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Bible Passage: Matthew 18:25-31
In the movie High Fidelity John Cusack plays a record store owner who was dumped by his long term girlfriend Laura. There is a scene in the movie where Laura’s new boyfriend comes into the store to tell John Cusack’s character to stop calling Laura and coming by her house. Laura’s boyfriend finishes by saying, “shall we leave it at that then.” Then John Cusack starts berating him with obscenities and kicks him out of the store. Suddenly we’re back to Laura’s boyfriend saying, “Shall we leave it at that then.” Then again John Cusack is screaming but his co-workers this time jump over the counter and hold him back. Suddenly again we’re back to Laura’s boyfriend saying, “Shall we leave it at that then.” Then one of John Cusack’s co-workers smacks Ray in the face with the phone knocking out some teeth. The three record store workers jump ray and kick him, I think Jack Black even pulls out a crowbar, finally they drop a window air conditioner on his head. Suddenly again we’re back, but this time Ray says, “well think about it ok.” And John Cusack says nothing and Laura’s new boyfriend leaves the store. And what we come to find out is that all these other scenes were what were going through John Cusack’s head. And it’s funny of course on one hand because it is so over the top, but also on the other hand who of us haven’t had thoughts of what we would really like to do or say and instead we do something else that is more acceptable.
“Revenge,” says Dirty Harry, “is the oldest motivation known to mankind.” Maybe this helps explain why revenge films are so popular. Movies like Taken or Unforgiven are watched almost so as if we can life our fantasies through them. We have this sense of justice where we must be paid in some way by the person who has wronged us. And even though we may fantasize revenge and don’t really act on it, don’t mean that we are totally justified, because we still fail to forgive. And this is the exact attitude Jesus speaks to us about this morning.
Peter went to Jesus with a question about forgiveness. “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” There were Rabbis at the time who suggested that the threshold to forgiveness was three times, so Peter in his threshold of 7 is shooting high. But he is also putting some of the onus on the other. His willingness to forgive is ties to the amount of times the other sins against him. But Jesus makes it clear that even that is too low. Instead he suggests that a person should be willing to forgive endlessly.
And then Jesus tells a story which brings this truth into clarity. He tells the story of a man who wracked up a massive debt and his master called him in to settle the account. He owed 10,000 talents. 10,000 is the largest number in the Greek language and talent is the largest denomination of money. This is like Jesus saying the man owed a bazillion dollars. Even if the man worked every single day for the rest of his life, he would never be able to settle this debt. This master knew the man didn’t have the means to repay him which is why he ordered that the his wife and children and all he had be sold to pay the debt.
But then the servant fell to his knees and begged for mercy. “Be patient with me,” he begged, “and I will pay back everything.” It’s a great sentiment, but you and I both know that this isn’t true. He can’t pay it back. And the master knows this too, yet the servant is begging for mercy. So what is the master to do.
The master could have demanded the debt anyway. I mean the servant is responsible for the money he spent—the master needed to be paid what he owed. So sell the wife and children anyway. He will recoup something and the servant will have paid what is most dear to him.
The master could have put the servant on some kind of payment plan. Of course he wouldn’t get all of his money back, but at least he would be assured to get soemthing.
The master could have put the servant on a pay what you can plan. The master would probably even recoup less, but at least the servant would be paying something.
Those are all legitimate options but the master chooses the most absurd option. “The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.” I’m sure we have all been in a position where we have incurred a sizable debt. Whether it was from credit cards or student loans or a car payment. After months or even years of paying down the debt, maybe you daydreamed, “You know what would be amazing…if this debt was canceled.” Think of the extra money you would have, think of the freedom you would have.
That’s the situation the servant was put in and the very next thing he does is shocking—almost sickening. He puts his hands around the neck of one of his fellow servants and demanded, “Pay back what you owe me.” The sum he was owed was substantial, but it was a fraction of 10,000 talents. Suddenly what we have here a smaller scale version of what happened between the master and the servant. But now the servant is the master and he gets to decide the fate of the fellow servant.
The fellow servant fell to his knees and begged for mercy, “Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.” And he probably could actually pay it back. Certainly the servant had several options before him. They’re the same exact options his master had. But given the experience he just had with his master there was really only one option.
“But he refused.” He could have shown mercy but he actively chooses not to. What absolutely disgusting behavior.
And yet, I say that, but that servant is me when I refuse to forgive. We are so quick to forget the mercy we have been shown when it comes to showing mercy to others. We very much like to make forgiveness transactional. Very often we think that the one who is to be forgiven must pay is something in order to receive our forgiveness. Maybe the person needs to pay us a level of seriousness. Maybe the person needs to actually put some work into fixing what they broke.
And if they don’t we’ll try to get something out of them. Maybe we’ll find our own way to get our little pound of flesh from them. Maybe we’ll kill them with kindness. Or maybe we just sit in anger as we nurse a grudge.
But if we learn anything from this story maybe it is that forgiveness is not really dependent upon the other person and what they can pay. There was no way that the servant could ever pay his master back. The master did not forgive the servant because he made himself worth of it. The master forgave the servant because of his own merciful attitude toward the servant. Forgiveness is dependent upon the one who forgives.
This means then that the cost of forgiveness is on the forgiver. The master wasn’t ever going to have his debt repaid. He had to write that bazillion dollars off as a loss. Forgiveness is costly. Our master knows this better than anyone. We owed him perfection—in our decision making, in our thoughts, in our words, in our actions. And we failed to pay him. I suppose he had plenty of options he could have chosen from. He could have put us on a payment plan. He could have forced us to do as many good deeds as we could possibly do before he would let us go.
But our master is merciful. It is a part of his nature and so he had to show mercy. And so he took the cost of our debt onto himself. He sent his Son into this world to live a life of perfection and to pay the debt for us and it cost him his life in the process. He took our sin and gave us his perfection. He took on our death and he gave us his life. The debt we owed was canceled.
The one who told this parable about forgiveness was so serious about forgiveness that this is the extent to which he was willing to go to provide it for us. And it might just drop us to our knees and we know what we will always receive, not just 7 times or 77 times, but endlessly he gives forgiveness.
The master says to us, “Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?” Literally it says, “Is it not necessary for you to show mercy.” Yes. Yes it is. When you were forgiven by your master, you were welcomed into the Kingdom of heaven. You are a member of this kingdom right now. And in this kingdom, a forgiving master reigns supreme. Forgiveness is about you. It is all about the forgiveness which you have already received. It is all about the forgiveness which your master continues to shower over you. In this kingdom, you are rich in forgiveness.
This is why we forgive: because we have been forgiven so much. Amen.