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As We Forgive Our Debtors

The Reverend Matt Gaventa

September 30, 2018
Matthew 18:21-35

Before we read scripture this morning I want to acknowledge that this has been a draining week. I hope you’re okay. And if you’re not okay, I’m at least glad you’re here, and I hope this can be a restorative time. The news has been exhausting. Our politics have been exhausting. But among the political and cultural fights we are having right now I also sense a theological fight. It feels like we are having a theological argument about the sins of the past and how long they stay on the ledger and how we reconcile and how we apologize and how and whether we forgive. And so this morning I want to talk a bit about forgiveness, which may in some ways be the hardest thought there is to think our Christian life. And I want to start with a reading from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 18.

A Reading from the Gospel of Matthew

Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

I owe somebody an apology and I’m not sure where to start so I’ll just say it. When I was about 11 or 12, I was heavy into the computer games of the time, a lot of very dorky enterprises from long ago, lots of SimCity, lots of Oregon Trail. And a bunch of these adventure games, Space Quest, King’s Quest, Police Quest, all these Quest games which were basically puzzles wrapped up in a story, you’d always have to have the right thing in your inventory from five hours earlier, you’d always have to type the question in just the right way to get the plot to move along. It was terrifically easy to get stuck, and because there was no usable Internet, you could get stuck for a long time. I mean, that’s not hypothetical. I got stuck for a long time; actually, I think I’m still stuck about halfway through King’s Quest V because at some point my map of the dungeon did not correspond with the reality of the dungeon and I could not google a map of the dungeon so I just walked away but maybe I have that save game file around somewhere.

The only real alternative to getting stuck, if you couldn’t figure it out or your friends couldn’t figure it out, was to go to the store and buy something like the King’s Quest V Official Strategy Guide, which was this little half-size booklet that for maybe seven or eight dollars would walk you through all of the things you had to do, in order, so that you could figure out finally find your way out of the maze. It turns out that because you had not gotten the magic twig from the frog back in chapter 2 you could not reasonably be expected to make a fair trade with the goblin in chapter 5. Obviously. And I remember that those little booklets had a hold on my imagination, from afar. Partially of course because there’s always something tempting about having the teacher’s copy of the textbook. And partially because I just wanted to get out of the maze. Because I was pretty sure I could get out of the maze. It’s just that I couldn’t quite do it by myself.

And so there was one day. I don’t remember where I was, specifically, some shopping mall, probably somewhere in the Atlanta suburbs. I don’t know why we were there, I don’t know who I was with. But I found myself in the video game store, staring at the wall of help guides, and there on the shelf was the help guide for Police Quest 3, and back at home I was very much stuck in the middle of Police Quest 3, and more than anything I wanted the answers, but I did not have seven or eight dollars in my pocket, and I was not going to have seven or eight dollars in my pocket. And so I just took it. I know. I’ve actually never said this to anyone before. But it’s true. I just took it. I wish I hadn’t. But I did. I don’t remember the store, or the mall, or the day. But I remember the feeling, looking around the place, picking up the book, dropping it in a deep pocket, walking out the door. That my career of petty theft basically revolves around a copy of the strategy guide for Police Quest 3 is an irony not lost on me. But here we are.

I would like to apologize for this. I mean, we all do dumb things and here’s one of mine and it won’t be the first or last one on my register but I have been carrying it around for a while and I would like to apologize. And ideally I would like to apologize to somebody who could offer me forgiveness. The chances that any of you were actually owners of the video game store whose name I can’t remember in a shopping mall in Atlanta whose name I can’t remember on a day sometime in the early 1990s that I can’t remember I think is slim at best and so I’m not sure what good it’s supposed to do apologizing to you. I would like to be forgiven. But even if I could track down the person I wronged. Let’s imagine I did. Let’s imagine we found ourselves face-to-face, and now here comes a 39-year-old husband and father and reasonably well-respected Presbyterian pastor to seek forgiveness for a thirty-year old case of petty theft amounting to seven or eight dollars and I cannot imagine that I would not be forgiven, I mean, this is the safest apology I could ever make.

I mean, they’d almost have to forgive me. But does it count as forgiveness if you have to do it? It’s one of the questions echoing through our text today, this cutting parable from the Gospel of Matthew. Like so many of Jesus’s parables, it begins with an analogy — the Kingdom of God is like this: a king wants to reconcile his accounts. A particular slave owes him 10,000 talents, which is an almost unimaginable amount of money, and the king lays into him, demanding payment, but the slave seeks time. “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything,” and so the slave’s lord relents, and in fact forgives the debt in its entirety. And here’s where the story gets interesting. It turns out that the slave is also owed money, 100 denarii, by one of his fellow slaves. And so the first slave sees him in the road and takes him by the neck. The second slave pleads his case much as the first did: “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything,” but the first slave refuses, and throws him into prison, at which time the lord hears about all of this and lays into him. “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?”

At first, this parable may read like a simple enough metaphor. The language of the forgiveness of debts is pretty well drummed into our brains from so many recitations of the Lord’s Prayer, and indeed it seems hardly coincidental that that prayer and this parable both come from Matthew’s Gospel; when we talk about forgiving our debts as we forgive our debtors we are placing ourselves squarely in the position of this slave whose Lord has so forgiven him that he therefore has some obligation to forgive his neighbor. And the amounts are, of course, critical to the analogy — there’s no way to possibly make up 10,000 talents’ worth of debt; it’s insurmountable, much as our debt to the Lord who created us; what, therefore, are we to quibble about 100 denarii in-between brothers or sisters? It could hardly be a dent in the account. It’s almost a rounding error. It’s a parable meant to make forgiveness into the slightest and easiest of things — given all that God has done, I mean, it’s just 7 or 8 bucks, it’s 30 years ago, can’t we just let it go?

But I’m not sure this story is quite as simple as it first presents. I’m not convinced that the message here is about handing out forgiveness like penny candy. Instead I do want to observe a couple of the constraints embedded within the passage. The first, of course, is that the forgiven parties first tell the truth. Both slaves provide an honest reckoning — “have patience with me, and I will pay you everything!” a reminder that the reason we pray our confession every Sunday is because forgiveness and grace and truth all go hand in hand. The other constraint in this story is that forgiveness flows from people with power to those without it. It flows from the haves to the have-nots. It flows from the top down. The story puts the burden of forgiveness on those with power inside the hierarchy, because this story is invested in making those hierarchies go away. If the lord forgives enough 10,000-talent-debts he’s not going to be lord anymore. If the slave has enough 10,000-talent-debts forgiven of him, he’s not going to be a slave anymore. Which is exactly the point. This forgiveness has consequences. It does work. It does the work of the Gospel.

This forgiveness does good work that is part of the greater unfolding of God’s kingdom, where the powerful are brought down from their thrones and the lowly uplifted, where there is neither slave nor free, where all share in one table together — thy kingdom come, thy will be done, forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. All of which means that in this story forgiveness isn’t a virtue in and of itself. It’s a tool. It’s a tool. It’s a God-given tool that we use for the building-up of God’s kingdom. It’s a tool we leave in the drawer probably far too often. It’s a tool we forget to sharpen, a tool we forget to charge. Sometimes it’s a tool we forget how to use entirely. Too often over the last couple of weeks I have heard some version of the suggestion that none of us should be held accountable for the sins of our youth and can’t we just forgive and forget, which, regardless of the scale of the sin, does not quite feel like the advancement of the kingdom. It feels like power demanding forgiveness from those underneath. It feels like forgiveness coerced and unearned. Like any tool, forgiveness can be weaponized, and this feels like forgiveness weaponized in opposition to the Gospel.

In an otherwise unremarkable office building in downtown Johannesburg, we met with the directors of a non-profit called the Khulumani Support Group. Khulumani is an advocacy organization on behalf of the victims of Apartheid-era violence whose stories were unheard or dismissed by the formal Truth and Reconciliation Commission that was meant to help the country move forward after the collapse of the Apartheid government. In principle, the TRC was meant to be a powerful alternative to one-sided tribunals or national amnesia; instead, perpetrators of violence were invited to tell the truth about their experience and make some reparation in exchange for freedom. In principle, the TRC was meant to embody what forgiveness can be — truth, reconciliation, accountability, wholeness, restoration. But of course even the best theological tools can be misused in the hands of power. One of the ironies of the TRC was that in polling white South Africans consistently ranked it considerably more favorably than did those whose stories it was meant to tell. One of the ironies of the TRC is that the language of forgiveness could so easily be used to keep things exactly as they were.

Which is why Khulumani exists. The name comes from the Zulu word meaning “We are still listening,” but it took me a while to hear. We sat in a very unremarkable conference room and heard a bit about the kinds of programs they do and the kinds of advocacy they organize and I understood it in principle but not quite yet in my gut. And then we took a tour of the building, which seemed sort of ridiculous — I mean, it’s an unremarkable office building, what could there possibly be to see. Until we turned a corner, and walked into a storage room about the size of my office here that was filled, floor the ceiling, wall to wall, with banker’s boxes, file folders, filing cabinets, papers bursting out of every one of them. And I asked. Okay. Now, what am I looking at? And I was told, “These are all the stories that nobody’s had a chance to hear yet.” Testimonies given to the TRC that went nowhere. Testimonies given to Khulumani that no funding exists to transcribe, digitize, or pursue. Just stories, the stories of real lives, the stories of real victims, victims of racial violence, victims of sexual assault, victims of Apartheid of every shape and size, the stories of real people, swept into a closet so that the headlines could be about forgiveness.

The Filipino poet J. Cabazares writes, “Talk to us about reconciliation / Only if you first experience / The anger of our dying.” I wish this were easier. I wish this were an easier thought to think. I wish I could stand here and tell you that forgiveness is the single unimpeachable calling of the Christian life, seven times, seventy-seven times, as many times as it takes until God’s kingdom comes. But the truth is that God’s kingdom has a lot of tools in its toolbox and forgiveness is only one of them. We are also called to seek the truth in all times and all places. We are also called to be doers of justice and lovers of kindness. We are also called to build a house where all are welcome. And as much room as there is in God’s kingdom for forgiveness, there is no room for forgiveness that denies the stories of others, the value of others, or the humanity of others. The good news is that God’s kingdom will unfold in God’s time and when it comes there will be only room for the forgiveness that binds us one to another as equal children in God’s sight.

I wait eagerly for that day. In the meantime, at the end of this long week, this week when I think we are all so keenly aware of the sins of long ago, I do wish I could go and make amends for seven or eight dollars’ worth of petty theft.  I wish I could go apologize to someone whom it would be effectively impossible to track down. I would like to be forgiven, but I don’t want to demand it. I don’t quite think that’s how this is supposed to work. But I would like to ask this question. I think it’s the question we are meant to ask when forgiveness is on the line. I’d like to ask — how can this moment be part of the great building-up of the kingdom of God? How can we make this moment part of the building of something better? How can we apologize, how can we forgive each other, how can we hear each other, how can we tell the truth to each other in such a way that this moment, just this one thing, just seven or eight dollars’ worth of forgiveness, just this one little tiny infraction in the long line of the human story, just so that this one moment becomes part of the story of redemption. How can we do that? How can God do that? You and me. Right now. Let’s find a way out. Amen.