Years ago, I worked as a hostess in a family restaurant. One day, the owner of that restaurant asked me if I would be willing to assist her in the office with a little book-keeping. Given that I was relatively reliable, trustworthy and somewhat detail-oriented, she probably figured that she had the right helper for the task—after all, I would only be processing and recording various checks, as well as entering monies collected and paid on a standard computer spreadsheet. However, trouble began when I learned that I had to differentiate between accounts receivable and accounts payable—monies paid to the restaurant for goods and services and those monies owed by the restaurant for the same. Try as I might, I couldn’t seem to keep these two things straight in my head or on the spreadsheet for that matter; inevitably, I would enter a receivable into a payable column or vice versa. My confusion wreaked havoc with the books for a while, until I devised my own system of keeping the two straight. To this day, I still confuse the two terms, but thankfully (for my boss), I am no longer keeping the ledger.
I am convinced that Jesus and the God to which he points are terrible accountants by human standards, mostly because their system of keeping accounts defies human logic. What looks like a debit to our eyes is often considered a credit and what appear to be multiple credits in our favor actually add up to little or nothing.
In the scriptural passage for this morning, a servant has accumulated a debt beyond imagining. A talent was the equivalent of 15 years worth of wages—and this poor servant has somehow accumulated that sum times ten thousand. We don’t know how he has gotten himself in such a dire position, but we can surmise that he’s headed straight for the bankruptcy courts. He has ignored multiple collection notices and wake-up calls; lately, he’s begun to fantasize about hitting the daily lottery just to pay his bills. He’s a good candidate for credit counseling— he could use a life preserver as the ads say–except that he is a little too proud for that sort of thing, and besides, he believes that this is a private affair. When his situation threatens to break-up his family and his accustomed standard of living, he hits his knees pleading for mercy. “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” “Just a little more time, Lord” he begs, “just a little more time.”
Then, one day he opens his mailbox one day and amidst the phone, electric, and water bills, there is a little notice that reads, “OPEN IMMEDIATELY.” Any day now, he’s been expecting an eviction notice. “Things have finally gotten this bad,” he thinks while he holds the letter in his trembling hands. “My family and I- we will be on the street and in the bread-line.”
So, imagine his surprise when he opens the letter and reads, “ALL IS FORGIVEN.” He glances at the envelope again—yes, that is his name and the correct address. He looks in the column for the monthly amount owed—“zero.” No back taxes, no interest owed, and no offers to re-finance. Just a simple statement: “ALL IS FORGIVEN.”
All is forgiven. How do we hear those words? Whose part do we play? Are we the one with the tremendous debt? Are we the person bestowing such unmerited and unfathomable blessing? Are we the jealous on-looker who begrudges this grace?
All is forgiven. How do we experience those words? Do we find it relatively easy to ask for forgiveness, but virtually impossible to grant it to others? Or do we find it easier to forgive others while holding ourselves imprisoned by past sins, past offences? Is our God a merciless accountant, a ruthless collection agency? Or have we been encountered by a God who grants mercy and pardon when we are filled with regret, when we plead in the quiet of the night, “Oh God, help me to change my ways. Oh, God, please have patience while I try to make amends.”
Chances are that the way in which we picture our God says an awful lot about how we picture ourselves. Yes, we are made in God’s image—but we also have a habit of making God in our image—particularly the image that suits our tastes, our foibles, and our prejudices. If we refuse to grant pardon to others for offences against us, perhaps it is because we have yet to feel truly forgiven ourselves.
When the servant hears those words, “All is forgiven,” he rejoices and yet, that same servant finds it impossible to forgive his fellow servant a lesser debt. His fellow servant owes him a hundred denarii—the equivalent of a hundred days worth of labor. A large sum to be sure, but nowhere close to the sum he had been forgiven. Isn’t it passing strange how we tend to minimalize our offences even as we maximize those of our neighbor?
This little parable of the unforgiving servant is not simply directed to the private individual, but to a group of individuals who have covenanted together as a church. When Peter asks his Lord, “How many times should I forgive,” he expects a definitive, manageable, cut-and-dry answer. Seven is a nice, complete and tidy number—after all, there are 7 days to a week, 7 days to the biblical account of creation, and 7 seems to be God’s favorite number! But Jesus shakes his head, “no,” and gives him a number that is vague in the Greek– in some interpretations the amount is seventy-seven times, and in other accounts it is 70×7 time. Either way, the number is ridiculously large and the act of forgiveness is on “repeat.” Then, Jesus follows that with this little story about the unforgiving servant. The point being if Peter has to do the math, then he is living in a ledger-land, and not the realm of God.
A movie that came out in 2000 called, “Pay It Forward,” actually illustrates Jesus’ point quite well. In this movie, a little boy turns the world upside down through a social studies project and his faith that people who have been themselves the recipients of large and small mercies will “pay them forward” to others. Trevor, the little boy, tries to do an act of kindness for three different people who in turn do something for three others, and the movement grows exponentially in its ideal form. The act of kindness has to be substantial; it has to be something which the person cannot do for themselves. The recipients are from all walks of life; the common denominator being that each of them cries for “help” and someone overhears the cry.
One of the most powerful moments in the film centers on forgiveness between a mother and a daughter. The daughter chooses to forgive her mother for all the times that she wasn’t around, for abandoning her to the hands of dirty men, and for jeopardizing her future. That she can even say, “I forgive you,” to her mother at this point in her life is nothing short of miracle, and it occurs because she herself has come to fully realize just how much, just how fully she has been forgiven for her own grievious mistakes by her very own child . She has taken a full account of her own life, bent at the knee in a bus station at night and come up short in her own eyes, but still felt the arms of her little boy around her saying, “I forgive you and I love you.”
This, Jesus says, is the point, my dear Peter. Dear God, forgive us our trespasses and sins AS we forgive those who have sinned against us. Have we received mercy? May we then show that mercy to others. Have we paid out mercy? May we then receive mercy ourselves. This is the divine economy. Forget payback; pay it forward.
In my former work with Hospice, I was amazed at the things that people carry with them to their deathbed or the deathbed of their loved ones: past grudges, painful childhoods, anger and all manner of hostility toward God for past hurts. Even sins that were repented of long ago are still carried in the heart like an i.d. card in a worn-out wallet. “Have you forgiven yourself?” I ask. “Have you forgiven your Mom, your Dad, your brother, your sister, your God?”
Make no mistake, forgiveness is not forgetting. It is especially not denial or downplaying the effects of insidious sin or egregrious behavior. It is not saying “I am sorry” for convenience’s sake or to get rebury the past, and then not doing a dang thing to rectify one’s mistakes, harm, or fractious behavior. It is not condoning evil or saying that justice does not matter. Too often, whites have expected blacks simply to forgive and move on, without actually understanding or even acknowledging the generational harm that slavery and unjust racial systems have caused.
Forgiveness It is not a substitute for feeling grief, anger, confusion, or rage. It isn’t saying the words, “I forgive you,” and then reminding your relative or enemy of your power to entrap or destroy them even subconsciously. It’s not a transaction or making an entry into our accounts receivable. Forgiveness takes practice; it comes little by little, and sometimes all one can do is to pray that God do the forgiving as we pray to be released from our anger or sadness, or whatever burden we still carry. But even that is a prayer of forgiveness. Even that is a prayer of mercy. And even that, over time, will eventually heal and abate our hurt.
Several years ago– or maybe it was more (how time flies!)—another mother and daughter stand at the sink doing the dishes, my mother and me, sharing a family ritual that we always did together, as far back as I can remember. I was home for the holidays—or perhaps it was my grandmother’s impending death—but we were briefly reunited and we are doing the dishes. My mother’s hands pause in the water. She looks older; those brief visits have accentuated our changes in appearance because we did not see one another often, then. She holds the dishrag mid-air.
“What is it?” I ask her.
“I could have done better…” Her words come slowly, and I know that she is not talking about the meal that we’ve just eaten. “I mean, especially with you…”
Her eyes begin to fill with tears and somehow, by the grace of God, I realize that what is required of me in that moment, what I require, is to listen and to say the words that I eventually utter. They sound foreign and strange, but they are from the heart. “Mom, I know. I’m okay, really.”
“Yes, but…” she continues, her voice breaking and her hands slipping into the water again. I realize that we have both taken life from one another in our own ways, and I just as much as she. Yet, in this moment, we are each giving life back to one another. I realize, too, that a least a thousand prayers for myself and from others have helped to prepare me for this moment. “Me too, Mom… Me too,” I say with a hushed voice. We finish the dishes and begin to put them away.
“To err is human, to forgive divine,” says Alexander Pope highlighting an action that transcends our ordinary human nature. I, for one, count it as an unaccountable mercy that our God does not play the ledger by human standards. That God doesn’t charge interest on the loan of life she has granted, but has taken an interest in us nonetheless. That the letter stating, “All is forgiven,” lies waiting in my mailbox, when my heart turns on its axis and beats out a frantic S.O.S. And I am thankful that this letter, bearing my name and yours, is actually of the chain-mail variety and that by God’s grace, we shall pass it on, friends, and pass it forward seventy times seven and more, until we have all have heard, until we have all believed.