Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

One element of this morning’s Gospel which I think we rarely focus on is just how much money Jesus is talking about in the parable. We learn that the slave owes ten thousand talents to his master and that the same slave is owed one hundred denarii by one of his fellow slaves. It’s easy enough to leave the story knowing simply that the slave owes more than he is owed, but we miss an important element if that’s all we know.

In reality, we are dealing with measures of currency here which we can estimate. We know that the wage for a day’s labor in the first century was one denarius. This means that what the slave wants from his compatriot is no small sum. It’s almost a third of his annual income. It’s not like he had just spotted his friend a fiver. I think most of us would be more than a little concerned if somebody owed us this much and couldn’t pay up. So, at first we might have some sympathy for the slave.

But then, look at how much debt had been forgiven. Ten thousand talents. A talent is a measure of weight rather than a currency, but most scholars of the period in question have determined that a talent was worth roughly six thousand denarii. So ten thousand talents would be sixty million denarii. That’s sixty million days worth of wages- 164,383 and a half years, not counting Sabbath days.

If that’s hard for you to get your mind around, we can look at it a different way. Like I said earlier, a talent is not a currency but a measure of weight. It was roughly thirty-three kilograms or about seventy-three pounds. When used as a measure of debt and credit in the ancient world, the assumption would have been that gold or silver was the basis of determination (there was no such thing as fiat money until very recently). So, if the slave owed his master ten thousand talents, he would have owed him 330,000 kilograms, or 350 tons of gold, or about seven or eight percent of the gold in Fort Knox. What we’re talking about here is an amount of money equivalent to not thousands not millions but billions of dollars.

Of course, this is ludicrous, and that’s the point, I think. Nobody would lend one’s slave billions dollars. This parable is meant to make us realize just how ridiculous such a proposition seems. How could one get so bent out of shape about a few thousand dollars when he just had multi-billion dollar debt forgiven?

Well, as ridiculous as it seems, we do just that. We have been regenerated—given new life and the forgiveness of sins—through Baptism. Christ died for our sins that we might live, but what do we do if somebody says something nasty about us? What do we do if somebody cuts us off in traffic or cheats us out of a few bucks or acts rude to us? We don’t forgive. We do what the enemy of the psalmist is described as doing:

He put on cursing like a garment*

let it soak into his body like water

and into his bones like oil;

Let it be to him like the cloak which he wraps around himself,*

and like the belt that he wears continually.

We love cursing and take no delight in blessing. We let our petty beliefs about what we deserve push us to clutch tightly to our resentment until we are defined by it.

I get very discouraged, as many of you know, when the misfortune of somebody, even a monster, causes us to feel warm and fuzzy about “justice being done”, about one getting one’s just deserts. I get very worried when state executions are presented as justice being done. Setting aside the fact that I happen to be pretty firmly opposed to it, I think Christians of goodwill can disagree about something like the death penalty. What concerns me, though, is public reaction, and I think it’s safe to say that mercy is not a virtue which our society values terribly much these days. I’d say the same thing about multiple consecutive life prison sentences and the little “are you a felon” box on job applications and the like, not because punishment at the hands of the state is never appropriate (it certainly is), but because so often it seems about letting the rest of us get our jollies out of retribution rather than disinterestedly administering justice. Here endeth my mini-rant on that topic.

Jesus calls us to forgive our brothers and sisters. There is a translation issue in Jesus’ response to Peter. He might have said “forgive seventy times” or “seventy seven times” or “seventy times seven” (that’s 490 times, but the way). How precisely one does that math doesn’t matter so much, though, because it seems that what he meant was “keep on forgiving”. There’s no limit.

There’s a lovely prayer attributed to St. Francis in the back of the prayerbook (page 833 if you’re interested), and it seems to sum up what Jesus is saying to us today: “it is in pardoning that we are pardoned.” The greatest gift we’ve ever been given is pardon, but this gift comes with an expectation. Being forgiven we are obliged to forgive.

It’s hard sometimes, particularly when we are sinned against in ways more brutal than a rude word or being cut off in traffic. Unless we get around to forgiving, though, the Cross is emptied of its practical meaning for us. When we fail to show mercy, we are even more ridiculous than the slave who demanded his hundred denarii. When we confuse justice with revenge we may as well be nailing Christ’s hands to the cross ourselves, because we’ve forgotten what that sacrifice was all about to begin with. But when we forgive, we start to become just a little more (though never perfectly) worthy of that label which we give ourselves. We become a little bit more worthy of being called Christians.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.