The Unforgiving Steward

Proper 19.A.2017
Matthew 18:21-35
The Rev. Melanie L. McCarley

The Parable of the Unforgiving Steward is admittedly difficult to preach on---actually that’s not true. The parable, as Jesus tells it, is really pretty straightforward. It’s the reality that’s hard.

Today’s parable comes on the heels of Peter’s question to Jesus: “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?” Let’s begin by being clear about what Peter is asking—what he’s really asking is NOT, “How often can I forgive—because it’s something I really like doing and want to engage in this practice more often.” He’s asking the opposite: “When can I stop forgiving and call it quits.” “When can I put an end to this ceaseless round of mercy when the person I’m forgiving isn’t about to change his or her ways. At what point am I justified in washing my hands and calling my duty done?” It is upon this question, Jesus launches into the parable of the Unforgiving Steward.

Fred Craddock, a great homilitician, once wrote a sermon called “The Gospel as Hyperbole.” In it, he points out that Jesus had a way with words and with exaggeration as a way to get his points across. Craddock says: “When it comes to conveying the sheer size of the gospel and of faith, Jesus refused to do what a lot of preachers today do; namely, make the gospel neat, tidy and perfectly manageable, as though the whole thing could somehow get contained in pithy slogans and forty days of purpose or something. The problem with preaching, Craddock laments, is that the gospel as presented is just not big enough. … Jesus used hyperbole to get his point across. He wasn’t adverse to talking about someone walking around with an entire log protruding from his eyeball, or talking about someone swallowing a camel but gagging on a gnat, or telling a whole mountain to take a swan dive into the sea. (Center for Excellence in Preaching, Scott Hoezee)

So…when Jesus tells this parable, bear in mind that a talent was equal to about 130 pounds of silver and was the equivalent to about fifteen years of a laborer’s wages. What this means is that the servant in today’s parable owed his master approximately 150,000 years of labor. In other words, this Steward would never, ever, not in a million years, be able to pay his master back. But a denarius, by comparison, was worth about a day’s wage, which meant that the second servant owed the forgiven one about a hundred days of labor—not a small debt, mind you, but one that was payable. But still….we all get the point, don’t we. How could the Unforgiving Steward fail to overlook that relatively minor debt when he had just been forgiven an impossibly huge one. How indeed?

And yet….we’d be missing the point if we failed to understand that this parable is about ourselves—and our terribly human tendency to count, to calculate and keep track of the wrongs done to us by others. Why do we do this? How does forgiveness turn into a numbers game? “I’ve forgiven you twenty two times and now I’m done.” In the end, Jesus takes the numbers out of the calculation. So, what do we do now? Where does this leave us?

Allow me to suggest to you something completely alternative to the business of keeping track of others offenses against us. Consider making forgiveness a habit. Really, think about it, once you’ve done something seventy times seventy times, it becomes a habit. Aristotle once said: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” In other words, if you want to become good at forgiving—make it a habit. If you want to be the person Jesus wants you to be…you have to be willing to make forgiveness an ingrained part of who you are on a daily basis. It occurs to me that this is not a difficult practice to achieve here in Massachusetts, were the daily commute for most of us provides us with ample opportunities to put forgiveness into action. 

Russell Banks in his book The Sweet Hereafter, has school-bus driver Dolores Driscoll confide how she waits every day for the same three siblings, who are always late. Time and again she has chided them for their tardiness. And you can understand, can’t you, how this could grate against a person’s nerves, causing them to seethe with frustration and anger, slowly corroding whatever happiness the rest of the day held in store. But when nothing changed in them she decided to change herself, turning those extra minutes into a meditative time for sipping coffee and thinking about her life. And so she forgave them, and set herself free.”

But what about when the offenses are graver than mere inconvenience? In the 1950’s, Ruby Bridges integrated an entire school by six-year-old self, walking there every day with two federal escorts in front of her and two more behind her, while around her an angry crowd of adults heaped abuses on her little head. Child psychiatrist Robert Coles noticed her lips were moving as she walked, and asked her, in her home, what she was saying. She said she was praying, Father, forgive them for they know not what they do. Her parents hoped, by giving her this prayer, she could shield her mind and heart, and walk unscathed through her daily hell. (The Bite in the Apple, Nancy Rockwell, September 6, 2014)

So keep this in mind, forgiving is separate from loving the other, its separate even from liking, separate from restoring trust in a relationship and certainly separate from forgetting. Instead, forgiving others becomes a habit—it becomes a part of who we are. Forgiveness, if done well, becomes ingrained in the heart, and it becomes less about numbers, less about the offender, and more and more, about loving God and ourselves. Now, that’s something to think about. In Jesus’ name. Amen.