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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Pentecost - 09/17/2017

It feels a little awkward to say, “The gospel of the Lord; Praise to you O Christ” following a reading that ends with the threat of torture: “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you if you do not forgive your brother or sister from the heart.” So much for the God of the Old Testament being mean and wrathful while the God of the New Testament is gracious and loving, because this doesn’t sound gracious or loving.

Today’s gospel reading follows immediately after last week’s which was about church discipline, the question of what to do if another member of the church sins against you. What follows the question is the basis for what appears in the rarely used discipline section of every ELCA church constitution: speak to the person one on one, if that doesn’t work bring two or three others, if there is still no resolution, bring it before the whole church.

At the beginning of today’s reading, Peter then asks how many times one should forgive the one who has sinned. He suggests seven times but Jesus responds with seventy-seven or it might be seventy times seven, but either way it’s meant to say there is no number; forgiveness is limitless. What we might expect to follow that is a parable that illustrates limitless forgiveness; but that’s not what we get. The parable that follows is about the necessity for forgiveness but there also seem to be conditions where our failure to forgive others precludes forgiveness for us.

At first though, the parable does give us a God whose forgiveness appears to be limitless as the king forgives a debt of ten thousand talents, an amount equal to the wages for a million days of work for an average laborer, an absurd amount that the servant could never possibly pay back; but then this king of unlimited forgiveness turns around and sends the servant to be tortured for his failure to forgive, suggegsting that there are limits to forgiveness, perhaps even some things that can’t be forgiven. With that we’re left to wrestle with the tension of a gracious God who is all forgiving but who still might be encountered as a God who judges; we’re left with the tension of wondering whether judgment can cancel grace.

I should add that this tension concerning judgment and limited vs. unlimited grace or forgiveness isn’t anything new. It more or less runs through the New Testament as we hear about a God of grace but also hear about judgment that sounds like it’s not about grace at all but is instead based on works. The Parable of the Sheep and Goats is the classic example of such judgment where inheriting the kingdom is clearly based on what you did for the least of these with failure to do for the least of these resulting in eternal fire. Grace isn’t part of the equation, again suggesting that grace and forgiveness do have limits.

This Parable of the Unforgiving Servant does present some interpretation problems, but as it says in one of my parable resources, part of the value of this particular parable is what it tells us about interpreting parables. There’s a caution about reading parables as if they were equations in which everything adds up in the end, each point of the parable corresponding to some easily identifiable aspect of reality thus making a clear theological statement.

With most parables there are analogies to be made, a point of the parable corresponding with a piece of reality, but you might drive yourself crazy if you try too hard to make all the points fit together into one overarching moral or lesson. Parables aren’t fables that can be summed up with one defining moral. There might be just one, but it’s better to more or less let each point of the parable stand on its own, even if it doesn’t all quite add up, even if it does result in some tension.

In this parable then, those who first heard it would most likely indentify the king with God as that analogy was a common feature of Jewish parables. Sins referred to as debts would be another easily made connection. With those two things understood, while the amount of the debt owed is outrageous, most people would be able to identify with the plight of the servant and be relieved on hearing that his predicament was solved, his debt, as great as it was, was forgiven. This part of the parable then is about God’s gracious forgiveness in the face of sin from which we cannot free ourselves and it does fit with Jesus’ response to Peter concerning how many times must I forgive. It’s the good news we want to hear, the good news we need to hear.

The second part of the parable, while still about forgiveness, moves in a different direction, a direction having to do with extending God’s abundant forgiveness to others, being imitators of the king in the previous verses. With that change of direction, these verses are not a contradiction of God’s abundant grace but instead they make a different point, affirming the Golden Rule of “Do unto others as God has done to you.”

“Do unto others” is a consistent part of the ethic of both Judaism and Christianity where living out one’s faith includes the effort to conform one’s life to the character of God, for Christians, to conform one’s life to the character of Jesus. We are called to respond to what God has done for us by doing unto others. The kingdom that Jesus announced does come with the limitless grace of the first part of the parable, but it also comes with the limitless demand of the second part. That is the tension in which we live and it is very clearly illustrated by this parable.

The themes of mercy and judgment are never far from Matthew’s mind as he writes his gospel in which harsh judgment is the consequence of failing to show mercy. Matthew is the gospel where you most frequently get people for one reason or another being thrown into the furnace of fire or the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth, always a pleasant image.

Those themes of mercy and judgment are at the center of this parable but they are not as contradictory as they might first seem. Mercy marks the ministry of Jesus and because of that, mercy is a requirement for those who follow Jesus, a requirement for disciples in the kingdom he proclaims. Relative to this, verse 33 is a key. What I read and what’s printed in your bulletin says, “Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave as I had mercy on you?” That’s OK, but a better translation and a better rendering of the original Greek is, “Is it not necessary for you also to show mercy to your fellow servant as I have shown mercy to you?” “Is it not necessary” rather than “should you not” gives more force to the call for mercy; it’s clearer that mercy is a requirement, not an option.

The judgment of verse 34 may still seem disturbing, accustomed as we are to the God of unlimited grace and forgiveness, the God always ready to provide another chance. Remember though that Jesus starts this and many of his parables with “The kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven is like or may be compared to” and then he tells his story. In the kingdom, judgment must be made between what is evil and what is good so that evil can ultimately be defeated. In an imperfect world, a world where the kingdom is present, but only in part, judgment must be made. For Jesus, failure to show mercy is at the top of the list of that which is evil and such evil cannot and will not be tolerated in his kingdom; it must be named and it must be defeated.

Keep in mind that hyperbole, overstatement, is a common feature of parables so just as the amount of the debt owed by the first slave was ridiculous in proportion, the judgment and punishment in this part of the parable is also out of proportion, not intended as an actual description. Being given over to torturers until the debt is paid is cruel and unusual, plus, how can payment be made when the slave is busy being tortured? What the overstatement does though is to emphasize both the importance of extending mercy and the seriousness of the failure to do so.

We’re confronted with this tension between our need for forgiveness and the call to extend such forgiveness to others every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” In discussions, the question that invariably comes up is, “Are we only forgiven as well as we forgive others?” and for most of us that thought makes us uneasy because we know we don’t always do it. If God’s forgiveness of us depends on our ability to forgive, we’re all in trouble. The implied threat of harsh judgment makes us even more uneasy.

Rather than worrying about the nature of that judgment though, we do better to accept the truth of unlimited forgiveness and the truth of the demand to forgive others and then have the threat remind us of just how serious this is, both for Jesus and for us.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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welcomes me, and whoever
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