On the Sunday chosen to kick-off our “Generous Giving” campaign, you think that there must be a better starting place than a parable about a man who is so deep in debt that he comes within a hairsbreadth of having himself and his family sold into slavery as restitution.
Or, who, after being graciously forgiven the large debt he owes, turns around, seizes another man by the throat and demands that the man immediately repay a very small debt owed to him or be sent to prison.
The parable is prefaced by Peter questioning Jesus about how many times he is obligated to forgive a fellow church member who has wronged him.
How many times must I forgive? Seven times?
Peter feels the need to quantify the limits of forgiveness Jesus expects of him.
Seven times seems like a generous number to Peter.
Jesus’ reply could not have been what Peter wanted to hear.
“Not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”
Translation: “Peter, mercy can’t be calculated according to a set limit.”
That’s when Jesus tells this parable to explain his answer to Peter’s question.
And, while it may not seem so on the surface, the message actually cuts to the heart of what it means to be a generous steward of God’s gifts.
The story begins with a king who has a score to settle with one of his underlings.
Kings in that time and place lived off the taxes they levied on their subjects.
Since there was not yet any IRS to collect those taxes for them, they employed people to do that work on their behalf.
Maybe employed is not the right word to describe this arrangement.
The tax collector did not get paid for his work.
But he was allowed to overcharge those he collected from.
As long as the king got all the taxes he was due, he could care less what his representative overcharged and pocketed for himself.
Apparently, this particular collector was not only overcharging the people he collected from. He was also short-changing the king.
So, the king calls him on the carpet and demands he pay up what he owes.
The problem is that what he owes is way more than he could possibly repay.
Which leads the king to declare that the man, his family and all his possession shall be sold and the money paid to the king.
The man pleads for mercy and promises to eventually repay the king.
Something he never, in a million lifetimes would be actually capable of doing.
Still, the king forgives the debt he owes and lets him walk away with a clean slate.
He doesn’t walk very far, though, before he runs into another servant who owes him just a small amount of money.
This slave begs him to have patience and he will repay him what is owed.
Because what is owed is such a modest amount, there’s no reason to doubt that he will be able to keep his word.
But the first servant doesn’t show a trace of the mercy that the king showed him.
He has this debtor thrown into prison.
Word gets back to the king who orders the first servant hauled back into his palace where his debt amnesty is revoked.
The king sends him off to prison with these words ringing in his ears: “I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me.
Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?”
Let me tell you, any stewardship message that isn’t grounded in that principle just plain misses the point.
You might never have been drowning in red ink as deep as this servant was, but everyone sitting here has had a debt erased for them that they could never have paid on their own.
We are all recipients of God’s generosity towards us.
A generosity we could not earn.
A generosity called “grace.”
Since we all are recipients of this grace; we are all also stewards of grace.
As a result of God’s generosity towards us, we are called to extend generosity to others.
To mirror God’s generosity to us in all its forms, through our generosity to others.
To be generous to others, as God has been generous with us.
Like the king in the parable said to the dishonest servant, “Should you not have mercy on your fellow servant, as I have had mercy on you?”
Jesus used a parable –a made up story – to teach Peter a lesson about generosity.
Can I share a true story about how being relieved of an immense debt in my life forever transformed my approach to stewardship and generous giving?
About twenty years ago, I was a member of the UCC church in Whitman MA.
This congregation had established an identity as a Teaching Parish. For those who may not know, a Teaching Parish is a church that makes itself available as a setting where seminarians on the path to Ordination can immerse themselves in the hands on realities of pastoral work as preparation for their own future ministry.
Over the years, this church. also supported several young men and women from within the congregation who had discerned calls to ministry and gone on to become pastors, themselves.
Although being over forty when a call to ministry came to me, I was not exactly young.
And, having fairly recently become a husband and a homeowner, while living paycheck to paycheck on a factory workers wages, while Sue was working for a non-profit, there wasn’t a lot of discretionary income available for the costs of a seminary education.
So, how did I get here?
The Whitman congregation, which understood the preparation of women and men for ministry to be a central part of their mission, proposed that if I were accepted to a seminary, they would start a scholarship fund to make the costs less prohibitive for me.
Well, I did. And they did.
They voted to take the annual interest from an endowment, the usage of which was restricted to assisting people and transfer it to the scholarship fund each year until I graduated. Then they started holding church suppers and other fundraisers to add to the fund. Some members made personal contributions to the fund.
This was by no means a wealthy congregation. But, because they understood and appreciated God’s generosity towards them, they also understood the extension of generosity to others as central to their identity as a church.
By the time I graduated, nearly all of my tuition, fees and costs for books were paid for through their efforts.
I owe that church a debt of gratitude that I can never repay.
Still, I felt a nagging obligation to somehow find a way to reimburse them for their generosity.
Until, my pastor at the time reminded me that what the church did for me was not a loan.
It was not substituting one debt for another.
It was a gift.
And, it was as an investment that the church had made in me.
I could never repay that investment, but I could honor it through a ministry which embodied a generosity towards others that mirrored the generosity that had come to me by grace.
The way that church embodied the king’s words, “Should you not have mercy on your fellow servants, the way I had mercy on you?” has taught me more about the meaning of stewardship and the grace of generosity than any course I ever took in seminary; more than the best conceived and implemented stewardship campaigns.
Maybe that’s what Jesus was getting at when he told Peter that he couldn’t put a number on generosity.
And that is why grace is always a more transformative influence on our lives than obligation.
An obligation has an endpoint, a payoff, which once reached, absolves of any further commitment.
Which is what Peter was looking for.
But, because grace can never be repaid it transforms all that we do by what we have been given.
That’s the kind of transformation that Jesus is looking for in each of as individuals and in us as a community of his faithful followers.
It’s the kind of transformation that failed to happen to the servant who took for granted the amnesty he received for his debt and so refused to extend the same kind of generosity to another.
When Peter asked Jesus for a method to calculate the quantity of grace Jesus expected him to extend to others, what he was looking for was a low ball estimate of what it might cost him to be a faithful disciple.
What Jesus gave him—and us — in this parable, is not a formula for generosity that starts with the goal of figuring the least amount of personal sacrifice for us;
but an awareness of the incalculable sacrifice God has made for us.
In the. weeks to come, as you are invited to prayerfully consider your pledge to the ministry of this church in the coming year, may your generosity be inspired by the generosity of God’s mercy and abundance shown to you.
“Shouldn’t we be generous to others, as God has been generous with us?”
May those be the words that shape our response as stewards of God’s grace to us.
© 2017 Raymond Medeiros