Proper 19 (September 11-17)
Texts: Matthew 18:21-35;
Gen. 50:15-21; Rom. 14:1-12
THE PARABLE OF THE SERVANT WHO CHOOSES HELL
Forgive seventy times seven times? Is this some sort of a cruel joke? During the week that we remember the terrible deeds done to our nation last September 11, we draw the most radical passage in the Bible on forgiveness? How can we possibly make sense out of forgiveness in the face of such a horrific, despicable act of violence against innocent people?
But, as so often happens, with the help of the Holy Spirit, letting yourself be confronted by such a passage in Scripture can yield its rewards. I think that when we take a closer look at this passage and its parable, we can begin to see that it’s about much more than forgiveness. Here’s what I mean. Let me use an image from the movie The Wizard of Oz, one of the first movies done with color. But not all of it. The scenes at home in Kansas begin in black and white. Then, when the tornado has landed Dorothy’s house in Oz, there’s the dramatic moment when she opens the front door to a land of color. Dorothy is invited to step into a whole new world. She is invited to step from her black and white world into a land of color.
We’ve been talking about faith in recent weeks, and another angle on faith is that I believe it is responding to God’s invitation in Jesus Christ to step into another world. Our gospel lesson today, I think, presents us with this very choice. It presents us with a servant who was faced with this choice of which world he wanted to live in. As the parable opens, we can see that he lived very much in this world in which relationships can be based on keeping debts. If he didn’t pay his debt, the consequences were going to be very bad: slavery for he and his family. This is the kind of relationship typical of this world in which we live. Debt. We know what it’s like to live under the shadow of debt.
Well, this servant goes to his master, to whom he owes a very large debt, and he begs for mercy. Now, it’s important to understand, here, that this servant is making a ridiculous request. He asks for patience until he can pay back the ten thousand talents, when that was impossible. It was like you or me, ordinary working people, saying we could pay back a hundred million dollars. But this servant apparently can’t think outside of the rules of our debt-keeping world, so all he can do is make this ridiculous plea.
But the response of his master is beyond his imagination. The mercy that his master extends to him is to suspend the rules of indebtedness altogether! He forgives the debt. He removes it as if it didn’t exist. In short, he offers him a whole new world. This servant is invited to step out of his black-and-white debt-keeping world and into a techni-color world where debts are forgiven.
But then what happens? Does this servant choose to live in this new world? No. Either he didn’t fully understand this choice he was presented with, or he decided that he had to give up too much to live in this different world. What would he have to give up? Why, the debts that others owed him. And sure enough. Immediately, he is presented with the consequences of this choice. A fellow servant comes to him begging for the same kind of mercy, and this now “unforgiving servant” makes his choice. He’d still rather keep the debts that others owe him and live in this world of debt rather than forgiveness.
What are the consequences of such a choice? Again, we see the immediate results: when you live in the debt-keeping world, the debts that you owe to others remain unforgiven, too. The king comes back to this “unforgiving servant” and basically says,
I gave you the choice of beginning to live in a whole new world, the world of forgiveness rather than debt, and by refusing to forgive your fellow servant you have apparently declined to live in that gracious world. Very well, if your choice is to live in the world of debt rather than forgiveness, then here are the consequences: Bailiff, take this man away until his pays his debt to me.
That’s what I think this parable is about. The servant had the invitation to step into a whole new world, and he turned it down and so lived with the deadly consequences.
A couple weeks ago I said I would talk about hell. I said that hell is a place of our making, not of God’s making. I think that is what’s going on in this parable. Hell is this debt-keeping world of ours. We trust in a God of scarcity, rather than a God of abundance, and so we keep every little debt against one another. Jesus, on the other hand, introduces this parable by saying the kingdom of heaven can be compared to a master who forgives his servant an unforgivable debt.
Yes, there is also that ending which sounds like the master reversing himself and sending the servant to a hell-like place. But notice the words, “And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt” (Matthew 18:34). Two weeks ago (Proper 17A sermon) we were talking about how St. Paul was re-working that familiar idea of God’s anger. We showed how he used the words “handed over” to indicate that God’s anger is nothing other than handing us over to the consequences of our anger, our ways of hurting one another and of hurting ourselves. Here in this parable we have the exact same elements: the lord’s anger, which is nothing more than turning the servant over to the consequences of his choice to keep debts.
In the terms of heaven and hell that we are using, the kingdom of heaven is like what this servant is invited to step into when his debt is forgiven, an invitation which he turns down by keeping the debt of his fellow servant. Heaven is the world of forgiveness into which we are invited to step into. Jesus opens the door for us on a techni-color world where debts are forgiven, that we might begin to leave behind the black-and-white world of debt-keeping, which leads to imprisonment and death. St. Paul lays out this choice for us earlier in Romans: “For the wages of sin is death,” he says, “but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23). There it is: the choice between death and life, between debt-keeping and debt-forgiving, between the hellish world of our own making and the heavenly world of God’s making in Jesus Christ. This is the choice of faith. The unforgiving servant in today’s parable is invited to step into heaven but chooses to go back to hell.
This is perhaps where the Catholic idea of purgatory can be a gracious one: for don’t most of us live somewhere in-between? We truly desire to step into God’s world of forgiveness. We have experienced that gracious forgiveness in our own lives. But when it means letting go of the debts others owe us, we’re not so sure. And I’m not just talking about monetary debts. We also live in the world of keeping debts in our relationships. This is the more crucial one for most of us, isn’t it? We keep track of who’s one-up on us and who’s one-down. When someone hurts us, we want pay-backs.
We also have the cycles of revenge not just on a personal level but also on a cultural and national level. This is what we are faced with when we think back on the terrible crime of last September 11. For those who lost loved ones to such despicable acts of violence, purgatory is the time they need of not being able to forgive such hurt.
But let’s also be clear about the views of heaven and hell as they become twisted in our religions. Let’s be clear that the terrorists acted according to their faith. The terrorists lived in the hellish world of pay-backs, revenge. They believed in a God who sends enemies to a divinely created place of eternal punishment, and they thought that they were sending the innocent people they killed, whom they considered enemies, to that hell.
The understanding of hell that we are putting forward here today totally flips this view upside-down. They thought that Americans go to hell and that they would go to heaven. Instead, with this view of hell we are putting forward, they got it exactly reversed: Hell is the place of our own making, the fiery places of violence of our debt-keeping, vengeance-oriented world. They themselves died in such a hell of their own making.
But with such a mystifying event, the questions still abound. The problem for our view is: what about the innocent people who died in that same fiery hell of human making? I believe that this is what the Book of Revelation is actually trying to show us, even though it is most often twisted into the same kind of view that these terrorists had. Many Christians use the Book of Revelation to imagine their enemies burning in a divine hell, in the same way as the terrorists. But I think the Book of Revelation is actually written to comfort the innocent victims of our human-made hells of violence. Those victims are all the ones who are dressed in white robes and who have come to through the ordeal.
Then [the elder] said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (Revelation 7:14b-17)
This, I believe, is the destiny of those innocents who died last September 11, and it gives me some comfort. I hope that friends and family members can take some comfort in it.
What we said about Christians and the Book of Revelation points the way to another nagging question, though. How easy is it for us to fall into the same kind of twisted notions of hell and heaven as the terrorists? Where are we headed, toward heaven or hell, when we plot revenge on Osama bin Laden and other terrorists? Are we seeking justice? Or are we stepping back into the hell of human violence? These are extremely difficult questions for which I have no easy answers.
It’s easier for me to at least venture an answer when I look to a similar situation that is somewhat outside my own feelings for my country, namely, the terrible situation in Israel. Israelis are facing a similar horror with the seemingly endless stream of suicide terrorist bombings. They have tried considerable military force in seeking to stop them, much like we have used in Afghanistan. It has led to the deaths of many innocent Palestinians — the same in Afghanistan. Are these the necessary sacrifices of trying to stop such evil? Or is such evil pulling us into its same tactics?
Perhaps more to the point: is it working? Has the Israeli military force succeeded in stopping the suicide bombers? Or does each military incursion simply multiply the suicide bombers in a cycle of vengeance? Is this the way to peace, or the way of descending further into the hell of human violence?
As I said, I don’t have any easy answers. I’m being challenged myself with this parable of being offered a new world of living debt-free. It’s extremely hard to imagine what this world would be like to live in. The servant in the parable never really gives it a chance before stepping back into the hell of our debt-keeping world. What would this new world look like with a situation such as in Israel or with our response to terrorism? Would it look something more like this? I read for you, in closing, a very brief news story that appeared in the most recent issue of Sojourners magazine (Sept.-Oct. 2002):
Nurit Elhanan and her husband, Rami, both 52, are campaigning for an end to the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. What’s remarkable about their peace campaign? The Elhanans are affluent Israelis whose daughter Smadar, 14, was killed by a Palestinian suicide bomber.”The pain of losing our beautiful daughter is unbearable, but our house is not a house of hate,” says Rami, whose father survived Auschwitz and who lost many family members in the Holocaust. In their grief the Elhanans began looking for people like them — from the other side. They met Izzat Ghazzawi, a Palestinian whose son Ramy, 16, was killed by Israeli troops. Together they founded the Bereaved Family Forum, which now has more than 150 Israeli parents and 120 Palestinian parents who have lost their children as a direct result of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and who are committed to working together for peace. (p. 12)
Our Lord comes to us once again this morning to invite us into God’s debt-releasing world. We remember that on the night in which he was handed over to the consequences of our debt-keeping world, he instituted this holy supper as a constant invitation into the world of God’s forgiveness. May we fed and sent into our debt-keeping world as a sign of that forgiveness. May God’s Holy Spirit guide us into not only imagining but also beginning to live out that for which he taught us to pray: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as in heaven. Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who trespass against us. And deliver us from evil….” During this week of remembrance, we fervently pray: deliver us from evil. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Our Savior’s Lutheran,
Racine, WI, September 11 & 15, 2002