September 14, 2014 – 14th Sunday after Pentecost
Introduction: If you were here last week, you heard the first part of this morning’s Gospel reading. Lest we think the early church was some ideal, pristine, everyone-singing-in-harmony-around-the-campfire kind of community, we read in Matthew chapter 18 about how the community is to live together when relationships become broken. That’s what sin is: broken relationships between us and between us and God.
READ Matthew 18.21-35
Last week in Matthew 18.15-20 you heard the directions on how members of a community are to approach each other when relationships are broken. I imagine Peter–hearing Jesus talk about how brothers and sisters are to seek reconciliation with each other–I imagine Peter thinking about the disciple who gets on his last nerve again and again (the one Peter wishes had not responded to Jesus’s call “follow me”) and, thinking of that member of the community, seeks clarification from Jesus.
“Okay, I’ve forgiven him again and again and still he irritates the stew out me. He never changes. I mean, really, Jesus, how many times do I have to forgive him before it’s over? How many times do I forgive before I can say, ‘I’m finished with you’? Is seven times enough?” Peter wants to know what his legal and religious obligation is.
Wouldn’t you love it if Jesus had said, “Forgive him five times and then you kick him out.” That would make our lives so much easier.
What does Jesus say? Forgive seven times? Nope. Seventy-seven times or maybe it’s seventy times seven which would be 490 times. (The Greek isn’t clear on the number.1) The point is, if you’re counting, you’ve missed the point.
A food writer once wrote, “Are we going to measure or are we going to cook?” I think Jesus is asking Peter, “Are you going to count or are you going to forgive?” One commentator reflecting on this passage wrote, “Whoever counts has not forgiven at all, but is only biding his or her time. The kind of forgiveness called for is beyond all calculation.”2
And then Jesus tells a parable about what the kingdom of heaven is like. And it’s all about the extravagant forgiveness of a debt owed. A debt so big it could never have been repaid in a lifetime. That’s what the realm of heaven is like.
The writer of Matthew’s gospel uses the language of “the kingdom of heaven” more than any of the other New Testament writers. The kingdom of heaven in Matthew’s gospel is not a geographical or secular kingdom it’s a theological claim that God is Creator and Sovereign over all. The current condition of the world does not reflect the will of its Creator. However, the will of God is not hidden but has been entrusted by God to the community of God’s people.3 And so the community of God’s people is called to live in a way that reveals the kingdom of heaven. We can also use the phrase “the realm of God”–God’s people are called to live in a way that reveals the realm of God. (It is likely that the writer of Matthew’s gospel used the language of “heaven” rather than “God” to avoid pronouncing the sacred name of God which is part of the Jewish tradition–to not pronounce the sacred name.4)
So part of what the realm of God is like is a community where debt is forgiven. A servant owes a king 10,000 talents. A talent is about 15 years worth of a laborer’s wages. 10,000 of them is 150,000 years of wages. It’s the kind of number that’s beyond calculation. Consider that the annual tax income for all of Herod the Great’s territories around the time of Jesus was about 900 talents per year. And let me assure you: Herod was not giving anyone a tax discount. So really what this story is about is a debt that is so large it is completely unpayable.5 Even if you won the powerball you couldn’t pay it back.
The indebted servant’s situation is hopeless–and threatens not only him but also his family–so he throws himself on the mercy of the king. And, quite unexpectedly, the king forgives his debt. Grace is extended and he is free.
I can imagine the servant staggering out of the king’s quarters hardly able to imagine his new circumstances. And the story could end right there. That’s what the realm of God is like–unearned, unexpected, unimaginable grace.
But our story does not end. Now the man, newly freed from his crippling and unrelenting indebtedness, runs into a man who owes him some money; about a day’s wage. The newly freed man grabs him by the throat and demands he pay his debt. This debtor does the same thing the newly freed man did: throws himself on the man’s mercy.
Now you might think that seeing the same action and hearing the same words that he himself just said to the king might trigger something in his brain. Might cause him to muster up some compassion and forgiveness. But no. Instead of any grace, the newly freed man throws his debtor in prison.
Now it’s interesting that this action is reported back to the king. Other servants of the king see what the newly freed man did and are greatly distressed about it. If it happened today they would be filming it on their phones and uploading to youtube and emailing it to the king. Kind of like we’re seeing all over these days when the police arrive to arrest someone or to respond to a reported incident.
I really appreciate this part of the story–the response of the community. The story is not just about the relationship between the king and the servant and it’s not just about the relationship between the servant and another servant. It’s also about the relationship of the whole community–and the wholeness of the community. Others in this community are distressed by the servants actions and they say something about it.
Which says to me this parable is not just about the graciousness of God. What the realm of God is like is not only about the forgiveness and grace of God. It is also about what that forgiveness and graciousness does in us.
The cost to receive God’s grace and forgiveness is a change in our lives. The preacher and teacher Fred Craddock has said, “The final work of God’s grace is to make us gracious.”6 The final work of God’s grace is to make us gracious. The experience of God is something that transforms our lives so that we become gracious, even to be as gracious as God is. That’s what the realm of God is like. Grace beyond imagining from God and grace transforming our lives in ways we could not imagine so that we too have grace beyond imagining to share with others.
When Jesus teaches us to pray he leads us saying, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”7 Having been forgiven, we can forgive others. Having received grace, we can be gracious.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a 20th century theologian and pastor, perhaps best known for his resistance to Hitler and the Nazi regime, wrote about cheap grace and costly grace in his book The Cost of Discipleship. Cheap grace he wrote, says, “Of course you have sinned, but now everything is forgiven, so you can stay as you are and enjoy the consolations of forgiveness.”8 Costly grace, he says, “confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus.”9 And we know from the stories of the bible that if you are a follower of Jesus, your life is going to change. You can’t stay the same.
Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor, challenged the Lutheran doctrine of grace alone being all one needs for salvation. Luther’s “followers took up that doctrine [of grace alone can save] and repeated it word for word. But” said Bonhoeffer, “they left out its invariable corollary, the obligation of discipleship.”10 It is not enough he wrote to “leave the world for an hour or so on a Sunday morning and go to church to be assured that my sins are all forgiven.”11
The final work of God’s grace is to make us gracious. Not just in the one hour of worship a week. But also in the other 167 hours of our week.
I have lived much of my life trying to be a perfectionist. It may be a hazard of being the oldest child or simply my given form of dysfunction. As I look back on my life, I notice that it was when I felt the greatest weight of being perfect that I was the most critical of others and what I perceived as their failings.
About a decade ago I had a transforming experience of God’s grace and love–grace and love that had nothing to do with my accomplishments, achievements or credentials. In that experience my life changed and in the intervening years, I have discovered more grace and love for others.
But it’s not a magic formula: experience grace and become more gracious. Be forgiven and become more forgiving. Be the recipient of generosity and become more generous. I think those traits of discipleship are like muscles to be practiced and exercised and just like a muscle, if you don’t use them regularly, they atrophy.
So we have to practice and exercise to build the muscles of grace and forgiveness, love and generosity. That’s part of being a disciple. That’s how we let the graciousness, the love, the forgiveness, the generosity of God change us.
And where best to practice and exercise those muscles? In a community–with others–even those who will get on your last nerve. But it is in a community where we get to practice forgiveness and grace and love and generosity. And in that practice, we begin to embody more of the realm of God so that it might not be something far off and future but here and now, among us and in the world.
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1 Lewis R. Donelson, “Matthew 18.21-35 – Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word Year A Vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 69.
2 M. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew,” New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VIII (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 380.
3 Ibid., 291.
4 Ibid., 289.
5 Ibid., 382.
6 I don’t know where I first heard this but I’ve long remembered it. Google turns up a variation of it in The Collected Sermons of Fred B. Craddock in a sermon on Luke 10.1-11 on page 164.
7 Matthew 6.12
8 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, revised edition, (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1963), 51.
9 Ibid., 48.
10 Ibid., 53.
11 Ibid., 54.