Sunday, September 17, 2023 – Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
by The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden
Sermon preached by The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden
Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
This is one of those weeks when I (almost) wish I was a baptist or part of a tradition that didn’t have a set of prescribed readings in church…because I would NEVER have picked this Gospel to preach on today…I thought about ignoring it and just preaching on Paul’s letter to the Romans and continuing to build on the theme of “what is a community” that I preached on last week…but if I did that…then this really horrifying gospel would still be the elephant in the room…so we might as well face it. So let me say two things very clearly to everyone who is listening…
- As a priest…even as a fellow Christian…I would never tell someone who has been abused or traumatized that they had to forgive their abuser.
- Jesus is being ludicrously hyperbolic here—WAY over the top—…please do not hear this in the same voice as … The Beatitudes. Because it’s not. He’s not being Zen, spiritual teacher here. He’s being Flannery O’Connor, George A. Romero, Jordan Peele, and Rob Zombie all in one…Much less Mr. Miyagi, WAY more Cobra Kai. This isn’t a parable…this is a Blumhouse horror film about people who make painfully bad choices because of something broken inside them. Actually, if you want a version of this same parable with much less torture, but a lot more swearing (fair warning), I encourage you to watch (or rewatch) Ted Lasso and pay attention to the character arc of Nate Shelly, the much abused “kit-man” who gets promoted to assistant coach, then lashes out and leaves to become the manager of a rival team. His arc is very “unforgiving servant”-like…but unlike this parable also has some redemption at the end.
To give you an example of just how completely unhinged and over the top Jesus is being here…How much does the unforgiving “slave” owe? Ten thousand talents (you should be hearing Dr. Evil say this). In the first century, one talent was about 130 pounds of silver…so in today’s market…one talent would be just shy of $50,000…but in the first century that was like fifteen years wages worth of wages. Just one talent. But this poor schmo owes 10,000 of them…The other person…owes what? A hundred denarii? Ok, a denarius was about a days wage…so a hundred denarii is not insignificant, but not approaching mad billionaire territory either. One translation I read even ditches the ancient weights and measures, and just says, the second servant owed a hundred dollars, and the first owed ten million dollars. So we get the point…there’s an astronomical difference between the two debt…
The other thing to pay attention to…is that Jesus’ parables are really NOT allegories, but Matthew REALLY wants to make it one; where the debt = sin, and the king is God…and in doing that he’s following a long tradition of rabbinic interpretation…but I actually think there’s something else going on here. Because there’s another pared down, much more straightforward version of this tale(?) in Luke (7:41-43). Jesus is having dinner at the house of a Pharisee, and woman—known to be a sinner—comes in, bathes his feet with tears, washes them, and anoints them. The Pharisee and all his hoity-toity guests are of course vexed by this and so Jesus posits a small thought experiment. He says, “A certain creditor has two debtors; one owed five-hundred denarii, the other fifty. When they could not pay, the creditor canceled the debts for both of them. Now which one will love the creditor more?” Or we might say, which one would be more grateful? Pretty simple, right? Even the Pharisee gets this.
We will never know why Matthew thought it necessary to construct this horror show around this pretty basic teaching…but he did. Maybe his community was in the midst of some really dreadful conflict, and they were finding it impossible to move through—let alone forgive one another—so he crafted this allegory to scare them into doing better. I don’t know.
I do know that forgiveness is often hard. It’s not something that I’ve ever done easily…for small things, sure…but not bigger things. When the hurt is deep…it takes time and it takes work. And I’ve learned that if I don’t do that work—if I try to jump to forgiveness…too soon—it doesn’t work. And I find myself having to forgive over and over…sometimes seven…sometimes 77 times…Because I’m still all tangled up with the hurt…I’m still…bound to whoever hurt me…They’re living rent free in my head…holding my heart captive…constraining my soul. Forgiveness is really freedom…it means that you and who or whatever it was that hurt you are no longer bound together in the hurt.
That doesn’t mean just returning to the way things were, as if nothing happened. That short-circuits forgiveness as well. Forgiveness doesn’t diminish wrongs…what happened was wrong—it will always be wrong. The way the unforgiving servant treats his subordinate will always be wrong. To forgive does not mean to excuse…it means to stand firm in the truth that what happened was unjust and to not be forever tethered to that injustice. Forgiveness, to quote a trauma survivor, “is the healing of one’s own soul against an injustice.”
Forgiveness is also not the same thing as reconciliation. Forgiveness is in the moral/spiritual realm. Reconciliation is a strategy to modify behavior and rebuild trust. You can forgive someone and never reconcile with them (lots of people do this with parents and relatives who have passed on), and you can probably reconcile with someone and be in an ongoing relationship and never really forgive them…which also sounds hard…but…
I’ll restate what I said at the beginning…no one should ever be forced or coerced into forgiving…I do not believe that Jesus ever said the words, “so my heavenly father will do to everyone of you if you do not forgive from your heart.” I think that’s Matthew working through…something…
I have found, in my own life, that if you do the work…of grieving…and healing…and repairing…that there’s a kind of gravitational force to forgiveness. And it isn’t a thing that I give—it’s not a gift that I bestow upon anyone—it’s more like a place that I arrive at…or like something that arises in me…I become aware of being in a place of forgiveness… I become aware of a sense of freedom…a sense of no longer being bound…no longer being pursued by an army of shame, blame, ill-will, and hatred. And when I arrive at that place…the only response I can possibly have is profound, joyful, and abiding gratitude.