|As I mentioned last week, this fourth
part of Matthew’s gospel is an instruction to the whole church community
on how we are to interact with one another, especially when disputes arise
among us. The parable that we heard today closes this part of Matthew’s
gospel and we have to listen to it very carefully because it really gives
an interpretation that shakes the interpretation of everything that Jesus
has taught about how we interact with one another, especially when we have
The parable throws light
on the reign of God. In other words, Jesus is telling us that if
we listen to it very carefully, this helps us to understand what the reign
of God is like, what it’s intended to be, what it will be if we really
let the reign of God break forth in our lives. This is what it would be
He tells the parable
very clearly. And there are three parts to it. First, there
is the official who owes this huge debt; it’s an enormous debt. I
read in one commentary where it describes the debt that this man owed as
more than all of the income of the whole Roman province of Asia at that
time--so it’s a huge debt. And he comes begging and says, “Give me time
and I will pay you back.” And what happens? The king says,
“It’s all gone. It’s forgiven.” He has mercy on the man and
totally forgives the debt.
Then he goes out and
you heard what happened. One of his companions owes him and obviously it’s
a very, very small amount, just a pittance. And his debtor says the same
words, “Give me time and I’ll pay you back.” And he says, “No,” and
throws him into prison. As if he will be able to pay him back in
And then the third part
of the story. The friends of this man go to the king and say, “Look
what happened. You forgave him everything and now he throws our companion
into prison.” And of course the king is angry. And so he gets
that official and puts him into prison.
Then, as Matthew tells
us, Jesus adds, “So it will be with all of you if you do not forgive your
brother or sister from your heart.”
We need to ask ourselves
what really happens in this parable. What do we really need to draw
from it that makes it so clearly something that will enlighten us about
the reign of God?
The failure of the man
who had been forgiven was the fact that he really didn’t understand and
experience deeply what had been done for him. If we think about that
king as God, it’s a God who is truly kind and merciful. The man says, “I’ll
pay you back. I’ll fulfill my duties.” And God just says, “No,
don’t worry about it. It’s gone, the whole debt is gone.”
God far surpasses any
idea of duties and responsibilities and paying back. God just forgives.
Totally, infinitely, and unlimited in mercy is the God who is portrayed
in this parable. But the man didn’t understand that. And so
when his companion came, he was treating him the same way; according to
duties and responsibilities. And the man said, “I’ll pay you back.”
But he didn’t really listen and he hadn’t experienced what God had done
for him. So he acted in the same old way that he would have acted
God was trying and Jesus
is trying to get us to understand that if you really follow the way of
God, if you really let yourself live according to the way of the reign
of God, then you don’t keep demanding tit for tat. You don’t keep
demanding, “Pay back or I’ll get even with you.” You begin to exercise
an unlimited kind of compassion and forgiveness.
Now many people think
that’s foolish. But, in fact, that’s the way God is to all of us. That
is how God is to us and that’s what Jesus is trying to get us to realize
today. And what each of us has to realize, very deeply, in our own hearts,
“I’m a forgiven person. God doesn’t hold anything against me. God forgives.
All I must do is open myself to God and I’m forgiven.”
We don’t have to jump
through any hoops. We don’t have to do anything except be there to accept
God’s mercy and forgiveness.
And then, of course,
as Jesus tells us at the end of the parable, ‘”Be that way to one another.
Be the way God is to us. Be that way to every other person.”
Could this really happen?
As I reflect on this
parable today, I almost say, “That’s impossible. You can’t live that
way. You have to demand what people owe to you. You can’t just
Well, I feel that way
until I remember some of the people I have met since last September 11,
who had family members killed on that day. I’ve met them and they
say, “We’ve forgiven. We hold no grudge. We want no vengeance.”
They have even formed a group called Peaceful Tomorrows, some words of
Dr. Martin Luther King’s sermon about how you have peaceful tomorrows.
It’s through reconciliation and forgiveness.
Or I think about Nelson
Mandela and those long and lonely years in that prison. He said,
“I came to understand that I not only had to work for the freedom of my
own people, the oppressed, but I had to work for the freedom of the oppressor.
I had to love those who oppressed me.” And Nelson Mandela changed
his whole way of interacting in that terrible, violent situation of apartheid.
And because he changed and really was working for the freedom of the oppressor,
he didn’t hold a grudge. He forgave. He had no desire for vengeance
and the whole situation was transformed.
So it can happen.
Each one of us, individually,
in our own lives, if we begin to understand that God has forgiven me. God
loves me without limits. God doesn’t demand anything, but that I open myself
to that love. If I can really begin to know that, then the reign
of God can happen in my life. I would give up vengeance. I
would give up hatred. I would give up trying to get even. I
would be kind and merciful like God, and how quickly that would change
all of my relationships with other people. The reign of god could really
break forth in my life.
And I’m really convinced
of that. But then I also ask myself, ‘”Could this happen for us as
a nation?” Could it happen that instead of saying, “We’re going to
go to war,” we would instead try to negotiate. Instead of saying,
“No, there will be no negotiations. They will do it our way or no
way.” We could have a different attitude. But you know what
I think is necessary for us as a people is to begin to understand how patient
God is with us--how patient God has been with us, in forgiving us, being
merciful to us, in spite of our sins as a people.
You go back to 1945.
Our nation committed an atrocity that is the worst atrocity in all of human
history. Pope Paul VI called it ‘a butchery of untold magnitude.’
When we obliterated two whole cities and killed hundreds of thousands of
innocent people. God has been very patient with us in forgiving us
and being merciful to us despite that kind of atrocity.
If we’re willing to look
back into our history since then, we will discover how many times we have
invaded other nations and have killed, again, thousands, even tens of thousands
of innocent people either by directly invading or by supplying the arms
and the support for those who were doing the killing.
God has been very patience
with us, forgiving us these terrible sins we’ve committed. And yet
we have the temerity and the sense of self-righteousness that says, “We
will get them for what they have done to us,” instead of saying, “No, we
must be merciful.”
We must begin to be like
God, not just individually, but as a nation. Then the reign of God
could happen. It could really happen. But you and I, who are
followers of Jesus, must begin to stand up for what we believe. And
we do believe this. We believe that God is kind and merciful to us
and has forgiven us over and over again. Then we, as individuals
and as a nation, must stand up together and say “no” to any more violence
and war and vengeance. We must say “yes” only to mercy and forgiveness
and then, ultimately, we will be saying yes to peace.
I came across another
story. It’s a parable that I think helps make very powerful and clear
what is being asked of us. The question is whether we can do it.
It’s a story about Buddha, so it comes out of a different religious tradition.
Buddha was accosted one time by some bandits who were going to rob and
kill him. And the bandit had a very sharp sword and Buddha said,
“Before you kill me, would you grant me one dying wish, a last wish.” The
bandit said, “Sure.” So Buddha said, “That tree there, cut the branch
off of it.” And so he did. So Buddha said, “Now restore that branch
to the tree.” The man laughed at him. Buddha said, “You act
like a child. Anybody can destroy. Anybody can kill.
But only the really strong can create and heal.”
The really strong can
create and heal. That is what God does. That is what we can
do if we summon up that inner strength that Jesus can give to us.
Instead of destroying, like anybody can do, we could begin to create and
heal, and make a world where there is peace and love.
I pray today that all
of us will ask God to give us the strength to create and to heal, and in
this way allow God’s reign to break forth as the reign of peace.
In the name of the Father and
of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.