A rich industrialist from the North was horrified to find a fisherman from the south lying lazily beside his boat smoking a pipe.
“Why aren’t you out fishing?” said the industrialist.
“Because I have caught enough fish for the day,” said the fisherman.
“Why don’t you catch some more?”
“What would I do with it?”
“You could earn more money” was the reply. “With that you could have a motor fixed to your boat to go into deeper waters and catch more fish. Then you would make enough money to buy nylon nets. These would bring you more fish and more money. Soon you would have enough money to own two boats…maybe even a fleet of boats. Then you would be a rich man like me.”
“What would I do then?”
“Then you could really enjoy life.”
The fisherman thought about this for a moment, smiled and said, “What do you think I am doing right now?”
(Stories of the Spirit, Stories of the Heart, pages 306-7)
Story is a powerful medium. Even a simple story like the one I just told you, can reveal something about differing values and spark ideas and discussion. Storytelling is the oldest form of communication in which people attempted to articulate their experiences in order to convey their understanding of their lives and the world around them.
Jesus was a consummate storyteller. He told parables, using language and imagery that was familiar to his audience, to illustrate God’s presence and activity in people’s everyday lives and in their world. His stories inspired further thought and provoked his listeners to consider what this could possibly mean to them in their own lives.
The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant is one of Jesus’ edgier parables. Like most of his parables it contained elements that would shock his audience into thinking seriously about an alternative, counter-cultural reality which he called the Kingdom of God.
The Kingdom of God is the theme which Jesus spoke about more than anything else. Matthew’s Gospel, which was written for a Jewish-Christian audience, refers to it as the Kingdom of Heaven in order to follow the Jewish mandate of the time which forbade uttering the name of God. Many contemporary Christians (including myself) prefer the term Commonwealth of God as the name implies God’s realm where wealth is held is common, where justice and goodness meet, where love is the guiding principle and the common good is held as paramount. It is all about a state of belief and action that refers to God’s desire for fullness of life for all.
This Commonwealth of God is not an otherworldly place. Jesus said that it is here and now, it’s just that people don’t see it; all it takes is to have eyes to see it and faith to live it into reality. Jesus showed by his life glimpses of God’s grace and the way the world would be if God’s reign came fully into being.
In Jesus’ time most people lived under the weight of economic and political repression. Justice was not something that was easily accessible for the common person. In fact, most people witnessed injustice every day and lived within an unjust social and political system. So Jesus comes along and shakes things up. He tells people that this is not what God intends and they need to start to live God’s Commonwealth into being moment by moment and day by day. To get their attention and grab their hearts and minds, he tells outlandish stories which make people really think about what he’s saying… which brings me back to the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant.
The preface to this story, as Matthew tells it, is Jesus’ answer to Peter’s question about forgiveness. Peter wants to know how often he should forgive another member of the church who is responsible for wrongdoing. As many as seven times? “Not seven times but seventy-seven times,” Jesus says. What sounds like a limiting factor—only having to forgive seventy-seven times—in the language and symbolism of the day really meant an unlimited amount.
It is important to remember that this issue of forgiveness was set in the context of accountability within a community of faith. It was never meant to ignore or sanction abusive behaviour but rather to promote right-relationship with others and build a strong and healthy community.
In the parable itself Jesus describes a tale of a king who is settling his accounts with his debtors. One servant owes, 10,000 talents. A single talent represented many years wages for a laborer, so 10,000 talents is an amount that was impossible for any one person to pay back. The king, with great generosity, forgives the debt entirely. The extravagance of this gesture is the point of the story. God’s grace, like the king’s mercy,is generous and abundant. The response of the servant should be gratitude and the adoption of similar compassionate generosity in his own dealings with others. The servant does not, however, respond in kind and shows no mercy to another servant who owes him a pittance.
Thinking about this reminded me of another story about the difference between heaven and hell. “In hell people are seated at a table overflowing with delicious food. But they have splints on their elbows and so they cannot reach their mouths with their spoons. They sit through eternity experiencing a terrible hunger in the midst of abundance. In heaven people are also seated at a table overflowing with delicious food. They too, have splints on their elbows and cannot reach their mouths. But in heaven, people use their spoons to feed one another.” (Retold by Rachel Naomi Remen, My Grandfather’s Blessings)
This story, and Jesus’ parable, reveal the negative effect of a selfish egocentric worldview and the liberating effect of a generous approach of recognizing and responding to the needs of others.
This brings to mind what is commonly known as the Golden Rule.
In Christian tradition this stems from a quote in the Gospel of Matthew in which Jesus says, “In everything do unto others as you would have them do unto you; for this is the law and the prophets.” (Matt. 7:12) In Judaism, Rabbi Hillel who was an older contemporary of Jesus said, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbour. This is the whole Torah; all the rest is commentary. Go and learn it.” (Hillel, Talmud, Shabbath 31a) The teachings of the prophet Muhammad, in Islamic tradition says, “not one of you truly believes until you wish for others what you wish for yourself.” (The Prophet Muhammad, 13th of the 40 Hadiths of Nawawi) In Buddhism the saying is, “Treat not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.” (The Buddha, Undana – Varga 5.1) Hinduism teaches, “This is the sum of duty: do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you.” (Mahabharata 5: 1517) Confucianism also states, “One word which sums up the basis of all good conduct…loving-kindness. Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself. (Confucius, Analects 15.23)
Each one of us has incredible potential. We have the ability to love, experience passion and compassion. God’s persistent love, calls us into deeper relationship with God, with each other and with all God’s creation.
We are called, as Christians, to follow Jesus; to live into being God’s commonwealth of love and justice by our words and actions day by day. We cannot do this alone. But together, with people of faith around the world, it is possible, even probable, that one day God’s peace will replace the tyrannies of wealth and power which oppress and dominate our world.
John Dominic Crossan says that, “once you announce that something has begun (in this case, God’s [Commonwealth]), you must be able to show something. And Jesus or Paul would have accepted that challenge by saying: Come and see how our communities live. Come and see how God-in-us and we-in-God are transforming the world. Come and see how surprised we are at the way God is actually doing it!” (p.180, The Resurrection of Jesus, edited by Robert B. Stewart)
May we be surprised and enlivened by the wondrous and simple ways in which the transforming power of God’s love changes and frees us to love and live our faith more fully in our words and actions. And, may we be ready to show others how our community of faith is accepting the challenge of Christ’s call to love, forgive, and seek justice.
May it be so, this day and always.
Christine Dudley reserves all rights ©2011. You are welcome to use, copy, edit or reproduce these sermons with copyright attached. Publication is prohibited.