Sermon: Mercy Collectors

Readings:

Poem written by Hafiz

The small man
Builds cages for everyone
He knows.
While the sage,
Who has to duck his head
When the moon is low,
Keeps dropping keys all night long
For the
Beautiful
Rowdy
Prisoners.

 
Matthew 18: 21 – 35

Peter came up and asked Jesus, “When a sibling wrongs me, how many times must I forgive?  Seven times?”

“No,” Jesus replied, “not seven times; I tell you seventy times seven.  And here’s why.

“The kingdom of heaven is like a ruler who decided to settle accounts with royal officials. When the audit was begun, one was brought in who owed tens of millions of dollars.  As the debtor had no way of paying, the ruler ordered this official to be sold, along with family and property, in payment of the debt.

“As this the official bowed down in homage and said, ‘I beg you, your highness, be patient with me and I will pay you back in full!’  Moved with pity, the ruler let the official go and wrote off the debt.

“Then that same official went out and met a colleague who owed the official twenty dollars.  The official seized and throttled this debtor with the demand, ‘Pay back what you owe me!’

“The debtor dropped to the ground and began to plead, ‘Just give me time and I will pay you back in full!’  But the official would hear none of it, and instead had the colleague put in debtors’ prison until the money was paid.

“When the other officials saw what had happened, they were deeply grieved and went to the ruler, reporting the entire incident.  The ruler sent for the official and said, ‘You worthless wretch!  I cancelled your entire debt when you pleaded with me.  Should you not have dealt mercifully with your colleague, as I dealt with you?’  Then in anger, the ruler handed the official over to be tortured until the debt had been paid in full.

“My Father in heaven will treat you exactly the same way unless you truly forgive your siblings from your hearts.”

Forgive us our debts
as we forgive our debtors.

We say this every Sunday.
What does it mean?

Jesus tells us this parable, or story,
to illuminate the question:

A CEO audits their company,
and discovers that there is an employee
who owes 100,000,000 back days of labor,[i]
according to the average daily wage at the time.

That translates to 273, 972 years of labor owed.

Because the employee cannot pay it, obviously,
the CEO decrees they should be sold,
along with their family and property, to pay the cost.

This happens, even though
this action is immoral and
against the rules of the time.

The employee, desperate, begs,
“Please do not do this;
I will pay you back one day.”

Moved by compassion,
the CEO realizes the error of their ways,
and sends the person on their way, free,
having written off the entire debt,
worth 273, 972 years of labor.

As the employee leaves the office,
the employee meets another worker,
who owes him 100 days of labor.[ii]

That translates to three months owed.

The first employee seizes and throttles the second,
saying, “Give me my money!”

Desperate,
the second worker drops to the ground,
begging, “Give me time.
I will pay you back one day.”

Refusing to listen,
the first worker throws the second
into debtor’s prison
until the money is paid.

Likewise, when the CEO hears the story,
the CEO throws the initial employee
into prison until they pay the full
273, 972 years of labor owed.

Thus, ends the story.

Now it is important to note,
that this is a symbolic story meant to serve
as an allegory, or a lesson
filled with hidden meaning.

You might think of an allegory
like a treasure hunt:
an allegory can contains both similarities
and differences with real figures.

It’s a reference, rather than
a direct translation.

I also want to note that in this story,
and in most of the symbolic stories
in the Gospel of Matthew,
Matthew has a way of ending
each story with a sense of
if you make poor choices,
you will likely suffer.

I take Matthew’s tone to be
an illumination of the personal hell
that we can endure
where we make choices that make us
smaller, more self-centered,
and focused only on
our own needs and desires
in the short-term.

Certainly,
when we make poor choices
that harm ourselves and others,
the inner prison that we experience
is painful, indeed.

Matthew invites us to ponder:
How do we find our way to freedom?

Thankfully,
Jesus is always dropping keys,
when we find ourselves in debtors’ prison,
when we think we have locked up someone else,
but find our it is we who are confined.

Like the sage in Hafiz’s poem,

Jesus is there through the night,
dropping passkeys by moonlight.

Forgive us our debts
as we forgive our debtors.

What do those words unlock for you?

As I dig into Jesus’ story,
there is something there about
releasing our claim over others.

Afterall,
Jesus depicts the denial of mercy
as the root of oppression.

Jesus’ story teaches me that no one
should be a ruler over another,
wielding claims above
the well-being of others.

In the story,
the temptation of the employee is
to become the boss over another person,
forcing their debt collection.

This happens over and above
the well-being of that other person,
who clearly asks them to relent.

On the other hand,
the CEO’s virtuous act is
to renounce acting like a boss,
releasing their collection of debt,
and deciding, instead,
to collect mercy.

Dropping keys, they say,
“Employee, you’re free.”

What is the highest value of the employee?

Power. Money.

What is the highest value of the CEO?

Re-imagination of life.  Release.

I could not help
but think of these contrasting values
as I sat in a training this week
by the Poor People’s Campaign:
A National Call for Moral Revival.
I sat, seeking to learn more about
the state of our country.

In the face of the pandemic,
I learned that the
the healthcare companies
in our country have had soaring profits
as people have foregone elective procedures
and chosen to stay home instead.

What are the highest values
of these companies?

Money?  Power?

What values does Jesus invite
us to bring to this sector?

Release?
Re-imagination of life?
Mercy?

Mercy.

Likewise,
billionaires have gotten
637 billion dollars richer
amidst the pandemic,
according to Business Insider,
as our country faces a massive crisis
of unemployment and evictions.

As the job market shrinks,
millions of Americans will be turned out,
homeless on the streets.

Where is God in that?

Forgive us out debts,
as we forgive our debtors.

Through this passage,
Jesus questions the morality of debt.

Why?

Because it reduces all of our relationships,
and exchanges, to self-interest.

It measures the other
by what they can do for us,
what advantage they can bring.

It makes us the judge of another person’s worth
based on the unfair balance of our self-interest.

This why, in the Hebrew tradition,
they had what was called the Jubilee year,
a year when all debt would be forgiven,
all land returned to the original owner,
and the community would begin again.

There is something more important
than money and corporate profits,
and that is the human being.

This is the message, Jesus preaches.

Jesus keeps dropping keys to other locales,

to the doors of
humanity,
debt forgiveness,
radical care,
freedom,
transformed vision.

Jesus is there through the night,
dropping passkeys by moonlight.

Will we pick them up?

Amen.

[i] According to Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4, ten thousand talents (the amount Jesus mentions) is equivalent to one hundred million days of labor.

[ii] According to Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4, a hundred denarii (the amount Jesus mentions) is equivalent to a hundred days of labor.

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