Jesus uses our normal, everyday stuff to make us into more loving, holy people. If this is true, why, when asked about forgiveness, does he tell a story about money? Why not speak about a courtroom? Forgiveness of sins and wrongs is usually something that’s handled in the courtroom, not over a book of bank accounts.
Jesus says this man owes “ten thousand talents.” Some of you may have a note in your Bible that a “talent” is worth about fifteen years wages. So let’s do the math and put it in today’s terms. Fifteen years wages multiplied by ten thousand and adjusting for currency exchange and inflation comes out to approximately 1.5 gazillion dollars. This man owes a comical amount of money. He couldn’t repay it in twenty thousand lifetimes.
How on earth does someone run up such a tab? It’s a natural question, if we know how someone wound up in their bad situation maybe we can figure out how to get them out. Sometimes we do so sympathetically. Maybe this slave grew up in poverty. He took out loans to provide for his family when he lost his job. Then his daughter got sick so he needed more. Then he started a business just before the market crashed. Things only compounded from there and each and every day the interest grew and grew until he found himself 1.5 gazillion dollars in the hole.
But maybe it was irresponsibility that led him there. He never practiced financial responsibility. He didn’t budget. He spent money on expensive clothes and food that he and his family really didn’t need. He lived in a far nicer house than he should have for someone with so little income. He and his wife should have waited to have kids until they were in a more financially stable place. Perhaps he had a gambling problem. Or maybe it was the “learned helplessness” of growing up in a home with parents that were dependent upon loans.
But this search for answers about this slave says so much more about those who do the seeking than it does about the ones who are in need. Looking for answers shows us that while we want people to help people in impossibly tough times, we really want to know just how far we ought to go in helping. Like Peter, we need to calculate out just how many times we ought to forgive before we decide we’ve had enough.
This king, initially, does exactly what he’s supposed to: orders the man and his entire family to be sold. Because if the man can’t pay his debt, the king needs to cut his losses and get whatever return he can.
So up to this point we can see two things. First, for those in debt and those they owe, it doesn’t really matter where the debt comes from. The king has no interest in making sure the man was given a fair loan at a reasonable interest price. We don’t know if he did a credit check on the slave. The slave owes him money that he can’t possibly pay, and the king is unconcerned with how fair that amount is.
Second, debt is about the ability to control others. If you owe me money, I can tell you what to do, where to go. I can re-posses your car, garnish your wages or kick you out of your house.
Debt is about control because our debt ties in with our morality. Our entire way of life only makes sense if people repay their debts. Our businesses, real estate, and our universities all hold together on one single principle: good people repay their debts.
Peter wants to know how many times he ought to forgive, but he doesn’t see that the question of quantity for Jesus’ followers depends on the depth of God’s forgiveness to us. When we recognize ourselves as forgiven, then we stop nitpicking over how many times we ought to forgive others and that challenges everything. Jesus uses money and debt because money sits right at the heart of morality, our economics, our entire way of life.
This man is forgiven, and we’re given just as little information about why the king forgives as we are where the debt came from. The king has released control of the slave only because he pities him. He’s not going to use his power over him to get what he wants, what he deserves.
This king has a very different way doing things. His kingdom doesn’t depend on debt, but on mercy.
The preacher Will Campbell once told the story of a poor family of farmers from Oklahoma during the Great Depression.
The Oklahoma family moved wearily along a country road in the springtime and stopped at a wealthy landowner’s house in Mississippi. They had walked from Oklahoma through Louisiana and arrived at this man’s house with no food, no money, and only the clothes they were wearing and the few things they could carry.
The Oklahoma family told the Mississippi farmer, “We know how to work the land, but we have no land to work. We lost all that we owned.”
“I’ll let you use a share of my land,” the Mississippi farmer replied.
“We have no shelter,” they said
“See that creek? If you follow it to the back side of the clearing you will find a small house you can live in.” he told them.
“We’ll need furniture.”
“There are beds there. A table and chairs and a few other pieces. Use them as if they were your own.”
“We have no team. No tools to plow and cultivate the fields. No fertilizer. Not even seeds for planting.”
“All that’ll be provided,” the Mississippi farmer told them. “I’ll even buy you clothes and shoes and straw hats to shield you from the sun. And food enough to get you through the season.”
Throughout the summer their needs were met and when autumn came and it was time for the land to rest the harvest was bountiful. There was cotton to sell, corn for bread, dried fruits and beans for winter. They came again to the farmer’s house. “We are moving on,” they said. “Before we go we have come to ask if we owe you anything.”
“You owe me everything,” the farmer said. “The land, seeds, food, teams and tools. I owned it all. You brought nothing with you and you lived well at my expense. Everything you have you now owe to me.”
The dispirited sharecroppers turned to walk away. “But wait,” the Mississippi called. “You were strangers from a distant land and I took you in. I love you now. All of you. All that you have is yours to keep. I forgive the debt. You are free to go if you like. But you are also free to stay.”
Now our slave, recently released from his 1.5 gazillion dollar debt goes on to do what I imagine most of us would do in his situation: he tries to make money. He went from being under the power of debt, to being able to hold it over his fellow slave, and he was fully prepared to take advantage of that opportunity. As we all know, good people repay their debts and this slave couldn’t just let his friend off the hook that easy.
Freed from that debt, the unforgiving slave could now start turning a profit. He no longer had to make those pesky loan payments each month to his master. Lest any of us in this room believe we are so different from that ungrateful slave, think for just a moment if tomorrow your student loan bill was paid off or someone told you they’d be making your house payments or that you no longer owed a dime on your car. I would love to think that I would then take any extra profit I made and give it to the poor or perhaps my church, but I know myself too well. I enjoy the control just a little too much to forgive those who owe me.
Where on earth do we see this kind of unforgiveness in our world today? Where do we see debt used to control those with less power? I believe we see it on the streets when we’re asked for money. We see it in our homeless shelters and our segregated schools. We see it in the myriad of ways that the rich in our world hold a debt over the heads of the poor. It may not always look like money, but it always looks like control.
Our world demands a debt be paid by the poor. If they’re going to ask for money, they better spend it in the right place. If the poor want a handout, well then they owe us a good story, a success story and we won’t give to them if they aren’t ready to deliver. Our charity is reserved for those who will be successful, those who will be able to pay the loan back. Maybe they can’t repay it monetarily, but they have to repay it with hard work, job skills training, parenting classes.
I had a recent conversation with a new acquaintance. When I told him that a part of my role at the church was working with those in financial need, he asked me, “So do you tell them to get financial counseling classes?” I said, “Absolutely not,” and made up some excuse about how someone with as many student loans as myself probably wasn’t in a position to point anyone towards financial counseling. But what I really wanted to say was this: “As much as I can, I try not to reserve my charity to the poor based on anything other than their need and what I have. I do so only because I am forgiven and giving to them is the most forgiving thing I can think to do in return.”
As Will Campbell tells it, the Oklahoma family prospered under the Mississippi Farmer. Each year their land yielded good harvest and each year it was theirs to keep. One winter they brought their own plot of land across the river. It was rich bottomland with teams of strong, young mules and many cattle. They hired illiterate workers to plant, cultivate, and harvest the fields, and tend the herds. They charged them exorbitant interest on the provisions they supplied, placed secret weights on the scales to deceive them and The Oklahoma family left their immigrant workers further in debt at year’s end than they were at the beginning.
What does forgiveness like this look like in our world today?
One year ago this week, a young white man named Dylan Roof attended a Wednesday night Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. As the Bible study came to a close, he pulled out a gun and murdered nine members of the church. In the aftermath and at his trial, family members of the slain in a remarkable act of courage offered forgiveness to Roof. In court, the daughter of one of the murdered victims said to Roof, “I forgive you. You took something very precious away from me. I will never get to talk to her ever again, but I forgive you.” And in the wake of the shooting in Orlando, many of the survivors of the victims will be implored to forgive the shooter just as the survivors of the victims of that church in Charleston did.
Their forgiveness was an act of moral courage I would probably be incapable of. In their own way, they followed Jesus to his cross from which he looked out at his killers and prayed “Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing.”
And while that kind of forgiveness is certainly similar to what we heard in our passage today, I want to suggest that the forgiveness of one’s enemies, one’s persecutors is not the kind of forgiveness Jesus is talking about here. So people use this passage to tell the victims of violence that they ought to forgive their assailant. Speaking about forgiveness in that context has its place, but it’s not what Jesus is getting here. This discussion about forgiveness is happening amongst Jesus’ followers about how they should treat one another specifically who is the greatest amongst them. This passage is not about how to deal with extraordinary acts of violence, but how to deal with the every day ways we try to get a measure of control over each other, even in the church. This passage tells us that those who give up control are acting the most responsibly in this new kingdom.
A few months ago, I attended a racial equity training along with Alan, our head pastor, and Kim, our missions pastor. While leading a discussion on poverty, a police captain from Charlotte said that he and his officers had to make a hard and fast decision when interacting with poor people in their community.
“We had to decide we wouldn’t blame poor people for being poor. Full stop. We were not going to judge their purchases or their lifestyles. We had to decide that no person is poor because of anything they’ve done.”
What this passage tells us is precisely that: within the walls of this church, the poor do not deserve their poverty. Full stop. No excuses. It’s a discipline, for sure, to claim that we won’t blame the poor for their poverty. Because the poor, spend money on things they don’t need. In this way, they’re actually unremarkably similar to the rich. We will always be tempted to say, “But good people repay their debts!
And frankly, it won’t make sense to those that are rich. Because the correlate to saying “the poor don’t deserve their poverty,” is that the wealthy don’t deserve their riches. Full stop. Like that slave who owes 1.5 gazillion dollars or that Oklahoma family, there is absolutely nothing we have done or could do, no measure of hard work, no sly business deals, no parenting classes to earn what we have. God forgave us and we are in no position to withhold that forgiveness from others.
We are only free to give when we believe that we are forgiven and to believe that is to take a risk particularly for those whose sense of self comes from holding control over others. James Baldwin writes, “One can give nothing whatever without giving oneself – that is to say, risking oneself. If one cannot risk oneself, then one is simply incapable of giving.” To forgive the debts of others is to risk losing ourselves, our entire system of reality that says that good people repay their debts. But it is also to find ourselves. To know that we are truly free to give and forgive, to relinquish the control of debt because we are forgiven by one greater than all of our fears.
Every year, the Oklahoma family saved a part of their earnings out of fear for the day when the Mississippi farmer would come and demand that they repay him their debts. When they were finally convinced that he would never do so they gave the money to the cheated immigrants, divided up the land and cattle with them, forgave them all of their debts and became their neighbors.
Maybe it’s true that good people repay their debts. But it’s even more true that God’s people forgive them.