I don’t care what everybody says, I like the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Of course, they did do a little article about me three weeks ago. But, they didn’t exactly include all the facts about my life—such as nearly twenty years in the state of Maryland, three in the state of New York, and four in the state of North Carolina. But they did mention that I am a native of Virginia.
It’s funny, but the truth is: I’m the first man in my family to be born in Virginia since 1780—the year the Joneses of Spotsylvania County, Virginia packed their wagons and left for Kentucky. Of course, I suppose one way to look at it is to say, “we’ve been trying to get back here ever since–we’re just a little slow.”
I saw an article on Friday which reminded me of today’s Gospel. Another Virginia native owed her company a great deal of money, so they had her thrown into prison. It seems that the woman, who was the company comptroller, had gotten into the habit of writing herself checks from the company till. Over the years, she and her husband bought a stock-car racing team, an ostrich farm in Goochland County, European sports cars, and a luxurious home in the West End. On her watch as financial officer of the company, she managed to embezzle a few dollars short of 15 million. In addition to time in the Federal Pen, she will be required to pay at least 500 dollars a month in restitution for the rest of her life. According to the article, she’ll have the debt paid back in about 2,000 years.
A little closer to home, you probably recall the story of the Virginia man whose wife embezzled 2.2 million dollars from the National Office of the Episcopal Church. She didn’t buy anything as exotic as an ostrich farm, but they did buy a place down on the River. She is also serving time in prison, and luckily for her, full restitution has already been made to the Church.
In the Gospel today, the Lord teaches that forgiveness is absolutely essential for Christians. Following the teaching of the Psalmist and the book of Ecclesiasticus, we see that forgiveness is the “theme of the day.” Jesus makes his case for forgiveness by classifying sin in terms of debt, not simply in terms of wrong-doing or wickedness. He compares sin to the building up of debt. If you’ve ever wondered why Presbyterians and other Christians always say “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” it isn’t because they’re financially oriented, but because they are following the Greek wording of the Lord’s Prayer more closely than the Prayer Book always has.
The parable today shows a very exaggerated example about how sin is like debt. The numbers given are meant to be huge ones. In the first century, a talent was equal 6,000 denarii, each denarius being equal to a day-laborer’s wage. Therefore, the first slave (who owes 10,000 talents) owes the equivalent of sixty-million days’ pay. In modern terms, based on the minimum wage, this would be 2.6 billion dollars. Clearly, Jesus shows us a vast debt for which the first slave is forgiven, and he puts it into great contrast to the debt which that slave is unable to forgive in another person just like himself.
Now we Christians know that we have been forgiven much, don’t we? More than we could ever repay, even in 2,000 years. I know I do. I know I have been forgiven much. I know that I am a great sinner. I owe God a lot, and I have continued to build on that debt, for thirty years. Every time I neglect to praise God, love my neighbor and do what is right in the sight of the Lord, I build up my debt to God.
And yet that debt has been forgiven. Payment is … no longer due.
So what is due?
Love is due. Forgiveness is due. The dues of being a “Doer of the Word” is that we must forgive. We must forgive. We must forgive.
Because God knows that if we do not forgive, though we have been forgiven, we will destroy ourselves in seeking to collect the debts which are owed us. God knows that though anger and wrath are an abomination, the sinner holds on to them. God knows that we will poison ourselves by forever holding in our hands the pink slips which tally what other people owe us in this life.
“You owe me,” “they owe me,” “the World owes me,” “God owes me.” These are the mantras of self-destruction.
Ellen Cooke, who stole the money from our national Church, intimated in a press release that the Church owed her the money she stole, because she had felt abused and discriminated against for years. Owing to her sense of being owed, Ellen fell into a place of severe mental and moral distress. She stole from the Church, in a perverse exaction of what she thought it owed her.
Remember Les Miserables? When Jean Valjean was paroled from Toulon prison after nineteen years, he also stole from the Church. Out of his sense of being owed greatly, Valjean had become an evil man, says Victor Hugo; his heart grew black with despair and hatred owing to the great debt which society owed him, who—though he stole a loaf of bread in hunger—could not have deserved to spend 19 years in prison under torture and utter degradation.
Perhaps you recall the scene from the great novel when Valjean is caught red-handed with a bag filled with stolen silver, and he is returned to the Bishop from whom he has stolen. The gendarmes tell the Bishop they have caught a vile thief, but the bishop says, ‘he is not a thief, I gave him that silver.’ They are surprised, but certainly no more than Jean Valjean himself! The Bishop even gives Valjean his silver candlesticks, saying, “but you forgot these, certainly they will fetch two hundred francs.”
And then the Bishop whispers in the bestilled convict’s ear, “Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to what is evil but to what is good. I have bought your soul … and I give it to God.”
In the economy of Christian salvation, “I Owe You’s” are to be redeemed for “I Love You’s.” Souls are to be bought by the redemption of debts, and this through the Love of Christ.
Isn’t this what happens on Easter morning? The devil tells us that we are vile thieves who have stolen God’s only son, but God says, “You didn’t take him, I gave him to you, and now I have bought your soul.”
That is the victory claimed by Christ.
Recently, a family friend ran up an unpayable debt. A Virginian also, he began his troubles by borrowing more money than he could repay. He ended his troubles by taking what no one could. He took his own life a few weeks ago, leaving a widow, two sons, and two grandchildren.
Larry’s boys were good sons. They loved their father, and they always knew he loved them. In fact, everybody loved Larry. Even though he had put his wife and family through great pains over the years, they absolutely loved him. His older son Stu found Larry that morning. Found him in the basement. Stu told me that he will forever be haunted by that vision of his father’s end.
Yet when Stu eulogized his father, he said that he would not blame him. He would not hate him for the violence his father did to himself and everyone around him in his end. He would not allow himself to be overcome by the demonic power which grasped at his father and which would continue to grasp at the love which Stu and his father shared. The love which was real. Stu stood before the packed congregation at his father’s funeral, and he said, “I am here not to blame, but to claim victory for Jesus Christ, on behalf of my father.”
He said that the loving arms of Christ still cover his father, and that the powers which tore him apart, and which he was not strong enough to ward off, will not have won.
No, Stu said that the love of Christ has won, and that though his father was beset by a darker power, Christ came to save sinners, and to win the great battle which seeks to destroy the love and communion with God that we have been given. Larry owed his family and his God for what he did, but in the love of Christ they have canceled that debt.
Yes, Christ came to cancel the debts which divide and conquer us. He teaches us that to seek payment alone will never lead to a balanced moral ledger. Jesus teaches us that we must forgive as we have been forgiven. So let us thank God that Jesus teaches as Jesus does, and that in the words of the Psalmist:
The Lord is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger and of great kindness, …
He has not dealt with us according to our sins, …
And as a father cares for his children,|
So does the Lord care for those who fear him.”