FIRST HEAVENLY BANK: DEPOSITORS WANTED
Carl Wilton
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
September 14, 2014; 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Genesis 50:15-21; Matthew 18:21-35

“…forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
Matthew 18:35b

When was the last time you opened a bank account?

It may have been a long time ago. Whenever it was, someone probably handed you a small brochure summarizing the rules and regulations governing your account. Now, you may have paid little attention to those rules — maybe all you could think about was that free toaster — but chances are, you did. It’s what a wise consumer does.

You read in that brochure about the interest rate, if there is one. You noted what extra ATM fees apply, and how much an overdraft will set you back.

There’s nothing surprising about any of this. It’s how banks operate. They play by the rules. Start a relationship with a new bank, and they let you know right up front what the rules are.

There’s something comforting in that. Human beings like consistency, especially if we’re going to entrust other people with something important — like our money. We want to know what to expect.

*****

And so, when Jesus teaches his disciples about the obligation to forgive others, and doesn’t lay out the rules and regulations governing forgiveness, Peter has a few questions.

“How many times,” he asks, “are we expected to forgive? Is there any limit to forgiveness — say, seven times?”

Jesus’ answer is surprising: “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”

Now, I’ve always been taught Jesus is speaking symbolically here. Seven is the ideal number, in first-century Jewish thought, and seventy-seven even more so. But I learned this past week he’s up to something else, as well.

In Genesis, chapter 4, the Lord banishes Cain from the community because he’s murdered his brother, Abel. It’s a heavy punishment, but God wants the violence to end there. There is to be no blood-feud. So God says, “Whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance.” This is known as the mark of Cain. He’s a marked man: kill him at your peril.

The murderer can only die once, of course, but the “sevenfold vengeance” means six others from Clan Abel will join him in death.

Fast-forward, now, a few generations. The Bible introduces a descendant of Cain by the name of Lamech. Now, Lamech thinks he’s the meanest, toughest desperado on the face of the earth. In Genesis 4:24, he boasts to his wives that no attacker would dare touch him. Should anyone be foolish enough to try, “If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.” (Picture Lamech as a professional wrestler, beating his breast and trash-talking his opponent.)

So, the idea of seventy-sevenfold revenge becomes ingrained, in the scriptures, as the biggest, baddest vengeance you could imagine.

Jesus is renowned, of course, for his knowledge of the scriptures. So, when he answers Peter’s question about the limits on forgiveness by saying, “Not seven, but seventy-seven times,” he’s referring back to Lamech’s boast of ultimate vengeance. It’s as though Jesus were saying: “You’ve heard about seventy-sevenfold vengeance. Yet, I tell you, in the kingdom of heaven there is no such thing. In the heavenly kingdom the only thing amplified seventy-seven times is forgiveness!”

No doubt, this is a hard teaching. Most of us would agree a little forgiveness is a good thing, but to let somebody harm us seventy-seven times, then invite that person back for more, sounds just a little co-dependent, don’t you think? Is Jesus really equating the word “disciple” with “doormat”?

*****

As he so often does with hard sayings, Jesus explains himself with a parable.

There is a man who owes a lot of money to his king. The king decides it’s time to call in the loan. And so, he directs that this man be “brought to him.”

Notice the man doesn’t come of his own accord. The king’s probably sent out a raft of collection letters, to no avail. Finally, he has the prosecutor issue a warrant for the man’s arrest. The king’s soldiers seize the poor debtor and drag him before the king in chains.

You’d think the guy would have tried to negotiate. You’d think he would have asked for a payment plan — or something. But there’s a reason he doesn’t.

The reason is the amount of his outstanding loan: ten thousand silver talents.

Now, some Bible scholars have tried to calculate the equivalent of ten thousand talents in today’s money, but that’s a fool’s errand. There’s no point in crunching the numbers, because Jesus is speaking in general terms. He’s simply saying it’s an unbelievably large sum.

Ten thousand is just about the highest number you ever see mentioned in the Hebrew scriptures. A talent is the largest biblical unit of weight. So, when Jesus says this poor debtor owes the king ten thousand silver talents, it’s like he’s saying “a bazillion tons.”

Ten thousand talents is more than the total annual taxation raised by King Herod of Judea. That’s how big it is!

Now, don’t even try to explain where a king would come up with such a large amount of cash — let alone, loan it to one of his subjects. This parable is a comical story: full of Paul-Bunyan-style exaggerations. The point is, when this miserable debtor is standing before the king in chains, quaking in his sandals, he knows there’s no way in all of creation he can ever pay that money back. But still, he tries to negotiate: “Give me just a little more time, great King. I’ll do whatever I can to pay you back!”

What happens next, in the parable, is equally bizarre and unexpected. At first, the king does what any good business executive would do: he cuts his losses. He announces to the debtor he’s selling him and his entire family into slavery. (The king knows he won’t recover even pennies on the dollar, but he’s got to do something.)

Whereupon the miserable debtor lets out such a piteous cry of despair that even the king has mercy on him. The Greek word Matthew uses is splanchnizomai — an earthy word translated, elsewhere, as “compassion.” It’s related to the Greek word for “gut” — the sort of powerful emotion you feel, deep inside. It’s a word Matthew often uses of Jesus, to describe the compassion he feels for the poor and the sick.

And so, this compassionate king does the unimaginable. He forgives the man’s debt, without condition. He just sends him home, telling him his account has been cleared. (Real kings don’t often behave this way, of course, but remember, this is a comic tale, painted with a broad brush.)

Imagine how that former debtor must have felt. Imagine the lightness in his step, knowing his spine-crushing financial burden has been removed. He can breathe again. He can live again.

But then, it so happens this forgiven debtor comes upon another servant of the king: a man who owes him the sum of one hundred denarii. Rather than extending the same grace and compassion to this man, he “seizes him by the throat” and says “Pay up!”

I have visions, here, of Homer Simpson choking his son, Bart — a sheer caricature.

This second debtor comes out with the same line as the first: “Have patience, I’ll pay you — somehow!” But the forgiven debtor has no reserve of patience, no compassion for the man who owes him money. He throws him into debtors’ prison!

Let me say a word, now, about this second debt, a hundred denarii. Unlike the absurd sum of ten thousand silver talents, this is a number we can deal with. We know a days’ wage for a laborer was a single denarius — a small-denomination Roman coin. A hundred denarii, therefore, was equivalent to a hundred days of labor. At New Jersey minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, eight hours a day for a hundred days — get out your calculators now — that’s $5,800.

Jesus’ point is, this is no trivial sum. It’s not like a dollar or two you loan someone for a cup of coffee, then respond with that classic North Jerseyism: “Fuggetaboutit!” A hundred denarii is a major debt. It’s not easy to just forget. That kind of forgiveness takes work!

*****

Imagine somebody told you this parable, but began it with the second part — leaving the first part off completely. At the center of the story is an unpaid debt of nearly $6,000. The lender takes the debt seriously, demanding payment. Can you blame him? Is there anybody here who’d complain he’s being ungenerous, in not writing the debt off? No, that’s just the way financial institutions work. It seems perfectly just.

This is the truly remarkable thing about the sort of forgiveness Jesus is challenging you and me to offer: not seventy times, but seventy times seven. Christian forgiveness, you see, is not about justice. It’s about grace. You don’t bargain for grace. You don’t offset it with some other kind of payment, a quid pro quo. You just give it — freely. Grace transcends justice.

Remember how the parable ends up. It isn’t a happy ending. Word gets out about the king’s generosity in forgiving that monstrous debt. Word also gets out about the forgiven debtor’s callous refusal to give any sort of break to the man who owes him money. This information makes its way back up the pecking order to the king. He’s “greatly distressed” at the news.

The king has the man arrested and hauled before him once again. He declares he’s revoking his offer of forgiveness, and is sending him off to be tortured until he can come up with the money — which is, of course, for a debt of ten thousand silver talents, impossible.

It’s a harsh word, “torture.” But remember who it is who’s telling the story, and where it is he’s going. It’s Jesus, and he’s on his way to the cross. Jesus is going there to be tortured — tortured so our forgiveness may be procured.

We spoke earlier about that obscure biblical character, Lamech — that descendant of Cain, who vowed revenge not seven times, but seventy times seven. Look at our culture honestly, and you’ve got to admit it much prefers Lamech’s arithmetic to that of Jesus. Lamech’s arithmetic only multiplies revenge — and with it, resentment, pain and hurt.

Jesus’ arithmetic, by contrast — the arithmetic of grace — does not multiply. It divides. It divides anger and resentment, pride and entitlement. It breaks them down into their component parts. It dissolves them in a solution of love.

*****

That’s one crazy bank Jesus is running! It doesn’t operate by the usual rules. That’s because it’s not based in this world. Its charter comes not from any human government, but rather from the kingdom of heaven.

Let’s go over a few of the rules for new depositors in the First Heavenly Bank.

First of all, you don’t get a toaster. You just don’t. Sorry.

You’re permitted to open an account without even a deposit. Yes, you heard that right. In the First Heavenly Bank, you can open an account with a zero balance. As a matter of fact, there’s already an account set up in your name. All you have to do is activate it!

Well, what about hidden fees? I’m happy to tell you there are none. All fees you may incur, for tomorrow or for all time, have been prepaid in full. They’ve been prepaid by Jesus on the cross.

You won’t find the bankers at the First Heavenly Bank to be the least bit off-putting, nor officious. Not even on a bad day. On the contrary, their dealings with customers are always characterized by deep compassion, as they write off debt after debt.

Do you need to sign up for overdraft protection at the First Heavenly Bank — paying a little extra so you can bounce a check every month or so? Not at all. Unlimited overdrafts for everyone!

There’s only one rule in the First Heavenly Bank that depositors have to follow. It’s a very simple rule, so simple anyone can understand it. The rule is this: Pay it forward. (Not like that unforgiving servant: he just didn’t get it!)

Deposits in First Heavenly Bank are a secure investment. They’re HDIC-insured (that’s Heavenly Deposit Insurance Corporation). As such, they are backed by the full faith and trust of the Lord of heaven and earth.

So, don’t be shy. This is the bank where you ought to deposit everything that’s most dear to you, in this life. It’s more than safe: and the interest payments are out of this world!