September 13th: Proper 19, the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

The Rev. Joseph Peters-Mathews is the vicar of St. Hilda St. Patrick. The sermon for Sunday, September 13th, was based on the below manuscript. The gospel text appointed for the day was Matthew 18.21-35.

The second half of Matthew 18,
is two sections that go hand-in-hand
with one another.
Last week we heard about the need for accountability.
When someone in the church sins,
they should be called in on it,
then called in to a smaller group,
then called out.
If they’re unwilling to repent and change their lives,
then they’re to be like a gentile or tax collector
to the first Jews who followed Jesus.
They’re to be outsiders,
people removed from fellowship,
and people that Jesus spent time with,
people always able to come back
into the new community of Jesus followers.

This week is the other hand of accountability,
it’s the hand that reaches out to tax collectors and gentiles.
Last week was accountability,
and this week is forgiveness.
possibly concerned about someone
being constantly abused and then having to move on
after a quick “I’m sorry”
or possibly concerned that abusers
also hurt themselves
when they continue destructive behaviors
asks Jesus how many times
people must be forgiven.
In offering the number seven,
Peter is being extremely generous!
It is the number of perfection,
and it’s more than once!
Jesus responds by basically saying
that if Peter is keeping count of the times forgiveness is offered,
he’s not actually forgiving.
Forgiveness doesn’t keep score.

Jesus then illustrates
how God’s reign
doesn’t keep score,
how God’s forgiveness
is bigger than we can wrap our heads around.
The parable Jesus tells
is one about God’s reign,
God’s reign which is at hand.
It’s not a strict analogy
where every aspect of the rich gentile king
can be attributed to God.
It does, however, illustrate
how following Jesus means realizing our failures
and sharing grace with others
because while following Jesus we believe
that God’s reign is at hand.

There’s a man, servant or slave,
an administrator of some sort
for this king’s government.
The king is settling up his accounts,
and this man owes him 10,000 talents.
10,000 is the biggest you can owe someone at the time,
so it may be more.
Let’s take 10,000 at its face value for now.
A single talent is 15 years’ worth of wages
for manual laborers.

This man has spent too much time
at Emerald Downs or Emerald Queen
to rack up 150,000 years worth of wages
as a debt.
There’s no way he can pay it.
If we use the census bureau’s account
of the annual median personal income,
that’s just over five billion dollars.
With a b.
The king threatens to sell this man,
and his wife and children and possessions —
something a Jew, and definitely not God
would never do —
until the un-repayable debt
is repaid.
The man falls on his knees before the king,
and says,
“Have patience with me,
and I will pay you everything”

Then God the king
doesn’t offer a repayment plan
or reduce the five billion dollar debt
to something more manageable.
It’s all forgiven,
lock, stock, and barrel,
all gone.

Now the king’s administrator,
with his five billon dollar debt forgiven,
goes to someone who owes him.
This is quite the racket he’s involved in.
This man, this peer of his,
doesn’t owe 10,000 talents.
He owes 100 denarii.
That’s about 100 days’ worth of earnings.
Using those same figures as before,
that’s about $9,300.
Compared to five billion,
that repayment is a lot more manageable!
Using the same words
as the administrator
who’s just been forgiven in full
he asks for patience.
Rather than extend the grace he’s been given,
we throws those who’ve wronged us in prison
asking that they be kept there until they repay
although they’ve been removed from society
and removed from the possibility of an income.

While I could extend that image
of prison reform and abolition
farther than that, I’ll let you linger on it yourselves.
After the administrator has his peer
thrown into prison
others rise up at the injustice.
The king goes back on his cancellation of the debt
and sentences the man to life of torture,
because he could never repay the enormous debt.
Jesus then warns us
that that’s our fate too
if we don’t exercise forgiveness.

That, however, is not the point of the passage.
Every day we rack up debts
to God, our neighbor, and the Church.
How often do we actively or passively
embrace the evil powers of this world
which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?
How often do we fail to put
our whole trust in Jesus’ grace and love,
turning to others from Jesus
looking for them to be our savior?
How often do we not
follow and obey Jesus as our Lord?

Pretty much every time I read a news article
about policy that has exacerbated climate change
or ignored COVID mitigation.
Like the disciples of old,
I long for a savior who will act quickly and decisively
I have hope for God to make all things well,
but I’d like for it to happen
sooner than later.
In looking for other saviors,
in putting only a part of my trust
(not the whole)
in Jesus grace and love,
I rack up debts.

I fall out of the apostles’ teaching
and my prayer life starts to suck.
I think I know better
and like I’m doing the best I can
so there’s no need for true repentance.
My actions don’t always proclaim the Good News
of God in Christ.
We forget that we’re called to serve Christ in all persons;
we forget their dignity created in God’s image
and dehumanize those with whom we sharply disagree
with language that is not just frustrated
but also hurtful.
We rack up debts of wrongdoing,
and God doesn’t forgive us seven times
or 70 times seven.
God tosses our wrongdoings,
as far as the East is from the West
as the Psalm puts it.

This year
with everything that is happening
is a great time for us to notice ourselves sinning.
While Jesus includes a warning
about eternity with tormenters
for our own debts,
that’s not the point of this passage.
This isn’t about
what we can do to be better seen
In God’s eyes.
This passage for this week,
for this year,
for this election cycle
for this pandemic
for this wildfire season
is Jesus telling us
that no matter how much we’ve sinned
or no matter how many times we sin again
God forgives us.
There is nothing we can do to earn that,
anymore than the administrator with the five billon dollar debt
did anything to earn it being forgiven.

Jesus just asks
that we try to show a fraction of that grace
to those around us,
to not keep grudges or
get historical in our arguments
or count the times we forgive.
When the king forgives the massive debt,
he’s looking for a changed life.
It’s not what he sees.
When we know forgiveness,
we know our lives have been changed
explicitly not because we’ve earned it.
Let’s look for our lives to be changed
as we revel in God’s forgiveness
and show that forgiveness to others
seeing the world changed
by unearned grace
and unlimited love.

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