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A Different Part to Play

A sermon on Matthew 18: 21-35

[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Javier Allegue Barros on Unsplash.]

Well, we are back in the same space! I get to look into these faces that I love as I preach.

AND we have a parable in our gospel reading! As I have mentioned once or twice (or twenty times), I love to explore the parables by “playing all the parts.” The process of intentionally taking on the different viewpoints of the various characters is a powerful way to help us mine the layers of meaning in Christ’s teaching. This seems to be the perfect opportunity to do something out of the box and invite you all into “playing the parts.”

Except… I don’t want you to play these parts!

The first servant is repellant! Who goes from a life-transforming moment of grace, straight to the merciless destroying of someone else’s life? It’s heinous! Not to mention, I don’t imagine any of us want to be associated with his opening scene either… the absolute helplessness of owing a debt that could not be repaid in 100 lifetimes? No thank you!

The second servant is less morally reprehensible, but he doubles down on the powerlessness. His pleas for mercy, or even for time to repay, are ignored. He suffers violence and imprisonment. I don’t want to see any of you in him.

The other servants are perhaps the most relatable. After all, they mirror our role as observers of the drama, and they give voice to our horror at the injustice of the first servant’s actions. But in so doing, they catch us out… because Jesus is telling a parable about forgiveness, not retributive justice. By longing for the first servant to get what he deserves, we are hardly forgiving seventy-seven times!

Then there is the king. He shows extravagant mercy… but he ends up taking it back and torturing the first servant in retribution for that servant’s mercilessness. So, where does that leave us?

Well, it leaves me confronting the message that I think Jesus wants us to hear in this parable: the message that the ESSENTIAL community-building work of forgiveness is hard, messy, vulnerable work that is going to make us uncomfortable.

Please believe me, on our first Sunday back in the sanctuary I want to preach a joy-filled, comfort-giving sermon. I know how tired and worn we all are. I know our nerves are on edge from the isolation and anxiety in our real lives and the divisiveness in the virtual spheres that still connect us. I know that we are – none of us – probably functioning at our best, and while that might mean we need forgiveness in one of more contexts, we don’t have the emotional reserves to manage hard conversations well.

It would be so much more manageable if we could just go with Peter’s solution. “Give us a number Jesus. Break forgiveness down into a simple formula that we can track on a chart. That’ll give me a little much needed structure and I will know where I stand.”

But Christian community isn’t math class and forgiveness isn’t something we “do” as a discrete activity. Forgiveness is as complicated, and exposing, and challenging, and uncomfortable as this parable.

But in all that messiness, I think the parable does have much helpful, meaningful teaching to offer us.

And I think we can find that teaching by asking four questions that emerged in my study of the text this week:[1]

Question 1: Where does forgiveness start?

Our human instinct in most challenges is to start with ourselves, but the parable re-orients that expectation. The problem with the first servant’s mercilessness is not framed according to his unwillingness to forgive a debt in the abstract. It is his unwillingness to forgive AFTER he has been forgiven.

Which means that the forgiveness to which Jesus calls us doesn’t start with our action.

We are not called upon to magically create internal reserves of mercy, or reprogram patterns of retributive justice. Rather, our call to forgiveness starts with being grounded in the truth that we are forgiven by God, and this mercy transforms our response to others.

Which prompts us to ask Question 2: What keeps us from offering compassion and mercy to others when we have received so much?

I think the answer from this parable is that we disconnect from the forgiveness we receive far too easily. The parable is shocking because of how it juxtaposes the extravagant forgiveness of the king with the refusal to forgive by the servant– it seems unthinkable. But, really, it’s only shocking in the scale. We all practice this kind of convenient forgetfulness every day.

In the abstract I know I am sinful. I can always think of things to confess at the font in our opening prayer, but I avoid staying in that mental space. It’s uncomfortable to feel the weight of my own wrongs.

The problem is, when I avoid the negative feelings that come from recognizing my own sin, I also lose the power of my own forgiveness. I forget that I am free! And so, the faults of others stay dangerous … because their guilt is a reminder of my own. Rather than recognizing our common ground, it’s far more comfortable to stand in a place of judgement or anger, focused on the wrong they have done; and dissociating from the forgiveness I did not earn.

So, we must ask Question 3: How might we become as aware of our own capacity to sin against others as we are of the capacities of others to sin against us?

The parable offers us less direct help with this question, but I think there is still a lesson. In the parable, the unmerciful servant is confronted in his failure to forgive because the other servants carry the tale back to the King. That doesn’t work out so well.

But what if, instead, they had approached their fellow-servant the way that Jesus exhorted us to in last week’s gospel? What if they had called him in to compassion, and mercy, and love? What if they had built, together, a culture that embraced the vulnerability of admitting our failures, and letting down our defenses, and trusting that we can heal together, through God’s grace?

Could the parable have ended differently? Could we live differently, in a way that breaks the patterns of anger, and defensiveness, and unforgiveness in our lives and in our communities?

I hope the answer is yes, because otherwise, I don’t know how to answer Question 4: Why does the parable end with punishment?

If there is another possibility, then the parable is descriptive, not proscriptive: it is showing the natural consequences when forgiveness is not shared… when each person is out for themselves… and when justice is only about revenge, and not about healing. If that is true, then, Jesus is showing us NOT God’s will, but the inevitable hell that we create for ourselves when we want to limit forgiveness.

As my former professor, Bishop Borsch writes: “those who remain angry and determined to get what they feel they deserve without showing mercy may well find that they can no longer experience the effects of forgiveness in their own lives. In many situations in life people are not so much punished for their sins as by their sins.”[2]

But I think Jesus wants us to finish the story differently, with mercy, and vulnerability, and hope… rather than with suffering and revenge. I think he wants this for us especially when we are drained, and anxious, and set on edge by perpetual divisiveness. Now is when we need this teaching most of all!

So no, I don’t want you all to play any of the parts in this parable. I believe Jesus has far better, more forgiving, more healing parts for us to play.

Thanks be to God.

[1] The second and third questions are directly shaped by the commentary of Audrey West on Working Preacher: Audrey West. [2] Frederick Borsch, Many Things in Parables: Extravagant Stories of New Community, p.95.

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