Text: Matthew 18:21-35
(Gary W. Charles, Cove Presbyterian Church, Covesville, 9-17-2017)
I am an “evangelical.” Say that word in the current political climate and some chortle in disbelief, “Gary, you, an evangelical, yeah right!” Some recoil in horror, “Oh my God, Gary, what happened to you?” Some demand the facts, “If that is so, Gary, then show me your credentials!”
Few words in the English language have had more varied and sometimes nuanced meanings than “evangelical.” Too often today the word is held hostage by the religious right wing. These are folks who check theological uncertainty at the door and by so doing they shrink the meaning of this fine word into sanctified meanness.
Often fiercely anti-intellectual, these wanna-be evangelicals claim to know exactly what God is for and what God is against. For many of them, God is anti-immigrant, anti-climate change science, anti-gay, and the anti-list goes on. They refuse to traffic in ambiguity, entertain mystery, and have no patience with paradox. So, it with some fear and trembling, that I say: “I am an evangelical.”
Earlier in the 20th century, evangelicals were progressives within the Christian family. They protested the hardline views of Christian fundamentalists. Even earlier in American history, evangelical was synonymous with revivalists, with the Wesleys and Jonathan Edwards and Charles G. Finney. At the onset of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther used “evangelical” to define his differences with the Roman Church of the time.
So, just what am I saying when I declare that “I am an evangelical”? I use evangelical in the simplest and – I would argue – the most difficult sense of the word. An evangelical believes that the life and teaching, the death and resurrection of Jesus is somehow “good news” or “gospel” for everyone. Evangelicals believe that God is at loose in the world and is most clearly seen in the life and teachings of Jesus. True evangelicals do not always fully grasp the teachings of Jesus, but they wrestle with God’s beloved child until a blessing is born.
In its simplest meaning, Peter was an evangelical. He did not always understand Jesus or remain faithful to Jesus, but he always took Jesus seriously. In his exchange with Jesus in today’s Gospel text, Peter tries to show Jesus that he has learned something from him. Rabbis in Peter’s day taught that one should forgive someone as many as three times. So, when Peter asks Rabbi Jesus as to how often we are to forgive someone, he shows some extravagant evangelical confidence, when he asks: “How often should we forgive someone who has done us harm, as many as seven times?”
When Jesus answers, Peter learns a lesson about how hard it is to be a true evangelical, someone who takes Jesus seriously all the time. Jesus takes the calculator out of the Peter’s hands. The extravagant suggestion “as many as seven times” of Peter is met with the outrageous math of Jesus: “No, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” How can anyone take Jesus seriously here?
For Peter, and all fledgling evangelicals like me, matters only get worse in the parable that follows. Read this parable quickly and you end up right back where Peter started, with calculator in hand, trying to quantify forgiveness.
Read this parable slowly, though, and you find yourself sitting in the theater of the absurd, watching a play crafted not by Ionesco or Beckett, but by Jesus himself. At first, the play does not seem absurd at all. That is where the translation from Greek into English does us no favors. In the parable, the slave owes the king ten thousand talents. When most of us hear this figure, we equate a “talent” with a “dollar” and realize that the slave is in some deep debt, but not an insurmountable debt.
Here is where it is essential to know that “ten thousand talents” are more than the wages of a day laborer for 150,000 years. In this parable, the king has loaned a slave all the resources of Bank of America and Wells Fargo combined! And the parable’s absurdity only grows when the slave comes before the king to plead for a bailout plan. Though laughable and light years beyond his capacity to do, the slave insists to the king, “I will repay you everything” (18:26).
The absurdity of the play deepens when the king does not respond to the slave, “Who are you kidding?” or suggest a lifelong payment plan at significant interest, but instead, for no stated reason, the king forgives the slave’s debt – in its entirety! And, in what is perhaps the most absurd scene yet, the slave does not leap into the king’s arms in gratitude. He does not weep with joy that not only has his debt been forgiven, but the king’s mercy has, in effect, given new life to his wife and children. The forgiven debtor just walks out of the room in time to call in the debt on someone who owes him a little cash.
Despite the great and inexplicable mercy he has received, he extends no mercy himself. How could this man, who has just experienced such lavish mercy, behave like such a total, certifiable, and undeniable creep? He has just been forgiven the national debt and when he hears the same plea that he himself has just made to the king, “have patience and I’ll pay,” the plea falls on deaf ears and he shows not one shred of pity, not one modicum of mercy.
Well, the king gets a report of what happens and the forgiven slave pays a high price for not returning mercy. The parable ends with a quick turn to remind us that the story is not about an anonymous slave; it is about us. The last words of Jesus are: “So my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or your sister from the heart” (Matthew 18:35).
The evangel, “the good news,” in this parable, in this Gospel, is that God does not mete out mercy on a quid pro quo basis. And a true evangelical knows that. My friend Jill Duffield says it well, “Clearly, it matters a great deal to God how we treat our brothers and sisters. Those of us who have been granted grace and mercy are expected and required to extend grace and mercy to others - not seven times, but always. That is my biggest quarrel with those prominent Christians today who are hoarding the name, Evangelical. A true evangelical, according to this parable, is someone who is preoccupied with extending grace and mercy to the most vulnerable, not building walls to keep them out of sight and mind” (Presbyterian Outlook, 9/2017).”
True evangelicals know that there is no forgiveness we could ever practice greater than what we have already received. Jesus makes Peter’s extremely generous attempt to quantify mercy sound simply ludicrous. Forgiveness is not something we stop doing after we hit our quota. It is not “seven times” or even “seven times seventy.” From Galilee to Golgotha, Jesus not only implores forgiveness and teaches us to pray: “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” but he demonstrates the often blood-stained cost of forgiveness, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Mercy and forgiveness are not learned in math class, but in the human classroom when trust is exploited, hurts endured, and abuse hurled. Mercy and forgiveness are exercised not in the theological classroom, but in the miry mess of marriages turned sour, friendships gone south, confidences betrayed. Forgiveness and mercy emerge from far richer soil than the surface clichés that often surround them: “just forget about it,” “just let bygones be bygones,” “just let the dead dogs lie.”
To live under the gracious canopy of God’s mercy means that there is no statute of limitation on forgiveness, no point in life when with impunity, we can live without mercy, treating others as painfully as we have been treated. To live under the gracious canopy of God’s mercy is a life sentence. It frees us to stop counting wrongs done to us and to start embracing the outrageous, merciful math of God, lived and breathed and spoken by Jesus.
That, my friends, is the “evangel,” the hard, good news of Jesus, and that is reason enough to say with more gratitude than I can ever express that by God’s grace and unfailing mercy, “I am an evangelical.”