It may have escaped your attention, but this past week was officially “Banned Books Week.” It escaped my attention: before hearing a commentary about it on the radio, I had never heard of “Banned Books Week.” “Banned Books Week” is an annual event celebrating the freedom to read, sponsored by the American Library Association. After hearing the commentary about “Banned Books Week,” I got online and did a little research, and I was pretty surprised by a lot of what I found. I knew vaguely, that, oh, say, a hundred years ago or so, books were sometimes removed from libraries in this country because their content was deemed unsuitable or offensive. I remembered hearing that books like Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover had been taken off library shelves because of their language or subject matter, but I really thought that only a handful of books had ever been targeted and that all of this was long in the past. Not so. The American Library Association tracks challenges to books, times when various groups around the country have attempted to restrict access to certain books or get them removed from libraries. The list just of banned and challenged classics is astonishing. Topping the list is The Great Gatsby, which was challenged as recently as the 1980’s. I read The Great Gatsby for I think a ninth grade English class (which would have been back in the ’80’s), and I don’t remember it being all that racy. I suppose I can see the reasons behind the challenges to some of the other classics in the top 10, which include The Catcher in the Rye, The Grapes of Wrath, The Color Purple, The Lord of the Flies, and 1984. But for the life of me, I can’t figure out how Charlotte’s Web and Winnie the Pooh make the list of the top 25 most challenged books of the last hundred years.
Challenges to books continue today. From 2000 to 2009, the American Library Association tracked over 5,000 challenges to books on library shelves. Most challenges are on the grounds that material is “sexually explicit” or contain “offensive language;” other challenges are because books are deemed unsuited to a certain age level or have references to subject matter considered offensive, such as violence, homosexuality, or the occult. The most challenged book in 2013 was the Captain Underpants series for kids, which I had never heard of, but I’m definitely going to check out. The Hunger Games and Fifty Shades of Grey made the top ten, and I guess I can understand why some people would be concerned about them, but The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison? And that, of course, gets to the heart of the matter. How do we make decisions on which books are appropriate and which books are too offensive? Just who gets to decide which books should go on the shelves and which should be banned? Who has the authority to determine what we can and can’t read?
Fortunately for us here in the United States, that question has largely been answered. The First Amendment protects free speech, and books are a form of free speech. As Supreme Court Justice Brennan writes, “If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.” The American Library Association maintains that parents, and only parents, have the right and the responsibility to restrict the access of their children - and only their children - to library resources. Censorship by librarians or any other group, whether to protect children or for any other reason, violates the First Amendment. At the end of day, we, you and I, the citizens of the United States, have the authority to decide what we and our children will and will not read - not the government, not the libraries, not some other group, but you and I.
On the face of it, this morning’s gospel lesson from Matthew seems to hinge on the question of authority. Specifically, the leaders of the temple in Jerusalem want to know by what authority Jesus is acting, and who gave him his authority. They’ve got good cause to ask their question. For most of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus teaches and preaches and heals out in the countryside, in Galilee, far away from Jerusalem, the capital city. But at the beginning of chapter 21, all that changes. Jesus does three things that get everyone’s attention. First, he enters Jerusalem in a big way. He doesn’t just wander in some side gate with his disciples. Instead, he comes in riding a donkey, and in front of him is a crowd of his followers spreading their cloaks on the road and covering them with branches and palms. The crowd shouts, “Hosanna to the son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” This procession puts the whole city in turmoil; everyone is asking just who Jesus is, and stories about him are spreading like wildfire.
Next, Jesus goes to the temple and overturns the tables of the money changers. This is a direct affront, an assault, really, on the temple authorities because of the role of the money changers. Here’s how that systems works. At festival times, faithful Jews come to Jerusalem from all over the countryside. They try and sell their wares in the marketplace and they buy goods they can’t get at home. They also go to worship at the temple, and worship means offering a sacrifice. They take the money they’ve made in the marketplace, the Roman currency with Caesar’s face on it, but they can’t use that currency in the temple, they have to exchange it for the special temple currency. That’s what the money changers do, but they charge an exorbitant mark-up in the process. Jesus kicks over their tables and calls them the robbers and thieves that they are.
Finally, as the dust is settling from all of that uproar, some blind and lame people seek Jesus out, and he cures them. This really gets the temple leaders’ attention. Just who is this guy? Why is everyone so excited about him? Where does he get off calling our money changers crooks? How does he have the power to heal people? So when Jesus returns to the temple the next day and starts teaching, they ask him outright, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” By rights, the temple leaders, the chief priests and the elders, are the authority in the temple. They’re the ones who can tell the crowd who they should shout and cheer for. They’re the ones who can regulate that money changing system. They’re the ones who can tell the blind and the lame how they might be healed. They’re the ones who have the authority to teach in the temple.
Jesus, like any really good teacher, answers their question with a question of his own, a question that is also about authority. “Remember John, that crazy guy out in the desert who preached repentance and baptized all those people?” he asks the temple leaders. “Where did he get the authority to baptize? YOU guys didn’t give it him. Did his authority come from God, or did he just make it up himself?” The temple leaders are caught in a bit of trap here. Hundreds, thousands of people, even, had sought John out in the desert and gotten baptized. So many people were following John around that the Roman government got worried, worried enough that they arrested and executed him. A lot of John’s followers are now following Jesus around. If the temple leaders say John’s authority came from heaven, then they’re as much saying that Jesus’s authority comes from heaven. If they say John was making it up as he went along, the temple authorities worry that the crowds will turn against them. And so they say, “We don’t know.”
Jesus asks them another question, “What do you think?” and then he tells this simple parable. A man has two sons. He goes to the first and says, “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.” His son answers, “I will not,” but later he changes his mind and goes to work. The father goes to his second son and says the same thing. His second son answers, “I go, sir,” but actually doesn’t go. Which of the two did the will of the father?” Jesus asks, and the temple leaders say, “The first.” And with that, Jesus has changed the conversation. It’s no longer about authority; now the conversation is about the kingdom of God. “Look,” he says to the temple leaders, “You’ve got it all wrong. You think because you’re the leaders of the temple, respected leaders of this community, that you’ve got life figured out, but you don’t. God doesn’t care who you are, or what position you hold, or how much money you have, how much authority you command here. Remember when John was out in the desert with his crazy clothes and his wild hair and his weird diet of locusts and honey? Remember what he said? ‘Repent,’ John said, ‘Repent,’ John shouted, ‘Repent,’ John bawled until he was hoarse. You thought he was crazy, because he smelled bad and looked funny and because you hadn’t ‘authorized’ his preaching. Remember who did listen to him? All those people you look down on, all those folks who you preach at every week urging them to be more like you, all those people with jobs you wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole, people like tax collectors and prostitutes: they listened to him. They listened to John because he offered them a chance to come clean, to stop pretending they were somebody else; he offered them a chance to start over. John offered to wash their old selves away, to clean them off in the river Jordan. Those tax collectors and prostitutes stood next to this bizarre, smelly, unpleasant man and let him dunk them in the cold water. And when they came up, they saw what you haven’t seen, what you can’t see, what you won’t allow yourself to see. You don’t have to continue living the way you are. There are options. You’re not stuck going forward, you can turn around entirely, go in a wholly new direction, free from your past, free from everything you are carrying but don’t really need, free from all those voices telling you how you don’t measure up. That’s the good news that John brought, that’s the good news that I bring, authorized or not, because that is what repentance really is. It’s not about beating our breasts and wailing about what miserable sinners are. Rather, repentance is about God’s desire to realign us in the way God would have us live; it is about God’s desire and God’s power to transform us. Repentance is about accepting God’s invitation to new life.
I don’t like to face up to it, but I’m afraid that more often than not, I’m more like those temple authorities than I am like the tax collectors and prostitutes who followed John out into the desert and followed Jesus into Jerusalem and up to the cross. I’m pretty sure I’ve got life figured out, I know what’s right and what’s wrong, the problem isn’t me, it’s all those other folks out there. If everyone would just see things like I see them, the world would be a better place. Thank goodness that just when I’m getting too comfortable with my place in this world, a reminder like this reading from Matthew comes along. Thank goodness there’s still time to go and work in the vineyard, even if I said earlier I didn’t want to. Thank goodness God’s offer of repentance, God’s offer of a fresh start and a new life, is still good.
Maybe this sounds like good news to you, as well. Maybe you are hearing God’s invitation to repent, God’s invitation to new life, God’s invitation to transform your life. But, if on this spectacular autumn day, you’re comfortable where you’re at, that’s okay, too. God will be there tomorrow with the same offer of repentance and a new life, so no worries. Get out and enjoy the day. Take advantage of your first amendment rights and read a banned book - there are a lot of good ones to choose from. Go out and work in the vineyard, even if you already said you didn’t want to. God loved you yesterday, God loves you today, God will love you tomorrow, and God will transform you and bring you to new life. Amen.
This week was the 200th anniversary of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Technically, it’s the 200th anniversary of the words of the “The Star-Spangled Banner;” the tune is a bit older, but we’ll get to that in a moment. You probably know the story. Francis Scott Key was a lawyer, author, and an amateur poet (and, by the way, an Episcopalian, go team!). During the War of 1812, that attempt by the British to retake what they thought of as the American colonies, he was sent to negotiate the exchange of prisoners of war. After a dinner on a British ship in Baltimore harbor, he and his negotiating team were not allowed to return to their own ship because they had become familiar with the strength and position of the British units, and with the British intent to attack Baltimore. Because of this, Key was unable to do anything but watch the bombardment of the American forces at Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore on those September nights in 1814.
At dawn, Key was able to see an American flag still waving above the fort, and he reported this to the prisoners below deck. When he got back onshore, he was still inspired by that image, and he sat down and wrote a poem about his experience, which he called “Defense of Fort McHenry,” and it was published just a few days later in a newspaper called The Patriot. Now, Francis Scott Key had no thought that he was writing what would become the national anthem, and in fact, his words did not become the national anthem until a hundred years later, first by an executive order by President Woodrow Wilson in 1916 and then by Congressional resolution in 1931. And I can’t help but wonder if this isn’t the reason why. Francis Scott Key had a tune in mind while he was writing his poem. It’s the tune we still sing, or for some of us, we try to sing, today, that tune in 3/4 time with a very wide vocal range including very low and that very high note at the end. It was a familiar tune of the time because it was the official song of the Anacreontic Society, a popular gentlemen’s club. It was popular because it was somewhat bawdy, at least by the standards of the 18th century. The refrain of each of the six stanzas, all of which celebrate the pleasures of wine, women, and song, that refrain which we’re used to singing with the words “O say does that Star-spangled banner yet wave, O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave,” in the original drinking song went, “And long may the Sons of Anacreon intwine The Myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’s Vine.” Such lyrics hardly raise an eyebrow here in the 21st century, but they were pretty racy stuff back then.
It took a hundred years, but the Anacreon Club ultimately disbanded, over time the memory of the original drinking song faded, and the tune took on the solemnity and patriotic association we have with it today. You can hear the original Anacreon song sung to the tune we call “The Star-spangled Banner” on the internet, and it is unsettling, if not a bit scandalous sounding. We have clear expectations for the tune and for the words, and it feels wrong to hear either in a different context. Another, sort of silly, example. Imagine sitting down in front of the TV flipping around the channels. You come to TV Land, that channel that features re-runs of old shows, and to your delight it’s the beginning one of your favorites from the ’60’s, starring Bob Denver, Alan Hale, and Jim Backus. There’s that island with the palm trees in the middle of the ocean, and as the title “Gilligan’s Island” flashes up on the screen, you hear: (to the tune Amazing grace)
Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale,
A tale of a fateful trip
That started from this tropic port
Aboard this tiny ship.
Or, imagine you’re here in church and you’re asked to turn to Hymn 671, but instead of the familiar, well-loved tune, the congregation starts singing, (to the Gilligan’s Island tune)
Amazing grace! how sweet the sound,
that saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost but now am found,
was blind but now I see.
In the first instance, you’re probably just confused, because the almost mournful tune of “Amazing grace” doesn’t fit at all with the light hearted comedy of Gilligan’s Island; in the second case, you may be a bit offended and have a couple of choice things to say to the rector at coffee hour.
The context in which we hear words matters a lot. If we’re singing words, the tune matters. The memory of the bawdy drinking song had to fade before “The Star-spangled banner” could become the national anthem. The familiar tune for “Amazing grace” supports the text and helps convey its message of forgiveness and redemption made possible through God’s grace and mercy, where the cheerful and bouncy Gilligan’s Island tune makes the words sound silly and trite. But even if we’re not singing words, the context matters a lot, it shapes how we hear words; the context shapes how we understand their message. Words often have multiple contexts, and that is usually the case with the words we hear from the bible. This morning we heard another parable told by Jesus, a parable sometimes called “the laborers in the vineyard.” Originally, Jesus told this parable, this story, to his disciples. He tells this parable to his disciples in the middle of a sort of simmering concern the disciples are having about what, exactly, their reward will be for faithfully following Jesus. Just before Jesus tells this parable, Peter asks that question out right, reminding Jesus that he and the disciples have given up everything to follow him; what can they expect in return? Jesus promises them twelve thrones in the world to come; pretty good deal, the disciples think, as they stand up a little taller and puff their chests out. But Jesus deflates them again when he says, “But many that are first will be last, and the last first.” Then he tells the parable of the laborers in the vineyard.
That’s what happens just before our reading this morning. As soon as Jesus gets done telling this story, the mother of James and John comes up and asks Jesus to give the best the thrones to her sons, to give them the thrones right next to him on his left and on his right. Jesus pours cold water on her hopes as well, once again reminding his friends that the thrones he is talking about are not comfortable seats with velvet cushions laid on gold and silver chairs encrusted with jewels. Rather, Jesus’s throne is made out of rough wood and iron nails and is in the shape of a cross.
So that’s the original context of the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, at least as Matthew remembers it when he gets around to writing all this down years after Jesus dies. Then there’s the context of the original readers of Matthew, who would have listened quite intently to this parable because it describes a situation very familiar to them. Life in Jesus’s time was a system of haves and have nots. The haves, folks like the owner of the vineyard, had all the money and property and possessions and power. The vast majority of people, though, 99% of the population, were have nots, folks like those day laborers hanging out in the marketplace hoping for work, needing work because if they don’t get any work that day there’ll be nothing to eat for dinner that night. As Jesus describes the scene in the marketplace, Matthew’s readers can picture it because they’ve been there. The sun isn’t even up yet, and everyone is still a bit groggy from sleep. They’re either achey and sore because they were fortunate enough to get work yesterday, or they’re very, very hungry because no one hired them. There are some farmers from the countryside unloading their carts and setting up their booths, making big stacks of vegetables, corralling sheep, laying out cages with squawking chickens. The laborers are looking at all of that food longingly, hoping to be able to afford to buy something later for dinner, maybe even splurge a little. Finally, as sun is just starting to peek over the horizon, a well-dressed man rides up on a horse. Everyone knows what he’s there for, and they crowd around, standing up tall, trying their best to look strong and young and like their backs don’t hurt. The guy on the horse turns out to be a landowner with a vineyard, and that’s good. Vineyard work is at least quiet and not too dirty and you’re not bent over all day. To their amazement, the landowner doesn't hire three or four men, but all of them, all ten of them standing around. This must be some vineyard, they say to each other as they follow the landowner of out town into the countryside. Thank goodness we forced ourselves to get out of bed at that ungodly hour and made it down to the market place in time. Maybe its big enough we can work for him for a few days and not have to go back that humiliating marketplace. Maybe there are even a few permanent positions here, with housing and health benefits! The day is really looking up, and the men set to their tasks with energy and good cheer.
Matthew’s readers, as I said, know this situation well, and they know the next scene as well. At nine o’clock, there are some more laborers standing around in the marketplace. These guys slept through their alarm and didn’t make it down in time for the choice jobs, but they’re still hoping to get some work; it won’t be a full day’s salary, but hopefully enough for them to get a little something to eat. Today is their lucky day, because the landowner comes back and hires them, promising to pay them whatever is right for their time. I think, though, it’s around here in the story that Matthew’s readers begin to wonder what is going on. No laborer would delay getting to the marketplace until noon to look for work, unless maybe they were hungover. There’s no point, the folks looking for workers are all set for the day. But, according this story, the guys at noon get hired. Now, by three o’clock, everyone knows the only folks who are going to be in the marketplace looking for work are the guys who were so lazy or bad at their job that they got fired earlier in the day. No one in their right mind would hire them, but the landowner in this story does anyway. And at five o’clock? The guys hanging out there at five aren’t really looking for work anymore; they’re hoping someone who did get work that day will buy them a sandwich or loan them a couple of bucks. Nevertheless, they get hired, too, and off they go to work as the sun is already beginning to set.
Matthew’s readers have some questions now about what is wrong with this landowner. He must have a screw or two loose, they figure, or maybe he realized that his grapes were beginning to rot on the vine or there was bad weather on the way and he had to try and wrap the harvest up today. In any case, they’re on the edges of their seats, wondering what is going to happen next. The landowner has his manager get the laborers to line up to get paid, but he has them line up so the guys who worked the least number of hours are at the front and the guys who’ve been there all day are at the back. This just seems inconsiderate; the guys who’ve been there all day are hot and tired and ready to get back to town and get something to eat, but now they’re going to have to cool their heels as the guys who came a couple of hours ago and have hardly broken sweat are paid first. They’re grumbling amongst themselves about the typical thoughtless behavior of the landowner, the guy who’s never done an honest days work in his life, when one of them notices something. The guys at the front of the line are laughing and slapping each other on the back and looking very cheerful indeed. The landowner is paying the guys who came at five o’clock, and who only worked a couple of hours, he is paying them, each of them, a denarius, a whole days wage! That good feeling they had early in the day comes rushing back as they do a bit of quick math in their heads. Why, if those guys get a denarius, we should get, what, maybe five, maybe even six or seven denarii! Maybe I’ll go buy a whole chicken for dinner, won’t that make my wife happy! And a bottle of wine, heck two bottles, and good wine, too, not the cheap stuff. I can pay back that merchant what I owe him for my kids’ back to school clothes, pay him back early and save the interest! And you know, tomorrow, I think I’m going to sleep in until noon, and then get up and do…nothing! A day off, at last! Man, did we luck out today, or what?!
Their good mood lasts right up until they get to the front of the line and they stretch out their hands and the landowner gives them…one denarius. One lousy, measly, denarius. Sure, it’s what they got for yesterday’s job. And the day before that. And the day before that. Any other day, they’d stick it in their pocket and head back to town satisfied, but today, it really irks them. Of all the nerve, what is the landowner thinking, paying them the same as those lazy idiots who didn’t come until five o’clock? They worked eight, ten, almost twelve hours more than those guys! It’s not fair!
The landowner speaks up, but I doubt very much that what he says satisfies either the workers, Matthew’s readers, or the disciples. “Friends,” he says, “I am doing you no wrong; didn’t we agree on the usual daily wage? Aren’t you getting what’s coming to you? I haven’t cheated you out of anything. Take your wages and go. I choose to give to the last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I want with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” “Generous,” the guys snort as they walk off. “You’re not being generous with us!” “Generous?” Matthew’s readers ask incredulously. “How is that generous, giving more to people who deserve, no, people who have earned, less?” “Generous” the disciples think to themselves, afraid if they voice their concerns out loud that Jesus will tell another story that makes them feel even worse. “Is he saying we’re not getting thrones after all? Is Jesus going to give those thrones to somebody else when we’re the ones who’ve stuck by him all these years?” Nobody, in any of those contexts, likes this story or its implications for themselves.
Of course, we hear these words in our own context today, and I’ll put good money down that no one here much likes this story, either. It violates our innate sense of what is fair and what is not. Equal pay for equal work is fair; equal pay for unequal work is not fair. Rewarding those who do the most work is fair; rewarding those who do the least is not fair. Treating everyone the same is fair; treating everyone the same when they are not the same is not fair. And life is so often not fair. Your boss decides that instead of merit increases this year everyone will get the same amount, because it will be better for group morale, even though you’ve worked harder than all those other lazy bums in your department. Your kid doesn’t make the varsity squad, even though she’s as fast and strong and hard working as any of the other girls; she’s just not a favorite of the coach. You’ve been caring for your elderly parent for years while your siblings are living it up halfway across the country, and really, you know it’s not worthy of you to feel this way, but when you’re all sitting in the lawyer’s office as he explains that your father has divided the estate equally among his four children, you can feel the resentment and anger boiling up inside.
As Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “Life is not fair, which is why it seems all that much more important that God should be. God should be the one authority you can count on to reward people according to their efforts, who keeps accurate track of how long you have worked and how hard you have worked. God should the one manager who polices the line, walking up end down to make sure that everyone stays where they belong, so that the first remain first and the last wait their turns at the end of the line.” But that’s not what this parable says.
I think our problems with the parable boil down to two issues. First, we don’t like this parable because of how we understand our context, our place within it. Who are we in this story? Why, we’re the ones who have worked our fingers to the bone and broken our back all the hot, miserable day long, only to get gypped! Everyone else has lucked out, but not us. Look at all those people ahead of us in line, riding on the back of our hard work! But here’s the thing that none of us want to do. Instead of looking forward at that crowd of lazy, lucky schmucks, take a deep breath, turn around, and look behind you. No matter how many people are in line in front of us, I promise you, there is an even bigger line behind us, a line stretching all the way down the street and around the block, three abreast, all grumbling and getting red in the face because we, you and I, got a better deal than we deserved. And the hard thing to hear is that they’re right.
Our second problem with this parable is the context in which we put God. We put God in our own context, with our own sense of right and wrong, our own sense of fairness and how things should work. But God doesn’t belong, God doesn’t fit in our context. God’s context is completely different. God doesn’t have a clipboard in one hand and a red marker in the other, God doesn’t put pluses and minuses after our names to keep track. God is not fair. For reasons we can’t understand, God seems to love us indiscriminately. God is not fair; God is generous, and generous in a way that we can’t quite get our hearts and minds around. If we’re really honest with ourselves, we’d prefer that God would be fair with other people, but generous with ourselves.
It’s my job to preach the good news, so here it is in this parable that sounds like anything but good news. The good news is that God is not fair, God is not keeping track. The good news is that God pours out blessings on us all in ways that is anything but fair. The good news is that God is generous, generous with love and generous with life and generous with grace, generous beyond our comprehension, generous beyond any meaning we can put to that word. I pray that we may all remember this about God’s generosity, that we’ll remember it late in the day, as the sun sets and we’re tired to the bone and convinced of our own worth, certain of our own righteousness. I pray that we’ll remember it as we line up and watch the manager start handing out the daily bread. I pray that we’ll have the presence of mind to remember it as we watch those in front of us get more than we think they deserve, that we’ll remember that there are many, many people behind us who think we’re getting more than we deserve. I pray we’ll remember this about God’s wacky sense of fairness, God’s all-in commitment to generosity, and that when the manager gets to us, we’ll accept what he offers with good cheer and surprised laughter and a renewed sense of gratitude for all our blessings. Amen.
In his column last Wednesday in the New York Times titled “It takes a mentor,” Thomas Friedman explores the findings of a recent research project of the Gallup poll. Gallup spent a year interviewing parents of 5th through 12th graders as well as the students themselves, business leaders, teachers, superintendents, college presidents, principals, college graduates, and workers of all ages in a variety of fields. In all, they talked to close to one million Americans. Gallup was trying to figure out what are the things that happen in school, in college, or in technical schools that, more than anything else, produce “engaged” employees on a fulfilling career track. What are the factors that shape students into adults who are happy and successful in the workplace?
The findings are pretty interesting. It turns out it doesn’t matter where you went to school, whether you attended an elite private university or you went to community college. Rather, two factors stand out. Happy and successful workers had one or more teachers when they were in school who were mentors, people who took a real interest in their dreams and aspirations. They also tended to have had an internship that was related to what they were learning in school. For students, personal interaction with a teacher who genuinely cares about them and is personally involved with their education, and the opportunity for some hands on, real world experience in their field, trumps everything else, including the student’s socioeconomic background, how well they did on standardized tests, or how expensive their education was. Students who had a mentor who encouraged their goals and dreams are twice as likely to be engaged with their work and thriving in their overall well-being today.
As positive as this news seems on the surface, it points out a real weakness in our education system. Only 22 percent of college grads surveyed said they had such a mentor, and only 29 percent had an internship where they applied what they were learning. Less than a third of our students are exposed to the things that matter most in determining their future success and happiness. This probably explains why Gallup found that while 96 percent of college provosts surveyed believed their schools were successfully preparing young people for the workplace, only 14 percent of recent college grads in the work force say they feel their education prepared them adequately, and only 11 percent of employers say they are getting enough college grads with the skills they need.
I spent a little time this week thinking back on my life and the years I spent in school. I probably wouldn’t have come to this conclusion before reading Friedman’s column, but it is clear to me now that I’ve had the good fortune to have mentors who cared about me and offered support and guidance all along the way. Two in particular come to mind. My piano teacher in high school helped me develop from a kid who kind of liked playing the piano but had never really worked that hard at it, into a real and (somewhat) more disciplined musician. As I began walking down the path towards ordination, I was blessed to have a friend and mentor in Winifred Collin, who I worked with for many years at Christ Church. Those are the big ones, but I’ve had other folks who played smaller but important roles mentoring me at various times in my life. I imagine if you think back on your life, you’ll be able to identify some important mentors who’ve cared for you and helped you along the way. Maybe they were teachers, or colleagues or supervisors at work, or neighbors who helped you adjust to a new town, or friends who helped you along and taught you how to get through hard times. It’s good, I think, to take time to remember these folks, and to thank them if they’re still around. It can help us appreciate how we came to be the people we are today, help us recognize how we have been helped along and shaped by others, help us be grateful for how fortunate we are to have known these people.
As I reflected on the important mentors in my life, I remembered, with no small amount of shame, the ways I let each of them down. And not just once or twice, but regularly. These folks really stuck with me even when I didn’t deserve it. We’ve all had similar experiences, times when we’ve missed the mark, we’ve let people down, and even though we didn’t deserve it, we’ve been given second and third and fourth chances. Probably in most cases we didn’t use the word ‘forgiveness,’ but that was what was at work in all those situations, whether we called it forgiveness or not. Forgiveness is essential for our relationships with others; it’s essential for our relationship with ourselves; it’s essential for our relationship with God. Forgiveness is of course what our reading this morning from Matthew is all about.
Jesus has been talking to his disciples about how to respond when people don’t treat you right. You may remember last week’s reading with it’s careful instructions about how to deal with someone who sins against you. Jesus lays out a process, starting with taking up the issue with the person privately and finally leading up to airing your grievance publicly. Peter finally speaks up, asking the question that is really on all our minds. Peter asks Jesus, “How many times shall I forgive someone who sins against me?” And because Peter is always anxious to get it right, he answers his own question. He comes up with a number that he thinks is so over the top that he’s certain Jesus will approve. “Seven times? Surely seven times is enough. No one, not even God, could expect me to forgive someone more than seven times!” I say thank goodness for Peter, who’s brave enough to ask what we’re all thinking. Of course we know we should forgive others, but there’s got to be some limit, right? At some point, can’t we just give up?
As reasonable as that seems, as generous as Peter’s seven times is, Jesus says, no, that’s not enough. “No, Peter, not seven times, but seventy-seven times,” and I’m sorry to say that in reality our translation lets us off the hook by a lot: the Greek really says, “Not seven times, but seventy times seven times.” For any one still trying to keep score, that’s 490 times, or 483 times more than Peter proposes. Then Jesus tells a story, a parable which raises the stakes even higher. This is what forgiveness is like in the kingdom of heaven, Jesus says. There was a king who wanted to settle things up with his slaves. He had a lot of slaves; most of them had become his slaves because they owed the king money that they couldn’t pay back for one reason or another. At the top of the king’s list was a slave who owed him ten thousand talents. Now, ten thousand talents was a lot of money, a fantastic, almost unimaginable amount of money. One talent was more money than a day laborer could hope to make in several years. According to records of the time, the total yearly taxation for the whole region of Judea during the Roman occupation was only 600 talents. Ten thousands talents is like when your child says a “gazillion jillion” dollars. Of course, there’s no way the slave can pay the king back, so the king orders the slave and his wife and his children and all his possessions sold off. It won’t amount to much, barely a fraction of one talent, but at least it will clean up the king’s books a little bit. The slave falls down on his knees and begs the king, saying “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything I owe.” I don’t how the slave got that far in debt, but I do know, just as surely as the king knew and Jesus’s listeners knew, there’s no way, no matter how patient the king is, that the slave would be able to pay even a tiny portion of what he owes before both he and the king come to the end of their lives.
The king looks at the slave weeping and pleading on his knees in front of him, embarrassed and annoyed by his behavior. He looks at his accountant, who always seems a bit uncomfortable during these proceedings. Then, I imagine may he looks out the window and sees the dappled sunlight and shade in his orchard. He gazes at the clear blue sky through the leaves, and smells the fresh, crisp autumn air. Then, off in the distance, he hears the song of a nightingale. He’s transfixed for a moment, his mind far, far away from the pressures and hassles of kingship. Then his accountant clears his throat, and the king is brought back to the situation at hand. And even though he’s never done this before, never before even considered for a second doing this, the king lets the slave go free and wipes his debt clean. If he had to reason it all out, he might explain to his incredulous wife later that evening, “Well, all of that guy’s possessions aren’t worth anything, it’s going to cost more to run the auction than I’d get at the end of the day. And really, if I have to listen to his excuses every month for the rest of his life about why he doesn’t have more money for me, it’ll drive me to an early grave. I just want to be clear of him.” But really, whatever reasons he put to it, the king, I’ll bet, had one of those fleeting moments in life where he knew how very, very fortunate he was. Not fortunate in money or possessions or power. Just fortunate to be alive, to be a witness to a spectacular fall day, to be the audience of a nightingale who was singing for herself for the sheer joy of it. In that moment of gratitude, the king sees the true value of that ten thousand talent debt. I hope you’ve had at least one of those moments in, and that you keep it very close to your heart.
The poor slave, however, if he’s ever had one of those moments, has long forgotten it. You’d think being freed from his astronomical debt would have put him in a good, even a great, mood, but no. As he walks out of the king’s chambers, he sees a fellow-slave who owes him a hundred denarii. It would take an average peasant about a day to earn one denarii, so a hundred denarii is a few months work; nothing like ten thousand talents, but nothing to sneeze at, either. The slave seizes him by the throat and demands his money, and the guy falls to his knees and pleads for patience. And though everyone, the other slaves standing around, the king who hears about it later, even those of us reading this story hundreds of years later, everyone expects the slave to show the same mercy that the king showed him, he doesn’t hesitate for a moment before throwing him in prison until he gets his money back. I suspect the slave has been unable to forgive himself for getting into the mess of the ten thousand talents in the first place, can’t get the taste of having to beg for mercy from the king out of his mouth, and so he’s determined to never let anything like that happen again. But now, he’s really stuck. He’s never going to get that money, because the guy in prison has no way of making any money. Plus, his actions have infuriated the king and made him decide to force the slave to pay back his entire, impossible, ten thousand talent debt. Worst of all, he’ll spend the rest of his miserable life blaming the other slave for not paying him back, blaming himself for getting into such a pickle in the first place, blaming the king for going back on his word, resenting everyone he knows for their good luck and better fortune, resenting the universe that things have turned out so badly for him.
Through this over the top story, with its outlandish sums of money, and the extravagant, over the top behavior of the king and the slave (although in completely different directions), Jesus tries to hammer home a point about forgiveness. Forgiveness is important, not just for the person who is forgiven, but it is important for the one who does the forgiving. The king is better off kissing his gazillion jillion dollars goodbye rather than spending the rest of his life squeezing a few drops of water from that rock of a slave. And the slave would have been so much happier, so much more content, if he had only been able to do the same. I suspect this is a lesson that we acknowledge, deep down, to be absolutely true. We know it does us no good to hang on to resentments, to continue to blame others, whether they are strangers or colleagues or friends or family, for treating us badly. But if you’re like me, you’ve got a list of things you’re holding onto, slights and insults and hurts that may go back years. They’re eating us up from the inside out, little by little. We think we’ve let them go or that we’ve forgotten about them, but a little reminder or a trigger, and pretty soon, we’re red in the face and our stomach feels sour and we can taste the bitterness in the back of our throat.
Rob Voyle is an Episcopal priest and psychologist. He has published a great book called Restoring Hope: Appreciative Strategies to Resolve Grief and Resentment. It’s a workbook, really, and in it he describes an exercise he teaches to help people learn to forgive. It starts with identifying your resentment. Resentment, Voyle writes, is something we do, it isn’t something beamed to us from Mars, it’s not something imposed on us by people who have hurt us. Rather, resentment is something that we do to ourselves today in the darkness of what others have done yesterday. Resentment occurs when we demand of someone today that yesterday they would have acted differently. To forgive, Voyle says, we simply have to turn that demand, which gets us all tied up in knots and negative emotions, into a preference. He suggests picturing the person in our imagination and saying to them, “I would have preferred for you to act in another way,” and then describing specifically how we wanted them to behave. For example, you might picture your friend and imagine saying to her, “You said you were coming to my presentation, but you didn’t show up. I would have preferred that you had come to support me. Now, I release you from my demand that in the past you should have shown up.” Finally, Voyle says that the last step is to wish the person well. Voyle does this without defining what that ‘well’ might look like; rather he surrenders them into the goodness of God, knowing it will be good for them and good for him. Voyle is able to do this because he understands that forgiveness is not necessarily about trust and reconciliation. Forgiveness doesn’t mean trusting people who have clearly demonstrated they are not trustworthy. Forgiveness doesn’t mean that you’re reconciled with the other person, that you’ve agreed to live or work together in the future. Forgiveness doesn’t mean becoming a sort of Christian doormat and accepting abuse forever. Forgiveness means letting go of our resentment, letting go of our demand that someone would have behaved differently in the past. As Lily Tomlin put it, “Forgiveness means giving up the hope for a better past.”
Maybe this exercise seems a little hokey to you, as it did to me when I first read it. I’ve tried it on and off, with varying degrees of success. For me, I find I’m much more likely to be able to let go of my resentment and shift my demands for the past to a preference, I find I’m more able to truly forgive someone when I am more aware of all the things I have to be truly grateful for in this life. Maybe you can try this exercise this week. I hope, with a little reflection, we can all bring to mind and keep close to our hearts the things we have to be grateful for, the big things and the little things. The mentors who have helped us along the way. People who have given us second and third and fourth chances. The miracle of life and the world around us. The chance encounter on an early fall afternoon that takes us outside of ourselves for a moment or two and opens up the day in a new way. May we learn to let go of our resentment, may we learn to forgive not seven times but seventy times seven. May we find that letting go of our demands for the past opens up the future in new and life-giving ways.