If the debt doesn’t kill you…
Proper 19A | Matthew 18:21-35
Remember the stumbling blocks? It’s been Jesus’s main subject in the last several weeks of gospel readings. As they head north, Jesus warns of those things which get in our way, trip us up, and keep us from doing what needs to be done.
Separation, race, bigotry, and hatred are stumbling blocks. Peter was a stumbling block for Jesus; getting out of line and offering to protect him from death.
Peter thought he was doing the right thing. He was trying to protect Jesus. But he wasn’t. Jesus’s #1 disciple was being, in that moment, as destructive as Satan, the tempter in the wilderness.
Peter’s image of King Jesus, Son of David was as tempting as those promises of power and glory.
This was both an impediment to the mission and opportunity to stumble. And we all know Jesus wasn’t going to have that.
And last week, we talked about reconciliation and our own stumbling blocks to this mission of being together. We talked about that part of our work which is to not be the block down at each other’s feet. To not put things on others to trip them up and box them in.
Our work is to remove the stumbling blocks, not put more in their place. So we get rid of them. And we can find forgiveness.
Forgiveness. That’s what today’s story is about. Isn’t it?
The picture of forgiveness
So we remember that Jesus has played out the reconciliation practice for them, remember? He’s told them how they go in pairs and try to reconcile with one another. And if that doesn’t work, they are to try this other thing. And if not that, this other thing. It just keeps going and if nothing works, then treat them like an outsider.
And what do we do with outsiders? We try to bring them back in.
So now this morning, we start with Peter’s response to this teaching. Remember, the teaching was very specific in methodology. It was very prescriptive. So Peter’s trying to get this all balanced and together in his head, so he asks how many times he’s supposed to forgive. Seven, maybe?
Remembering, of course, that Jesus just gave them a pattern of giving people a few chances before naming them outsiders. Seven seems like a high number here, since it sounded like 3 or 4 to the reader.
So pay attention to what Jesus says in response: 77.
If you’ve ever tried to make peace with someone, you know 7 is already a lot. But take a second to think about what 77 means for your brain.
If I asked you to do something multiple times, like stand up, walk to the kitchen for a glass of water, come back and sit down. Then get up and do it again. And again and again. Where would you lose track of how many times you did this? Seven times, maybe?
Seventy-seven or 7 times 70 may as well be 7000. It’s so far beyond what we can remember or keep track of. Jesus may as well have said forever.
Then Jesus uses this same idea in his “Parable of the Unforgiving Servant.”
The real account of the debt
Put the gospel story in front of you and see that once again Jesus is comparing the Kin-dom to something. Remember that the word compare does not mean “equals” or “is exactly like this”. Always keep that in mind.
The Kin-dom is compared to a king settling up debts with all his slaves. All sorts of alarm bells should be going off right now. Like these: how can a slave owe a king anything? They’re property! Or Jesus was just talking about not being a king, because kings are no good, so don’t get all cozy with this king. And especially remember what Jews think of debt and interest.
We’ve hardly gotten into the story and we’re already wondering about the relationship between this king and his slaves.
So this king is settling up with his slaves and right at the beginning, there’s this one who owes him 1,000 talents. Let’s take a second to get perspective on what this number means.
What is a talent?
Talents are a measurement of gold or silver and are considered the largest unit of measurement, some suggesting that 1 talent is worth 6,000 denarii. One denarius is about a day’s wage. So one talent is probably worth 6,000 days of work. That’s 20 years of labor. For one talent.
This man owes 1,000 of them to the king.
That’s why the man drops to his knees to beg for forgiveness. Payment was coming due. And this is the debt the king erased. That’s like wiping out a billion dollars. So that’s a big deal.
The slave is freed from bondage and a billion dollar obligation. An impossible sum to repay. The most well-off among us don’t have a billion of liquidity.
The First Turn
So the man who begged for forgiveness of a billion dollar debt is on his way out. And here is where the story gets really weird. He’s now free. And he runs into another slave getting ready to settle debts with the king and this guy owes him money. This is probably on top of what’s owed the king. How much is it?
100 denarii. So less than a billion. But that’s 100 days worth of wages, so at the low-end let’s say $10 thousand. That’s for a day laborer. Of course, that slave doesn’t have that kind of cash on him. None of them have checking accounts and even if they did, chances are a $10,000 check from a day laborer is gonna bounce.
The freedman grabs the other slave by the neck, threatens him, and the slave begs. Just like he did. But the freedman is showing no mercy. He throws him in jail. There’s no court. No lawyers, judges, or juries. He puts the slave in prison over a debt.
The Second Turn
We all see the problem, of course. The king showed mercy on the first slave who then didn’t show mercy on the second. Seems straightforward. But Jesus isn’t done.
The other slaves see what happened, tell the king, and the king rescinds the offer and punishes the first slave until he can repay that original billion dollar debt. Now: The End.
Here’s where I remind you that this is not an image of the Kin-dom and this king isn’t God. We compare this image to the Kin-dom and this king to God.
And rather than show mercy 77 times, the king in the story thinks once is enough. This is nothing like God, who wipes out billion dollar debts like a cook at the kitchen counter. Over and over. Once? Please. That’s small time.
Those are the story’s two obvious turns. A mercy for an impossible debt is shown to a slave, freeing him. So the first turn is that the freedman himself sends another slave to a debtor’s prison. And the second turn is that slave gets punished for his lack of mercy.
But we’ve overlooked a really important question the story doesn’t seem to directly answer.
The Underlying Problem
Why do these slaves owe impossible sums to the king and why does one slave owe a pretty impossible sum to another slave?
Both of these numbers are huge sums of money for day laborers to owe anyone. And in this way, both sums are beyond the ability for them to pay. There is no difference between a 1000 talent debt and a 100 denarii debt if you can’t pay either one on the peanuts you make.
And because of that fact, the world Jesus describes in this parable is truly frightening. Where slaves owe the king and each other impossible sums, which can be collected at a moment’s notice under the threat of imprisonment.
This isn’t just a parable about simple mercy. This is a parable which shows what a world looks like when we are free to exploit each other with unlimited abandon.
And remember that they’re Jews! These are people whose society isn’t just a poster for Dave Ramsey’s no-debt lifestyle, but one which is supposed to see indebting another person as a grave sin. It’s stealing from them to indebt them.
The king’s mercy and quick retraction are preceded by a vicious and inhuman exploitation of his slave. What the slave does with his mercy is show that same cruelty to another slave rather than the one-off blessing of a momentarily decent king.
The villain in this story isn’t an ungrateful slave, but a nasty and greedy king.
Millennials and debt
This week, as I was praying over this gospel, I caught an NPR story about Millennials and debt. And when these sorts of synergies happen, you have to follow them out. And this is the opening line of the story:
The projected net worth for a graduate in the class of 2016 is -$33,984. And yes, that’s a negative net worth.
Our college students are leaving school with a $34,000 stumbling block.
Millennials owe over $1.1 trillion of the country’s $3.6 trillion of consumer debt. And the average person under 35 in the country is carrying $82,500 in debt: in student loans, credit cards, and car payments.
Millennial net worth is half what it was at the same age for baby boomers.
This generation is paying astronomically more for college than people did two generations ago, while employment after graduation is at wages far below what they were two generations ago.
Millennials cite debt and their inability to pay off the debt due to unpaid internships, job insecurity, and low entry-level wages as the primary reason they put off marriage and children, moving away from home, and other signs previous generations used for “starting a life”.
They report high levels of anxiety and depression and a profound sense of hopelessness. Because the debt is beyond their capacity to repay it. It may as well be a billion dollars.
A friend of mine, a late Gen Xer, nearly 40, has seen his student loans shift into an unpayable rate. And other friends are discovering that the payments they’re making are designed to not touch the principle.
Jesus isn’t just saying to forgive someone who said a mean thing to you. He’s talking about real mercy. Deep, from the bones, scared that you don’t know how you’re going to pay your mortgage, but you’ll be damned if you let them lose their house mercy.
Peter asks him how many times to forgive someone who has messed up the community, betrayed our trust, and shown a vile character and Jesus tells him to just keep forgiving. Just keep finding a way to restore that person to community.
But he doesn’t stop there. He tells a story about how to compare, how to contrast that image of a blessed community trying to reconcile to the vile community of selfish greed and irregular mercy. Where mercy is at the whim of the powerful and everyone is burdened by debt to everyone else.
And as we see in our own stories, the stories of our friends and loved ones, the stories of students and professors and staff, and the stories of the homeless and the working poor, the heavy, heavy cost of debt is our biggest stumbling block. Like our compulsion to worry more about what we’re owed than what it is to let that debt go.
For one another and our culture. Because that image from the gospel is not a picture of the Kin-dom. But for a lot of us, it looks like our world. Where debts are unpayable and insurmountable and the burden to bear them is heavy, exhausting, and crushing.
This is why we forgive. 77 times. 7000 times. It doesn’t matter. That’s what Jesus is pointing us toward. That’s where he’s trying to take us. Away from selfishness and to a new understanding of mercy.
Just keep forgiving. You can try to count, but you’ll lose track. Because you’re not keeping score anymore. Your counting mercies. Forgiveness. Love.
Just count that. And you can be like our Lord and Liberator: freeing people from their debt.