Matthew 18. 21-35
He woke up in the middle of the night, gasping for breath. He had had another dream, this time is was rats who were chasing him. Thousands and thousands of them, chasing him down a dark tunnel. In his dream, he could barely breathe as a result of their relentless pursuit. When he woke up, he was just as breathless.
Telling himself that it was just a dream did not help. He knew that the reality he faced was just as terrifying. In just a few short hours, he would have to go to the king and explain that he could not pay off his debt. He had rehearsed what he would say, how he would beg for more time. But preparation was no antidote for fear. He was terrified of the king and what might happen. To him. To his home. To his family.
As the darkness stretched into dawn, he could not sleep anymore, and pulled on his clothes as he resigned himself to the terror that awaited him.
No amount of rehearsal could prepare him for what actually happened when he walked into the king’s chambers. He delivered his speech, and waited for the inevitable punishment. And then it didn’t come. In his wildest dreams, he thought, he thought perhaps the king might grant him some more time. So he had absolutely no idea how to respond when the king forgave the entire debt. Every penny. All he could do was stutter out a thank you, and stumble into the street to freedom. Released! Free!
But he wasn’t free. Regardless of what his master had granted, the slave was still enslaved. He was still enslaved to the expectation that life was about having or not having. Enslaved to the assumption that life was about owing and paying and repaying. Enslaved to the belief that life could be boiled down to a transaction. Every relationship. Every interaction. Every minute. Every penny. It was all a zero sum game, and someone had to pay.
Even in this moment of absurd grace, the rats still chased him.
And so, before he could even breathe deeply the free air of a free man, he saw his neighbor. His eyes narrowed as he remembered that he owed him money. It wasn’t much, but it was something, and it was his right to demand it from him. “Look at him,” he thought, “walking down the street, eying bread at the market, when the whole time he owes me money. He must take me for a fool.” And before he knew what he was doing, he snapped. His hands were around his neighbor’s throat, demanding his money be repaid to him. It felt so good. By the time he got home, he couldn’t even remember whether his neighbor paid him. All he remembered was the look on his face with his hands around his throat. The power that he felt. The justification that he demanded. The fact that – in that moment – he was able to hold the rats at bay by the sheer power of his fury. As he fell asleep that night, he spent more time rejoicing in that moment than he did enjoy the grace of the king’s release.
But before long, he was asleep. And the rats were back. Chasing. Never stopping. Until the banging on the door woke him from his bed. The children were terrified as they came to get him. It was the soldiers of the king, come to arrest him. The king had heard of his lack of grace with his neighbor. His fury. His lack of forgiveness in the face of so much forgiven. The king who had forgiven so much, now demanded. Demanded that his subjects live lives of open-handed and open-hearted forgiveness. Demanded that a life of grace was the only life to live in his kingdom. And so, he was thrown into prison until he could pay off the debt. And as he heard the door slam behind the soldiers, in the darkness across the dank floor, he thought he saw a rat move closer to him.
Today’s story is a dark one. A painful one to read, and to tell. Like many parables, it is a story of absurdity. The details are straightforward. A man owes a great debt to the king. As was often the case with the stories that Jesus told, the numbers were more about making a point than representing any facts. The amount of money that he owed was not even realistic. It would be like us using a number like a kindergartener would: “he owed a thousandy-trilliony-billion dollars.” There was no way that he could re-pay it. That’s the point of the story. And so, when the king forgave all of the debt, the hearers of the story knew that it had to be made up. No king would be so absurdly gracious, so open-handed and forgiving.
But he was. Is. The God that the king represents is a God of eternal forgiveness and absurd grace. Jesus told the parable in response to a question from Peter: how many times we must forgive? Where is the limit? How do we draw the line? Again, Jesus again used a made up number. Seventy-times-seven. Perfection beyond perfection. Infinity beyond infinity. The only real forgiveness is limitless forgiveness. And so, the king of the story, and the God whom Jesus preached about, is a God of open-handed and open-hearted forgiveness. Of grace and freedom. Of fearlessness and abundant living. This is the moral of the parable, and the point that Jesus was trying to make about God.
Right about now, the Finance committee is getting a little bit nervous. “Isn’t he supposed to be talking about money? Isn’t this the pledge campaign series? Not a series about forgiveness or grace or fear, but stewardship?” But I would argue that it there is a fundamental connection between these two ideas. That fear and stewardship are intimately tied together.
In my introduction to our series in the newsletter last week, I wrote about the work of Richard Louv in his book, Last Child in the Woods. This is a book about environmental stewardship, about teaching our children how to love nature. But much of his book is devoted to the concept of fear. He talks about the ways that we are driven by fear as a society. We fear things that can hurt our children in our world, and our language evokes that fear: acid rain; global warming; these are things that sound terrifying. And while scientists are factually correct that we should be worried about these things, Louv suggests that such fear language might actually have the opposite effect. Instead of caring for nature, we fear it. Louv uses this as a perfect way to talk about how fear has overcome us as a society. He points to parenting that is fear-based: helicopter parenting that keeps our children within arm’s reach at all times, and thus they – and we as parents – never experience even a measure of freedom. His conclusion is that children who are not allowed to experience the world around them will never be moved to care for their world around them. Fear creates a stranglehold on stewardship. His point is about environmental stewardship, but I would extrapolate his point to the way that fear impacts all that we are called to be stewards of:
We are paralyzed by fear when it comes to our time. We have become such slaves to the tyranny of the urgent – whatever immediate need screams the loudest at us any given moment – that instead of prioritizing and stewarding our time wisely, we are terrified and wary of opening our calendars in the morning, out of fear of what responsibilities we have forgotten. So we close the fist tighter, and narrow our eyes a little more, and guard our time out of fear.
We are paralyzed by fear when it comes to our talents. Perhaps we have been burned or taken advantage of in the past, so we fear the same thing happening again. But instead of enjoying using our gifts – for the church, for our families, for our communities – we dread it. So we close the fist a little tighter, and narrow our eyes a little more, and guard our talents out of fear.
And we are paralyzed by fear when it comes to our money. I think this is actually the most obvious example of how fear kills stewardship. Again, instead of prioritizing and stewarding our money wisely, we are terrified that we will not have enough. And so we go on wild swings between spending too much or too foolishly, back to guilt-induced (or debt-induced) miserly closed-fistedness. And just like the slave in the story, we live our lives from one transaction to another, trying to make it all a zero-sum game. And we cannot even see the grace through the blinding fear. And so we close the fist a little tighter, and narrow our eyes a little more, and guard our money out of fear.
Fear kills our stewardship. We fear that there is not enough. Not enough time. Not enough money. Not enough friends. Not enough of the things or the people that we need. There is simply not enough. So just like the slave who was unable to live outside of slavery, we spend far too long in our lives afraid of not quite having enough. And so, just like him, we run day after day, feeling the rats that chase us. And even when they disappear, we re-create them because that black and white, transactional way of looking at the world is easier – or at least makes more sense. Grace and abundance simply don’t compute.
But then we open our Bibles and Jesus tells us that we are doing it all wrong! Closed-fisted, narrow-eyed fear is the exact opposite of the way of life that the king from the parable and the Jesus of the New Testament has told us how to live. In the story, the only demand of the king is that we live life of fearless stewardship, of openness and generosity!
Thirteenth Century theologian Meister Eckhart wrote: “There, where clinging to things ends, is where God begins to be.” Are you ready to stop clinging to things? To stop wrapping your fist around the gifts in your life, afraid of losing them? Are you ready to instead open your hand to receive and to give? To stop strangling those around you out of a sense of transactional, zero-sum thinking, greedily clinging to a few dollars, when you have been given so much!
The next couple of weeks, we will continue this congregational conversation about stewardship. It comes during the time when we share our pledges for the coming year, helping to prepare for our ministry plan in 2016. Many of you have received your pledge cards, some may even have returned them. Others may want to look in the pew pockets and pray for how you will put the church in your list of priorities this coming year.
And as you do so, I hope you come to the conversation without guilt or obligation or fear, but instead with anticipation for what God is doing in this place, and what God will do with your generosity. I invite you to refuse to let the world tell us what we need to grasp onto. To refuse to let fear guide you. To refuse to let it tell you that you don’t have enough. I wonder what would happen with the slave of the story if he chose to respond like that, instead of out of fear?
The slave stepped out into the light after receiving the king’s edict. He was unsure of what had just happened, but he knew that he had been forgiven. The grace of the king changed him. It was more than a simple reprieve…it was release! He had been given a gift so immense, so unbelievable, he started to wander through the streets, telling everyone he knew. He sang the king’s praises, and proclaimed his name.
As he turned to face another nameless stranger, he realized that he was his neighbor, his neighbor who in fact owed him money. It wasn’t a lot, but it was something, and he had every right to demand it. But that’s what the old slave would have done. Instead, he smiled at his neighbor, and in his best kingly impression, pronounced that his debt had been forgiven. And with the smile still plastered on his face, he ran home to tell his family the good news.
After he delivered the news, and they rejoiced, they began to plan a party. His years of debt had taught him a valuable lesson. He would not be wasteful, but that doesn’t mean that he could not live with fearless abundance. He sat down with his wife and counted what they had, what they could save, what they could spare, and how they would celebrate with their friends. That night, they partied late into the evening. All of their friends were there, including his neighbor who had owed him so much. And at the end of the night, he offered a toast to the king, and proclaimed him to be a man of grace and honor. Finally, as the night turned over into the early morning, the party wound down and the family was left to sleep. And the former slave settled into his bed and slept with the sleep of a free man. And tonight, his dreams were not of fear or tunnels or rats or darkness, but of abundance and light.