well we have been through some strange times, haven’t we? As we move toward welcoming everyone back for in- person worship it seems somehow appropriate that the annual calendar for Scripture readings would give us a strange Scripture to talk about.
Why strange? Well, last week we talked about the “risky business” of how to deal with one form of conflict, and now this morning this passage! I have called this series Risky Business and used the theme of “Labor of Love” for a reason. Peter asks about forgiveness –we may think that is a question of “spiritual” things, but Jesus immediately turns it into a discussion of the boundaries and economies of relationships.
What do I mean? Well, first Jesus sets an impossible standard for forgiving others: not just 7 times – in Jewish thought a perfect number – but 77 times! In a sense a MORE perfect number, probably suggesting an infinite number of times. Then, Jesus immediately uses an illustration not about how many times we should forgive, but how much we should forgive. In effect he is describing the boundaries of forgiveness and relationships. And he does it with an economic metaphor – a story about money, work, and fair treatment of others. It is essentially a lesson in the “economy of forgiveness.”
The word “economic” comes from two Greek words meaning “house rules, or laws.” It was not just limited to finances. In other words how the “house” is run, whether that is our personal house right up to the financial house of national governments. But it is ultimately about more than just money. It is about boundaries of relationships and what breaks those boundaries, what tears the fabric of human relationships in issues of work, money, community. It is more than just a matter of an individualistic attitude of you and God or me and God. It is about “we” and God!
Let’s look a little closer at this passage because if we think about it, it is very strange for several reasons and it involves some very risky business. Remember that parables are more than a one-to-one, this-equals-that stories. And we have often missed the cultural context of them. One question is what master is going to let his servant –slash- slave run up a debt equal to ten bags of gold? That’s equal to 20 years of the average salary of a laborer. What master is going to just write off that kind of debt? For that matter would anyone? Unlimited forgiveness? That would never work in the real world, right? And then there is that ending – God is going to treat us the way a master treats a slave? That’s not my first image of God, despite all the centuries of “hellfire and damnation for eternity” preaching we all have probably heard.
One writer [ Stanley Saunders, Workingpreacher.org, 9/17/17 ] helps us put some context on this. He says that Jesus is echoing the story of Lamech in the Hebrew Scriptures. In Genesis Lamech brags that he did far worse than God’s threat of 7-fold punishment against anyone who kills Cain, after God had banished Cain from the Garden. This writer tells us that “Jesus is calling his community of disciples to participate in undoing the curse of Cain and Lamech that has kept their offspring – us - trapped in spasms of envy, hatred, violence, and retribution across the generations to this day.”
The other part of the context of this is that the economic system Jesus portrays was not a fairy tale, but quite familiar to his time. They “knew that Kings used agents like the ‘unmerciful servant’ to organize lower levels of agents. Together they made up a system that ensured the continuous flow of wealth, power, and honor to the top of the pyramid.” Not only true in that day and time, huh?
“The unforgiving servant is apparently a manager of the highest level … with control over vast wealth. The astronomical ‘debt’ he owes may represent the income he is responsible for producing from those lower on the pyramid. The goal was to pass a steady, acceptable flow of wealth further up the pyramid, while retaining as much as one could get away with for oneself, to be used to grease one’s own way further up the pyramid.” Even more outrageous, he points out that what the king has done is declare a personal “jubilee” or financial amnesty for the top servant. In that time that should then be observed all the way down the labor chain. The top servant immediately violates that by demanding repayment from one lower on the ladder. This dishonors and mocks the king and so the king must respond harshly to protect his power.
Another writer [ Mark Davis, leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com, 9/2017 ] brings this up to date saying, all this is ridiculous in the real world. “This would never happen. It would almost be like a bank that has been bailed out of billions of dollars’ worth of loans built on a failed scheme of sub-zero interest rates, turning around and foreclosing on a house that someone bought while taking advantage of those rates.
“It would be like Christians, presuming forgiveness for an imperial history that includes all manner of violence and heinous coercion, calling all Muslims ‘violent’ because of the actions of a small portion of Islamic extremists. It would be like a church member, having been forgiven of all manner of sinfulness, turning toward a gay or lesbian person and saying, “You don’t belong here.” C’mon, Jesus. This kind of stuff never happens!”
What this comes down to for you and for me is whether we are going to live life relationally or transactionally. Is life about “tit-for-tat?” Is everything measured by what you can pay for and what you can’t? Is God’s grace and mercy limited? Supposedly we do not believe that, right? We believe in a God who is “more willing to forgive than we are to ask,” right? It feels very risky to think about changing economies, doesn’t it?
Who could run a business this way, for example? Well, this past month I have been reading stories about creating successful business cultures, not just in terms of dollars and cents but also in terms of human economies – relational econmies. One of those stories is about a restaurateur named Danny Meyer. Over a period of 30 years, Danny Meyer has opened 25 restaurants. “Except for one, they are all successful—and not just a little bit. Union Square Cafe, Meyer’s first restaurant, has won the top spot in Zagat’s best-restaurant rankings an unprecedented nine times; his other restaurants routinely occupy as much as a quarter of the top twenty, and his restaurants and chefs have won twenty-six James Beard awards. Perhaps more impressively, each of Meyer’s restaurants is unique, varying from a tavern to a barbecue joint, to an Italian café, to a fast-casual burger chain called Shake Shack that is now worth $1.5 billion. The reason his restaurants are successful is the warm, connective feeling they create, a feeling that can be summed up in one word: home. When you walk into a Meyer restaurant, you feel that you are being cared for,” the writer says. That’s what I mean by “human economy.” It is about relational values that are actually more important and more valuable than transactional values.
During the interview with the author, the writer notes that “a tray accidentally slips from a waiter’s hand, and several water glasses smash on the floor. For a microsecond, all the action stops. Meyer raises a finger, pressing pause on our conversation so he can watch what happens. The waiter who dropped the glasses starts picking up the pieces, and another waiter arrives with a broom and a dustpan. The cleanup happens swiftly, and everyone turns back to their food. Then I ask Meyer why he was watching so closely. ‘I’m watching for what happens right afterward, and I’m looking for their energy level to go up,’ he says. ‘They connect to clean up the problem, and the energy level goes either up or down, and if we’re doing our job right, their energy level will go up.’ He puts his fists together, and then makes an explosion gesture with his fingers. ‘They are creating uplifting energy that has nothing to do with the task and everything to do with each other and what comes next. It’s not really that different from an ant colony or a beehive. Every action adds on to the others.” I ask Meyer what a bad interaction looks like. ‘It’s one of two things. Either they’re disinterested—‘I’m just doing my job’ kind of thing. Or they’re angry at the other person or the situation. And if I were to see that, I would know that there’s a deeper problem here, because the number-one job is to take care of each other.”
Wow, “our number one job is to take care of each other.” That could sum up relational economies. That could define, what it means to forgive seven bazillion times infinity. I believe the parable suggests that the “economy” we live is the economy we get. The King only responds according to the economy he abides by – and he has the power to make that economy what it is! So I believe the response Jesus describes – that God will give us the same “economic results” we choose to live by – explains the threat that God will treat us the same way we treat others if we live by that system. Perhaps that is also what Jesus means whenever he says, “what you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven and what you bind on earth will be bound in heaven. In short, we cannot ask for unlimited, unconditional forgiveness and only give conditional, limited, forgiveness. If we live as if this were only true “spiritually,” divorced from the “real world,” what are we risking?
Strictly speaking I don’t think this parable is really about forgiveness. I think it is about choosing a different set of values. I would suggest that valuing financial economies over relational economies is actually the most risky business. God’s economy is based in relational values for those who have less power than us especially. Maybe the best way to say it is to say, if we live by what we get, we will die by what we give. AMEN.