An Impossible Parable
Enough about forgiveness, right? For a third week in a row the text deals with it. Don't we understand forgiveness by now? Sure, until we hear this parable. Unless we see the impossibility throughout this parable, we don't rightly understand forgiveness.
The parable begins with our impossible debt to God. No matter how badly we feel about our sins; no matter if we say in the Lord's Prayer "forgive us our debts," not one of us thinks we owe God as much as we really do. No, our house mortgage is a bigger debt, a bigger burden, a bigger bother than our debt of sin. Jesus explodes the view that our sins may be bad but not that bad by picturing our debt of sin as 10,000 talents. In ancient times, a talent was the largest currency unit, and 10,000 was the highest number used to count. The Persians offered to buy off Alexander the Great with 10,000 talents. Cicero estimated the total revenue of a ruler of his day to be 12,500 talents. Josephus says the total yearly tax for all Judea was only 600 talents.
You've seen or heard those commercials. "Drowning in credit card debt," "Can't make your house payment?" Can you feel the weight? Maybe you know the weight. But do you know the weight of your sins? Do you know what you owe God? An amount you can never, ever repay. No matter how hard you try, how sincere you are, how good you are in the eyes of others, you owe God more than you could repay even if you spent eternity trying.
That's impossible. Your debt can't be that much. You come to Church every Sunday. You don't cheat on your spouse. You take care of your kids. You're not a terrorist, a pervert, an unbeliever. No, you're St. Peter. And with him you're told that your debt of sin is 10,000 talents.
Your sins against God are impossibly big, and the sins of others against you are impossibly small. They are represented as 100 denarii. There are 60 million denarii in 10,000 talents. Does that seem right? Is the person abused as a child supposed to think as an adult they were sinned against that little? What about the adult who is so badly wronged on the job? What about the teen whose life is marred by a drunk driver? Are they all supposed to believe they've been sinned against a mere pittance compared to their sins against God?
The world says, "No." The world believes if you've been abused as child, raised by drunks, hurt by a dishonest spouse, cheated by a friend, wronged by a boss, then you have a license. You have a license not to believe in God, to be bitter against God, and above all a license not to forgive. You have a license to stand at the mountain of sin against you and rub everybody else's face in it saying, "Look at all the crap that has happened to me, and tell me that I don't have a right to be bitter, unbelieving, and unforgiving." And coward that I am, I usually don't, but Jesus clearly does. Whatever hurt, injury, or sin against you your nursing, protecting, going back to for justification it is tinny, tiny compared to your sins against God.
I told you this is an impossible parable. There's impossible debt and impossible responses to debt. See the compassion, mercy, forgiveness given to one who still thinks he can repay his debt to God. Those of you who think your believing in Jesus causes God to forgive your sins think again. When the man who owes God 10,000 talents is called to give account, he begs not for mercy but patience, not for forgiveness but time to repay. He believes he can repay God for His sins. You believe that and you're not a Christian. You're a self-righteous unbeliever, yet what does God do in the parable, "The Lord of that slave being compassionate released him and (literally) forgave his debt."
You do realize this is how it went for you? Long before you ever came to Christ, long before you ever started coming to church, giving to church, or confessing Jesus as Savior, God the Father had an impossible response to your huge debt of sin. He put it on His Son, covered Him with it in fact. Jesus had your I.O.U's all over His body. Your IOU for not trusting God to do only good things for you. Your IOU for using God's holy name as an exclamation point. Your IOU for not holding the preaching and teaching of God's Word as sacred. Your IOUs for sins against authority, sexuality, property, reputation, and life were all there, and Paul says in Colossians 2, "God set them aside, nailing them to the cross."
How happy we are when someone unexpectedly forgives a debt. Even when the clerk says, forget about the nickel we're grateful. Imagine if the bank forgave your house note or credit card debt without asking, without you believing they could or would. They would never do that, but God did. He had an impossible response to your debt of sin; He freely forgave it.
The man forgiven in the parable also had an impossible response to a debt owed him. Can you believe it? How could a person forgiven 230,769 years of work demand repayment of the 100 days owed him? No one could be that hardhearted, that mean spirited after having received that much mercy. Nobody but someone who sees the sins against him as mountains and his sins against God as molehills; nobody but someone who believes God forgives their debt because they believe, because they repent enough, or because they try their best not to sin. That person hasn't received any mercy from God. He thinks he has received his due, and so has no qualms about getting what is due him from others. They will repay; they won't be forgiven until they deserve it as I have.
In a parable of impossibilities, there's one more. There's an impossibly happy ending. How so? The parable ends with the unforgiving man turned over not to "jailers" but "tormenters" until he pays back what he never will be able to. Then Jesus says ominously: "This is how My heavenly Father will treat each of you unless your forgive your brother from your heart." None of this mumbled, "I forgive you"; none of forgiving someone but still holding them responsible. None of the words coming from your mouth but not your heart. And that's impossible. I can't do this. That's why I stumble when someone who has been hugely sinned against shows me the mountain of sin against them. It's impossible for me to believe that smaller sins against me are molehills. It's impossible for me to think of forgiving them from my heart let alone someone with real mountains to forgive from theirs.
This is the conclusion Jesus is leading us to: nothing short of a new heart, a different heart is able to forgive others, and who but God can give that? He gives us a new heart by paying off our unpayable debt of sin, by forgiving us even when others or we ourselves won't, can't forgive. But in order to do that He has first to make us conscious of our debt. He does this by the Law. His perfect Law shows us our sins by showing us that anything less than perfect obedience is total sin. His Law terrorizes us. It won't let us rest on our best efforts, our excuses, our giving to church, our going to church, or our believing. Nothing is good enough in the Law's eyes to repay God. Nothing we have, do, or suffer can repay our debt of sin.
The terrified slave confessed the debt of sin he had been hiding from himself even though he was stuck on repaying. This is many of you. You are stuck on repaying God. You come to church to do something for God; your offering is a debt reduction; you think God looks down and sees your faith in Jesus and is pleased and so forgives you. You are stuck on repayment and no mercy or forgiveness can come from such heart because it's still under the Law. It views God as a debt collector rather than a debt forgiver.
Remember who needed to learn this parable. Not a tax collector, prostitute, or open sinner, but Peter, the chief apostle. He was stuck on believing forgiveness was an exception with God not a rule. Forgiveness was a thing to be measured when with God it is immeasurable. Jesus says, via the parable, to Peter, if you want to start measuring, start with your sins against God and compare them to others sins against you. Then only will you be able, as the Psalmist invites to "Taste and see that the Lord is good."
The unforgiving slave tasted no such thing. How about you? Do you see God's tender mercies over all His works as another Psalmist says or do you see mercy as the exception and not the rule? When I say to you from Psalm 107, "O give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good," do you believe what you chant back, "And His mercy endureth forever?" That's radical stuff. Peter believed the Lord's mercy might endure 7 times. That was 4 times more than the Rabbi's taught someone could be forgiven, but Jesus blows Peter's mind by saying, "Not 7 times but 77 times."
This exact phrase occurs in the Greek translation of the OT. It says that if the wicked Cain would be avenged 7 times, the wickeder Lamach would avenge himself 77 times. As among the wicked there is no limit to hatred and vengeance so among Christians there is to no limit to mercy and forgiveness. As among the wicked there is room for mercy only where justice allows it, among Christians there is room for justice only where mercy allows it. St. Augustine believed that Luke counted 77 generations from Adam to Christ in his genealogy because of this parable. "So then if no generation was omitted, there is no exception of any debt that ought not to be forgiven," says Augustine.
Therefore, I say: go from here with the Lord's forgiveness washing over your body like clear Water, ringing in your ears like bells of Glad Tidings, and hanging thickly on your lips like sweet Wine. Use the forgiveness of your sins as a lens to look at life. You'll find it works like a funhouse mirror. In your forgiveness God's mercy is reflected back to you as huge, your sins small, and the sins of others as smaller still. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost(20080907); Matthew 18: 21-35