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Railway Man and Breaking the Cycle
of Terror: The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant
(References for this sermon- Bernard Brandon Scott, Hear Then the Parable. John Dominic Crossan, In Parables. John R. Donahue, The Gospel in Parable, Walter Wink, The Transforming Power of the Bible)
Matthew 18:21-25; 5:43-48
What Jeremy Taylor says about dreams may also be true of parables. They both come in service of our health and wholeness. Like a nightmare, a negative parable comes not to punish but to heal us. The scary element is there to get our attention.
It is also true that the first and most obvious meaning of a dream or parable is probably the most limited. If we think we've got it right away, we've probably fooled ourselves. No parable or dream has come to tell us what we already know. And each parable and dream comes with the possibility of rebirth and renewal.
In March and April we look at some of the parables in the musical Godspell (to be presented here the weekend of April 28-29). Since these parables come at us with the speed of rolling thunder in the musical, we're going to take some time with them so we can be familiar with them.
This parable of the unforgiving servant looks quite simple at first. It's easy to remember, because it has a framework of threes, which is a trademark of Jesus' stories. A servant is brought before the king owing a million dollars. The king is going to sell the servant, the servant's wife and children and all their possessions to pay the debt. The servant pleads with the king, actually worshipping him, and the king has mercy. That's section one.
Section two - The servant finds a fellow servant who owes him a few dollars, and he throws the second guy in prison.
Section three - Other servants tell the king what his servant did. The king calls in his first servant, revokes his mercy and hands him over to be tortured until he pays back everything. Since one can not typically earn a lot of money while being tortured, we can assume that this guy is going to be tortured for a long, long time.
There's a tag at the end that says God won't forgive you if you don't forgive others.
The first and most obvious lesson is that if we don't forgive others the way we have been forgiven, we are going to be punished. As I said earlier, the first and easiest interpretation of a parable or a dream, while true, is usually the most limited.
Look at the problems here. In the paragraph before this story Jesus said, "Forgive seventy times seven." In the story the king forgave once, then gave it up. The parable concludes by suggesting that God will be like the king, which is the exact opposite of what Jesus asks us to be like when we are called to forgive. This is like the kingdom of heaven? I hope not.
Let's agree that the last sentence, "So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you if you do not forgive " is added on by Matthew, not the words of Jesus. Most of the time when a parable ends with an interpretation, the interpretation has been added on to suit the early church.
What is happening here? By using the example of a king and a servant, Jesus sets the parable outside the community of Jewish poor people that he spoke to. The figure, a million of dollars, is another way of say more money than you or I could imagine owing someone at year's end. The king and servant are not people, in other words, like us. We could picture Bill Gates calling in his credit to a BMW driving, yacht owning, hotshot software engineer. The amount of debt alienates the listener then as now from the servant.
In the biblical story, Jesus was talking about wealthy Gentiles, not Jews. So his listener in the audience begins to feel a certain moral superiority over the people in this story. The king threatens to sell the servant's family into slavery, something that is not allowed under Jewish law. I as a listener would cluck, "Look at the mess these rich people get themselves into." It would be similar to my lack of sympathy for a thirty-year-old Amazon.com. exec whose stock options just dropped from seven million to two million and now can't make payments on his yacht.
But surprise, the king has mercy. This is unexpected. We're up in the air. We need a new story.
Here comes the new story. The servant, having dodged the bullet, runs into another servant who owes him a few dollars, maybe a day's wages. We don't know what to expect. In fact, we think that forgiveness will produce forgiveness. Instead the first servant chokes the second and throws him in jail.
Jesus' listeners and we can now return to our original assessment of Gentiles and rich people. They're money-grubbing ingrates who wouldn't recognize kindness if it landed in the front yard in a red and yellow hot air balloon.
Enter now the other servants who've been off in the wings. They tell the king what his golden boy has done. A third test begins. The fellow servants think that servant number one should have behaved the way he had been treated and shown mercy to the one who owed him money. We agree. Now we the hearers, the fellow servants, and the king are all on the same page. We demand that he face the consequences of his own cruelty. It's one of those moments when we read of a case like this and say, "I'd like to nail that guy to the wall." Then the king actually does it.
What just happened to us? We have demanded, "like for like." We are now like the first servant. We, who have been forgiven on many occasions, have now failed to forgive and have demanded retribution on our own fellow servant.
The Jewish listeners suddenly realize they are no better than the gentile. We realize that we are no better than the selfish rich. We have forfeited our moral superiority.
A good parable always surprises us and turns us around. Matthew himself got caught up in the wrong direction and says God is like the king. I don't think that's right.
How then is this story like the kingdom of heaven? It demonstrates that our standards of justice are completely inadequate for the kingdom. God's kingdom is not based on giving back what we get, but on breaking cycles of hatred, not just once, but over and over. We're back to forgiving seventy times seven. The parable tests us. We claim we understand a cycle of forgiveness. But the first time we see a situation where forgiveness is required twice, we give up.
Instead of saying, "The kingdom of God is like this " Matthew should have said, "Here's what the kingdom of God is not like." This is a parable where we are called to do the opposite. One element of the kingdom is recognizing that we are all entangled in the web of the world's cycle of terror and punishment. Therefore where we cannot do justice, we are called to love mercy.
The parable reminds me of two stories. The first is of Eric Lomax, an ordinary young man growing up in Scotland before World War II. His memoir is called Railway Man. He loved trains and enlisted in the Royal Army Signal Corps. He was stationed in Singapore when the Japanese invaded and conquered the British troops there. On February 15, 1942 he was taken prisoner.
During his time as a POW the Japanese decided to build a railroad from Burma to India, through Thailand's impossible jungles, as a way of supplying themselves when they invaded India. Lomax watched as men were taken out to work on the jungle railway and then died of starvation, exposure, and exhaustion.
Since he had been part of the signal corps, Lomax joined a group of four other prisoners in building a secret radio that they used to pick up isolated bits of news about the course of the war. The Japanese found the radio, took Lomax and his colleagues into the yard and tortured them. Lomax was made to stand at attention and raise his hands. The first guard then slammed him across the back with an ax handle. When Lomax fell, the other guards stood him up, picked up their ax handles and joined in beating him. When he could no longer be raised from the ground, guards stomped on his head and body with their boots, cracking his bones, breaking his teeth. Fearing that his hips were being damaged, he put his hands over his body to deflect the blows. The blows broke both his wrists.
Lomax was left for days, broken, lying in the dirt and scorching sun. Then his interrogation began through the help of a Japanese interpreter who spoke English. When not being questioned, Lomax was put in a cage without water or latrine. During the day, arms broken but now splinted, he was placed on a bench and beaten. A water hose was forced down his mouth until he was choking uncontrollably, drowning on dry land.
Throughout the torture, the face and voice Lomax remembered and hated the most was that of his interpreter incessantly repeating the questions he either could not or would not answer.
Lomax survived the war. He carried his scars, his wounds, and hatred of the Japanese into his life. He could not sustain a marriage. He could not share his story for years. In 1985, he wrote an article about his experience. After reading the article, a former POW colleague suggested he contact a Japanese correspondent, Nagase Takashi who was trying to atone for Japanese cruelty in the camps of Southeast Asia with acts of care and reconciliation. Lomax said it would be easier to cut off his own arm than to correspond with a Japanese ex-soldier, no matter how repentant he claimed to be. That was in 1987. In 1990, Lomax participated in a program for survivors of torture and began to feel understood.
A friend sent him an English language Japanese newspaper with another story of Nagase Takashi. Here Nagase stated that he had recurring heart disease and that every time he suffered a cardiac attack he had flashbacks of military police torturing a certain POW accused of having a radio by pouring large amounts of water down his throat. This was Lomax's tormentor.
Lomax decided to meet Nagase, to see his sorrow, so he could live better with his own. Yet he lashed out at anyone who suggested it might be time to forgive.
It took three years of reading each other's accounts of the war for Lomax to fly to Japan and meet his torturer. The small aged Nagase took the hand of the equally old, tall, pain-ridden Lomax. Nagase acknowledged the pain he had inflicted and said he would understand if Lomax could not forgive him. Lomax understood that Nagase suffered the horror of one who recognized his own complicity in evil. He saw in Nagase one who had dedicated his life to peace and restitution. Lomax gave up his hating and embraced Nagase physically and emotionally.
It's a good story of evil, repentance, restitution, and forgiveness breaking the cycle of terror. For me it was a glimpse of the long and winding road to a moment when the kingdom of God breaks in.
The second story is not one I will tell but simply refer you to. I strongly recommend seeing the movie "Traffic." I stayed away from it thinking it would be too depressing. While it tackles tough issues, it is not depressing. It was eye opening, invigorating in the way of new light in the morning. I recommend paying attention to one Mexican police officer in particular, who steps out of the cycle of hate and destruction.
One element of the journey of lent is understanding again what it means to be forgiven and to forgive. All of us have screwed up along the paths of our lives. There are things we wish we could undo. Somewhere someone forgave us. It might not have been the party we wronged. It might have been someone who knew our shadow and loved us nevertheless. God surely forgave us. To continue our own healing, to heal our relationships, and to participate in the healing of the world, we are called to forgive.
What do I most want to say about these stories? First, forgiveness does not mean living with abuse. No one should ever do that. Walk away from cruelty, please.
Second, there are times of course that we have to draw lines and say no to addicted loved ones, to dear ones who have to stand on their own. Don't confuse necessary boundaries with forgiveness. Jesus knew how to say no to injustice.
Do realize that forgiveness is deeper, higher, and larger than this. There are far too many places in the lives of nations, races, generations, and individuals where the score card of bitterness is filled with past wrongs. If we are ever going to find healing on this earth, it is going to mean forgiving, over and over again. The parable says that making it past the first round may be the hardest.
I don't know if I could do what Eric Lomax did. I don't know if I would be any different than the king when his unforgiving servant was turned in to him. I hope I can and will forgive, because the kingdom of heaven is like that, and life is surely better when it is bathed in healing than when it is shadowed in hate.
Where do we have a chance to break the cycle of terror in our lives, personally and institutionally by forgiving, over and over again? Keep that as a question in your travel through lent. Be ready for surprises from God who comes to us in parables that almost always reverse what we think they first mean.
As you listen to the music, consider your journey for this Lenten season.
Where have you been forgiven in your life?
Where do you seek forgiveness?
Where have you forgiven others?
What do you still need to forgive?
(Sarabande Suite # 1 for Cello)
Accept forgiveness, knowing that once we are open to receive it, God has long since been waiting to bestow it upon us. Live in the freedom of healing and forgiveness. Be a part of the circle of healing rather than the cycle of terror.