Ralph Waldo Emerson once observed, “Money, which represents the prose of life, and which is hardly spoken of in parlors without an apology, is, in its effects and laws, as beautiful as roses.” [“Nominalist and Realist”] Emerson was an idealist thinker, but he knew a powerful symbol when he saw one. Money is what our culture has invented to represent value. Despite our queasiness in talking of it publicly, money is the perfect figure for things of God and the spirit. It’s no wonder that Jesus uses money figuratively in so many of his parables. Money stands for what we hold precious. As Wallace Stevens, another great Emersonian thinker, said, “Money is a kind of poetry.” [Adagia]
Now this is not a stewardship sermon, so relax: I’m not going to hit you up for a contribution. That will come next month. But I begin with these thoughts about money this morning because, in the Gospel reading we just heard [Matthew 18: 21-35], Jesus uses money (precious in itself) to stand for something even more precious: forgiveness. Aside from the poetic connotations of cash, why might Jesus have used it to represent something ineffable and divine?
One reason might be the problem of scale. How do we finite humans conceive of things on God’s terms? God’s vantage point is so much different than ours. I think Jesus came up with money as the only way he could represent the vastness of God’s perspective, and the pettiness of ours.
In the story which Jesus tells this morning, a king forgives an enormous debt: ten thousand talents is equivalent in Jewish Palestine to several lifetimes’ worth of income. It’s an absurd figure to begin with. The slave owes the king, say, $10 million, an amount he could never possibly repay. When the slave asks the king for forgiveness, he is released from his debt. His life and his future lie open before him.
The problem of scale next arises in the amount that the slave then tries to extract from a fellow slave. The second slave owes the first “a hundred denarii”, equivalent at most to a week’s wages. He also begs for forgiveness, but unlike the king, the first slave is merciless and has the second thrown into prison.
So there we have it. The king forgives an enormous debt, the slave enforces a petty one. Hmm? What spiritual condition might all this talk about money be taken to represent?
When we talk about human sin, we tend to think of it as an act or series of actions. But sin is really more of a condition, an orientation, than it is something we do. I am a sinner, not because I eat meat on Fridays but because I'm caught inside the fiction of my own separate identity. I'm more convinced of my own reality than I am of yours.
One of the ways this plays out is in my own awareness of the experience of forgiveness. I am quick to keep an account sheet of the wounds and insults I have received. I slower to tote up the injuries I have inflicted. And I am in a near-constant state of oblivion about the grace and forgiveness that are constantly being extended to me by the world, others, and God. As the recipient of great gifts, I am a miser when it comes to sharing them.
It is this sinful, willful, forgetful, stingy selfishness that is on Jesus's mind when he tells this parable of forgiveness. The first slave has received a gift of invaluable worth. He has been forgiven an incredible, gigantic amount. But rather than live his life in thanksgiving for that bounty, he in turn extracts repayment of a pittance from another.
Translation: I am the beneficiary of enormous cosmic largesse. I have been given life, love, an abundance of relationships and gifts, none of which I have earned on my own. As the recipient of so much generosity, why am I still so reticent to extend it to others?
Matthew tells us that this is a parable about forgiveness. But with respect to the author's intentions, it is really about more than that. It is a parable about our orientation to the universe. In this story, God is obviously the king. He has given and forgiven abundantly. You and I are the first slave in the story. We have received grace and forgiveness. In every relationship and interaction we have a choice to make. Will we be mindful of the extent of what we have already been given and forgiven, or will be like the guy born on third base who thought he hit a triple?
Jesus's story of the unforgiving slave helps orient us in the universe and gives us some direction for living our lives in our families, in our communities, in our world.
The king was able to forgive the first slave because of his empathy and compassion. He could feel with the slave in all his guilt and sorrow. The first slave could not extend similar empathy to the second slave because he was devoid of compassion. When I come into conflict with others, it is usually because I am more concerned with justifying myself than with understanding the other. That's true for me as a husband, father, colleague, and friend. It is also true for me as a citizen.
The parable of the unforgiving slave asks that I do two things: it asks that I find ways to remind myself of the extent to which I am the beneficiary of God's abundance, grace, and forgiveness. The other night, I heard this quotation from the great Roman orator Cicero: "Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others." To the extent that I can root my orientation toward life in gratitude and not resentment I will be open to what someone else feels, thinks, and believes. I will begin to care about their pain and grief and fear if not as much as my own, at least more than I do now.
And here's the second thing this parable asks that I do. It asks that I try to be just a little bit more like the king than I am usually prone to be. It asks that I be not only reactively grateful but proactively generous. Christianity is a pragmatic and not an ideological religion. It cares more about how we behave than about what we think. The best way that I can follow Jesus is not just to agree with him but to act like him. Over the course of a lifetime of imitating Jesus, I won't become him, but I will eventually turn into the person that God made me to be.
You and I were born on third base. We didn't hit a triple. As we follow and imitate Jesus and the king he describes in our story we will pull our families, friends, and our neighbors along the base paths, so that all of eventually can reach home. Amen.