St Mark’s, West Frankfort—Matthew 18:21-35
Brenda and I, as you may know, have three grown children, two of whom are married and have made us grandparents three times. Because they don’t live nearby, we don’t get to see the grandchildren nearly as often as we’d like. So, we look for surrogates. When we’re in a public place, like a restaurant, or a train or an airplane, we’ve gotten good at noticing young children about the age of our granddaughters. When we can, it’s fun to connect with these kids—make eye contact, smile, make a funny face, play peek-a-boo … whatever. When we were traveling last June, we walked by a couple with their infant child at a table in a restaurant. Our doting must have been obvious, and the baby girl must not have slept very well the previous night, because they said, “Would you like to take her and raise her and give her back to us when she’s 18?”
As our children each went off to college, graduated, moved back home—well, two of them did—and eventually went out into the world on their own as adults, and especially now as they’re raising kids of their own, I have ample time to reflect on the mystery of it all. I’ve thought about the various milestones in our family’s story, their childhood friends, trips we took, and on that mysterious experience called college, which they enter as children and emerge from as adults. There’s a cost to raising children—and I’m not talking about dollars and cents. I think this is what that couple in the restaurant had in mind when they jokingly asked us to raise their daughter. Parents spend a great deal of physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual capital in the process of bringing a child into this world and raising that child to maturity. And parents themselves can’t really know the cost of each stage of child-rearing until they actually experience it. Only when I left my oldest on a college campus, when all the parents were gently dismissed from the orientation process and told to go away—only in that moment was I at all in touch with what my own mother and father went through 24 years earlier when they watched their still seventeen-year old firstborn son board a plane bound for Santa Barbara from Chicago.
More often than not, though, either by design or by accident, children are blissfully ignorant of what they have “cost” their parents until such eye-opening events. Parents “in the flesh” are not the only parents whose gift of life to their children comes at a considerable cost. The Father from whom all fatherhood proceeds, our Father in Heaven, has expended an untold, and untellable, amount in rescuing us from the power of sin and death. Today, we have an opportunity, if we will take it, to have our eyes opened to the magnitude of that cost and what it has purchased for us.
Like all other children, we are, in our natural state, blissfully unaware of the sheer size of our debt to God. We are ignorant of how profoundly the sin of the human race, and the individual sinful acts that you and I have indulged in, have alienated and separated and estranged us from the One who created us for himself. Until we have an eye-opening experience, then, we are blind to the sheer scope, the dazzling wonder, of the notion that God forgives us. The words roll off our tongues in the Nicene Creed—”we believe In the forgiveness of sins.”
The forgiveness of our sins.
The forgiveness of my particular sins.
When Jesus is questioned by his disciples on the subject of forgiveness, he tells them about a king who decided to audit his accounts, and collect on any past-due obligations. One of his debtors, perhaps a government official or a contractor, owed him an enormous amount—ten thousand talents, as Matthew puts it—which is the equivalent, at least, of tens of millions of dollars. The king says, “Pay up, or else!” and the servant drops to the ground and begs for more time to come up with the money, all the while knowing that all the time in the world would not allow him to repay his debt; it was an impossible sum. The king takes pity on him by not granting his request! Instead of allowing him more time, he simply forgives the loan. He releases the debtor from any further obligation of repayment.
Can you imagine finding yourself owing an amount you know you could never pay off in one lifetime, and then having that debt marked “paid in full?” What a gift of grace!
But something apparently didn’t connect in the heart of the servant who had been released from such a crushing burden, because the first thing he did was find a fellow-servant who owed him a hundred denarii. This might have been anywhere from twenty to two hundred dollars. Now, a two-hundred-dollar debt is enough to temporarily depress me, but in the larger scheme of things, it’s relatively trivial. In comparison with a debt of fifty or sixty million dollars, it’s not even a blip on the screen.
Yet, over this trivial debt, the servant who had just been forgiven a fortune had his colleague thrown into debtor’s prison! When we read that the other servants of the king, and then the king himself, go absolutely ballistic when they hear of this behavior, we are neither shocked nor surprised. In fact, we can feel our own blood beginning to boil. It is absolutely incomprehensible, and justly infuriating. We would not for a moment want to identify ourselves with this ungrateful servant.
But, guess what, folks!
Until our eyes are opened to the magnitude of our debt to God, and therefore the enormous cost of his forgiveness of us, we are ignorant of the outrage that we commit every time we fail to forgive someone who wrongs us. All of us have our “debtors,” people we feel owe us something, whether it’s money, time, attention, recognition, gratitude, or whatever. Some of these perceived debts are just, and some are unjust. But they are all trivial! They are all, combined, not even a blip on the screen in comparison with the debt which is ours, the debt which we could never in all eternity pay, but which has been forgiven.
When we come to grips with the amount that we have been forgiven, we cannot help but become ministers of forgiveness ourselves. We cannot help but make forgiveness a habitual way of life. When we become ministers of forgiveness, we become, obviously, channels of grace to those whom we forgive, those whom we release from the bonds of obligation, those who owe us no longer, those whose bill is marked “paid in full.”
But they are not the only ones who benefit. When we release another person, we also release ourselves. We liberate ourselves from the bondage of pettiness and the burden of constantly needing to keep accounts. A lifestyle of forgiveness is as freeing to the forgiver as it is to the forgiven. (Now, lest I be misunderstood, I am not saying that forgiveness means becoming a doormat and just putting up with obvious injustice or immorality. I’m not saying, “Don’t confront wrongdoing.” Last week’s gospel dealt with that issue. What I am saying is that forgiveness means letting go of evil once it’s been confronted and dealt with. It means releasing the past and embracing the future.)
The ungrateful servant in Jesus’ parable obviously didn’t grasp the degree of the favor that had been bestowed on him, and he was deprived of enjoying its benefits. When we choose to be unforgiving, when we insist on holding others accountable for all their trivial debts to us, we render ourselves incapable of fully and effectively receiving the benefits of God’s forgiveness. It’s as if we were faced with the responsibility of driving a thousand miles across a trackless desert, with no service stations along the route. A generous benefactor offers us all the gasoline we’ll need for the trip, free of charge. But our vehicle is equipped with only the standard twenty gallon fuel tank. We are unable to take advantage of the offer of free gas. We lack the capacity.
When we choose, however, to become ministers of forgiveness, we are supplied with the extra fuel tanks that we need to be able to accept our benefactor’s generous offer. Our capacity to receive forgiveness grows along with our capacity to forgive. And as our capacity to forgive grows, so does our ability to receive all the blessings, the enduring joy and peace, that God, in his abundant mercy and love, wants to shower upon us.
Lord, we believe in the forgiveness of sins. Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Amen.