Settling Accounts

A sermon preached on September 14th, based upon Matthew 18:21 – 35, entitled “Settling Accounts”.
A king settles accounts with his slaves. One slave is discovered to owe the king 10,000 talents. The king demands repayment, and threatens to have the slave and his family sold to make payment. The slave begs for mercy. Remarkably, the king forgives the entire debt.
The slave goes forth from the king and encounters a fellow slave who owes him 100 denarii’s. He demands payment, but the debtor cannot make payment.  He also begs for mercy, but no mercy is shown; the debtor and his family are sold.

This is the essence of the parable Jesus told. To understand it, we need to get a sense for the two amounts of money being referred to here.

Working backwards, the 100 denarii’s owed by one slave to another is — from a routine point of view — no small amount of money.

It was the pay in those days received by a laborer for 100 days of work, maybe $10,000 in today’s money.  No small amount of change. In some situations it could be the difference in whether or not a person faces foreclosure.

If somebody owed me ten thousand dollars, having borrowed it with the assurance that they would pay it back by a certain date, and then when the date came, demonstrated no ability to do so, well, I’d be seriously aggravated.

We’re not just talking about a few bucks. We’re talking about maybe a third of a person’s annual income.

Now the other figure: ten thousand talents. This is a figure so immense that it is hard to even contemplate — maybe 10 billion dollars in today’s money. It is the sort of debt that your average Joe or Jane wouldn’t even begin to be able to pay back even if they were to spend every day of their life earning money for the sole purpose of paying back the debt.

It is a debt so enormous that it immediately makes the other debt seem like nothing, even though the 100 denarii’s previously seemed like quite a bit.

Jesus is telling a joke — an absurdity. If there ever were such an instance when a man of common means was suddenly forgiven a debt of ten billion dollars, particularly in a day when filing for bankruptcy wasn’t an option, such a man would be so filled with wonder and gratitude at his good fortune that there is no way he would that very same day get bent out of shape about another man who couldn’t repay him ten thousand dollars.  Just no way.

The only way this could happen is if the man somehow just didn’t get it about the magnitude of the debt he has been forgiven.

Which, I think, is what Jesus is saying about us in this parable. We just don’t get it. We’re walking around filled with resentments and grudges about all kinds of perceived grievances, which from one angle, can seem pretty significant, the same way ten thousand dollars can seem like a very big financial debt. We have, in fact, been forgiven a ten billion dollar debt, which renders our ten thousand dollar debt meaningless.

Life is funny. Absurd maybe. It is so striking how things can be seen so differently from two different angles.

I had what in retrospect struck me as an odd experience this past week one afternoon at the Barnes and Noble Bookstore. Suddenly I heard a rather loud angry voice shouting a major obscenity, capturing my attention. I turned, and there was this young woman, maybe 21, talking into her cell phone, walking through the store towards the exit.
I caught about 15 seconds of her conversation, which from my perspective was monologue in so far as I couldn’t hear the other person speak, not to mention the fact that the young woman was talking non-stop during those 15 seconds.  It sounded as though she might have been talking to her parents — she referred to “you guys” — and the impression I had was that they wanted her to get a job and pay back some money she owed them. Possibly she had recently graduated from college. Clearly, the young woman thought this was outrageous.

Who knows what the argument was all about, and what was the truth of the matter? Clearly there were two different points of view, and the clash of the two was generating a great deal of hostility.

Now the oddness of this experience for me didn’t have to do with either the rudeness of the young woman’s angry cell phone conversation in a public place — that’s all too common. Nor did it have to do with the severe hostility of the argument.  We human beings spend a great deal of time in these kinds of arguments — a great deal of time trying to justify ourselves and to blame others.

From my point of view, the oddness of this experience for me had to do with three things.

First, there was this parable of Jesus floating around in my head on which I was to preach this Sunday. There was the strange coincidence that it also dealt with an outstanding debt needing to be paid off that stirred up great hostility. The debt in the parable was $10,000. If, in fact, the money the young woman was arguing about was a student loan, it could well have been in that same vicinity — $10,000.

The second aspect of oddness had to do with the fact that this happened to be September 11th. I had been quite aware of this fact earlier in the day as I listened to the radio and observed the moments of silence commemorating the planes crashes and I thought of those who had died. But by this point in the day, however I had gotten on with my business and forgotten what day it was.   Only later as I thought about the young woman’s conversation and remembered the significance of the day did the strangeness strike me.

Take us back exactly seven trips of our planet around the sun to 2001, and no way does this young woman’s angry phone conversation take place.

What happened on that morning seven years earlier was absolutely awful, and part of what made it so awful was that in the first couple of hours following the initial terrifying news, we didn’t know whether or not the attacks were over — whether there were more attacks still on the way.

Only as things settled a bit, and it appeared that yes, the attacks were indeed over, and that neither our lives, nor (if we were in the fortunate majority of Americans), the lives of our loved ones were coming to an end, that gratitude and an extreme tenderness arose within us. This sense we had was not unlike being set free from a ten billion dollar debt, rendering all ten thousand dollar debts unworthy of such intensity of emotion.

The third oddity to this experience for me was the fact that I had gone to the bookstore in order to get a specific book for a friend — a book by Eckhart Tolle entitled “A New Earth“, that deals with the spiritual life.

Tolle hardly tells any stories at all in this book, but one story he does tell which stood out in my mind was the following: He describes a time he received a great insight when he was a student riding the subway in the early morning on his way to the university.   His attention was captured by a woman in her thirties who was sitting alone. There was space on either side of her, and the reason for this was clear enough — she appeared to be quite insane.

“She looked extremely tense and talked to herself incessantly in a loud and angry voice. She was so absorbed in her thoughts that she was totally unaware, it seemed, of other people or her surroundings. Her head was facing downward and slightly to the left, as if she were addressing someone sitting in the empty seat next to her… Her monologue went something like this: ‘And then she said to me… so I said to her you are a liar how dare you accuse me of… when you are the one who has always taken advantage of me I trusted you and you betrayed my trust…’ There was the angry tone in her voice of someone who had been wronged, who needs to be defend her position lest she become annihilated.” (p. 31)
As it so happened, the woman got off at the same stop as Tolle. His curiosity aroused, he followed her, listening in as she continued to engage in her imaginary argument, still angrily accusing and asserting her position. In spite of being engrossed by her imaginary dialogue, the woman seemed to clearly know where she was going.
As it turned out, Tolle was surprised to discover that her destination was the same building he was headed to, a central administrative building and library of the university. Could she be a teacher, a student, and office worker, a librarian?  He never found out, as she disappeared ahead of him into a crowded elevator. Nonetheless, this was something of a jolt to Tolle, because he had come to view the university as a great temple of knowledge — an idol of a sort — with professors as sages, who, through the powers of the intellect, held all the answers to the human dilemma. How could an insane person like this woman be a part of this?

Tolle goes on to write, “I was still thinking about her when I was in the men’s room prior to entering the library. As I was washing my hands, I thought: I hope I don’t end up like her. The man next to me looked briefly in my direction, and I suddenly was shocked when I realized that I hadn’t just thought those words, but mumbled them aloud. ‘Oh my God, I’m already like her,’ I thought. Wasn’t my mind as incessantly active as hers? There were only minor differences between us. The predominant underlying emotion behind her thinking seemed to be anger. In my case, it was mostly anxiety. If she was mad, then everyone was mad, including myself. There were differences in degree only.” p. 33

The monologue of the woman on the subway, the monologue of the angry young woman in the bookstore, the monologues that so often fill our own brains, whether spoken aloud or not — these monologues invariably constrict our world and keep us from living freely, loving fully.

The ministry of Jesus was all about setting people free from their fundamental sense of indebtedness. “My son, your sins are forgiven,” he said to a paralytic brought into his house for healing, which led the scribes and the pharisees, preoccupied by the $10,000 debts, to grumble.

“You are forgiven, now, forgive one another.”

Think of it this way: Someone to whom you owe everything — your life and breath, your fondness perhaps for fresh tomatoes, your pleasure in the moon and stars, all the loves of your life — someone who has given and given and given to you and who has gotten precious little in return has examined your enormous debt in great detail and knows from your credit rating that the chances of repayment are nil.

Someone who knows all of that has taken the stack of your IOU’s and torn them up, balancing your books in one fell swoop for one reason and one reason alone: because that someone wants to remain in relationship with you, and wants you to be free to respond.





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