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.