Facing Our Forgiveness
Category: Bishop's Sermons
Speaker: The Rt Rev Mark D.W. Edington
Tags: discipleship, forgiveness, talent, cost, denarii, frankfurt
September 17, 2023 • The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
The Church of Christ the King • Frankfurt, Germany
Text: Matthew 18:33: “Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave,
as I had mercy on you?”
Sometimes the stories from the Gospels present us with what seems to be a grand metaphor, inviting us or challenging us to draw the connections between the images and characters in the story and the message, the kerygma, that Jesus is setting before us in our own time and place. Sometimes they sound uncannily like current events, simply told in another time and place.
Sometimes they sound like comedy; and sometimes they sound like tragedy. This morning’s story falls on my ears like that—genuine tragedy. It is the tragedy of a missed opportunity to live the way of love. It is the tragedy of failing to share what has been shared with us, which comes from our forgetfulness of all we have received.
This old story is so familiar to us that it’s far too easy to miss its power. Let’s start by just recalling the basic points of the story. At the center of the story are power relationships: Someone who is described as a king, a basilei, or a lord, a kyrios; and two people who are described in a subservient role, a doulon in the Greek—a slave, or servant.
And then there are debts that are owed. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the exchange rate between Euros and denarii and talents, let me provide a little help here. One denarius was a day’s wages. A talent was the equivalent of six thousand days’ wages—or somewhere between sixteen and twenty years’ wages.
Now, in Germany, the standard number of working days in a year is 230; and the average annual wage, as of last year, is €45,457. That means the average daily wage here in Germany is €198 per day.
So that means of the two debts mentioned in the story, the one owed by one servant to a fellow servant was a hundred denarii, or a hundred days’ wages, or about €19,800; and the debt owed by the other servant to his king was ten thousand talents, or ten thousand times six thousand average daily wages, or, well, a very large number. (If you really want to know, and I know that you do, it’s €11,888,000,000.)
So what we are talking about, in rough terms, is the difference between twelve billion Euros and twenty thousand Euros. We’re talking about one debt that is six hundred thousand times smaller than the other. We’re talking about a debt that is unimaginably large; and one that is still heavy, but manageable.
That’s how all of this fell on the ears of the people around Jesus. They must have asked themselves—how on earth could that king have permitted anyone to accumulate such an enormous debt? I mean, talk about bad management.
But of course, the whole point of the story isn’t about money—right?
We live in Frankfurt. We are the banking center of Europe. We think in quantitative terms about everything. But in this story, the money isn’t the point. It’s just a clue, and nothing more.
It’s a clue to something else—the depth of sin to which all of us are liable, a depth that is exceeded only by the outrageous extent of the mercy of which God is capable.
The king calls that first servant in and says, well, I’m calling in the loan. If you can’t pay it, I will destroy you—you and all your whole family, everything you are and everything you love. As Jesus tells the story, his audience would think—well, yes, that sounds right. That’s the sort of justice we’ve learned about in the old stories.
The servant responds by asking for a workout deal. Look, you’ve trusted me with this much. Okay, some of these investments didn’t exactly work out, but I can manage my way out of this. That sounds no little bit like any number of corporate CEOs in the world today. It sounds like Elizabeth Holmes, or Sam Bankman-Fried, or Kenneth Lay, or any number of the directors of Credit Suisse.
But then something happens. The text says the king is moved to pity. In the old language of the Authorized Version, the king is “moved to compassion.” And he says something that to Jesus’s audience would have been nearly unbelievable. What he says is, forget about it. Forget about the twelve billion Euros. It’s okay. Let’s just erase it, and move on from here.
Now, let me say this again: This is not a story about money. This is a story about our capacity for causing injury to other human beings that imposes a cost, a degree of damage, that is almost beyond imagining. Not one of us is somehow incapable of causing that kind of injury. Whether by intention, or neglect, or accident, or oversight—all of us, each one of us, is capable of suddenly finding that we have accumulated a debt from hurting someone else, some group of other people, that we cannot possibly hope to repay—a debt that is utterly beyond our capacity to rectify.
And if I were a New England preacher of two hundred years ago, this is the point of the sermon at which I would be reminding you: whether or not you know it, each of us already has accumulated just such a debt; and each of us already has been forgiven that debt, by the life, passion, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. By the mercy of God. By the work of the Cross.
Here is the situation of that first servant. He has accumulated an unforgivable debt; he cannot possibly repay it; he has been faced with the very real prospect of utter and justified destruction; and it has all been forgiven. All of it. Simply swept away.
Why isn’t that the best possible news? Why is this in the end, a story of tragedy?
Well—for the simple reason that for some reason that forgiven servant doesn’t believe in his own forgiveness. He cannot accept that it has happened; he cannot face what it means, what it has to mean, for his own life.
And so when someone else who owes him a debt, a debt that is a trifle compared to his own, he can’t connect the mercy that has been given to him with any mercy extended to others. He doesn’t get it. The fact that he has been forgiven something so unimaginably large is—well—unimaginable to him.
That is the deepest sort of tragedy, because in the end it is a failure of both imagination and humilty. It is a lost opportunity, an opporunity for showing love that is lost in a colossal failure of self-awareness.
And my brothers and sisters, that—more often than we would care to admit—is our own circumstance as well. We don’t believe in our own forgiveness. Just maybe because we don’t really believe we need to be forgiven.
It is hard to face into our own forgiveness, the forgiveness we have already received, because we cannot do so without taking full account of the wrongs we have done. And we sure would rather not do that. We sure would prefer to avoid self-examination. We are much happier examining and judging others.
But you know, that is the absolute requirement of true discipleship in Christ. We cannot be disciples without first, last, and always being engaged in the discipline of self-examination. Because that is the only way we can finally begin to glimpse just how much has been done for us by God’s love. And only then can we walk in that way of love ourselves, let alone guide others along it.
If we fully faced into our own forgiveness, if we fully faced into our own need for the forgiveness we have already received from God, could we possibly be as resentful as we sometimes are? Could we possibly be as judgmental, or as petty, or as self-righteous as we sometimes are?
We cannot begin to show true forgiveness unless we are first prepared to receive, fully receive, the forgiveness we have been given. And we cannot begin to receive the forgiveness we have been given unless we are prepared to accept, fully accept, just how deeply, how profoundly, each of us, for our own reasons, for our own errors, stands in need of the mercy God has already shown us.
When the disciples as Jesus to teach them how to pray, remember that Jesus does not teach them to say, “Forgive those who have sinned against us as you have forgiven us.” No; what he teaches them is that our forgiveness in the end will depend in some way on our capacity to forgive others: “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us”—or, as our Presbyterian friends would have us say, “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”
Something about how our salvation gets worked out depends on our ability to forgive others. And that, in turn, depends on our ability to accept that we needed the forgiveness we have already received.
So much of our lives depends on our ability to face into that mercy, to accept it on God’s terms, and not ours. So much of our life in community together depends on our capacity for forgiving each other—and we cannot make even a beginning of that until we have accepted the forgiveness we have already received.
And so may our merciful God, who has given us so much, give us the courage to face our need for forgiveness; the willingness to accept it fully; and the grace to offer it just as generously as it has been given to us, to everyone with whom we share this journey. Amen.