Sunday, September 11, 2005

Proper 19

Matthew 18
21Then Peter came to him and asked, “Lord, how often should I forgive someone who sins against me? Seven times?”
22“No!” Jesus replied, “seventy times seven!
23“For this reason, the Kingdom of Heaven can be compared to a king who decided to bring his accounts up to date with servants who had borrowed money from him. 24In the process, one of his debtors was brought in who owed him millions of dollars. 25He couldn’t pay, so the king ordered that he, his wife, his children, and everything he had be sold to pay the debt. 26But the man fell down before the king and begged him, ‘Oh, sir, be patient with me, and I will pay it all.’ 27Then the king was filled with pity for him, and he released him and forgave his debt.
28“But when the man left the king, he went to a fellow servant who owed him a few thousand dollars. He grabbed him by the throat and demanded instant payment. 29His fellow servant fell down before him and begged for a little more time. ‘Be patient and I will pay it,’ he pleaded. 30But his creditor wouldn’t wait. He had the man arrested and jailed until the debt could be paid in full.
31“When some of the other servants saw this, they were very upset. They went to the king and told him what had happened. 32Then the king called in the man he had forgiven and said, ‘You evil servant! I forgave you that tremendous debt because you pleaded with me. 33Shouldn’t you have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?’ 34Then the angry king sent the man to prison until he had paid every penny.
35“That’s what my heavenly Father will do to you if you refuse to forgive your brothers and sisters in your heart.”

Okay, so I have a credit card. Actually, I have two. I used to have a few more, but I discovered some discomfort in my back if my wallet gets too thick. And besides, why have something that you probably shouldn't use anyway.

I remember vividly the first time I got one of those offers in the mail that said "use this card to pay off the debt of another card." My mind was racing. If I pay the balance on card one this month using card two, and pay card two the following month with card three, and continue applying for cards, I won't need to repay anything ever. Right? Perhaps not the best strategy.

It does, however, explain why, in 2003, Canadians received 190 million credit card offers, or six offers for every man, woman and child. I know someone who got so fed up with endless credit card offers that he responded to one and asked for a supplemental card for his dog. And they sent it! "Who went to Pet Smart ten times last month? Buffy?!?"

While I've never played the 'revolving credit card game," it seems others have. One survey of undergraduates at a U.S. university discovered that 66% of students admitted to using one credit card to pay off another at least once. It doesn't take a huge amount of imagination to recognize that following such a debt management strategy will not end well.


The kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. "The servant fell on his knees before him. 'Be patient with me,' he begged, 'and I will pay back everything.' The servant's master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.

Ten thousand talents. Imagine a lot of credit cards and an infinite number of months of rolling debt. In order to earn ten thousand talents, and average worker in Jesus' day would need to get busy for 150,000 years. Put into today's dollars, and suggesting an average yearly income for a labourer of $30,000, the debt that his man owed the king was $4.5 billion.

Now, when my mother exaggerates, she uses the number 68,000. I'm not sure why, but this has always been the case. "If I told you once, I've told you 68,000 times..." Okay, got it, you are exaggerating. Time to tune you out and go to my happy place. La La La La La. Of course there is always payback. I know a certain 14 year-old who adopts an odd, vacant look from time to time, and I'm not sure HE IS HEARING WHAT I AM SAYING.

Jesus obviously is given to exaggeration too, wanting to make his point about the debt that the first man owed. With $4.5 billion on this courtly credit card, the first man appropriately falls to his knees and begs that his debt be forgiven. "Be patient with me, your highness, I will repay it all." Suddenly we realize that the first man not only has a problem with money, but has difficulty with reality too. Nevertheless, the king is moved by the begging and the pledge to repay and forgives him.

Next, the first man meets someone who owes him money, a few bucks, and grabs this poor fellow by the throat. The second man begs, but to no avail. The first man, a forgiven man who shows no forgiveness, throws him in prison. Word of this spreads quickly, and the king, hearing of the first man's actions, reverses his decision and throws him in jail. Jesus concludes the story (or more likely some overzealous editor) with the words, "that’s what my heavenly Father will do to you if you refuse to forgive your brothers and sisters in your heart."


Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those that trespass against us.

Forgiveness is central to the Christian religion. The command to forgive appears throughout the gospels. And understanding that command and putting it into practice is one of the most difficult aspects of the Christian life.

Whenever I enter a serious discussion about forgiveness, there is always a moment in the conversation when we arrive at the "yeah, but what about the" stage. What about the Holocaust? What about the person who is abused? What about the, what about the...

The answer is that forgiveness is not a switch that you turn on and off, but rather a process. Forgiveness is a process whereby the person doing the forgiving must arrive at the place where this is possible. The person doing the forgiving must work through the anger and the hurt and even the challenge of facing the person who has wronged them and then and only then begin to think about forgiving them. It can take a very long time. Bear in mind that the apology that the United Church made to aboriginal people in 1986 has yet to be accepted. The reason? The elders that received the apology want to see if the United Church has really changed its behaviour before accepting the apology. How do you determine if an organization has changed its ways? You wait for a few years and watch them with great care.


Mahmoud Jaballah has been held in the Metro West Detention Centre in Rexdale since 2001. During that time he has been placed in solitary confinement for periods totaling a year. Mr. Jaballah has six children, but he doesn't really know the younger ones, having only met them on a couple of occasions.

Why is he being held? He is being held because the Egyptian government has accused him of having ties to a terrorist organization. Fair enough, we might think, to put a terrorist in prison. But wait, Mr. Jaballah has never had a trial to determine if he is guilty of anything. As a matter of fact, Mr. Jaballah has never even been charged with a crime in Canada. And yet, for four years, he has been imprisoned right here in Toronto.

When my son was engaging in some good old fashioned Bush-bashing the other day I remembered the case of Mr. Jaballah and explained how we are far from perfect ourselves, holding people in prison for years without charge simply because some judge has seen some secret evidence and thinks it's okay. Isaac's response? That can't happen here, this is Canada. It seems that at age 14 my son has a better grasp of what it means to be Canadian than the solicitor-general and the Federal Court of Appeal.

What does it mean to forgive the attacks on 9-11? Forgiveness is a process, and before we forgive the 19 hijackers or the organization that sponsored them there is a great deal of work that has to happen first. People who have committed crimes need to be caught and punished. Expressions of regret need to be articulated. Reparations need to be made. There are a lot of steps. On our side, we need to ponder the things we did that may have led to the attacks, and we need to maintain the way of life that terrorists sought to destroy.

In a few weeks we will again mark the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War on the day set aside for solemn remembrance. One of the phrases that we will hear repeated again and again is that sacrifices were made to safeguard our freedom. It is a very moving and appropriate response. The defeat of Fascism was a turning point in human history, because it meant an end to a system whereby the state claimed the right to control every aspect of people's lives. It was a triumph for freedom over dictatorship: a dictatorship where the dictator decided who would live or die, and who would be imprisoned (with or without trial) or remain free. Clearly, the fight for freedom never ends.


The Christian story is unique among the "big" stories that have been told over the eons. It is not a story of victory in battle or a powerful leader of men. It is not a story of ingenuity or the power of the mind. It is not a story of teamwork or overcoming impossible odds. It is a story of a God that became so powerless that he was willing to die at the hands of the very children he made. It is a story of a God that insists that the most vulnerable in our midst be protected first. It is a God that stands with slaves and outcasts and prisoners and says “what you do for the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you do also for me.” (Matthew 25)

Jesus, keep me near the cross;
there a precious fountain,
free to all, a healing stream,
flows from Calvary's mountain.

In the cross, in the cross,
be my glory ever,
till my raptured soul shall find
rest beyond the river.

The cross of Jesus is the beginning of forgiveness. When God became vulnerable enough to die we were imprinted with a mark of sacrifice and desire that remain to this moment. When God became vulnerable enough to die we began to see God in everyone who suffers, everyone who is cast down, and everyone who cries out for release. When God became vulnerable enough to die we entered a new world where power was inverted and will ever be so. No longer do we look to Caesar or Pharaoh or the leader of the free world for a way to live, but to the ones that live in God’s way: Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela, Jean Vanier, Bishop Romero, Desmond Tutu and many, many others. May it always be so. Amen


Post a Comment

<< Home