Matthew 18:21-35

Time With Young People

I told my 9/11 story – where I was ten years ago, how I felt, and how my feelings have changed. The big word in today’s scripture reading is ‘forgiveness.’ What does forgiveness mean 10 years later? I think it means feeling the pain of what happened, but knowing other people’s pain too, and choosing to do good to each other. We always learn something new about forgiving each other and being forgiven ourselves. As Sunday School and school-year programming begins, I hope we learn still more this year.


Do you remember where you were another time? I was downstairs at a friend’s house, playing pool by self, kind of meditatively, and I was talking to God. I don’t remember the details of the conversation, but I felt a sudden reminder of these words from Romans 5: “the proof of God’s amazing love is this: that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” The idea smashed into me: while we were still sinners! That’s become a bedrock piece of my faith, that God’s grace came before anything I did to earn it – even before anything I could do to need it. The grace of God has the first and final word. Remembering where I was, picturing Jim and Debbie’s basement, helps to restore my sense of free grace.

Forgiveness must be free. I think Jesus meant that by telling this story of a debt forgiven. A servant owed his king millions of dollars, and there was no way he could repay it. It’s frightening but realistic in those days that the king could sell his servant as a slave on account of this debt. There was no way the servant could repay it, so the king could choose to hold it against him forever (note that this was strictly against the religious Law). We know this idea, not only in general but especially on 9/11/11. When wrongs can’t be undone, it seems easy to hold an endless grudge. But instead, the king forgives what can’t be fixed, the debt that can’t be paid. That’s exactly what forgiveness is, declining to hold the other in debt forever. Remember, that’s the king’s other option. There’s no way this debt could be repaid. It must either be held forever or go away completely. The bottom line for the king is the same.

But the second half of the reading is more troubling. Our forgiven servant meets another who owes him very little, and he refuses to forgive him. In response to this, the king retracts his earlier forgiveness. Matthew tags that shift as the moral of the story: God won’t forgive you if you don’t forgive each other. Let me just say, if that’s true, I’m in deep trouble. If that’s true, we’re all in trouble. None of us forgives as deeply and freely as God, so how are we to be forgiven?

I wonder if that’s actually where Jesus is going with the word ‘debt.’ Jim isn’t here today, but those of you in his Sunday School class know that he disagrees with using the word ‘debt’ to describe sin. As I understand it, his point is that ‘debt’ suggests that we could owe God anything, as if God were on our level. I think that’s what Jesus gets at with ‘millions of dollars’ of debt. This astronomical number suggests that the king may as well be on a different order of being from the servant (as God is from us). And this is ultimately about God, of course. God is not a human king who holds debts and sells slaves. Instead, Jesus’ last word on God is ‘Father,’ and as we know, a parent doesn’t keep debts. Call it forgiveness, grace, or original blessing, but God doesn’t treat us as a cosmic mortgage lender. Instead, God chooses to be the giver of everything we are. Jesus uses the word ‘debt’ to tear down the idea of debt. Forgiveness makes the word, and the idea, meaningless. Our relationship with God as the source and ground of everything makes “debt” meaningless.

But we leave that relationship, don’t we? It’s not that sin is counted as debt against us. Really, sin is us trapping ourselves in a relationship where debt exists. I don’t think Jesus says that God re-charges debts if we don’t forgive, I think he says that if we continue to live as if debt is real, that’s how God will look to us. We’ll hold “debts” against ourselves, because our sense of justice (that is, our knowledge of basic math) knows that if others “owe” us something, we “owe” something else. Holding debts means owing debts. And if we believe in debt (in either direction), it’s real – even if debt itself is false.

So this got me thinking of a false debt I’ve owed. I wrote an IOU to my family in High School. It was precipitated by an accident where I totaled a car my stepdad had fixed up for me. I put the pain of that in terms of debt (on my own), and I wrote an IOU for the cost of the car, the upcoming cost of college, even meals and clothing – everything I could think of that had been a burden. I never actually shared the IOU – I realized while writing it that it was a silly thing. I was the only one who counted these things as debts. Everyone else called it “family.” And they backed it up. After some brief painful time, a “new” old car arrived in the driveway, and I knew that’s what forgiveness looked like.

Living into forgiveness is harder than seeing it. The debt mentality holds on tight. We hold ourselves and others in debt for far too long. Note how quickly and violently the servant in Jesus’ story reverts to acting in terms of debt – just a moment after being forgiven (there’s no choir anthem to subdivide the story in Matthew). Our old reflexes are hard to disarm. We have to practice forgiving and being forgiven over and over, otherwise debt creeps back in. That’s why I hang on to the image of that car, or the text of Romans 5:8. Carrying that moment helps me forgive, and trying to forgive helps me learn what forgiveness is.

We don’t forgive in order to escape what God already forgave. Instead, we forgive because living without debt is what being forgiven looks like. Forgiveness continues in relationship despite the injury. It maintains that we’re God’s people, brothers and sisters, before and regardless of anything else. Relationship never ultimately depends on repaying wrongs; instead, our debts are canceled as if they never existed (because they didn’t). At the same time, we’re aware of the pain. There would be nothing to forgive if there wasn’t injury, so don’t rush to make everything okay before that’s possible. But we’re always free to take the first step toward forgiveness, even before someone else repents, because we’re God’s debt-free people.

And that takes practice. We have to retrain our reflexes from debt to forgiveness. We have to learn how it feels to be forgiven, again and again. So we practice it here on Sunday mornings. We learn about it in Sunday School and other midweek programs. We seek to exercise it in daily life by finding “debts” we can annul. And slowly, by the grace of God, we find ourselves freed, reconciled to right-relationship with God and each other, and made a new creation in Christ. Thanks be to God.