The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
The Very Reverend Torey Lightcap

Genesis 50:15-21
Romans 14:1-12
Matthew 18:21-35

 

There is a key detail in this passage from the Gospel of Matthew
That we’ve been given this week to look at together
That, when I read it, it kept glaring up at me.
This passage contains nine instances of the word “slave.”
The reading from Genesis had one as well, so an even ten on the day.

Normally, when I run up against these things,
I say to myself, That’s interesting but possibly a distraction.
I might argue with myself that in a historical/literary/contextual sense,
I’m not seeing the forest for the trees.
This time, I wondered if maybe “the trees” were the point that I needed to spend time on.
Sometimes the micro is very much the macro.
And also, sometimes, to quote another phrase of Jesus,
I can’t accurately judge the faults of others because I have a beam in my eye that I can’t see past –
A personal, ethical, moral blindspot.

There are some words I think the church has to work on and grapple with and be more honest about
If we’re going to be able to faithfully engage with Scripture,
And “slaves” is one of those words.
Not to ignore it, but to recognize our own, more local history,
And the incredible amount of work we have to do,
And not ignore the effort happening around race in a continuing conversation
That up to now, for some of us, it’s been too easy, too convenient to look beyond.
This can be hard, but we have to pay attention.

The word “slaves” is here rendered in English from the Greek, doulon .
The word is variously translated for our ears as “slave,” “servant,” or “bond-servant.”
A variant of the form is found in this reading – sundoulon , “fellow-slave.”
As you might imagine, it’s all about ownership and subjugation
Of one person and their family by another person for the benefit of the owner.
We just have to admit that this is part of our own history
As a country built on slave ownership – America’s “original sin” –
And our economic flourishing based on the free labor of subjugated Black persons.
This is a key detail living between the world of the biblical text and the world of now.

The main person in the parable is someone who is in economic servitude to another.
The other in this case is a capricious and somewhat tyrannical king
Who in the parable stands in for something like the judgment of heaven.

The way Jesus describes the situation,
The slave in question owes an impossible sum of money he will never be able to repay.
(One talent of gold or silver would have weighed about the same as a whole person,
So imagine that enormous amount times ten thousand.
In other words, this is immense hyperbole; the point is, the dice are loaded against him.)

Obviously unable to pay, the slave and his family and all their possessions
Stand to be liquidated – converted to cash.
In our country, with our history, the image of a slave auction should feel uncomfortably familiar.

I have to be clear with my own facts: I don’t have to dig too far into my Ancestry account
(Third and fourth great-grandfathers and so on)
To find slave ownership as a fact, or to find Confederate soldiers in my family history.
Or this week, my heart hurting so much as I read
About the slave trade recorded in the minutes of the vestries
Of Episcopal churches in the Diocese of Virginia
As congregations casually bought and sold people for the economic benefit of the parish.

I wish these things were not the case, but they are.
I cannot hide, repress, or deny facts; rather, I should help bring them into the light.
And then I have to ask, What does God want me to do about that?
What does being a part of the family of God have to do with this?
How does this change how I’m supposed to live my life?

The slave in the parable begs for this proposed auction not to happen.
He says, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.”
The king then grants him not only a stay from liquidation, but total solvency,
As the debt he has accumulated is completely forgiven.
This would have been a real shock for those listening to Jesus talk.

The parable then shifts.
The one whose debts were forgiven has now become an aggressor.
Although he himself has received an improbable amount of forgiveness,
He is not interested in passing even the tiniest amount of that same forgiveness onto others,
And he has a fellow slave thrown into the debtor’s prison.

The parable ends with the king bringing an even more aggressive form of punishment
Back on the original slave.
Not only is the debt restored to his account,
But he now will be tortured until he can repay it,
Which, as we’ve already noted, is just not possible.

Again, there is our own back story from the last 400 years between the biblical text and us,
Bringing to mind the long and horrible history of beatings, imprisonment, lynchings …
Suppressed voting rights and equality rights, marches put down …
Important questions of the moral, ethical, and legal dimensions of personhood simply set aside …
The language and craft of both overt and subtle racism handed down over generations,
Taught through big symbols and words and gestures and equally small looks …
Run like red threads through our culture, laid down into us like DNA …
All the way to today, when these unjust systems continually perpetuate in one way or another:
In prisons, in the streets, in radically imbalanced economic structures.
All done with a kind of authority only granted by the fact
That the true aggressor just has more power and resources than the oppressed.

Jesus has laid out a hard-edged vision of radical forgiveness.
But a text for today about the need we all have to forgive each other “from the heart”
Is obscured by the inescapable fact that we have treated one another in the family of God –
Fellow-humans, made in the image and likeness and glory of God –
We have treated one another as less than human.

So we come to see that sometimes these texts
Dig up a kind of painful response.

We are provoked to more questions today than we are given answers.
We are asked to notice that all is not right, and live with how uncomfortable that makes us.

The real measure of the strength of the family of God
Is not that we would come to some perfect understanding of Scripture,
But that we would learn more and more to grapple and struggle
With how God wants the world to be.
Frankly, sometimes God just offers to upset us and upend us and inconvenience us, if only we would.

Then would we see clearly, and the truth wrought by the Gospel of Christ would have truly liberated us.

Ironically, it’s the only real way to find lasting peace.

Amen.