DN 3:25, 34-43
PS 25:4-5ab, 6, 7bc, 8-9
I just got back from a campus ministry trip to the Navajo Nation, where I used to live for several years, and it always hurts to see the number of pawn shops and cash advance stores right on the edge of the reservation, as on the edge of every poor community I know. I have seen too many locals come to the Brothers' mission over the years looking for help paying the electric bill, feeding their children, fixing their truck, but I know that if the churches, including the Bro's, were not there to help, they would end up pawning off their heirlooms or getting squeezed on their next paycheck to stay afloat.
Just as it is now, debt was a big deal in the Ancient Near East – the prophets spend a lot of time railing about people who unjustly manipulate the poor into being in debt, and in the First Jewish-Roman War, which began in 66 AD, debt records were among the first things destroyed by the rebelling Jewish forces, because those records kept people in the grip of poverty and exploitation. Jesus talked about debt because just about everyone in his audience knew what it felt like to be in debt. In the parable in today’s gospel, the “huge amount” that the first servant owed to the master was ten thousand talents, literally more than one hundred fifty thousand years’ wages, such an unbelievable sum that, despite the servant’s words that he would repay in full, he would never even come close to repaying it. The second servant’s “much smaller amount,” literally one hundred denarii (one hundred days’ wages), was pitifully small by comparison. Even if the first servant were harassing the second servant so he could try to repay the master, those one hundred denarii would not even begin to make a dent.
We’ve heard all of that before, no doubt, and we know the usual reading of the story: God has forgiven us far more than the little stuff we must forgive each other for imposing on us. All certainly true, but I think the story is also pointing to something much more earthy than that. Franciscan priest Richard Rohr has said somewhere in his many writings that there are only two things that he knows of that really have much chance of teaching us wisdom: suffering and contemplative prayer. I think those two have to go together, because suffering can just as easily turn us in on ourselves, make us self-absorbed, paranoid, and small. That is exactly what happens to the first servant – it is no surprise that the words he uses to ask pardon of the master, “Be patient with me, and I will pay you back in full,” are virtually identical to the words that the second servant uses to ask him for mercy: “Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.” The first servant IS the second servant – fearful, disoriented, in need. He had the chance to identify with another person, to let his suffering teach him something about empathy with the rest of the world, and he threw it away, instead letting his suffering turn him in on his own concerns.
I heard a story on NPR the other day about people having to go on welfare for the first time: professionals, people with graduate degrees, and so on, who have been brought so low, to such desperation, by the current global financial mess that they feel no recourse but to go on the dole. Some are applying over the Internet because they cannot bear the shame of being seen in public applying for welfare. This has something to say to us who are at a university – how many of us are here at SLU or any other university pursuing an education or a professional career at least in part to avoid the sort of financial uncertainty that these folks are now facing, presuming that earning that degree or having a job in a place like this will guarantee us perpetual economic stability? Certainly, I don’t wish unemployment or debt or being on the dole on anyone, but perhaps education does us a disservice to the degree that it takes us out of contact with the chaos and precariousness that is the daily bread of a large proportion of the people of the world. I make no claim to understanding the economy or this crisis, but it seems that Jesus’ warning today is coming true: that same system we have created is coming back to haunt us – not the wrath of God, per se, but the consequences of a system built on exploitation and greed. Unless we replace that system with one built on forgiveness, including forgiveness of debts (which is what the Our Father actually says) and solidarity with people whose lives are precarious, we will continue to erect systems that favor profits over people, and they will double back onto us, and we will destroy ourselves.