Canon Leanne Roberts, Treasurer
Genesis 50. 15-21; Romans 14. 1-12; Matthew 18. 21-35
I wonder how you feel about debt?
It’s a subject that tends to elicit distinct responses: some people pride themselves on never being in debt, and only living within their means; others describe it as a normal part of 21st century living; still others do not wish to speak about it at all, considering their financial life to be deeply personal and, sometimes, particularly around debt, a source of real shame.
The state of our nation’s debt is frequently in the news. According to The Money Charity, the level of unsecured debt in the UK is around £200 billion, and rising. The average debt per adult in the UK is £29,842, around 114% of average earnings*.
For many in our society, often the most vulnerable, debt is a crushing burden from which there seems to be no escape: attempting to make ends meet by taking out payday loans with interest rates of up to 7,000% leads inevitably to a downward financial spiral. No wonder that debt is a major cause of illness, anxiety, and misery.
This morning’s readings are pretty hard-hitting. They are about how we deal with debt – not financial debt, necessarily, but what we owe, and what we feel is owed to us. They show us how we get to choose whether or not we hold onto debt – ours, and others’ – or allow ourselves to be released from it.
In our Gospel passage, we hear possibly the most stark and unambiguous of all Jesus’ stories: here is a man who is in enormous debt to his master, and Jesus states an amount which was inconceivably large to his listeners – 10,000 talents is more than five and a half billion pounds in today’s currency – that’s around 200,000 years’ worth of pay. An unimaginable sum. So this is a debt he cannot possibly repay, and which could cost him, his wife and children, everything.
What can he do? He begs for more time to repay, it’s all he can think of asking, but both he and his master the king know that this will make no difference. His debt is far, far greater than his ability to repay, no matter how long he is given, or how hard he tries.
It seems hopeless. But the king looks at him, and sees something of his desperation, the terrible burden of this debt and how immovable and destructive it has become. He is seized with pity for the despairing man before him, stuck in an impossible situation (even if it was of his own making).
And so he does something truly extraordinary: he not only releases him from his repayments, but he cancels the debt altogether. Just like that. A debt worth 200,000 years’ worth of wages. Gone, in a moment of pure grace, of pure gift.
How must the servant have felt, to have the pressure of this enormous debt removed from his shoulders? Perhaps incredulous; he must, surely, have been filled with relief and gratitude for a gift of such astounding generosity. Just imagine it.
Then Jesus contrasts this immediately. We hear that the man leaves the presence of the king – he’s free from debt, light as a feather, with possibilities opening before him that were unimaginable just minutes before. And as he walks outside, probably a bit dazed with surprise, he sees someone who owes him money. Money he no longer needs to service his own debt. A sum of 100 denarii, which is 100 days wages – so a substantial sum, yes, but the tiniest fraction of what he has just been given (and far less than the 114% of income I mentioned earlier).
But unlike the king, he has no pity, no compassion. He seems unable to put himself in his fellow-servant’s shoes, or to remember his own desperation just moments earlier. He demands the impossible, and shows no mercy.
No wonder those bystanders were so distressed. Perhaps they’d heard about his sudden and amazing good fortune, and so the cruelty with which he then behaved must have felt all the more disgusting, and unjust.
They tell the king, who is incredulous that this man seems unable to act with the generosity and mercy he’d just enjoyed. So the debt reappears, and the burden returns. The original debtor learns the hard way what lack of pity and mercy look and feel like; he relinquishes his freedom through his hardness of heart.
Jesus tells us ‘this is what the kingdom of heaven is like’, and we should take heed. In the kingdom of heaven there is a generous, merciful king, who removes our burdens, forgives our wrong-doings, and frees us to live as he intended us.
But that king also demands justice; as Paul reminds us in this morning’s reading from the Letter to the Romans, we will all stand before the judgement seat, and each of us will be accountable to God. Remember, from those to whom much is given, much will be required**; in other words, we who have been forgiven are expected to forgive.
This story confronts us with our blindness, our selfishness, our refusal to give to others what we receive ourselves. It shows the distance between how we sometimes treat others and how God treats us.
It’s no coincidence that Jesus uses a story about financial debt to make his point; he challenges us to think about how very costly it is to forgive, how seriously it is taken by God, and how ready he is to set us free from all that weighs us down – the wrong-doing to ourselves and to others that imprisons us in our anger, fear, pride, and hurt. The hopeless, downward spiral of financial debt is mirrored in the way we sometimes approach other, more spiritual matters of debt and generosity.
Through his example, Jesus shows us how to transform those dark, guilty, grudging spaces inside us into light through his grace, then leaves it to us to choose how we will respond; whether we will put limits on our love.
The Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf, who has written much about forgiveness and reconciliation in the light of the war in Yugoslavia in the 1990s, writes this:
God generously gives, so God is not a negotiator of absolute dimensions. God demands, so God is not an infinite Santa Claus. So what is the relation between God's giving and God's demanding? In other words, what is the difference between a Santa Claus God and a gift giving God? The bare-bones answer is this; a Santa Claus God gives simply so we can have and enjoy things; the true God gives so we can become joyful givers and not just self-absorbed receivers. God the giver has made us to be givers and obliges us therefore to give.***
In our Creed we state that, as Christians, ‘we believe in baptism for the forgiveness of sins’ – every forgiveness is a washing away of what has felt soiled: the forgiveness we receive from God, or from others, and the forgiveness we allow ourselves to feel towards those who’ve hurt us.
Each act of forgiveness is the lifting of a burden, the lightening of a load, the cleansing of a stain, a gift of pure grace. It’s costly, it’s usually painful, and we often can’t manage it alone but, through faith in God’s unstinting generosity and mercy, it is often the only thing that can liberate us.
So as we approach the altar to receive the gift of Christ himself, freely given, let us consider our own debts; let us seek to see clearly where we need to ask for and receive forgiveness, and where we need to pray for the grace to give it, free of charge.