By the Reverend Kevin McGrane
Editor's note: Deacon Kevin gave this sermon on September 13; we're just now getting it published. We're grateful for your patience!
Today’s gospel lesson is about Jesus’ concepts of forgiveness which is a very generous understanding of forgiveness.
The parable we hear today is meant to open up our understanding of the question, “How many times should I forgive someone?” And the answer from Jesus is, “You forgive them a lot.”
Yet, there’s a problem: we need to address the problems of language and culture found in Jesus’ parable today, for there are some words and concepts there that are inflammatory to the 21st-century mind and heart. Let’s talk about that.
The first one is the word "slave." It is used to describe one of the main characters of the story, the unforgiving servant. In a nation like America, where the sin and stain of slavery still runs through our society like a pandemic, the word "slave" describes a person has been abused, exploited, and victimized terribly. The money a slave owes to his masters is, in effect, the money the master stole from the slave via slave labor. To our mind, a slave is a sympathetic figure, not a person lacking in character, like in this story.
We should know that a more modern translation of the New Testament uses the word "servant" to describe the unforgiving servant, not a slave. As a free man and employee, not a slave, the story makes more sense as a parable about forgiveness. A free person is a free agent of their own will, and in this case the servant legitimately owes a debt.
The second issue is the threat of selling the servant’s family into slavery to pay the debt if it doesn’t come up with the money. Once again, slavery is abhorrent to the modern mind, and cannot be justified in any way, shape, or form... although, according to the Global Slavery Index, there is an estimated 20,000,000 to 30,000,000 people still enslaved across the world, involving 161 countries. 800,000 of them are trafficked across international borders annually.
We don’t have anything like that in the US, though – selling people to pay off debts - unless we want to include people, particularly people of color, who are issued traffic tickets they can’t pay, and the court costs they can’t pay, in the interest fees on both that they can’t pay, until they are jailed for non-payment and their families must ransom them out of jail by paying the outstanding fines. Slavery comes in many forms.
Selling people to pay a debt is repugnant to us, and that concept is found here in Jesus’ parable, yet the modern translations do not translate it any other way to modify it. They all say, "Pay or your family gets sold."
The last problem is "torture." Torture is also repugnant and immoral to 21st-century minds and hearts, yet we hear Jesus say that when the unforgiving servant was discovered to be unforgiving to one of his own debtors, the king punished him by having him tortured. Modern translations phrase it as "turned over to the guard responsible for punishing prisoners," which sounds more palatable, but still it leaves us wondering exactly what punishment that might be. Remember, we are a 21st-century society who had a debate whether or not waterboarding was torture, despite the fact that most law-enforcement personnel say "of course it’s torture."
So, what do we make of words and concepts like slavery and torture, particularly as they come from the mouth of the Messiah? Is Jesus tacitly approving of them? Well, let’s explore one more word: hyperbole.
Hyperbole is exaggerated statements or claims not to be taken seriously.
We use hyperbole very day. We say things like "I feel like a walk 50 miles today!" or "I am so hungry I could eat a horse!" Another one we just heard was "Not just seven times, but as many as 77 times!" Does Jesus mean I don’t have to forgive someone the 78th time they cross me? No; we understand that he means that we are to forgive them a lot. We don’t take them literally when he says 77 times.
If we are mindful of the hyperbole Jesus uses in his lessons in parables (and he used them a lot), we will better understand what the real message is behind the inflammatory language. But we make mistakes if we take scriptures literally all the time. We must also remember that even the first century, people of Palestine understood the use of hyperbole in their stories and lessons, too. Just like us. Yes, slavery was very common back then, and yes, people often were sold into slavery to satisfy court decisions regarding debt or lawlessness. This was part of their culture, and Jesus often spoke from their cultural perspective. Just like I am speaking to everyone here from our cultural perspective.
And if we miss the hyperbole being used in parables in lessons about the life and teachings of Jesus, we make the mistake of taking things literally all the time and missing the real meaning. It’s like the old joke in which an Old Testament prophet is having a discussion with God. God is telling him to write down the story of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, and the prophet is saying, "Nobody’s going to believe that!" And God replies, "Well of course not! It’s a story! No one would be silly enough to think this is history!"
Of course the daily struggle of all be Christians is trying to determine what to take literally, and what not to take literally. That’s why it’s important to read and study scripture "in community," not just by our own lonesome selves all the time. The Holy Spirit speaks through all of us, not just some of us. And when one of us has a new idea from reading scripture, it’s a good idea to sound it out among the community. Sometimes we are wrongheaded about some things and can learn from others, and other times we bring to light a new revelation about a passage that informs and forms the community.
Nevertheless, the message we hear today is one of forgiveness, that we are to forgive others as Jesus forgives them, which is always. Let that message of our reading today be your lesson. Amen.
The Reverend Kevin McGrane serves as a deacon in the Diocese of Missouri, and serves at St. John's.
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