Standard Accounting Practices
Standard Accounting Practices
Rev. Robert P. Hoch, Ph.D.
August 30, 2020
First Reading Romans 12:9-12
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Second Reading Matthew 18:21-35
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-seven times.
“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 would 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 would 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.”
Peter feels a bit like an accountant here. He wants to establish a policy by which the new community, the church, will conduct its business and settle its accounts. And the business, in this case, is paramount: forgiveness of those who have sinned against us. The context of Peter’s question is that Jesus has just said how important it is to restore a relationship to healthy vitality. It’s all-important, according to Jesus. It’s the most important thing to a robust and durable community. How you cope with internal disagreements and the injuries that inevitably arise in those contexts is terribly important. You need to practice forgiveness, wherever possible.
That’s when Peter asks the obvious question: “But how many times? How many times do I have to forgive?” It may seem like a numbers game. But Peter isn’t being shallow. Peter understands that an injury isn’t forgiven easily and if it’s a significant injury, it may take more than one effort at forgiveness. So, Peter suggests a good number. Seven times. Seven means a complete and whole amount. God took six days to make the creation. And on the seventh day, God rested. Seven is a good number in ancient thinking. It’s probably a decent standard.
But Jesus says, basically, you need to forgive without numbering how many times you have forgiven. Matthew’s Greek is complicated. It could be translated as you should forgive seven times seventy times or seventy-seven times. Maybe Peter was still doing the math, just like us. On the high side, seven times seventy equals 490 times, or, at a minimum, seventy-seven times. Peter, our accountant, may be shaking his head right now, as in this isn’t reasonable. The exact number isn’t the point. The point is that forgiveness is of such overriding importance, that you forgive . . . whether that forgiveness is accepted, forgive anyway; whether that forgiveness is deserved, forgive anyway; whether that forgiveness is acknowledged, forgive anyway; whether that forgiveness makes no difference at all . . . forgive anyway.
Likewise, the parable places the challenge of forgiveness over and against overwhelming debts. The enslaved official owes 10,000 talents. It doesn’t sound like much to us, but according to one estimate, “the annual tax income for all of Herod the Great’s territories was 900 talents per year. Ten thousand talents would exceed the taxes for all of Syria, Phoenicia, Judea, and Samaria. The amount is fantastic, beyond call calculations” (Eugene Boring, “Matthew” in New Interpreter’s Bible). That it seems is the point. In the same way, the debt of 100 denarii is not insignificant. One denarius was the typical pay for a day-laborer. To the enslaved official, that would seem like a significant debt owed; to the day-laborer a life-destroying sum to payout.
This contrasts with how sparing we are with forgiveness. Tom Long, articulates the traditional view of this text when he says that we typically use an eyedropper when it comes to showing mercy, whereas Jesus brings a firehose. (Tom Long, Matthew, ) True. But if we leave off vs. 35, we get a different kind of parable, with a different function. Verse 35, “So my heavenly will father do to you if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” Some scholars believe this is Matthew massaging an earlier tradition of one of Jesus’ parables which didn’t input God into the narrative. Matthew, but not necessarily the earliest version of this parable, wants us to say that God = the Gentile tyrant and enslaved peoples, including the official = God’s people and the debts = our sins. Canceling those debts = forgiveness of sins.
Those who question Matthew’s version don’t reject the validity of Matthew’s editorializing, it’s still a valid reading, but they do say that the parable functions differently by itself, shorn of the God language. How? It contrasts the capriciousness of Gentile rule with God’s rule: in Gentile rule massive corruption gets the soft-glove treatment, and smaller infractions receive the worst penalties; and physical assault in a slave nation is aided and abetted by the police force. One function of a “secular” parable on forgiveness is that it allows us to hear Peter’s proposal — forgive seven times — as incredibly thoughtful and full of integrity. The second insight that it generates is suggestive of another possibility: human beings practice the art of forgiveness in a haphazard, often superficial way, with disproportionate responses all around.
How so? Well, for one, our balance book — it’s never really balanced, is it? It skews sharply to what we’re owed rather than what we’re given. It may not be an exact analogy, but I took our 7-year-old and 9-year-old out to the Loch Raven Dam to fish for perch. It was a nice day. That is, until it came time to settle accounts. Our youngest had caught three perch, while the older child had caught just two. There was a great sense of betrayal given that the balances were not even. I wonder if that’s the way we are too — if we sense that there is a debt outstanding, and we’re the ones owed, it may not matter that the sun has risen, that the earth is turning on its axis, that the moon and stars are circling in the heavens. No, I’m still owed one more perch and we won’t leave this miserable mudbank until I get it! Some of us, still holding on to what we figure we’re owed, either cannot or will not see love or beauty or taste simple pleasures — all reason and all perception is swallowed by this feeling that we’re owed something. I will not leave this mudbank of misery until you pay me what I’m owed!
For another, it feels like forgiveness is almost meaningless. You almost say, forget forgiveness! Look at the people who issue pardons these days. Donald has said he never confesses sin. Never sinned. So probably never known forgiveness. Given what he knows about sin, what would Donald know about forgiveness, about pardons? And it’s true: Susan B. Anthony pardoned for the crime of voting as a woman? She really needed Donald’s executive authority? Really? Do you think she wanted Donald’s pardon? It seems like a farce. Or when the victim, a mother or father or brother, of a terrible injustice — and for their own well-being, not as a social-political statement — forgives the perpetrator, the popular view consumes that act as just another transaction with no call to transformation. The generous love of a person of color dealing with immeasurable loss is turned into yet another bloody cocktail of human agony gulped down in the name of white privilege.
Then the moral equivalency argument, there are good people on both sides, there’s really no sin to speak of, or let’s live with our differences. In this logic, forgiveness is a form of whitewashing. Everybody’s the same. We all mean well. Some good people carry signs. Other good people carry assault weapons. And in the generous vision of Donald, they’re all basically the same. It’s okay if one side guns down the other or plows into them with a car . . . forgive, since there are good people on both sides. It fuels the idea that forgiveness is cheap. That man’s inhumanity to man is just a question of perspective. Your children are put in cages while my children are enrolled in the University of Southern California. Don’t take sin seriously. Forgive. Forgiveness seems to get in the way of real justice, which we should be pursuing right now.
No justice, no peace.
Forgiveness of debts . . . at best it seems like atrocious bedside manner. Maybe that was Peter’s concern all along. He could see this forgiveness thing getting way out of hand. And what he wanted was for Jesus to give a reasonable, limited practice, within established boundaries. Seven times, he suggested. Standard. It limits the possibility of its abuse. As far as Peter is concerned, it’s an accounting question. But in Jesus’ view, power is at stake, true power. Namely, the power to transform our divisions into a deeper, more vital, and dynamic unity. If you’ve ever been injured or betrayed, you experience loss. But there’s also a kind of seething power that comes with the experience of debt when you feel you’re owed something. You think about what this person or society owes you . . . an apology, an explanation, restitution, reparations. It gives you a kind of power. That’s not all bad, by the way. Many unjust societies and strained relationships have been helped by that kind of moral focus. So this is not an argument against the pursuit of social justice. But Jesus’ power feels peculiar. Kind of inside out. When we practice forgiveness, we do so with God’s great love for us as the living motivation. It makes us almost dance, almost rejoice in the face of loss and disappointment. In this sense, forgiveness is a release not only for the debtor but also for the debt holder. It is also hope. From the Romans text: “Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share what you have. Practice hospitality.”We become, to use Paul’s language, more than conquerors through him who loves us.
In the economy of God’s saving health, we find more than a zero-sum game, where either your story or my story triumphs. We overcome and we do so as more than conquerors. “Do not repay anyone evil for evil.” Christ’s teaching is not one of moral equivalency. Evil exists. Enemy systems colonize our economies. Paul, Christ’s apostle, isn’t minimizing the loss or looking at the days of gloom as if they’re not days of gloom. Paul, I think, would wear a mask. He’s not saying, as Donald said after the Charlotte act of white terrorism, that there are good people on both sides. Paul isn’t engaging in moral equivalency. Far from it. Instead, Paul calls us to exercise a will that is superior to that of our enemies, not equivalent. For Paul, that will is identical with Christ. Christ cancels our debt to make us truly free. It’s a massive debt. Christ’s is an even greater love. That love prompts us to a more joyful practice, a more confident action, a more unreasonable hospitality, a more evocative demonstration of hope than protest alone. Jesus’ love capacitates us to transform debts into opportunities for thanksgiving.
Real and lasting power, Jesus seems to say, is the capacity to forgive. It’s more than releasing a debt. It’s creating a vision. Oprah Winfrey says that true forgiveness is when you can say, “Thank you for that experience.” Let that operate on some of your old wounds. Ever since I read it, it’s been like medicine for me . . . and I think it’s working!
But it’s no panacea. Political or social sins leave a different kind of scar and it lasts for generations. Most of us would give back any wisdom we might have won from experiences of imprisonment or institutional racism or sexism. I’d be happier to learn how these terrible realities were transformed into something good from a book or a movie rather than undergoing them myself. I’d rather read Martin Luther King Jr’s letter from a Birmingham jail than be a prisoner in a Birmingham jail wondering when, if ever, I might get out.
The point is we don’t want to get idealistic about loving our enemies or view prisons as “redemptive” classrooms for the less fortunate. Enemies of justice, equity, and inclusivity are real . . . we are still called to love our enemy. But how? Maybe Bill Coffin, the great preacher of the Riverside Church in New York helps us. He says, “Yes, love your enemies . . . but let’s not get sentimental about it — love them as your enemies.”
But, still, love them. What does that look like? I honestly don’t know. Maybe instead of leaving with a balanced checkbook this morning, we leave with some not quite settled questions. First, at a personal level: What does Christ’s forgiveness look like for you? In your experience, which is more difficult: receiving forgiveness or granting forgiveness? What makes receiving forgiveness or granting it beautiful? Second, at a public level, what visible signs of Christ’s healing between the races would you point to? Is America paying its debts to people of color? Or are those debts increasing? Would it be better to withhold forgiveness until justice is done? And third, limits. How many times must we forgive? Seven times? Seven times seventy times? Why do you think Peter wanted an upper limit on forgiveness? Is there anything you find attractive in that? Is forgiveness a matter of accounting or being accountable? Could it be both? Finally, it’s not a numbers game, or is it? The number of times Jacob Blake Jr. was shot (7 times); the number of times George Floyd cried out for his mother (11 times); the mile number at which the jogger, Ahmaud Arbery, was shot and killed (2.23).
As I said, we’re going to leave today with some unsettled accounts. May God add wisdom and understanding to the hearing of this word. Amen.