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A Matter of Perspective

Filed under: Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 12:11 pm on Monday, September 18, 2017

A sermon preached on September 17th, 2017 based upon Matthew 18:21 – 35.

Ryan smiling

The passage we just heard starts off taking about forgiveness with a parable that carries forth the theme, and therefore you might expect this morning’s sermon to be about forgiveness as well.  Perhaps I should be preaching a sermon about the importance of forgiving the people in your life — that it isn’t easy but keep at it, don’t give up.  Jesus wants us to keep on forgiving.  And that would be a good sermon, essential to hear.

But the thing I heard this time as I read the parable Jesus tells leads me in a different direction.   It was two details of the parable that are easy to overlook that caught my attention and I want to begin with the on that appears second.  It is the amount of money that the central character is owed by his fellow servant:  A hundred denarius.  This is not an insignificant amount of money – in those days it was the pay a day laborer would make in for a hundred days of back breaking work.  It’s essentially about a third of somebody’s annual income.

With this detail in mind, what happens if we jump into the parable midway through instead of at the beginning?  What I mean is let’s put ourselves in the shoes of the servant.  Let’s imagine you’re the guy — a contractor – a small business owner — and a while back you did a major project for this guy who wanted a sunroom built off the back of his house.  You trusted the guy when he said, “I have a little cash flow problem right now, but I can assure you that in short order I will have plenty of cash in my account, so you can trust me when I say I’ll be able to reimburse you for all the money you put out up front for construction materials, and pay you for all the work you put in, including the time you spent getting the permits.”

So you took him at his word and did a high quality piece of work for the guy – the sun room came out beautifully.  “Great,” the guy said when it was done.  “Looks wonderful.  My money is coming next week, and the first thing I’m going to do when it does is cut you a check.”

So a week passes, and then two, but no word from the guy.  You start calling on the phone but the guy never picks up, never returns the messages you leave. You go to the guy’s house a couple of times and ring the doorbell, but nobody ever comes to the door.

This is serious business.  With the money you put out for materials, not to mention all the hours you put in, you’re in danger of losing essentially one third of your annual income.  You’ve got bills to pay, a family to feed.  You trusted the guy and now it looks like you were scammed.   You’re furious and hey, rightfully so!

And then one day you see the guy walking down the street.   He tries to slip away, but you corner him.  “Give me the money you owe me!” you scream. The guy begs for mercy.  “The money is coming in next week.  There was just a little delay.  I will pay you, I promise.”

“Sure you will, pal, sure you will.”

If we still had debtor’s prison, hey, you would be quite happy to have him locked up.

I tell the story this way and we’re right there with the contractor – right with the servant in Jesus’ parable who refuses to forgive the financial debt of his fellow slave.

There are all kinds of other grievances Jesus could have put in his parable to talk about forgiveness. I think it’s significant that he chose to have it be about a financial debt.   We get pretty caught up in money. I know I do.  Jesus talked about how money can easily become our god.

So this brings me to the other easily overlooked detail of the parable, and it also involves money — the amount of money that at the outset of the parable the servant owes the king.  In today’s dollars, it’s something like a billion and a half dollars — an amount of money that makes 100 denarius seem like nothing by comparison.

The only way to make sense of the servant walking away from just having a billion and a half dollar debt suddenly forgiven by the king, only to immediately become a total hard-ass about the 100 denarius debt owed him is to conclude that somehow the servant didn’t really take in the magnitude of the gift he was just given.  If he had really taken it in, he would be in a state of such profound gratitude that it would simply be impossible for him to behave the way he does towards his fellow servant.

But somehow he’s blocked it out.  There’s some kind of major self-deception going on – a self-deception implied in the servant’s promise to the king that if the king will just be patient, the he will pay the debt back in full for sure.

He somehow thinks he’s still in control, but there’s no way he will ever pay a billion and a half dollars back.  If we insist on seeing ourselves as the masters of our fate, there’s no room for gratitude in the equation.

Week before last a police officer spoke to a bunch of people at our church about scams and things we can do to protect ourselves from getting cheated of our money.  This week there was news regarding an enormous security breech at Equifax, the result of which is that probably a majority of us in this room had our personal account data stolen – our social security number, our birth date, stuff like that.

It can be pretty anxiety producing.  We imagine somebody out there taking advantage of us akin to the way we imagined ourselves being the ripped off contractor, and so we spend a lot of time making sure we’ve done all we can to assure this doesn’t happen to us.

But here’s what most of us don’t worry much about.  Every time we get in our car and drive somewhere, there is a real possibility of something far worse happening than losing a third of our annual income.  We drive down roads going 45 miles an hour or more with drivers in cars coming back at us at the same speed, trusting that we’ll all stay on our own side of the little yellow line, when all it would take for a devastating accident to occur would be the slightest movement of the hand by ourselves or the drivers coming towards us.

But we think nothing of it.

I started reading this New Yorker article recently that was about people who had survived the experience of taking the life of another.  It began by telling the story of a woman who by coincidence was a college student about the same time as me, attending a school just 45 minutes away from where I was at college.  She described the moment everything changed.  She was driving her car in the manner that most of us drive our cars a lot of the time – sort of on auto-pilot — when suddenly there was this blur that came out of the corner of her eye as a child darted out into the road in front of her car.  The child was killed.

I stopped reading.  I simply couldn’t go on.  It was making me face the uncomfortable truth that I don’t want to face which is that it could just as easily have been me driving that car back there in college. That would be pretty devastating, to say the least. I stand in awe of people who have survived such tragedy and found a way to go forward to embrace life. The fact that I haven’t had to face such an ordeal hasn’t been because my driving ability is superior. It’s simply been my good fortune.

Understandably, we don’t want to think about these things.  But if we did, maybe we would get down on our knees and gives thanks and praise to God right there in the parking lot of Costco every time we arrive safely.

I have a friend who recently experienced a significant, permanent drop in his family’s income. If I were to experience a similar drop in income, I think I’d be freaking out, worrying about the future.  I asked him how he was handling this.  He was surprisingly calm about it.  He related it to serious health issues he has dealt with in the past, and continues to deal with, which have led him to view life differently than I do.  There were occasions in the past when he could easily have died, but he didn’t.  The health challenges are ongoing.  He has no certainty that he has a lot of time left in this world.  Maybe, maybe not.

In this larger context, my friend views his drop in income as relatively small potatoes – another version of “why sweat the small stuff?” because he’s looked the big stuff straight in the face.  And so he’s got this basic gratitude for being alive.  He’s grateful for each day he’s able to wake up and get out of bed and greet a new day.   The loss of income doesn’t touch this underlying gratitude.

It’s a matter of perspective, my friend said.

There was this Bill Moyers documentary I watched a few years back about World War II vets – pretty old guys who had survived the D-day invasion when they were just young men.  Two things struck me.  On the one hand, they had this basic awareness that there is so much we’re not in control of in life – that thy myth of self-sufficiency and self-reliance that they had bought into before going to war didn’t hold water.  Life is scary sometimes, and macho posturing is the stuff of fools.

On the other hand, in the years following the war they had found themselves much less inclined to be afraid when it came to taking non-life-threatening risks.  If they started a business and it went belly up, leading them to lose all their money – well, as they said, “at least nobody is shooting bullets at me.   I’m alive.”

It’s all a matter of perspective.

The recent hurricanes:  A man loses his home.  Understandably, he’s devastated.  But if in the course of the flood he thought that his wife or children had drowned, and then is relieved to find they hadn’t, well, the loss of the house wouldn’t seem like so much.

Perspective is the theme of the classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”  George Bailey is about to lose his business.  He thinks it would be better if he had never been born.  He’s about to take his own life.  Clarence the angel allows him to see what it would mean for him never to have been born, and it shakes George to the core.

The part we tend to remember from the movie is how he gets to see the positive impact he had on the town without realizing it.  But a big part of what Clarence lets him see is simply how precious and beautiful his ordinary life is – the profound blessing it is to have people who know and love him, and whom he has been allowed to know and love as well.  After seeing what he was about to lose in his wish to take his life, it doesn’t really matter that his business is going bankrupt.

So in the end, it is all a matter of perspective, and the possibility exists in each moment of awakening to that deeper perspective — to be set free from our own self-imposed prison of grudges and worries that sometimes it seems like we’re destined to inhabit eternally.

In the end, maybe forgiveness wouldn’t be so hard if we didn’t deceive ourselves by thinking we are the master of our fates when in fact the deepest truth is that we have been given a great gift when God chose to give us life.  Life can be very hard sometimes — very painful — but it is also exquisitely beautiful.  It’s a gift. We didn’t earn this gift, nor can we pay this gift off.  It is pure grace, and to grasp this is to find ourselves filled with gratitude – a gratitude that leaves no room for grudges, no room for making money our god.  It only leaves room for love.

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