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This sermon was originally preached on September 17, 2023 at
Christ the River of Life Lutheran Church in North Minneapolis, MN.
Gospel Text: Matthew 18:21-35
Good morning, friends, neighbors. My name is Amy Courts Koopman, my pronouns are she, her, hers, and as Pastor Kim wrote in today’s bulletin, this is the first church my family and I visited back in 2011 when we first moved to North Minneapolis. The years have taken me many places, including to Redeemer where I’ve worked the past five years, and next to Gethsemane Lutheran Church where I just accepted my first call. So this is a full-circle kind of moment for me, and I’m grateful to be here on this last Sunday before I officially start my first call.
Fair warning, I’m going to be spitting out a lot of numbers, but for good reason, I promise. So let’s look to Matthew 18:21-35, a parable about accountability and pardon, which goes something like this:
An enslaved man is brought before his lord to settle a 10,000 Talent debt, and because he cannot pay it, his lord is going to sell him and his family and all their belongings. But the man begs for mercy. His lord is filled with compassion and releases him from massive debt. Literally, his debt is pardoned, the account is settled, and he is freed to leave.
With his newfound freedom, this man goes to another enslaved person, violently grabs him by the throat and demands repayment of 100 Denarii. Like the first, this second now-choking person can’t repay his debt. And like the first, he begs for patience and mercy. But instead of pardoning this second debtor, the first throws him in prison til the debt can be repaid.
Having witnessed this entire grievous fiasco, some other enslaved people report back to the lord who pardoned that 10,000 Talent debt, and he is so enraged by the “wicked” slave’s discompassionate cruelty that he hands him over to be tormented.
<Sigh.> There is a lot happening here, folks, but what intrigues me the most are the talents and denarii, dollars and cents. Why? Because text notes told me that 10,000 Talents is an "unimaginable amount," and I wanted to know precisely what unimaginable meant, so here goes:
Back in the day, 1 denarii was equal to 1 day's wages for a typical worker. So 100 Denarii would be 100 day's wages.
Adjusted to dollars in 2023 when the average hourly wage is $17 an hour, an 8-hour work day’s wages would be $136 pre-tax.
So the 2023 equivalent of 100 Denarii, or 100 day’s wages, would be something like $13,600, or a little more than half a year's wages for someone working 260 days a year with two days off per week. A full year’s wages would be around $35,000.
Hold onto that number, and let's talk about the 10,000 Talent debt from which the first enslaved man was pardoned and released.
First of all, one single Talent was equal to 6,000 Denarii. That’s 6,000 days of labor.
Or 23 YEARS of enslavement. In 2023 wages, that would come to $816,000 dollars. That is ONE talent.
But this guy owed 10 THOUSAND Talents! In terms of Denarii? That’s 6,000 days multiplied 10,000 times. Which amounts to 60 MILLION Denarii.
Now, paying back 10,000 Talents, or 60 million Denarii — which amounts to 8.16 BILLION dollars, with a B — would take 230,769 YEARS for a typical person earning an average hourly wage working 5 days a week to repay. If he’s willing to work 7 days a week without breaks, he'll only be working it off for 164,383 and a half years. Or 1,800 lifetimes if he lives to 80 each time.
Unimaginable is right!
Even more so when we remember that the first man who owed 1,800 lifetimes of debt to his lord still had the audacity to hold a gun to another man’s head and send him to debtor’s prison over 100 days wages. 1800 lifetimes vs 100 days. $8.16 Billion dollars vs $13,600.
The comparison is unthinkably absurd, the disparity between what that first man was forgiven versus what he threw another man in prison for owing is obscene. Which is the point.
This parable isn’t just talking about saying you’re sorry or forgiving your sibling for lashing out at you, or even forgiving people of greater harm done or endured. The inconceivable amount of debt the first man owed, itself, points to much bigger constructs like unjust economic and social structures that cripple entire families, classes, and races of people for generations upon generations -- structures under which that man and his family were surely suffering. Structures Jesus’s listeners were certainly familiar with, and which are not unlike the kinds we still know: Systems of land theft, chattel slavery, reservations, redlining, and entrenched generational poverty. These are the kinds of generational wrongs we should be thinking about with this parable, because they’re kinds of debts that cannot be repaid and so can only be pardoned through acts of equally incalculable mercy. They are the kinds of wrongs the first man is released from, but which he hasn’t yet grappled with in a way that transforms his spirit and translates to compassion for others with lesser debts.
So yes, even though this parable is intentionally bonkers on its face, it has also played out in myriad ways across human history, and it still plays out in real life on a daily basis in, for example, the ongoing conversation about student debt relief within our economy where the CEOs of 700 banking institutions received a $700 BILLION bailout free and clear in 2008, only to turn and hold 43.5 million people hostage over student loan debt averaging $38,000 per borrower, which cannot be expunged except through death.
It looks like billionaire business owners, shareholders, and creditors receiving the majority of pandemic PPP loans, with nearly 75% of those loans going to the wealthiest 20% of households in the US, and most of them being immediately forgiven to the tune of $757 Billion dollars, while those same recipients of pandemic relief complain of “unfairness” and “costliness” and “financial instability” when the conversation shifts to student loan forgiveness, which would cost about 1.77 Trillion to wipe out entirely -- or a little more than double the amount of PPP loan forgiveness that they’ve received to date.
It looks like student loan borrowers faithfully sending in their monthly payments on loans whose principal balances were long ago paid off, but whose balances have ballooned to double and triple the original amount borrowed because amortized payments directed those monthly dollars to interest that compounds daily rather than to the original loan amount borrowed.
To use my best friend’s debt as an example (and with her permission): In 2008, she borrowed a little over $31,000 to finish college. Over the past 15 years, she has never missed a payment, and has almost always paid more, even double, per month than her repayment plan dictates. She even maintained repayment for six months during the pandemic, despite federal relief. To date, she has repaid over $65,000 -- more than double what she originally borrowed -- and she still owes over $22,000. She borrowed $31,000, she’s paid back $65,000, and she still owes $22,000.
If you’re confused about how this math works, it’s because it doesn’t! And yet, she is just one of millions of student loan borrowers and payday borrowers who were preyed upon by lenders who exploited both their youth and their ambition and their need to trap them in a lifetime of debt; lenders who service loans on behalf of the same multi-billion dollar banking empires that have received trillions in bailouts over the years.
This is the cycle of perpetually growing debt that Jesus is interrupting & transforming into a perpetual cycle of forgiveness and release.
Jesus is looking at those who’ve been released from dizzying amounts of debt, and is literally telling them: You who are pardoned of truly everlasting -- 1,800 lifetimes of -- debt, but refuse to release others from debt that could be repaid in a matter of months, will be handed over to the same torment to which you’ve condemned others.
Which is NOT to say God is in the business of sending people to a hell of eternal conscious torment, but simply this: Just as Mercy received becomes mercy shown, Torment shown becomes torment received. What goes around comes around.
It is too easy, I think, to hear the words of Jesus, and ignore all they invoke and imply about people trapped in cycles of debt and injustice, and to reduce “forgiveness” to just letting someone off the hook with no expectation of integration, transformation, reparation, or repair. And it’s too easy to weaponize that reductionist reading to demand forgiveness from those we have wronged without ever changing our behavior.
Forgiveness is not welcoming someone back into relationship just because they’ve said they’re sorry and we’ve said “it’s okay,” and we’ve all hugged it out. No, as Jesus says in verse 35, true forgiveness transforms the heart of the recipient, and flows out from the transformed heart as forgiveness toward others and our own changed behavior.
Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg explains it like this in her book ‘On Repentance and Repair’: “In Hebrew, two different words, each with its own shade of meaning and weight, are used in the context of forgiveness. The first is mechila, which might be better translated as “pardon.” Which is also what the Greek word aphiemi in today’s text means -- pardon, release, to set free. It has the connotation of relinquishing a claim against an offender; it’s transactional. It’s not a warm, fuzzy embrace but rather the victim’s acknowledgment that the perpetrator no longer owes them, that they have done the repair work necessary to settle the situation. You stole from me? OK, you acknowledged that you did so in a self-aware way, you’re in therapy to work on why you stole, you paid me back, and you apologized in a way that I felt reflected an understanding of the impact your actions had on me — it seems that you’re not going to do this to anyone else. Fine. It doesn’t mean that we pretend that the theft never happened, and it doesn’t (necessarily) mean that our relationship will return to how it was before or even that we return to any kind of ongoing relationship. With mechila, whatever else I may feel or not feel about you, I can consider this chapter closed. Those pages are still written upon, but we’re done here.”
In today’s parable, though, things went the other way: Without understanding the insurmountable gravity of the debt he owed and was released from, the first man just said he was really super duper sorry. And because he had no real, internalized awareness of the mercy he’d been shown or how it would impact his bloodline for generations to come, he left unchanged. His lord, in compassion, offered transformative forgiveness but all he took from it was what Deitrich Bonhoeffer called cheap grace. He left that place unchanged and unmoved, and went away to demand from someone else a pittance of what was forgiven of him.
It is perhaps doubly sad because that man was, himself, a victim of an unjust structure, but that too is part of Jesus’s lesson: The kind of forgiveness he’s talking about here demands that we deal honestly with our own participation in harmful structures, even when we’ve been victims of those structures ourselves.
So, in this parable, the harmed person, the wronged person, is not the freed man who owed a massive, unpayable debt which could’ve been extracted over lifetimes of indentured servitude, but was instead forgiven. The people who were wronged here were the servant who was assaulted and tossed in prison over a tiny debt, and the lord whose compassionate mercy was cheapened and reduced to filth by the man who wouldn’t humble himself to the transformation and renewal imparted by his release.
So what does all this have to do with all of us? Mercy is so much bigger than we can fathom.
We are not called to flat and meaningless “I’m Sorry’s” that we blurt out when caught doing harm to others whether from intent or ignorance. Neither are we called to let one another off the hook when we’ve been harmed, or to recklessly welcome offenders back into our company because they said those empty words. We are called to be a Beloved Community in which the transformative compassion of Christ moves us into a perpetual flow of harm awareness and reduction, repentance, repair, and resurrection into new life, so that we can heal rather than harm one another. So that I can be as confident in your full forgiveness as you are in my true repentance, over and over again.
Jesus is calling us to be changed and walk in the truth that we have, as individuals and as the community of God, been pardoned of many unfixable wrongs and unpayable debts, and to pardon each other in kind.
He is promising that because we are human, we will harm each other again and again, and so this cycle of repentance, repair, and forgiveness will play out 70 times 7 times as we practice pardon. And friends, it is a practice! We have been forgiven much, and there is still so much to forgive. But we who have been released from the torment of both the harm we’ve caused and the harm done to us, must not return to the tormenter’s lair. It is for freedom we have been set free, to love and be loved, to forgive and forgive and be forgiven. Christ in your mercy, make it so. Amen.
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