Wise Words from a Wild Wonder Worker, II: The Heart of the Matter
“Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy times seven.’”
This is not one of Jesus’ subtler stories, is it? Rather it’s one of his patented hyperboles, like the camel that passes through the eye of a needle, or mustard-seed faith that can move mountains. In this story Jesus draws thick black lines and paints with a palette of fluorescent colors, perhaps because it’s very important that we get his point. This story might be The Heart of the Matter.
“The kingdom of God,” says Jesus, “the kingdom of God is like a CEO whose company needs some cash so he’s calling in some outstanding debts. As he combs through the books he’s astonished to discover that one of his employees has managed, all by himself, to rack up a debt of 10,000 talents.
And that sum, of course, is the hyperbole I was speaking of. Ten-thousand was the largest number first-century Palestinians would have used in everyday arithmetic. They did not have concepts like ‘million’ or ‘billion.’ For Jesus, a million would simply have been one hundred 10,000’s. So 10,000 is the largest number anybody in Jesus’ audience could have imagined. You even know the Greek word for 10,000: it’s myriados, from which we get the English word ‘myriad,’ which means ‘lots’, almost uncountable.
And a talent, of course, was the largest currency denomination in common use. So 10,000 talents is another way of saying “the most of the biggest.” One talent was roughly equivalent to what a common laborer–let’s say a teacher or a cop–would earn during fifteen years in the classroom or the squad car. How much money would you have made after spending 15 years trying to teach the Pythagorean Theorem to fourth-graders? I’ll tell you: you will have made about a million dollars. ONE talent is worth about a million dollars.
Therefore, this hapless employee owes his boss–now, get this–$10 billion. Can you hear Dr. Evil say it: “Ten MILLION dollars. No wait; Ten BILLION dollars.” What a corporate middle-manager could possibly have done to accrue that kind of debt all by himself is anybody’s guess, so you see what I mean about this not being one of Jesus’s subtler stories.
On the other hand, there was that guy called the London Whale at JP Morgan a couple of years ago who managed to rack up a loss of $6 billion, all by himself, so maybe this story isn’t quite as outlandish as it first sounds.
So this guy has more bad debt than Sears and Radio Shack put together, and about half as much as Detroit. But Detroit is a city of 700,000 people, and this guy manages to do it all by himself. It will take him 200,000 years to pay it off. To put it a different way, it will take 200,000 people working for a year to pay it off.
The Boss punches the speed-dial on his iPhone to notify the SEC, the employee pleads for mercy, and the boss–out of pity, says Jesus–terminates the call before he connects. “What the heck,” he says. “I’ll write it off. You’re free to go.”
A $10 billion obligation erased just like that. You’d think the guy would drop to his knees and praise the skies for his outlandish good fortune and instantly become the kindest and most generous suit on Wall Street, but you know what happens next. “On his way out,” says Jesus. “On his way out…” Again, this is not one of Jesus’s subtler stories; he’s going to hammer home his homily with huge hyperbole. On his way out of the boss’s office, the forgiven debtor comes across a colleague who owes him 100 denarii.
Perhaps you know from your exhaustive and comprehensive Bible Study in the past that a denarius was about a day’s pay for a common laborer–a teacher or a cop. A hundred days’ worth of wages. So let’s say this colleague is on the hook with the forgiven debtor for about $10,000, the price of a used car, an eight-year-old Jeep with 100,000 miles on it.
“Seizing him by the throat,” Jesus bluntly tells us, “Seizing him by the throat,” the forgiven debtor says “Pay up now, you deadbeat.” Choking, his colleague sputters out a plea for patience. How long would it take you to pay off a $10,000 debt on a teacher’s salary? Couple years at least. “Give me two years,” he begs. The first guy refuses and has him thrown in prison.
One scholar points out that the first guy’s debt is 100,000 times bigger than the second guy’s. Jesus, you see, is not interested in giving us complicated, nuanced, three-dimensional characters in this story; he wants to give us a fairy-tale villain of mythic malice; he wants us to get his point.
Well, you know the rest of the story. When the boss hears about the forgiven debtor’s merciless unforgiveness, he blows a gasket and has the guy with the $10 billion debt thrown in prison too, only this isn’t just any prison. This is one of Stalin’s Gulag’s. This is Gestapo prison, and they haff vays of making you talk. Or pay. Except there’s no way to pay a $10 billion debt when you’re being waterboarded all day long, so this guy is doomed for the rest of what promises to be a rather short existence.
You don’t need a Ph.D. in New Testament to get the point, do you? The point is that God, rich in mercy, is dying, literally dying, to pour God’s blessings out on debtors such as we. In Jesus Christ, God is dying, literally dying, to PRETEND that we are all sinless and debt-free and in the black.
Which doesn’t mean, however, that there are no unforgivable sins. There is at least one unforgivable sin. The one unforgivable sin is unforgiveness. The one unforgivable sin is to act less mercifully toward each other than God has acted toward each of us, to act as if our penny-ante obligations and irritations and offenses toward each other loom larger in the scheme of things than our own expansive, massive debt toward God Godself, who gives us every sunrise and prosperity beyond our wildest dreams and life itself and then watches us squander it all away.
Jesus’ blunt little story is God’s word for somebody here today. Somebody here today has been wounded by another–a friend, a colleague, a spouse, a child, a parent. Somebody here is trying desperately to let it go, but it’s so hard. It’s so much more satisfying to nurse a grudge.
But that just isn’t the way to live. According to Jesus, it isn’t right, and according to your therapist, it isn’t healthy. To get that point across, Annie Lamott says that refusing to forgive a grievance is like eating rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die. That’s vivid, isn’t it? When that happens to me, I’m going to try to remember Jesus’ blunt little parable about the $10 billion debt.
Forgiveness: The Heart of the Matter. Graham Greene wrote a novel with that title, The Heart of the Matter, about a police commissioner in colonial West Africa during World War II who commits adultery and is so racked by the guilt of it that he commits suicide, an unforgivable sin in the Catholic Church, of course. He will be damned eternally. His wife, bitter over his infidelity, says to her priest, “There’s no use even praying [for his soul]…” And the priest replies, “For goodness’ sake, Mrs. Scobie, don’t think you or I know a thing about God’s mercy.” Perhaps God will forgive even that, even a $10 billion debt.
I just spent the month of August in Leelanau County, at the tip of the pinky in Michigan’s lower peninsula; the population of Leelanau County is 21,000, scattered across 2,500 square miles, so if my math is right, that is 10 people per square mile. There are no traffic lights, no parking meters, no McDonald’s, and no road with more than two lanes. It’s all cherry orchards, lakes, and sand dunes, including Sleeping Bear.
The County is dotted with charming but very tiny towns, and of course the high schools are equally tiny; a graduating class at one of those high schools will have from 12 to 70 students. Most of them are too small to field a football team, so the schools band together and create cooperative teams from two or three different high schools. Everybody knows everybody in Leelanau County.
It’s all sand dunes, so the mostly empty roads undulate up and down over the rolling hills, and curve and twist around bends that can be 90 degrees or more. Teenagers in Leelanau County have a fun game called ‘Catching Air.’ You drive down the undulating roads so fast that when the car goes over a bump, it leaves the road and ‘catches air.’ It’s like skiing the moguls in a car. Sometimes they call it ‘roller-coastering’.
On August 23, three football players from one of these tiny high schools were trying to ‘catch air’ in their 2005 Nissan on one of these mostly empty roads and blew through a stop sign at 80 or 90 miles an hour and T-boned a truck; the driver was thrown from the vehicle and killed instantly. The driver of the truck was 31 years old and engaged to be married; he’d been visiting his fiancée, because she was not feeling well; he just went to check on her.
In the Nissan with the football players, only the driver was wearing a seatbelt; all three teenagers were hospitalized, and one of them died a few days later. The driver was 16; he was discharged from the hospital just before his friend died, so he lives, sort of.
Talk about a $10 billion debt. I just can’t imagine what that young man’s life is going to be like from now on. It’s a small town; there are no strangers; there is no hiding; there is no anonymity; everybody knows everybody up there. That kind of mistake is beyond comprehension, beyond tears, beyond despair. He was 16; he was having fun with his friends; it was a youthful mistake; and now the first thought in his head the minute he wakes up every morning will be of that foolish mistake. I almost feel sorrier for him than I do for the families of the deceased.
I bring it up because Jesus died to redeem and erase even $10 billion mistakes like that; that young driver will have to own that truth or he will never be able to live with himself. Jesus didn’t just die for the shoplifter who steals trinkets at the department store, or for the husband who speaks a cruel word to his wife in a moment of anger, or for the guy who cheats on his income tax, or the businessman who takes advantage of a client; he died for the worst that we are, and the worst that we have done.
Maybe a few of you will know the name David Noel Freedman. David was one of the foremost biblical scholars in the world, especially the Hebrew Bible. He may not be a hero to you, but he is a giant to people like Jo and Katie and me.
When Dr. Freedman died a few years ago at the age of 85, he’d been a Professor of Biblical Studies at the University of California in San Diego for 23 years. He also taught at the University of Michigan for 20 years, I’m proud to point out. At the University of Michigan, they are learning to take pride in their academics, since they can no longer take pride in the football team.
David Freedman matriculated at the City College of New York when he was 13 years old, and earned his bachelor’s degree at the age of 17. David had been the general editor of the Anchor Bible Series since 1956; when he died he’d been working on it for over 50 years. Some of you will know that the Anchor Bible Series might be the single most important comprehensive Bible commentary in the English language. At the moment it contains 90 volumes and is still growing. That’s about 40,000 pages of biblical analysis; David has edited every page. And that wasn’t all. During his lifetime, he wrote or edited over 300 books.
Someone once asked David if after this lifetime of biblical scholarship, he could sum up all he learned in one sentence–the 66 books of the Bible, the 40,000 pages of reflection upon it. One sentence. He thought about that for a moment and then answered, “There is forgiveness.”
Or as Don Henley, who wrote all those great Eagles songs, puts it:
There are people in your life who’ve come and gone
They let you down, you know, they hurt your pride
You better put it all behind you baby; life goes on.
You keep carryin’ that anger; it’ll eat you up inside, baby.
I’ve been trying to get down
To the heart of the matter
But my will gets weak
And my thoughts seem to scatter
But I think it’s about forgiveness
The Heart of the Matter? There is forgiveness. Pass it along. Please? Please?
These cash equivalencies comes from Arland Hultgren, The Parables of Jesus: A Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), pp. 23 & 31.
Hultgren, p. 27.
Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies (New York: Pantheon Books, 1994), p. 134.
Graham Greene, The Heart of the Matter (New York: Book of the Month Club, 1996, originally published in 1948), p. 306.
Biographical information about David Noel Freedman is from the obituary in The Los Angeles Times, “David Noel Freedman, 85; Bible scholar edited commentary series,” April 17, 2008, by Mary Rourk.
Quoted by Michael Lindvall, The Christian Life (Louisville, KY: Geneva Press, 2001), p. 98.