Forgive Us Our Debts…
Bible Text: Matthew 18:21-35 | Preacher: Rev. Alex Peterson | Series: Lent 2019 | In Jesus’ day, the common wisdom was you should forgive a person three times for a misdeed against you, since any more and you risk being taken advantage of. Peter, in a display of generosity, asks Jesus if—when a fellow believer sins against him—he should forgive that person an extravagant seven times rather than the customary three. Jesus answers, “Not seven times… but seven-seventy times,” suggesting there ought be no limit to the lengths we go to forgive. But to drive home the point, Jesus tells the parable you just heard. A slave owes his king a debt. Translating the amount into today’s terms, the debt costs about two hundred… years’ wages. This is a functionally infinite debt that no slave could ever repay! This king has the legal right to confiscate everything belonging to his debtor—house, family, the very clothes on his back—but out of pity the king chooses to forgive this infinitely large debt owed to him, relenting from giving the debtor the punishment normally due him. Jesus could have stopped there and told Peter to be like the king: that would have been a good enough lesson.
But in a surprise twist, Jesus reveals that we aren’t the forgiving king in this story but the slaves. Because the first slave then finds another who owes him one hundred denarii, about a hundred days’ wages: an enormous amount but nowhere near as large as the debt that was just forgiven. The forgiven-slave chokes his debtor, demands his money back, and throws him in debtor’s prison until this smaller loan is repaid. Jesus concludes the story with the king learning of the cruelty of the debtor-slave, and the king decide that, since his debtor is so cruel towards others, he won’t forgive the loan after all. And so the slave whose infinitely large debt was about to be forgiven was instead imprisoned forever. By the end we realize we’re not the king here… but one of his debtors. And the question of forgiveness isn’t whether we’ll be magnanimous like the king: that conclusion is too easy on us, for we often imagine ourselves more generous and merciful than we actually are. Instead the question posed is whether—as folks with their own debts forgiven—we will make the same mistake as the debtor in the story or whether we’ll learn to forgive others as we’ve been forgiven.
The Bible calls sin a “debt” in this scripture. Today’s scripture uses words like “loan,” “debt,” “repayment,” and “obligation.” That’s because, like a debt, ultimately someone pays for sin. As Earl Wilson once remarked, “If you think nobody cares if you’re alive, try missing a couple car payments.” If a child hits a baseball through your window, someone has to pay to fix the glass. It could be the kid, their parents, or perhaps just you paying for your own window. Failing all that, you pay for the damage by enduring colder winters and more bugs in summers until the window is fixed. Either way, someone has to pay the cost of the wrong. The Bible often views sin in a similar fashion. If I murder someone, I harmed their family and friends. If I am punished, then I pay the price. If I’m never caught, the family pays instead by suffering injustice.
But sin-as-debt gives us a wider scope than we often imagine, for sin-debt also covers passive sins, evils you don’t actively commit but still have a stake in. If I see someone get mugged and do nothing, I did not actively hurt anyone, but I still passively allowed evil to thrive and so incurred a moral debt in God’s eyes. Or as a personal illustration, in the 1800s both my undergrad and seminary made vast sums of money off slavery and the slave trade, and investments made with that blood money continues to benefit those schools today. My undergrad and seminary both had the option to passively continue reaping the dividends of slavery while claiming innocence, since they today didn’t actively harm anyone. But instead, the schools launched investigations to track down slaves’ descendants, restore torn-apart families, and hopefully establish scholarships for the offspring of their former slaves. These modern leaders didn’t actively commit the sin of slavery. But they saw the lasting harm it wrought upon families torn apart and downtrodden, how their schools through investments were still profiting off that 1800s sin, and so found a moral debt handed down to them across centuries. So though they didn’t do the evil act themselves, my schools’ leaders now are seeking to repay the moral debt to former slave families. Or in plainer terms: it doesn’t matter if you broke my family’s window yesterday or if your grandpa broke it a hundred years ago, someone has to pay the bill to fix it. By calling human sin a “debt,” Christ’s first lesson in this parable is that sin is not only the evil we do… but passive evil as well. Debts don’t care how you gained them: whether you took out loans yourself, inherited bills from a parent, or if your kid’s gambling habits bankrupt you. Either way, debts and sin both only care that someone pay them, not how or why it happened.
Therefore, know that you will be tempted by sins both active and passive. Normally when Christians talk about sins, we think about big, flashy, active ones like adultery… or theft… or perhaps gluttony. But our sin-debts also can be passive: neglecting a child or a lonely older relative, having the opportunity to tell the truth but instead staying silent, unknowingly causing grave harm to another through mere ignorance. It’s easy for us to think that battling temptation is merely refraining from doing evil. That itself would still be impossible, but it would still be too easy. Battling temptation also requires us to actively choose good, that we might avoid the debts incurred by the damages of sin. Temptation will attempt to deceive us, tell us that it’s okay this once… and so we must be vigilant and active in doing good, lest our apathy lead us into evil.
That’s why forgiveness is so central to this parable. Usually when we Americans forgive, we say, “Oh, it doesn’t matter” or “It’s no big deal.” We downplay the damage in a feeble attempt to make others feel better. When we Americans forgive, we pretend like sins against each other have no cost, as if evil doesn’t take a toll from someone. Look back at the parable Jesus tells. One servant owes a nearly infinite debt to his king. Nobody in the story Jesus tells denies that. The king doesn’t say, “It’s not that much money.” or “That loan doesn’t matter.” That would be ludicrous. In Christ’s parable, the forgiveness of the king cost him two hundred years’ worth of wages. And the debt-free slave had the option of then forgiving a debt of a hundred days’ wages… but instead chose to force the other to pay what was due. Nobody in Jesus’ story pretends debts don’t exist, that they aren’t important. The question is rather: who is going to pay off the loan? The king… or his slave debtor? The slave… or the man owing him in turn? You cannot hand-wave away debt: someone must eat the cost of it. The debt exists, so who pays it?
In the same way, when we forgive others… we must not say the harm they did us doesn’t matter. Forgiveness is not denying the pain you’ve endured. Forgiveness is not running back into an abusive home. Biblical forgiveness is not foolish. Rather, forgiveness—like the king in this parable—looks at the debt incurred by others’ sins… acknowledges them as evils done against you… and chooses to not demand payment, to not be ruled by the evil act and its consequences but to instead forge a new way forward. If your response to evil done against you is to pretend it doesn’t exist, then you’re claiming you have nothing to forgive in the first place, in which case we’re not talking about forgiveness anymore. Just as if your response is to demand exact justice against those who harmed you, you’re not forgiving either. But when we truly forgive—whether it be over a broken window, broken trust, broken hearts, or even broken bodies—like the king in Christ’s parable, we admit the severity of the sin-debt, the reality of the evil done to us… and declare it forgiven anyways. In that way, evil is treated seriously. The forgiver still pays the cost, swallowing the pain caused and pride wounded. But it does so with a respect for God’s justice and mercy that thereby enshrines the dignity of the forgiver. It allows the forgiver to let go of the damage done to them, not by denying the reality of the evil and pain but by deciding to let go of the wound out of their own mercy and love.
Of course, this dynamic is most clearly revealed at Easter. Many people of good faith have wondered over the years… why did Jesus need to die on the cross to forgive sins? Could God not simply declare our sins are forgiven and not bother with the pain and suffering? If the Lord is all-powerful, why not just say we’re okay now without need for the bloody mess of the cross? But in a world with real pains—with killing and abuse and loneliness and grief and loss and even the horrors of genocide and slavery—were God to simply say things were okay now, that would be a denial of the reality of human suffering. Forgiving without acknowledging the pains incurred by evil would be mercy trampling over justice, wounding the victims anew. The mosque shooting in New Zealand this week, where fifty lie dead at the hands of a white supremacist, that massacre incurs a real cost that must be paid somehow, a pain and injustice that cannot simply be hand-waved away. By God in Jesus physically entering the human story—suffering as we suffer, dying as we die, moreover dying the unjust death of an innocent betrayed and wrongly executed—the cross of Easter reveals that when faced with the debts of human sin… Christ our King is willing to pay its cost for us.
The cross shows that God takes our suffering seriously when we are the victims of others’ sins, that God sees the abuses we endure and demands justice for us… and that simultaneously God knows that we cannot pay the price for our own sins without being destroyed, that we need someone else to pay the debts of sin in our place. A God who forgave without paying for the cost would be a monster to victims of evil, treating their pain as if it weren’t real. And a God who only doled out justice would be the death of us all, for we all are both victims and victimizers. But a God who suffers in our place, upholding justice by dealing out the punishment the debts of evil demands… but also upholding mercy by suffering evils’ costs in our stead… only such a God could be called loving. And that is why we celebrate the cross and Easter, because that is the truest revelation that God is just, merciful, and above all loving. The cross is the punishment due for human sins, for all the killing and death and misery: the cross treat that suffering reality with the justice it deserves. But by God being on the cross rather than us, mercy is likewise enshrined, a mercy that sees an infinite sin-debt must be paid… and so the infinite God pays it instead.
In Jesus’ parable, the story ends with the king asking a question of the debtor-slave… and of us. “Should you not have mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?” It’s a sober reminder that the forgiveness we celebrate each Sunday isn’t merely a cosmic, spiritual truth to hold in our hearts… but something that must change our lifestyles, that must have a practical impact in our lives. And by Jesus framing sin as a debt, a cost that someone—either debtor or lender—must pay eventually… we see that the evil we do has a real cost, one that is paid either by the punishment of evildoers… or the unjust continued suffering of their victims. We see that sins are not just the evil we do… but the evil we permit to endure, the good we fail to do. And we see that forgiving others doesn’t diminish the reality of our suffering… but rather acknowledges the pain caused, looks squarely at the debt of evil done to us, and chooses out of generous mercy to forgive the cost anyways. But forgiveness isn’t pretending there is no cost whatsoever, for forgiveness can only happen when there is real moral debt to forgive. And lastly, we see that Easter is the greatest revelation of forgiveness, where God satisfies the demands of justice for all victims and all goodness by nailing it to a bloody cross… and where God grants the blessings of mercy by paying the costs of evil in our place. So yes, sin is a debt, a loan taken out with every evil done and good left undone. But thanks be to God that in Christ the debt of sin is shattered, as justice and mercy meet when God pays the cost in our stead in Christ Jesus. Amen.