Year A Proper 19--Instruction Manuals or Relationship?
A Sermon Preached at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark
Exodus 14:19-31; Psalm 114; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35
The Reverend Canon Tyler B. Doherty, Canon Precentor
Here we are again with our friend and companion St. Peter who steps once more into the breach and asks the question that everyone’s afraid ask—how many times do I have to forgive someone who is a repeat offender? How often do I have to go on tolerating unacceptable behavior from someone who displays little recognition, remorse, or repentance for the harm they have caused? Both good, necessary, and heart-felt questions but Jesus doesn’t really answer them. Remember that whole process was discussed in last week’s readings which encouraged reaching out to the offender in love in an effort to integrate them back into the community and restore relationship. Even the instruction—“Let that one be to you as a gentile or tax collector”—which on its face seems like an instruction for expulsion, shunning, and excommunication—is a little more nuanced than we might first think. Ask yourself—how did Jesus behave around gentiles and tax collectors? Aren’t they singled out for his love and mercy precisely because of their exceedingly low status in the eyes of the dominant culture? Suddenly, treating someone like a gentile and a tax collector isn’t so much about washing one’s hands of someone once and for all, but being willing to pay the cost of love, and being willing to do the work of going out after the one who has strayed, of turning the house upside down in the search for the one who lost, and running out to meet them with our robes hiked up when their long-awaited figure appears over the crest in the road that’s been empty and lonesome for far too long.
But that was all last week. You might recall that there are different kinds of parables—“Go and do likewise” parables like the Good Samaritan that tell us what to do and how to behave, and “Kingdom” parables that evoke something of the nature of God—unconditional love, mercy and forgiveness. Peter’s question—“how often should I forgive?”—poses forgiveness as a human problem from a human perspective. Jesus responds, however, by pointing to the nature of God. Peter goes low, but Jesus goes high, if you will. Instead of getting an instruction manual on forgiveness, Peter gets told a parable that imaginatively plunges him into the overflowing magnanimity of God. Last week we heard the nuts and bolts description of how to heal broken relationships with those who have harmed us or the community. We got human explanations for a human problem understandable in human terms. This week, Jesus wants to reveal to us something about God in Godself, which is clearly why he chooses to tell us a parable. Jesus doesn’t give us a how, but implores us to get to know the who to whom he points and fully embodies without remainder. “Get your nose out of the bloomin’ how-to manual and be in relationship with the living God. Know your father, open to him, as I am open to him, and he will teach you how to forgive as you have already been forgiven,” he seems to say.
A brief word about the difference between allegories and parables. Crudely speaking, in an allegory, the thing described stands in a one-to-one relationship with the thing it describes. It’s a fixed and static relationship that often loses its evocative power once we “crack the code”—so to speak. There’s a reason, for example, that I’ve never picked up Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress after I got my magic decoder ring in the mail and saw that the journey of the story through the Slough of Dispond etc. was really the soul’s journey to God. It was a puzzle that once solved, lost its power to transform.
Parables, on the other hand, function in a totally different way, and it’s no mistake that Jesus as the poet of the Kingdom of God chooses this form to point directly to the nature of the one he calls Abba. Unlike allegories, parables can’t easily be dispensed with. They never settle into singular interpretations. They continually offer up new perspectives, pose different sets of questions, and unmake our made-up minds. That’s why parables are ideal vehicles for the word of God, which the author of the Letter to the Hebrews calls, “living and active.” Parables, in their stubborn resistance to our equally stubborn desire to possess, control, and pin-down God, are a great grace. They encourage us to open up and loosen our grip on the God we think we know so that the living God might have a chance to get a word in edgewise. “A poem,” says Wallace Stevens, “must resist the intelligence almost successfully.” Likewise with parables. They artfully elude us so that we might not settle down on own self-satisfied haunches and fool ourselves into thinking that how God works in the world is pretty much how we would run things—“Good call, God! I was thinking the same thing. High fives, Bro.” Parables elude our grasping fingers so that we might put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and not just put him in our pocket.
One of the tip-offs that we are reading a parable as an allegory, and approaching it more like one of my daughter Madeleine’s math worksheets (something to solve and then throw away) is if we hear ourselves saying something like—“The King is God, and the servant is sinful humanity. We’d better watch out or God’s going to subject us to enhanced interrogation techniques.” There are ways in which the King in this parable does function like our understanding of God as revealed in his Son though the Holy Spirit. But there are also ways in which the King in the parable functions as the mirror opposite of the God of unconditional love: God is not a despot, but is a loving parent; God is not capricious and fickle-minded, but is steadfast, covenantal faithfulness and love; God is not a torturer, but is the one who anoints us with oil, and binds up our wounds. So we need to be alert and discerning. What images accord with the shape of love in the world that we see embodied in the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus? Which ones seem out of step with that living reality? Parables are best read through Jesus-colored glasses, in other words. That boundary crossing love, radical welcome and indiscriminate hospitality, and utter transparency to the one he knows so intimately as Abba, papa, daddy is the lens through which we read everything.
Read through the lens of Jesus, the theological center of this parable becomes crystal clear—the overflowing magnanimity of God evoked by the figure of the King. When the slave comes before the King owing ten thousand talents, its important to know that this is simply an astronomical figure that simply cannot be repaid. Ten thousand talents was roughly equivalent to a day’s wages for a 100,000,000 laborers, so the slave’s entreaty to be given a little more time, is a stall tactic plain and simple.
It’s also important to realize that when one’s wife and children were sold into slavery, this often entailed sexual abuse and sex trafficking. Hearing the slave’s plea for forgiveness, however, the King forgives the unrepayable debt, and sets him and his family free. What does the slave do with his newfound freedom? He uses it to imprison someone else. He takes the magnanimity of the King and converts into a vengeful, peevish, demand for a relative pittance—a laborer’s wage for 100 days as compared with the 100,000,000 day’s wages for which he was forgiven. Interestingly, the Greek word “wicked”— πονηρός—used to describe this slave is used in other places in Matthew to modify “eye.” It connotes a miserly, envious, and grudging view. The wicked slave sees the world not through lens of the boundless forgiveness of God, but through the stingy, smudged lens of unforgiveness that distorts everything.
When we see the world through the lens of πονηρός, through the lens of grudge-holding, and miserliness we not only imprison others, but we also cast ourselves into the outer darkness (to use our friend Matthew’s pet phrase). I’m not much of a believer in God going in for weeping and gnashing of teeth, but I have no doubt at all that we, by the wrongful exercise of our God-given free will, have a highly developed capacity to land ourselves there. Think about it—is there not a way in which not forgiving someone is akin to torture? Have each of us not felt the gnawing ache of a hardened heart that’s not able to forgive, of a heart that doesn’t even want to want to forgive? That, I think, is how to hear those ominous and clearly hyperbolic images of torture that end the parable. They lay out for us in a visceral way what living a life from tight-fisted unforgiveness looks like. They show us what the world will look like if we see it through the distorted lens of the wicked slave’s miserly eye.
If we want to be participants in the building up of the Kingdom, we must in some way make the magnanimity of the King our own. But it’s important not to think that we can do this by some effort of will, as if unlimited forgiveness here a kind of self-help project we could complete via correspondence course. We need, Matthew reminds us, to become like one of the little children. We need to learn the kind of dependence on God that small children have on their parents. We need to lose our life (our dream of self-sufficiency) in order to find God’s life already living itself out in our hearts. We need to step forth without satchel, staff, or sandals—completely surrendered to God, utterly vulnerable, and reliant upon God’s goodness to work in and through the circumstances of our life. We need to step out of the boat, strike out for the deep water, leave our nets—all metaphors for an undefended reliance upon God and not ourselves.
If we learn that act of habitual surrender to God and rest in God’s goodness, if we learn to let God love us into loving and forgive us into forgiving, then we have a chance of living out the magnanimity of the King. Only God in Christ though the Holy Spirit can forgive without limit, but that doesn’t mean we’re off the hook and can content ourselves with wicked slaves and broken spectacles. It’s means we need to make God’s life our own, to put on the Lord Jesus Christ, that he might live his life through us, and our heart of stone be removed and in its place bestow upon us a heart of flesh.
My prayer for us this week is that we might let our concerns for the how of forgiveness fall away in favor of the who from whom all forgiveness flows. Open to that living presence, open to the openness of God, and live the life of a magnanimous King.