The RevoLectionary is a lectionary blog written by Irish young adults.

Proper 19: Absurdity and Abundance

Matthew 18:21-35


21 Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus 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. 24 When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25 and, 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. 26 So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But 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.’ 29 Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 31 When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32 Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35 So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

Two key words tie together my thoughts on this passage – absurdity and abundance. 

The story is, in essence, a little bit absurd. There is a servant, who owes an amount so great that it is only through the selling of his own life and the lives of his family that the debt can be repaid. One has to wonder what kind of lifestyle he was living that left him with that kind of overdraft. The amount seems to have been picked as a demonstration of impossibility; I find it helpful to picture the episode of The Simpsons where Mr Burns flounces around with that trillion dollar bill.  

On first reading it can seem like a do ut des kind of message – "I give so you will give", "forgive because you have been forgiven", "give and it will be given to you", the uncomfortable "torture and you will be tortured". But instead of this exchange, this equivalence, there seems to be something bigger being suggested. Jesus again and again states the moral minimum and then transcends it, just kind of sneaks it in there sometimes. In Luke 6 he says “give and it will be given to you” – simple. But he goes on to say the measure that will be given will be more than enough, it is “running over”, it invites us into a relationship of more. Jesus says “love your neighbour”, which we can all get on board with, but then he surpasses it with “love your enemy” too.  Here he says “forgive because you have been forgiven”, but reminds us that the measure we have been given will always be more than what we are asked to give. 

Like the first servant I am so quick to forget. Forget that we have been brought into an exchange of freely given gifts, not a barter or a simple exchange economy. Paul Ricoeur, a cool French philosopher, called this “the superabundance of the gift”, the God who promises us “immeasurably more”, who brings us into new logic and a new economy. The story caused me to reflect on times, on relationships, where I set my boundaries of “how much I could give” or how much I was “willing to take” and felt entitled when these self-imposed boundaries were crossed. It reminds me of the mornings I float around the house in go-slow mode when it’s someone else’s time that is in question, but how I channel my inner diva-sans-Snickers when someone else is holding me up for something I view as important. When I live in my created boundaries it is like I am choosing to pick up a burden that has already been taken, when freedom — like a trillion dollar bill floating away — has been granted to me. Jesus comes into those moments and says, like he said to Peter, because of this abundant love, because of this debt I have counted as none – seventy times more.

Emily Murtagh Cropped.jpg

Emily Murtagh

Emily is currently working part-time as a youth worker in Kilkenny alongside studying for her Masters in Community and Youth Work. She is passionate about tag rugby, proper conversations, dancing, poetry, public transport as a lifestyle choice and seeing people and ideas come together.

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