Proper 19, Year A
In the name of God who forgives and liberates us in Christ. Amen.
Student Loan Debt has now reached a record high of $1.56 trillion dollars. If that sum of money seems unimaginable, the same may be said of the debt that the unforgiving slave owes the king in this morning’s parable. He owes ten thousand talents to the king and, as biblical scholars tell us, if one talent was worth more than 15 years’ wages, the parabolic significance of owing ten thousand talents communicates not only the overwhelming burden of his debt, but the king’s extravagant grace in relieving him of that unimaginable and intolerable burden.
This month at St. John’s, we are engaging in the spiritual practice of sharing personal stories about our finances and our faith as a way to integrate the meaning of money in our Christian lives as individuals and as a community of faith. While I certainly do not owe as much as the unforgiving slave or the average debt-ridden student does today, after earning two master degrees I have certainly struggled with overwhelming feelings when I reckon with the burden of my student loan debt. I have felt afraid, anxious, desperate, angry, ashamed, bitter, and depressed. These feelings are almost exactly the same feelings we experience when we need forgiveness. These inter-related feelings are perhaps the reason why Jesus chooses to use a parable about monetary debt to teach us about forgiveness.
Before we get to forgiveness, however, we should explore unforgiveness. There is perhaps no character in literature who suffers the tragic consequences of refusing to practice forgiveness more painfully than Ahab, the captain of the whaling ship Pequod, in my favorite 19th century American novel Moby-Dick or, The Whale by Herman Melville. With Shakespearean grandeur Melville explores Ahab’s destructive, psychotic obsession with taking revenge on Moby Dick the giant white sperm whale that had ripped off Ahab’s leg at the knee. In Melville’s most sublime chapter titled “The Symphony,” Ahab comes to the brink of finally letting go of the vengeful resentment that has held him captive over 131 chapters. Melville writes,
“… the lovely aromas in that enchanted air did at last seem to dispel, for a moment, the cankerous thing in his soul. That glad, happy air, that winsome sky, did at last stroke and caress him; the step-mother world, so long cruel – forbidding – now threw affectionate arms round his stubborn neck, and did seem to joyously sob over him, as if over one, that however wilful and erring, she could yet find it in her heart to save and to bless. From beneath his slouched hat Ahab dropped a tear into the sea; nor did all the Pacific contain such wealth as that one wee drop.”
Then suddenly, just when we think Ahab will finally release himself into the freedom of forgiveness, he tragically choose to let the pain, anger, grief, and trauma of his stubborn unforgiveness to destroy him and all but one of his entire crew. This is what unforgiveness looks like:
We see in Ahab the same destructive violence of the unforgiving slave who seizes a fellow slave by the throat, demands repayment, ignores his pleas for mercy, and unforgivingly throws him into prison. The truth about unforgiveness is that when we fail to extend to others the same forgiveness and extravagant grace lavished upon us by God in Christ, we actually seize ourselves by the throat, we really show ourselves no mercy, and we ruthlessly throw ourselves into Ahab’s prison of resentment, hatred, bitterness, and destruction.
According to Archbishop Desmond Tutu,
“Forgiveness is the only way to heal ourselves and to be free from the past… Without forgiveness, we remain tethered to the person who harmed us. We are bound to the chains of bitterness, tied together, trapped. Until we can forgive the person who harmed us, that person will hold the keys to our happiness, that person will be our jailor. When we forgive, we take back control of our own fate and our feelings. We become our own liberator.”
Whether we are feeling overwhelmed by the giant white whale of financial debt, or are held captive by toxic grievances and grudges, the Gospel of our Lord Jesus
Christ calls us to the freedom of forgiveness today. This does not mean that we ignore the realities of the debts we owe. We tell the truth about our debts and are set free from feeling ashamed. Forgiveness does not mean that we forget about the ways we have been hurt. It does not absolve culprits from taking responsibility for the consequences of their harmful actions – we still hold them accountable for making reparations and restitution for the damage they have done. Forgiveness means that we choose to no longer allow stubborn grievances, grudges, and resentments to enslave us. Forgiveness means we will no longer allow shame, fear, and anger to hold us captive. When we forgive, we liberate ourselves and those in our sphere from a toxic, poisonous past, and we receive God’s lavish gift of freedom. The same freedom enshrined in the Song of Miriam and Moses which memorializes the liberation of the people of God after 430 years of being enslaved by the violent and dehumanizing greed of tyrannical Pharaohs (Exodus 15).
Today we learn with the Apostle Peter the long, slow, disciplined work of forgiving others and forgiving ourselves not seven times, but seventy-seven times. In Christ, God has already showered us with extravagant grace and forgiveness, so that we may do the same for others by freely giving and receiving the gift of liberation. May the freedom of Christ be ours as we choose to forgive each other and ourselves from our hearts every day. Amen.