Text: Matt. 18:21-35
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
There’s an old fable known as “The Tale of the Scorpion and the Frog.” It has some minor variations, but it goes like this: A scorpion wants to get to the other side of a deep and fast-moving river. He knows that he can’t swim across—scorpions can’t swim. So he asks a frog if he could let the scorpion ride on his back across the river. The frog is very understandably hesitant. He knows about scorpions, so he refuses. The scorpion then asks if he promises not to sting the frog, would the frog please carry him to the other side. The frog reluctantly agrees. Halfway across the river, the scorpion stings the frog and paralyzes him, dooming them both to drown and die. The frog asks the scorpion why he stung him, when it would kill them both. The scorpion answers that he couldn’t help it; it’s his nature to sting.
This fable teaches a lesson about not trusting those who are by nature vicious, but it also helps reveal something about us as humans. It’s often in our nature to stay armed to some level. We teach ourselves to do this through these little lessons, through our reasoning and rationales, to not be vulnerable. We teach ourselves not to open up to harm. It can be in the form of the cautiousness of the frog, from whom we learn to not fully trust. Or it can be in the hard armor of the scorpion, complete with stingers and ammunition. We won’t be harmed because we won’t be vulnerable, or because others know we’ll hurt them right back.
And in the realms of mortals, that may be so. But it is not so in the kingdom of God. Today in our Gospel reading, Peter asks Jesus, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Peter is being a smart frog, as our fable from earlier might put it. He’s not willing to endure a sting that could be harmful or even fatal. Now we should note that Peter is being quite generous. He’s willing to take many little stings—even up to a generous seven! Peter understands that forgiveness is important. But he also knows that it’s better to not remain vulnerable. So yes, forgive, he thinks; but don’t be foolish. Don’t get stung in the middle of the river.
But Jesus surprises us, as He always does. He surprises us with grace—unlimited, undeserved, pure, infinite grace. Not forgiveness seven times, but seventy times seven—a perfect number multiplied by a perfect number. Perfect forgiveness in abundance. To elaborate, He tells a parable that’s quite different from what Peter was thinking; quite different from our little fable earlier. In it, there’s a servant who somehow has racked up a debt of ten thousand talents. A talent was 6,000 days’ wages for an average worker like the servant, so his debt was about 60 million days’ wages. There’s no way that the servant could ever work that off. But when he’s threatened with being sold, along with his wife and children and all their earthly possessions, he falls on his knees and begs his master to be patient with him and he’ll pay it back. The master, out of pity and pity alone, released him and forgave the debt—not because such a debt could ever be paid back by the servant. He wouldn’t have to pay it. He was free to go.
That’s the kind of grace that we can’t even begin to fathom. Imagine an individual racks up the national debt on his credit card and Visa just lets him go, debt forgiven. The only one who’s going to eat the cost of that is the king himself. And yet, he lets the servant go, forgiven out of pity and grace. This shows us how things work in the kingdom of God—staggering, unimaginable forgiveness and mercy.
But then the parable takes a turn. That same servant, going out from the king’s hall, sees another fellow servant who owes him a hundred days’ wages—maybe the cost of a used car. He grabs this fellow servant and starts choking him, demanding to get what he was owed. The servant says the exact same thing that the first servant said to the king, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” But he refused to be patient or gracious—he certainly refused to forgive the debt—and so he had his fellow servant thrown in debtor’s prison until he could pay it all back. This understandably upset the rest of the king’s servants, so they told their master what he had done. He called the servant back in and said, “You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” And with that the servant got exactly what he had put the other servant through—merciless imprisonment and a lack of grace.
Why does the servant not forgive his fellow servant a paltry debt when he himself has been forgiven such an unimaginable amount? It’s in his nature. It’s in the nature common to us all, our fallen nature that stings each other, the fallen nature that refuses to believe that there could be that much forgiveness, free, full. There must be a catch. So we put on little bits of armor. We add conditions to God’s grace—He’ll forgive you if you clean up your act. Do this or that act of penance and then He’ll show you mercy. Prove you’re worthy for him to release you from your debt. We keep little bits of ammunition that we can use against other servants, so that we can try to compare our accounts—I’m not as bad as they are, I’m justified in treating them poorly or ignoring them or talking badly about them because of what they’ve done to me. We remember slights and insults, words and deeds that people commit against us so that we bring it back out if we need to. Sure, we say we forgive, but it’s all too easy for our nature to hold on to those things and start stinging again.
Be we have a God who is not like this; therefore, His kingdom is not like this. This is the God who makes Himself completely and utterly vulnerable. He comes to us as an infant, helpless and weak. He has no defense against those who hated Him and attacked Him during His earthly ministry. He’s silent before the accusations made against Him during His joke of a trial. He’s crucified, exposed, suffering every ounce of vindictive harm from others. And He does all of this to forgive—to forgive the debts of others, to pay what they could never pay from their own pockets, what they refused to pay out of stubbornness. He does this all to purge away the massive debt racked up by us, servants who had no business abusing our Lord’s generosity the way we have. And this King of ours holds no secret file of sins that He can pull back out whenever He needs to. He has no ammunition to sniper fire at us when we start to step out of line. He has no armor around His perfectly loving and gracious heart. He has completely forgiven us and remembered our debt no more.
So we have no need to keep our little bits of ammo against those who trespass against us. Our books have been cleared, so we don’t need to keep tally and score against others. That was Joseph in our Old Testament reading. He kept no record of wrongs—he opened himself up to the people who had hurt him and done him evil and he paid them back with kindness and generosity, saving their lives and the lives of their little ones. That’s the lesson from Romans, where Paul tells us not to pass judgment and keep score against those who are weaker in the faith, who don’t pray or fast or eat or drink as we do. That’s the lesson in Jesus’ parable. There is no scorecard in heaven. When you realize the totality of God’s infinite forgiveness, you simply can’t keep score. You won’t. If you do, then you haven’t really grasped or remembered how much you’ve been forgiven. Your faith is still trying to catch up with God’s grace.
Jesus forgives you, completely and freely. You’re set free. Every single sin, even those you thought were too big or too many times—it’s all forgiven in Jesus’ sacrifice. Live in the peace of that, and may God grant that that peace spreads from you to your fellow servants. In the name of Jesus, our gracious King, Amen.