The other day while I was eating my lunch, I opened an issue of the New Yorker magazine to find something to read while I ate. I opened it more or less randomly and my eyes went to a paragraph in the middle of a page containing the words “sleeper cells.” From those words I assumed that it was an article about terrorism, explaining how terrorist cells formed and then waited for an opportunity to strike.
As I began to read the paragraph it quickly stopped making sense to me. I could not give any meaning to the sentences. They became just a jumble of words on a page. I looked up and then looked down again. I cast my eyes on another paragraph and quickly realized that the article was not about terrorist cells at all. It was an article about cancer. Still not a happy article, but a very different subject.
The eyes that we bring to a situation can often go a long way in determining how we understand it. We mesh our expectations into what we find. Our expectations can be very strong. It is the aim of wisdom to help us to surrender our expectations to reality.
As one might imagine, the expectations people have of the Bible will have an impact on how they read it. I saw a meme – I think it was on Facebook – the other week that had B-I-B-L-E written from top to bottom and had these letters beginning these words: Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.
I googled this phrase and found the following from a website of the so-called Orthodox Christian Network:
One of the best acronyms I have ever heard is an acronym for the Bible—Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth. Life is like a college class. At the end there is a final exam. Those who pass the exam inherit eternal life and those who do not pass go to eternal punishment. The Bible is like the syllabus for the class. It gives us what is required in order for us to pass the “class” of life.
So if we approach the Bible generally, and Jesus’ teachings and parables specifically, as instructions on how to get to heaven, we will be hearing them in a particular way. We will hear them as answering a question that they are not, in reality, addressing.
Broadly speaking, Jesus’ wisdom teaching is not about how to get to heaven. Jesus’ wisdom teaching is about how to allow heaven to emerge on earth. This is not a secret: The very Lord’s prayer we prayed a few minutes ago says: Thy kingdom come, they will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.
I said a few moments ago that the aim of wisdom is to help us to disengage from our expectations and surrender to reality. Jesus’ parables are stories that help us to do that. So it is important when we read a parable that we hold our expectations lightly.
I don’t say give them up entirely because sometimes it is our thwarted expectations that give the parable its power. But we should be wary about trying to force our understanding of a parable to reflect what we’ve always believed or what we expect Jesus, or Christianity, or religion to teach us.
In his parables, Jesus at different times presents exaggeration, paradox, contradiction, and stark alternatives. Jesus can invite us into thought experiments to imagine a principle carried out to its extreme to see if it is really true. Jesus’ parables can be jarring and powerful, confusing, or comforting. They are not meant for a quick read and move on. Instead they are meant for us to marinate in them, stew in them over time. They are meant to dissolve the glue that attaches us to conventional thinking and ordinary prejudice. They are to open a space to see with new eyes and hear with new ears.
As we seek to discover this morning’s parable’s wisdom for us, let us notice first its context. It is in response to Peter’s question to Jesus: How many times should I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? As many as seven times? Jesus answers: No. Seventy seven. Then Jesus goes on to tell the parable.
So the first question is how we should understand this exchange between Peter and Jesus. Like last week’s teaching, this teaching concerns relations among Jesus followers. Peter specifically refers to sisters and brothers.
Peter is proposing what might seem a generous principle of forgiving a sister or brother seven times. Yet, I hear in his question almost a boasting of his generosity with forgiveness. So Jesus, hearing not generosity, but rather an attempt to manage or control or limit forgiveness, blows that number out of the water with 70 times seven. The intention is not to set a different number, but to remove the question of forgiveness from the realm of numbers altogether. And so Jesus goes on to tell a parable of the kingdom of heaven. Jesus tells a story of extravagant forgiveness.
The parable imagines a king who goes to settle accounts with his servants. Jesus tells of a servant who owes his master ten thousand bags of gold. How likely is that? Not at all. This is a mythical debt. And so there is no way this debt could be paid back. It is the debt of all debts.
But the portrayal of the pleading is totally realistic. He will be sold into slavery along with his family. He will essentially lose his life. He gets down on his knees and begs for time to pay the king back. Of course, there can never be enough time to pay back an incalculable debt. But the king is moved by his plea and makes an incalculable forgiveness.
The metaphorically limitless 490 times leads into the limitless forgiveness that takes the forgiveness out of the realm of accounting.
This king transforms this situation of misery into joy. Out of his apparently limitless resources of grace, he bestows mercy and forgiveness without measure. This king’s kingdom is now an image, an icon, of the kingdom of God. The deep cosmic foundational reality of mercy and grace emerges at his hand.
As we hear this parable so far our hearts are lightened. Tragedy averted. We who are perhaps burdened by our own debts hear this story with hope. All is well.
But then the story takes a turn, of course, defying our expectations. We learn that this servant with the unbelievably forgiven debt is owed a sum by a fellow servant. The amount he is owed is not trivial in itself, but is far less than one one-thousandth of the amount he has been forgiven.
And as Jesus tells the story he knows that we as listeners are in a good mood at this forgiveness, and our hearts are leaning into a happy expectation that the forgiven servant will in turn forgive his debtor, expanding our happiness.
Gratitude bubbles up.
And so then it is jarring to hear the next words that the forgiven servant takes his debtor and grabs him by the neck. The other servants take our outrage and their own to the king who demands that the forgiven servant be brought back to him.
And then, of course, the king confronts the unforgiving servant with his refusal to extend and continue this new way of the kingdom into his own life. And thus, the forgiveness of the debt is rescinded and he will be punished until the debt is paid.
The point of the story is that the king himself has given up the calculating, limiting, restrictive way of accounting who deserves what. He has freed his kingdom from the fear of debt. This is no small matter. And his subjects are happy about that freedom. Grateful for that freedom. This generosity now displayed from the top down changes everything. It is a new day.
But the unforgiving servant undermines the revolution. What was supposed to happen was that gratitude for his forgiveness was supposed to move him to extend that forgiveness. We felt that as we heard the story unfold. Gratitude was the energy that undermined the old system, the old system that left no room for a fresh start.
Jesus’ parable begins to imagine a community of trust that can deal with circumstances that deal with obligations that are not met in a spirit of restoration and grace. All communities will face situations when their members will not live up to their obligations for all kinds of reasons. When communities are able to absorb those in forgiveness and reconciliation and radiate gratitude for that forgiveness, trust is magnified and the bonds of community become deeper and stronger.
Any of us can be in a situation of not fulfilling an obligation. When we have been forgiven and restored, our sense of commitment is magnified. It is to be a virtuous circle of forgiveness leading to gratitude leading to more trust, cooperation, and forgiveness. The reality that we are all in this together grows stronger.
Hard-heartedness, by the same token, leads to more hard-heartedness: more cruelty, more fear, and less commitment to deepening the bonds of trust, compassion, and love. The notion that we are engaged of a war of all against all becomes more plausible and that, in turn, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
At least that is the underlying premise of Jesus. That is the basic reality to which Jesus points. That is the reality into which Jesus invites his listeners with this parable.
But now what of the chilling ending teaching?
34 His master was furious and handed him over to the guard responsible for punishing prisoners, until he had paid the whole debt.
35 “My heavenly Father will also do the same to you if you don’t forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
One of my guides for this worship series is the late Robert Farrar Capon who wrote a series of books on Jesus’ teachings some time ago. He writes.
The sole difference between hell and heaven is that in heaven the forgiveness is accepted and passed along, while in hell it is rejected and blocked. In heaven, the [forgiveness] of the king is welcomed and becomes the doorway to new life in the resurrection. In hell, the old life of the bookkeeping world is insisted on and becomes, forever, the pointless torture it always was. There is only one unpardonable sin, and that is to withhold pardon from others. The only thing that can keep us out of the joy of the resurrection is to join the unforgiving servant.
[Robert Farrar Capon. Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus (Kindle Locations 2516-2517). Kindle Edition.]
The wisdom of heaven is that if we live in the manner of the unforgiving servant we will be creating and recreating that world of vindictiveness. The world we create by our actions will not be a reflection of heaven, will not a reflection of love, will not bring forth the emergence of the community of trust and compassion that Christ invites us to. We may think of it as a punishment, but it is, in reality, simply the consequence of the life we live. As Richard Rohr likes to say, We’re not punished for our sins; we are punished by our sins.
This parable is not a threat about eternal life. It is wisdom about how it is in our life together.
This parable calls us into the wisdom of heaven that receiving forgiveness is to receive an unearned, unmerited, act of grace.
The fact that forgiveness must by definition be unearned means that out of gratitude for that gift the forgiven person should be softened to forgive those who have debts to them. Jesus plays out the logic of not forgiving to its logical end.
In order to foster ongoing trust and compassion in a community, offering and accepting forgiveness is critical. Gratitude for forgiveness responds in deepening trust and compassion. Forgiveness extends and strengthens relationships. Failure to forgive degrades community and opens up fear and resentments.
This is the wisdom of heaven.
When we look to the heavens, when we look to the sky, we can imagine that it is distant, remote, apart from us. And so, in one sense it is. But it is a reality of this world as well. A beyond – and also not a beyond – in reality.
In Jesus’ teaching the Kingdom of Heaven is not a concept to denote some hoped for, dreamed of great beyond. The Kingdom of Heaven is instead to be an emergent reality among us, as we cultivate love and the courage to open up our hearts to that love.
When Jesus refers to the kingdom of heaven, Jesus is inviting us to practice a way of life together in this world, here and now. Jesus offers us the heaven way of life. Right here and right now.
As we cultivate these communities of trust, as we live into heaven’s reality together, we begin to mimic heaven.
Listen to the voice of Wisdom,
crying in the marketplace.
Hear the Word made flesh among us,
full of glory, truth, and grace.
When the word takes root and ripens,
peace and righteousness embrace.