Debt or gift

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost; 13 September 2020; Proper 19A (RCL); Exodus 14:19-31; Psalm 114; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35.

This passage in Matthew’s Gospel follows on from the reading last week about working out issues in community. So Peter asks how many times he must forgive a brother or sister. Jesus tells a parable that could be about much more than just forgiving slights or injuries. Money serves as the basis for the lesson of the parable.

A king begins a reckoning with his slaves. One slave owes him 10,000 talents. That was an unimaginable amount of money for Jesus’ hearers. Herod the Great’s annual income was around 1,000 talents. How does a slave get that deeply in debt? Ten years’ worth of a king’s income? Clearly, this parable works on the principle of hyperbole. We could fill in an equally unimaginable sum: $ 10 billion.

The king plans to sell the slave and his family and all his possessions to recoup what he can. The sum would be paltry alongside 10,000 talents; it would in now way come close to recovering the debt. The slave begs for mercy, and the king realizes that no recompense is possible, and so forgives the debt.

The slave, for his part, encounters a fellow slave who owes him 100 denarii, about four months’ wages at minimum wage, and he throttles him for repayment. When his fellow slave could not repay, he had him thrown into debtors’ prison. The issue is not the sum involved, but the slaves attitude toward the world.

We can either approach the world looking at what we have been given or looking at what we are owed. The parable of the three servants who receive five, or two, or one talent, makes much the same point. The first two servants rejoice at the windfall, and invest; the third is terrified at what he will owe, and hides the talent.

I find the story of the Exodus problematic in one regard — God’s vindication of Israel comes at the expense of Egypt. It is, of course, easy to portray Egypt as the bad guys, but the prophets of Israel will go on to paint Israel in colors just as bad as Egypt. I think it comes down to the same two ways of looking at the world as the parable of the 10.000 talents holds up to view. We can either see life as incredibly rich, or we can whine about what we are owed. We can either play an open-sum game or a zero-sum game. Open sum games are more fun.

The contrast in the story of Israel in Egypt is between Pharaoh, who with Joseph’s help, hoarded all the grain in Egypt, and the Israelites, who once they were in the wilderness, could gather enough manna for one day and no more. We either see bread as a gift from God, or a commodity to be hoarded. If we play the zero-sum game, we end up washed up on the shore of the Red Sea.

Of course, Israel griped about the open sum game — oh, that we might be back in Egypt, sitting by the flesh pots, with onions and cucumbers to spare. It takes some effort to shift from the one to the other, to see ourselves as gifted, and so learn to pay it forward, rather than look for what we are due. That is the repentance (metanoia — change of mind) Jesus proclaims when he announces the kingdom. We’re still working on it.

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