Proper 19, A
Psalm 103:(1-7), 8-13
My mother will tell you – assuming she is not all concerned about being proper and diplomatic at the time – my mother will tell you that my father is prone to a certain amount of hyperbole. Just to be sure I was telling you the truth with this assertion, I asked Mother yesterday, “Would you say that Dad has been known to engage in a certain amount of hyperbole from time to time?” She snorted. The woman actually snorted – the mere question represented its own hyperbole. I remember dinner conversations with Dad as being filled with colorful language and images, enormous numbers and over-arching pronouncements. At various times in his career he was working on projects that he could not actually discuss in any detail at the dinner table, so his stories suffered a dearth of actual nouns, but never did we experience any shortage of active verbs, vivid, graphic adjectives and dramatic adverbs. My husband asserts that hyperbole appears to be an inherited trait, and so it may be. But it serves a purpose.
If, in fact, my father and I indulge in a touch of hyperbole now and again, for the sake of making a crucial point, we travel in good company. Jesus uses the technique frequently – always to good purpose – with today’s lesson being one of the most famous of them. 10,000 talents Jesus’s unforgiving servant owed. The absurdity of the size of that debt does not quite come through to our modern ears. Biblical scholar Eugene Boring ran some numbers. King Herod’s annual income from all taxes from all his territories was a mere 900 talents per year. This suggests 10,000 talents would exceed all of the taxes of Syria, Phoenicia, Judea, and Samaria as well. (Info via Rev. Frank Logue, Sermons that Work). On a more individual note, one single talent was worth about 130 lbs. of silver – 15 years of earnings for a typical laborer. The servant owed the king about 150,000 years of labor! (David Lose, In the Meantime). Hyperbole. To make a point. The question is, what point…exactly.
I’ve heard it said that there are really only about 6 or 7 sermons ever written. They all just take different forms from week to week and pulpit to pulpit: The love sermon, the resurrection sermon, the justice sermon and so on. Jesus spends a great deal of time on the subject of forgiveness – even the old testament doesn’t stint on the subject. Witness Joseph’s gracious reaction to his brothers in our first reading. Surely forgiveness sermon has earn a place among those precious 6, but it remains perhaps the least popular of the whole bunch. “Every one says forgiveness is a lovely idea,” wrote C.S. Lewis, “until they have something to forgive, … And then, to mention the subject at all is to be greeted with howls of anger.”
Forgiveness messes with our sense of self image as well as our sense of right, and justice and balance. We balk at staring our own indebtedness in the face while simultaneously resisting any suggestion another should not pay us our due.
How many times should I forgive?, asks Peter. As many as 7? Jewish law dictated a maximum of 3. Peter wasn’t always the brightest bulb on the string, but Peter got the idea that forgiveness was important. He more than doubled the going offer of available forgivenesses. Peter, like so many of us, suffered from the notion that God sits up there with God’s big ledger, jotting down offenses, tracking mistakes, noting foolish behaviors. So we follow along in the image we created of God, carefully recording that which hurts us, pains us, grieves us. We fail to understand that “What God really is holding,” as one astute preacher writes, “is a [not a ledger but a] dance card with all of our names on it, just waiting for the Holy Spirit to kick the dance off with a swing piece so God can sweep us off our feet and into the arms of grace. And then [God] hands us off to that dance partner who is always stepping on our toes, so we can teach the steps of forgiveness to them.” (Thom M. Shuman, Midrash, personal communication)
The Spirituality of Imperfection describes psychology research which suggests that forgiving another is indelibly attached to the experience of being forgiven. “We do not forgive; instead we discover forgiveness in both its forms – both that we have been forgiven and the we have forgiven. Spirituality’s mutuality holds true here as everywhere: we are forgiven only if we are open to forgiving, but we are able to forgive only in being forgiven.” The unforgiving servant created his own torture – “By refusing to be forgiven and refusing to forgive, he had already created his own little Alcatraz, where he sat in solitary confinement with his calculator and kept track of his accounts.” (Barbara Brown Taylor)
The ledger, the reckoning is not important Jesus effectively says. 7 times? No – 77, or 7 times 70 – the number cannot even be definitively translated. The numbers (my apologies to the mathematically minded among us) the numbers aren’t the point. Just more. More than you can track. More than you can imagine. More than they deserve. More than they ever can deserve in 150,000 years. The numbers aren’t the point. The relationship is the point.
Rather than sinking under the weight of your own sinfulness, or struggling against an inability to forgive that Anne LaMott describes as feeling “like drinking rat poison, and then waiting around for the rat to die.” – rather than these consider this pastor’s approach, “Connect with God’s glorious forgiveness. Consider the One to whom you owe everything—your breath, your life, your hair color, your love of summer flowers and fall vegetables, your strength to shovel winter snow, your delight in spring’s cherry blossoms. Consider the One who has carried you thus far in life—the One who gives you your capacity to love, and your call to be part of this faith community, the One who picks up the slack when you are stretched too far, the One who walks with you on the path of grief and promises you new life, the One gives you fire in your belly to serve those in need. (Rev. Barbara Heck)
This is the dance of life and love in Christ. The ebb and flow of living forgiveness, giving and receiving, knowing and bestowing, back and forth in the rhythm of the Spirit. O bless the Lord, my soul! Amen.