Saint Margaret’s Anglican Church Budapest, Hungary Exodus 14:19-31; Psalm 114; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35 One who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him... What is a lot of money...? Who is really rich...? Good questions. I suppose to a certain extent the answers to such questions will depend upon whom you ask; or who you are. If you were born in certain parts of the world within the past fifty or hundred years or so, you are rich today , you have a lot of money, by the standards of people in other parts of the world, even if all you have to your name is pocket-change. So then, are you rich...? Well, who are you...? Where do you live...? Who are your parents...? Where did you go to school, if you went to school at all. What sort of job do you have...? As one nineteenth-century thinker once observed, demography is destiny. Of course, there is also more to it than that; more to it than just having a lot of money. Debt, for one thing. Now, borrowing money can be a smart move of course and the means to advancement. Taking out a loan for education for instance can be an investment in future earnings. Incurring long-term debt in order to acquire a flat or a house to live in, or let out, is also often a prudent financial decision. But borrow too much, or under the wrong repayment conditions, and you may find yourself facing financial ruin. Long ago, people went to debtor’s prison in such cases. Nowadays, bankruptcy is sometimes the only answer; or if you are somehow really fortunate, you may find your debt forgiven. But do not count on it. Banks are not generally known as charitable institutions. Borrowing funds or money and going into debt is also nothing new. Historians and scholars of the ancient world tell us that going into debt was a major problem in the first- century Roman world, especially in its poorer regions such as Palestine. Demography was destiny even back then. People would actually borrow money just to put bread on the table that evening. Our Lord was undoubtedly aware of this sad reality, as he makes clear in our passage this morning from the Gospel of Matthew, which is in a way about debt and repayment. Keep in mind that we are still reading from Chapter Eighteen of Matthew’s Gospel, as we have been doing the past several Sundays, reading from what has been called our Lord’s Discourse on the Church, a sermon in other words in which our Lord makes clear to the disciples how they ought to treat each other; and perhaps more importantly, reminds them of how God treats his people. Peter, as is so often the case in the Gospels, initiates the discourse. Shall I forgive another seven times, he asks. No, says our Lord. Make it “seventy-seven times,” as we just heard read; or seven times seventy, as is found in other texts and translations. No matter how
you do the math, that is a lot of forgiving. Matthew, and he alone of all the Evangelists, then has our Lord telling what some commentators call one of the most challenging or disturbing of all the Parables. You just heard the story. A king forgives the debt owed by one of his slaves. That slave in turn demands repayment of a loan from one of his fellow slaves. “Pay what you owe,” he demands; but shows him no mercy when he cannot repay and so has him thrown into prison and tortured. Now, what might not jump out at you in the story if you are not a numismatist or student of ancient economies is the scale of the debts in question. And this is important, I think, in understanding the narrative. The first slave owed, we are told, “ten thousand talents.” Now, let me tell you: We are talking real money here. How much real money...? Difficult to say precisely, but one scholar estimates that ten thousand talents in the ancient world would be roughly the equivalent of three-trillion euros today or very nearly the value of the entire gross domestic product of the United Kingdom. That is how much real money. And what about the one-hundred denarii owed by the second slave in the story...? In today’s terms, about one-hundred euros or just under forty-thousand Hungarian forints. Nothing, really. The disparity in the amounts is obviously astounding, absurdly astounding in fact; and in our Lord’s telling represents the disparity between our ways and God’s ways; represents the utter profligacy of God’s acceptance and forgiveness of us and the too often miserly, begrudging, compassion we extend to others. And while it may be axiomatic in business life that you cannot manage what you cannot count, it works just the other way around in God’s topsy-turvy economy of salvation. What you count and count and count again may very well end up managing you. In other words, Gresham’s famous law of currency valuation is at work even in our spiritual life: Bad money drives out good money. And without fail. What we do not forgive, what we do not accept in the other, too often becomes a cheap obsession ruling our hearts and crowding out the costly grace, the currency, of the Kingdom our Lord came to proclaim. And it is that Kingdom which this parable is ultimately about. Make no mistake about it: Jesus is giving us a new paradigm, if you will, announcing a paradigm-shift, in today’s vocabulary; better said, he is giving us a new place to call home; a strange place, to be sure, where a mighty king rather blithely tears up a three-trillion-euro debt contract and asks nothing in return. Nothing, that is, except that we go and do likewise. So, what is a lot of money...? Well, what is lot of forgiveness...? Can we ever pay what we owe...? The answer to that is the challenge of our Lord’s parable, after all. And can we pay what we owe...? The simple answer is of course: Of ourselves, no, we cannot. So, we have no choice, really, but to forgive, to let go, to accept the other. That is the only road to riches in the Kingdom of Heaven. All other seeming paths or choices are false and lead us not only away from God but away from our true selves as well. And the irony should not be lost on us. Of ourselves, we own nothing and yet owe everything we have and are to God. So, my friends, “Pay what you owe.” Amen.
The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedűs