Forgiveness and power: A sermon on the wicked slave

‘For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow-slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, “Pay what you owe.”Then his fellow-slave fell down and pleaded with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow-slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?” And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he should pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.’ — Matthew 18:21-35

Okay, so, forgive people or be tortured until you have paid for all of your sins. Got it? Good. Dismissed!

If only it were that easy. If only forgiveness was something we could just make happen. Like, you wave a magical forgiveness wand and it’s all good. Sometimes, it is that easy. I’m pretty good at forgiving things like someone bumping into me (unless I’m super crabby), a friend breaking something of mine, and lots of little things like that where the person is truly, contritely sorry.

Then, there are the deep things, the big hurt. Lies, deception, breaking of promises that break relationships, physical violations, words that cut to the soul. There are things that cut us so deeply we fear we may never heal. How do we forgive for that? How to we honestly look someone who has scarred us for life in the eye and say that we forgive what has been done? It’s not so easy. Not easy at all.

For most of us, there are two main ways we react to being hurt. One is to get sad, to withdraw, to curl up with our pain in a corner until we are ready to let it go. Often this is a reaction to the pain that is no one’s fault — a relationship that no longer works, the death of someone we know and love whose time had clearly come. The other is to get angry, to rage at the world, at God and at the people involved in our world who brought about our pain.

Sometimes we put our pain on display, showing our scars off to the world. We want the world to know our pain, to know that we are holding on to anger – we want those that hurt us to see our anger and to see it as power, as something they should be afraid of.

Other times we are more quiet about our grudges. We even think that we have them under control, locked away in our soul. We don’t realize that we are building our world around them.

Holding on to a grudge makes us feel like we have power. Power over our pain, power over those that have hurt us. We hate feeling vulnerable — and forgiving makes so many of us feel vulnerable. We fear that forgiveness takes power from us, at the least and gives power back to those who have hurt us, at the worst. So we hold on.

Putting our pain in a safe little container and organizing our lives around it is another way of trying to have power over our pain, trying to control out world. If we let the pain out, if we let it show, we might lose control of ourselves and open ourselves up to more hurt. So we put it away, holding on to it, so that we can keep our power and control

Sometimes we try to let go in all honesty and earnestness. And we can’t because either we don’t know how or we haven’t realized that we are holding on for a reason, we are holding on to keep our power.

In this parable from Matthew, the king is the man with the power. He has the power to sell the slave or forgive him. It was not really in the kings plans to forgive the debt. The slave got himself into this mess, and it is his turn to pay. He’s a very old testament king. The slave begs for more time and the king does him one better – he forgives the whole debt. Yahoo!!! Yay!!! Freedom!!! The slave saunters out of the palace just having been forgiven his debts. He runs into a fellow slave that owes him some change. Having just been forgiven, he… completely fails to pass it on or to let his cup runneth over or anything like that. He sees the power that he has over this man and grabs him by the neck, asking for repayment. The debtor cannot repay the one who has been set free. The one who has been set free throws the debtor in jail. Ha-ha! Who has the power now?!

The king, actually. The king has the power now. The slave never did in the first place. We don’t have the power — we have choice, we have agency, but we don’t have the power. God has the power. And God has used it to forgive us for everything we have ever done and everything we will do. We are forgiven.

And still we insist on telling ourselves these myths about power and anger and forgiveness. We insist that holding on to our anger, to our grudges somehow makes us better people. We are superheroes when we hold on to our anger! We can structure our lives so as to never experience that kind of pain again, as long as we don’t forgive! We can make sure that we never get hurt again, as long as we don’t forgive! We can make sure that person knows she is a horrible, horrible person by showing her how much she hurt us.

Only none of this is true. Holding on to anger eats away at our soul – and our physical health. It keeps us from being fully in relationship with others because we are always waiting for the shoe to drop, always expecting to be hurt. We avoid situations where we might end up running into the person who hurt us. We runaway from our past but we end up hiding from our future. Holding on to the power of the grudge leaves the grudge making decisions for us. Holding on to anger means anger is just right under the surface, ready to go off whenever our wounds are grazed. We build walls around ourselves to keep from being hurt again. We keep others at an arms distance. We only punish ourselves.

The king handed the slave over to be punished until he paid his debts. God hands us over to ourselves. We are our own torturer.

Let’s replay the scenario. The slave has been forgiven by the king. He swaggers out of the palace, brimming with new life. He sees the slave who owes him, walks up to him and says, “Hey man, it’s all good. Don’t worry about what you owe me. We’re square.” The other slave is shocked and can only smile at his colleague. The slave who forgave keeps on his merry way, overflowing with gratitude and joy.

Now, most of us don’t walk around feeling as forgiven as we are. We aren’t walking around feeling like we just won the lottery of love and forgiveness — even though we have. The forgiveness given us by God in Christ is something we are kind of sort of aware of in the back of our mind and when we go to church or read about it. But we aren’t constantly brimming with forgiveness. We don’t always feel our cup running over. But it is.

This is why I love communion in the round. One of the times when we should feel that cup running over is when we participate in the sacrament of communion. That bread and wine are reminders of the price that was paid for our sin. When I commune in the round I look at all of the other people communing and remember that they are all forgiven, just like me. God loves them, just like God loves me. I can think of all of the other people God loves that I struggle to love. It humbles me. I realize that the power is God’s, but the choice is mine. And, it’s not that easy. But maybe it is.

If nothing else, we can remember those we still can’t forgive when we pray, “forgive us our trespasses, as you have forgiven us.” It is after all, the least we can give for all that we have been given. Our cups overflow with forgiveness. Pass some on.


About Elizabeth Rawlings

Lutheran. Feminist. Child of God. Thinking about how to be a leader in a church that is trying to rediscover itself and what it means to live simply so that others may simply live in tandem with what exactly is the fast God asks of us. Chronic alliterator. Generally silly person. View all posts by Elizabeth Rawlings

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