The following post was originally given as a homily at Luther's daily chapel on Sept. 20, reprinted here with permission.
My text this morning is the gospel text from last Sunday: Matthew 18:21-35
21Peter came and said to [Jesus], "Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?" 22Jesus said to him, "Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.23"For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25and, 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. 26So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, 'Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.' 27And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28But 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.' 29Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, 'Have patience with me, and I will pay you.' 30But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 31When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32Then his lord summoned him and said to him, 'You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?' 34And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart."
I want to thank Pastor Mike and Pastor Annie for inviting me to contribute to this chapel series in which we post some new theses on the Wittenberg Door.
My thesis is this: Grace is transformative—socially, politically, and ecologically.
Let's look a little more closely at our gospel text for today to see why I claim grace is transformative socially and politically.
When Peter asks Jesus how many times he has to forgive a brother who repeatedly sins against him, Jesus tells the story of a king who is owed an enormous debt of 10,000 talents by one of his slaves. Weighing about 130 pounds and normally paid in silver or gold, one talent represented at least 15 years of wages for an ordinary person. This means the slave owed the king the equivalent of 150,000 years of workers' wages! There was no way he could pay back that kind of debt by himself. In all likelihood, the slave's job had been to squeeze this kind of money out of 150,000 poor people who lived under the king's reign.
The poor peasants who followed Jesus would have related immediately to this parable because they were constantly being fleeced by tax collectors. Imagine their surprise, however, when the king has pity on the slave and not only forgives the debt but also sets the slave free! What? That's not how the system works! This was a game-changer. The king, having pity on his slave, was changing his own oppressive rules and stopping the vicious cycle of debt that kept people impoverished and desperate. The king's mercy had enormous social and political implications.
Unfortunately, this transformative moment didn't last very long. In fact, it didn't last even a few minutes because as the liberated slave left the king's presence he met another slave who owed him 100 denarii, which was equivalent to about 100 days' worth of wages for an ordinary laborer. This was not a minor debt, but it was not impossible to repay.
Rather than treat this slave with the game-changing mercy he had just received, the first slave grasped the second one by the throat and said, "Pay me what you owe!" When the second slave begged for more time just as the first slave had done, the liberated slave, unlike the king, did not forgive the debt but rather threw the second slave into prison until, presumably, his family members would be able to scrape up enough money to pay the debt.
This utter lack of gratitude had disastrous consequences. The king was so angry that the forgiven slave did not show mercy to the other slave that he had the first slave tortured until he could repay his entire, gigantic debt. We know that it was impossible for the slave to repay, which is the depressing point of the parable—the transformative cycle of grace is all too easily broken by ruthless selfishness and a return to the oppressive ways of this world.
Many of the earliest followers of Jesus understood that grace and mercy are the beating heart of Christianity and that they should transform our relationships with each other, our communities, and the world around us. They understood that mercy is the great equalizer. All of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. All of us are only justified by grace through faith in Christ. St. Paul summarized this core Christian insight in Galatians 3:28: "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus."
This text may be so familiar to us that we fail to perceive how it threatened to turn the social order of the ancient world on its head. By saying there is no difference between Jew and Gentile, some early Christian communities dared to oppose the rampant ethnocentrism and racism of their day; by saying there is no difference between master and slave, some early Christian communities opposed slavery, repudiated class divisions, and promoted egalitarianism; by saying there is no difference between male and female, some early Christian communities rejected the rampant sexism of the day and affirmed gender equality.
Many of the earliest followers of Jesus rejected superiority, embraced humility, pooled their resources in common, and gave to others on the basis of their need. Why? Because they understood that grace and mercy have the power to transform our lives and radically change the ways we live.
On the basis of our fundamental commitment to human equality and our experience of the transformative power of grace we must:
- Address economic exploitation just as Jesus does in the parable today, and just as Martin Luther did in the indulgence controversy during the 16th century.
- Continue to renounce and denounce racism and sexism as they persist in our society today.
- Challenge the assumption that the interests and welfare of our present generation are more important than those of future generations as we face rates of global warming and climate change that are unprecedented in human history.
- Challenge the assumption and that our species is more important and valuable than any other species as we watch the sixth largest mass extinction event taking place on Earth.
Justification by grace through faith frees us to live and think differently. Faith is not about seeing a different world but rather about seeing this world differently. Just as early Christians rejected the superiority of Jew over Gentile, master over slave, and male over female, so too should we reject that the presumed superiority of our generation over future generations, and our species over all other species.
Grace and mercy are transformative—socially, politically, and ecologically. They can change the world. Let us not be like the ungrateful slave in the parable. Justified by grace and liberated by God' s mercy, let us set forth to restore what has been lost, to right those who have been wronged, and to be exemplary in our care for creation.
Jim Martin-Schram joined the Religion faculty at Luther College in 1993. He is an ordained member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and has a doctorate in Christian Ethics from Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Most of his scholarship has focused on issues related to ethics and public policy, and a lot of his recent work has been in energy and climate policy. He spent most of his youth growing up in Germany and South Africa because his father worked for John Deere. Those years gave him a global perspective that has influenced his career in various ways. He has been involved in various campus sustainability initiatives at Luther and is active in various organization in Iowa working on climate change and energy issues.