It’s all gift

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

     On my trip to Colorado, I was being especially careful to avoid contact with people, not wanting to put my mom at any risk.  I took a cooler with food to eat, rather than going into any fast food restaurant along the way.  On the way back, though, I was tired of making and eating ham sandwiches, so one day for lunch, I decided to go through a Dairy Queen drive through window.

     I ordered my lunch, and the woman behind the speaker told me the bill would be ten dollars and change.  I got out a $20 bill, and the appropriate change, since there is a coin shortage going on.  But when I got to the window, she told me that the car in front of me had paid my bill.  I was completely flustered.  I almost drove off with a word of thanks, but then I remembered that this is not how the game is played.

     I asked her how much the order behind me was.  She said $7 and something.  I handed her the twenty, and told her to pay the bill behind me.  And then, I just drove off.  Remember, I was flustered.  I didn’t wait for any change from the twenty.  I hope she used it for other cars behind the one behind me.

     As I got back on the highway, I laughed at myself for being so nonplused by the whole thing.  For half a second, I thought about the change from the twenty that I had just left behind, but then I was grateful that people could be so kind.  Even if the girl at Dairy Queen kept the change for herself, it was a good day for someone, and certainly a good day for me.

     In last week’s Gospel reading, Jesus gave the church the only community rule we find on his lips.  If your brother or sister has sinned against you, go work it out in private, and they listen, you have regained your brother or sister.  If they don’t listen, take one or two others with you, and if they won’t listen to them, then and only then take the matter to the whole church.  And if they won’t listen to the church, then and only then, write them off.

     So, Peter, good old Peter, wants to pin Jesus down.  How many times should be willing to do that with my brother or sister?  Seven times?  No, Jesus says, seven times seventy times.  And then he tells a parable.

     A king wanted to settle accounts with his slaves.  One slave owed him ten thousand talents.  Talent is not a currency we use, so the number doesn’t mean much to us.  Herod the Great’s annual income had been about 1,000 talents a year.  So this slave owed his king ten years’ worth of a king’s income.  Unimaginable!  How does a slave get that far in debt?  We might very well fill in ten billion dollars.  So the king decides to sell him and his family into slavery and all their possessions.  The amount of the sale won’t come close to recouping the debt – maybe a single talent.

     The slave falls on his knees and begs his king for patience.  He promises to repay.  The king of course knows that’s never going to happen, but for a single talent, what’s the point of selling him?  So, he cuts his losses and forgives the debt.  But this same slave immediately meets a fellow slave who owes him 100 denarii.  A denarius was the usual daily wage for a day laborer.  So he owes his fellow slave about four months’ worth of minimum wage.

     Our main character throttles his fellow slave and demands repayment, and when he can’t repay, he orders him thrown in prison – for 100 denarii!  Matthew then adds the tag line that God will throw us in prison if we don’t forgive each other.  But I think the point of the story is much deeper than that – and parables invite a lot of interpretations.

     We can live in one of two ways:  either grateful for the incredible gifts we have been given, or suspicious always trying to figure out what the world owes us.  We are so used to thinking of the world in terms of debt, that it completely flusters us (me, at any rate) when someone out of the blue gives us a gift, or pays what we owe.

     When Jesus begins his ministry, he announces the kingdom of God by saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has arrived.”  That word, “repent,” means literally in Greek, “change your mind,” or better yet, “go back to school.”  It requires training, homework, and a complete shift in mindset.  What if we approached every human interaction asking “What gift am I receiving,” instead of asking, “What can I get out of this?”  How would that change our view of the world.

     As we were cleaning out the house, my mom and I talked about the incredible gift the house had given us.  It provided a place of refuge, of learning, of discovery, of safety, and of love.  We decided that the best way we could move on as we lose this house was to hope that whoever buys the house will receive as much from it as we did, and then find ways to pay that gift forward wherever we find ourselves.  That made the grief bearable, and opens up new vistas for living life to the full.

     Last week I said that I am always troubled in the Old Testament that God’s favor for Israel always comes at someone else’s expense.  This week, we have Pharaoh’s army thrown up on the seashore, so Israel could go free.  But I think the same lesson is buried in this story as in the parable of the 10,000 talents.  Pharaoh could only see Israel as free labor, rather than as a gift.  Remember, Pharaoh (with Joseph’s help) had hoarded all the grain in Egypt, and then bought everyone into slavery by parceling out that grain.

     When Israel gets into the wilderness, they complain that there is no food.  “Oh, that we might return to Egypt, and sit by the fleshpots, with onions and cucumbers in abundance,” they complain.  So, God gives them manna.  They can collect just enough for one day.  If they gather more, it rots overnight.  There will be no hoarding food in the wilderness.  God is going to teach them the hard way that life is a gift.  If you can only collect food for one day, there is no way you’re going to get 10,000 in debt to anyone.

     Paul gives us the same warning.  Don’t look down on anyone.  Money is the way we rank ourselves and our worth.  It allows us to look down on others, or to think we ourselves are not worth as much when we compare what we have and make to what others have and make.  But the parable tells us that there is no difference between 10,000 talents and 100 denarii, but only in the way we look at the world.      Is life a gift, or does it owe us?  That’s the difference.  Even when it’s just ten dollars and change at Dairy Queen, life is a gift beyond imagining.