Scripture: Matthew 18:21-35
“Now this forgiving loans is a slap in the face to us. We done the right thing and we fulfilled our obligation that we signed up for,” he said. “This policy, no matter what side of the aisle you’re on, sends the wrong message. This time it’s 10k but then next time people always want more. It’s not sustainable.
“The cancellation of this debt means that I can put more aside for my daughter’s future, to ensure a life that is comfortable and meaningful for us both and something that I am truly thankful to receive,” she said.
He said he doesn’t agree with “handouts for people with financial difficulties… If they couldn’t repay it, why did they borrow it in the first place?”
“With the burden of student loans off of my shoulders, I can finally breathe,” she said and added that she feels “so free knowing that student debt is one less weight I’ll have to continue to drown underneath.”
These are just a sampling of reactions, collected by CNN, to President Biden’s announcement that he wanted to push for student loan forgiveness, especially focusing on people making less than $125,000 a year, from last October. There’s a lot of toxic moralism wrapped up in our ideas about money. About so-called “earnings” as if it is a measure of a person’s inherent value or worth as a person. That “Well, I paid all of my loans off, so why should you all get a free break?” bootstraps attitude. But I think we gathered here know that things are little more complicated than that.
Those gathered with Jesus in our gospel message today wanted to root out some of these complications, and realize the relationships necessary to building a sustainable, loving kin-dom community here on earth. This story comes from the book of Matthew, which was likely written after the year 70 Common Era. That was the year that the Jewish temple was destroyed in Jerusalem (again) and the Roman empire seemed to be dominating everything and everyone. It was as time of uncertainty and fear for both the Jewish people and the early Christians.
Throughout the book of Matthew, there seems to be a yearning for meaning-making during such a time. Members of the early church were probably feeling overwhelmed and confused. Weren’t they supposed to have been “saved” by now? Wasn’t Jesus returning? This gospel telling was trying to make sense of it all and give the assurance that God was still with them.
Chapter 18, where the passage we read this morning comes from, urges the church to live as an interdependent community. A community built on Kin-ship – a Kin-dom as Rev. Rebecca likes to say. From this same section of the scripture, we hear about the importance and value of each individual member of the flock of the church with the parable of the shepherd who seeks out his lost sheep. Humbleness is also lifted up as a value for the early Christians in this chapter when Jesus proclaims that the greatest in the Kin-dom of heaven is like a child – someone who was vulnerable and depends on those around them to care for them.
Forgiveness is another main theme and value lifted up in this section of Jesus’ teaching. To build a kin-dom, an interdependent, loving community – forgiveness has to be a norm. After a disattunement, restoration is needed. To get to, as Don Henley puts it, the heart of the matter – we need forgiveness.
Upon first reading Jesus imploring us to forgive seventy times seven times and the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, I was reminded of the ancient Jewish custom of the Jubilee year. This was the practice that after seven rotations of seven year cycles – that Sabbath of all Sabbaths – that prisoners and enslaved people would be freed, debts would be forgiven, and that God’s mercy would be particularly made known. Again, this was a system that ensured a strong community that would have checks and balances to make sure that everyone was well taken care of and to limit disparities among the population.
If we are to break down this analogy like Rev. Joanne prompted us to do last Sunday in the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, again God or Jesus would take the place of the king or Master in the story and we are the ones who are asking for forgiveness. I think the idea that is trying to be conveyed is that once we experience the joy of the weight of debt being lifted from us, that should inspire us to do the same for others in our own lives as well.
However, this all gets a little sticky when we dig a little deeper. I know many of us have struggled against the traditional idea of salvation as being a one-to-one mathematical equation where Jesus forgives me personally as an unworthy sinner begging for forgiveness. Indeed, this surface level explanation feels a bit odd when, in the parable, another enslaved person is thrown into debtor’s prison, the master/king takes back the debt forgiveness bestowed earlier in the story, and the original servant is tortured! Although I think the need for accountability is also a necessary piece of the kin-dom of heaven on earth, the idea of God rescinding God’s original forgiveness and bestowing torture instead is not a part of a Higher Power I’m comfortable with.
So let’s overturn these money changing tables a little bit more and think about what forgiving from the heart could really mean.
There’s a line in the prayer of St. Francis that prays for help seeking understanding before seeking to be understood. I wonder about seeking understanding for the enslaved man who was begging for forgiveness for himself but couldn’t show the same for others. I think context matters here. What could be going on for him? I can’t help but think that in this case, perhaps relieving someone of a financial debt is a privilege. The enslaved man at the center of the story was facing the threat of being sold along with his wife and children. Torture. Prison. The tools of Empire and Capitalism. While the master might have had other forms of income and and monetary cushion that allowed him to let go of the need to collect, I wonder what, if any, financial flexibility the enslaved man had. He was seeking 100 denarii from his fellow slave. One danarius was equal to a day’s wages, so we was owed the equivalent of about 4 months of income. I think that I too would get pretty desperate if I was missing that much money from my own coffers. When systemic oppression is still pushing down, it can be difficult to let go and be generous.
Then there are the other enslaved people who alerted the Master to this double standard of failed forgiveness. Why might they have been so eager to give up their peer? Were they hoping to get in good favor with the Master to have their own debts to him forgiven? May be they owed the first servant money and wanted to get ahead of their own forthcoming shake down? Perhaps we could give a more optimistic interpretation and they were seeking justice for their other friend who was now stuck in debtors’ prison – which they saw it to be the scam it was because how could he ever get free when there’s no way of earning new income while imprisoned? May be these other enslaved folks were hoping that by holding their peer to accountability, he would see the error of his ways, recognize his double standard, and find more charity for others.
So, forgiveness – monetary or otherwise – is complicated. In the gospel parable, there were assumed intentions and dire consequences. There can be a fine line between generosity and enabling. There’s a balance of holding one another accountable while also being open minded. When we seek to create a true kin-dom, we need all the values Jesus preached working together. The humility of not assuming intention for action, the grace of forgiveness, the desire to include everyone. Forgiveness doesn’t work without these other pieces.
All these complications can make it difficult to putting forgiveness into action. I know that in my own life, I have a hard time admitting that I need forgiveness in the first place. I can get so wound up in proving my good intentions or differentiating myself from being a “bad person” that I don’t want to say that I’m sorry or that I need to be forgiven for anything. This takes a different kind of humility – the humility of being vulnerable enough to show my humanness and imperfections. An interconnected kin-dom, even as a vision inspired by Christ, is made of humans. Imperfect, fallible, messy humans. I hope that I can remember that within myself as I also forgive others.
I like the framing of forgiveness that we are given in the version of the Jesus Prayer we’re using today from the New Zealand Prayer book. For the line we may know as “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” or “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” this translation says that we need forgiveness for the “hurts we absorb from one another.” That is so true. Our humanness and need for forgiveness often comes from places of hurt that we pass between each other. Like saying something that might hurt our partner’s feelngs when we ourselves are feeling misunderstood. Or the hurt of acting from a script written by trauma. Or the hurt of addiction or neglect or even just plain tiredness. Or like the hurt and harm of living in the lowest socioeconomic status of the Roman empire. There are intricate threads of harm in our lives that can weave together to cause us to hurt other people. Luckily, we are working to knit together a connective cord of kin-ship just as strong based on trust and mutuality and love.
Lyndale has been striving to include all of these pieces in our own work, especially in this time of reflection and change. Over the past year, we’ve taken account of our own history, named times where we may have misunderstood one another or experienced harm individually or as a community, celebrated the many joys we’ve shared throughout the years, and we’ve thought about who we are as Lyndale and where we might like to go. May we continue to build an interdependent, loving, trusting, inclusive, humble, and forgiving kin-dom right here. Starting with us. May it be so. Amen.