A sermon given during the 10:30am Choral Eucharist, by The Rev’d Sally Sandford-Morgan, on the 17th September 2023.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

Jesus used parables to explain concepts to his disciples, using examples of situations that they would have been familiar with. However, these stories can seem strange to us because we don’t live in the same culture or with the same traditions that were present at that time. In the parable that we have just heard Jesus speaks similarly about forgiveness and the repayment of debt. This story involved a king who was a person in a position of great authority over others, many of whom were his slaves and owed him unimaginable, large amounts of money. In our current society this could be represented by the banks and the many young and not so young people who owe debts to the banks, especially for their homes.

Let’s consider a modern version of this parable, in a new Housing estate called Liability Heights. A young couple, Jack and Jill, we’re having an uphill battle with their mortgage repayments, when Jack suffered a head injury and was out of work for many months. They were unable to meet their regular payments, and were sent a letter by the bank threatening to foreclose their mortgage and sell their house. Jack and Jill went to the bank and pleaded with them for mercy, and the bank manager very generously waved not only their current payments but all future payments, essentially giving them the house for free and cancelling all their debts.

A year later, when Jack had recovered, and without the cost of home loan repayments, Jack and Jill were able to upgrade their car, and advertised their old car on Marketplace for $5000. A single mother, from a couple of streets away, called Mary, who had a little son Sam, answered the advertisement and they agreed that she would pay $4000 for the car. However, Mary’s little son Sam had attachment issues, as everywhere that Mary went Sam was sure to want to go, and this had resulted in some unusually high expenses. When Mary came to pay for the car, she only had $3500 and Jack and Jill were most unhappy about this because they had turned away other customers who would have paid more for the car. Mary pleaded with them, and they begrudgingly sold her the car for $3500.  However, later that day they then turned on her, writing horrible things about Mary on Facebook and other social media platforms, which greatly distressed Mary and everyone who knew her.

Some of their other neighbours knew of the two situations where Jack and Jill had received great generosity from the bank manager but had then been very ungenerous and hurtful towards Mary and her son Sam. They contacted the bank manager who was also very upset to hear of Jack and Jill’s lack of compassion, and their attack on Mary via social media. Somehow the bank was able to reverse their initial decision and reinstated Jack and Jill’s loan at an even higher interest rate, with the result that Jack and Jill were unable to make their payments, the bank sold their house and Jack and Jill became both homeless and friendless.

Both versions of this parable begin by considering an enormous debt to a higher authority, but this is in answer to a question from Peter who was asking how many times we should forgive a brother or sister that sins against us. Jesus’ answer is not seven but seventy times seven times. He isn’t saying do the Maths and keep accurate records so that you forgive someone 490 times, he is saying continue to forgive your brother or sister continually, because that is how your Heavenly Father forgives you. He then goes on to tell them the parable about debts.

This is not the first time that debt is used in connection with forgiveness. Back in Chapter 6 of Matthew’s gospel when Jesus teaches the disciples how to pray in the Lord’s prayer, he says, “Forgive us our debts as we have forgiven our debtors.” The different Bible translations of this use the words sins or trespasses instead of the word debts, and our own prayerbook version uses the word sin which is much easier for us to relate to the act of forgiveness. If we consider the different meanings that we have for debt, sin and trespass, we realise that these have come to mean quite different things in our everyday language. Debt being something to repay, sin being doing something wrong, and trespass being to intrude or encroach on another person.

The question therefore that needs to be asked is, whether having a debt is a sin.  Most people start their adult lives with some sort of debt, whether this is a HECS debt for study, a home loan or a car loan. Having a debt is seen a usual part of life and there are a number of websites that encourage this practice as a way of increasing wealth and the potential for future income and advancement. The Bible doesn’t say anywhere that being in debt is a sin, and almost all of the references to debt that are in the Scriptures relate to how we should respond to the presence of a debt, whether this is to act responsibly and repay it if we are the borrower, or to act with humility and compassion, if we are the lender. 

 Banks, companies or individuals that loan money are providing a service that they expect to gain from when they are repaid at some point with extra interest added. This is simply a business venture, but, unfortunately, some individuals can be exploited by unscrupulous lenders, which is of course a misuse of the imbalance of power between those who are wealthy and those that are in need, and this is in contradiction to the second commandment that Jesus gave us involving loving our neighbours.

In the parable, the king’s agent, or bank manager, is in a great position of power and authority over others who are powerless and in need. The wonderful gift of being released from a massive debt that seems like it will never be able to be repaid, is an incredibly generous act carried out by someone who cares about people and wants to help them past the debilitating effect that constantly being disadvantaged can have. This can be likened to the ongoing free gift of grace and forgiveness that we receive from our Father in heaven, as we too are needy creatures. The immense size of this gift, its availability to everyone, and the influence it can have on our lives can be quite overwhelming and life changing, but, Jesus came into the world and was crucified and died so that our sins could be forgiven, and he did this freely and willingly out of his love for each one of us.

In the parable, the receiver of the very generous gift is then mean spirited and does not treat others in the same way that they have been treated. This is included to make the point that this is not how Jesus wants us to behave. Jesus encourages us to treat other people in the same generous way that we have been treated by God, forgiving others and showing mercy freely, constantly and continually, with no set limit on the number of times this occurs. He wants us to show that we care about others, not just with words but in the way that we relate to one another and in our actions towards each other.

In his letter to the Romans, St Paul expresses this metaphorically when he says, “Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother or sister.” There are numerous motivational messages with a secular, psychological approach that encourage people to identify their stumbling blocks and turn them into stepping stones. As members of a Christian community, we have the capacity to help others to climb over their stumbling blocks, whether they be the need for forgiveness, debt or anything else. By doing this we are obeying Jesus’ second commandment and showing love to our neighbours, and enabling them to rise up onto stepping stones towards a more positive future.

The Lord be with you.