Exodus 14:19-31  Psalm 114   Romans 14:1-12  Matthew 18:21-35

Debt and punishment, forgiveness and mercy are carried to the extreme in the parable we have just heard of the unforgiving slave.  In this parable, we are told that the kingdom of heaven can be compared to the king whose slave owes him ten thousand talents.  For perspective, let us consider that one talent was worth six to ten thousand denarii, one denarius being a day’s pay.  Ten thousand talents, then, could amount to as much as ten thousand denarii times ten thousand days equaling 100 million days of work, which figures out to roughly 274,000 years of labor.  You can check my math, but even if I am off by several decimal points, we are assured that it is an inestimable amount and, certainly, a debt that is humanly impossible to satisfy. 

We learn though, in our story from Matthew’s Gospel, that the king takes pity on the slave and his family and forgives the massive debt.  Again, we experience the extreme when we register the enormity of the debt forgiven.  Only then, can we see the true greatness of the king’s mercy.

Sadly, however, we read that the slave, released of the life-threatening debt, goes his merry way and, upon encountering his fellow slave who is indebted to him, finds no pity for this former cohort – tossing him into prison for his inability to pay him the debt he owes.  And, when the word of this merciless injustice reaches the king (or lord, as he is referenced in the later verses of our lesson), the king hands the ungrateful and unforgiving slave over to be tortured until the fathomless debt is paid – thus, tortured for eternity.

Like the slave of our parable from Matthew, we go to God to beg forgiveness.  We pray daily as we will pray in just a few short moments when preparing to come together to the Lord’s Table.  In that daily and most familiar of all prayers, we ask that God will “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  Or, as a four-year-old was known to say, “Forgive us our trash baskets, as we forgive those who put trash in our baskets.”  [Sins, debts]

Seriously, do you hear these words?  “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  We are asking to be forgiven of our sins equivalent to our willingness to forgive those who sin against us.  Thus, when we limit our forgiveness of others, we confess our recognition of the limit on the forgiveness we are due in return.  We admit to our unworthiness of God’s mercy.  Our prayer acknowledges that when we are not willing to forgive the sins of our neighbor against us we acknowledge God’s justification for not forgiving us for our sins.

Our God is a merciful God and we know that we are justified by grace through our faith.  At the same time, we cannot deny that these Holy Scriptures speak of judgment for our conditional, or limited, or complete lack of forgiveness of others.  This judgment for conditional forgiveness is more imaginable when we bring forgiveness into the domain of something more human and tangible to which we can relate.

I offer an illustration from a story told by Rabbi Harold Kushner:

A woman in my congregation comes to see me.  She is a single mother, divorced, working to support herself and three young children.  She says to me, “Since my husband walked out on us, every month is a struggle to pay our bills.  I have to tell my kids we have no money to go to the movies, while he’s living it up with his new wife in another state.  How can you tell me to forgive him?” 

I answer her, “I’m not asking you to forgive him because what he did was acceptable.  It wasn’t; it was mean and selfish.  I’m asking you to forgive because he doesn’t deserve the power to live in your head and turn you into a bitter angry woman.  I’d like to see him out of your life emotionally as completely as he is out of it physically, but you keep holding on to him.  You’re not hurting him by holding on to that resentment, but you’re hurting yourself.” [1]

For this young struggling mother, the eternity of torture was the result of her unwillingness to release the anger that was eating her like acid from within, tortured by the bitterness she held.  She could not be expected to forget the hurt and the brokenness, but she does have the capacity to deny it power over the goodness of her life and, in turn, the lives of her children.  Try to imagine God harboring such resentment toward us for our sins; not being able to respond with care and kindness to others of his children because he is mired in resentment for our lack of faithfulness.  It is a frightening scenario.

As God’s mercy and forgiveness are without limits, so should be our mercy and forgiveness toward our neighbor for our own personal good and the good of all. 

Whether God is parting the enormous depths of the Red Sea to preserve his chosen people, or forgiving us of the inestimable burden of our sins, or taking the most evil-driven human acts of tragedy and terrorism in our world and bringing from it the best of human goodness – it is all part of the unimaginable truth of God’s redemption of humankind.  We are redeemed through God’s coming to earth to live among us and to illuminate for us the truth of the enormous gift of forgiveness.  

Perhaps in recognizing the enormous weight of our debt (Blanchard), we can begin to conceive of the enormity of God’s mercy.  Surely in recognizing the depth of God’s mercy, we can forgive others who have hurt us and, in the peace of that forgiveness, we can reject the forces that seek to distract us from the truth of God’s redemption of us through His Son, Our Savior, Jesus Christ.


[1]  Harold S. Kushner, “Letting Go of the Role of Victim,” Spirituality and Health, Winter 1999: 34.

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