Last week I mentioned I returned this summer to Koinonia, a farm near Plains, Georgia. I lived and worked there as a volunteer almost 30 years ago. One of the founders of this Christian intentional community was Clarence Jordan. He was a Southern Baptist preacher, but was eventually removed from membership in that denomination because he could not accept their teachings about the separation of the races. He had an undergraduate degree in agriculture, as well as a Ph.D. in New Testament Greek. Koinonia Farm is a “test plot”: an ongoing experiment in life lived in the light of God’s love.
Jordan created an interpretation of the New Testament, called the Cotton Patch Gospel. He used the colloquial language of the American South he grew up in, and the geography and settings familiar to his neighbours in rural Georgia. He had a fondness for the parables, which he saw Jesus using to challenge the status quo. Parables often begin with familiar characters and situations, but then unexpected changes or twists throw the listener off guard. Jesus did not always take on difficult topics directly. He used story as a way to bait people into listening.
Jordan compared Jesus’ parables to the Trojan Horse from Ancient Greece. The gift of the horse, or the story, gets in past the defenses, and then releases its message on the unsuspecting. Before they realize it, the listener is caught up in the story, and is forced to look at contrasting realities- the world they live in, that has values and ideas that must be challenged, and the world as God would have it be.
Here is the Cotton Patch version of Matthew 18:21-35. It is often called the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant. In this version, Jesus’ name for Peter is “Rock”:
Then Rock sidled up and asked, “Sir, how often should I forgive my brother when he keeps doing me wrong? Seven times?” “I wouldn’t say seven times,” Jesus replied, “but seventy times seven!
That’s why the God Movement is like a big businessman who wanted to settle the accounts of his customers. As he started to do so, one customer came in who owed a bill of more than ten thousand dollars. He had nothing to pay on the account, so the businessman told the sheriff to put up for sale everything the guy had and apply it to the debt. But the fellow did a song and dance. ‘Please give me some more time and I’ll pay every cent!’ he begged.
The businessman was touched by the guy’s pitiful pleas, so he let him go and marked off the debt. Then that same guy went out and found a man who owed him a hundred dollars. Grabbing him around the neck, he choked him and said, ‘Pay me that money you owe.’
‘Please give me a little more time,’ the man begged, ‘and I’ll pay every cent.’ But he refused and, instead, he swore out a warrant for him. When the little man’s friends found out about it, they were really upset, so they went and told the big businessman all that had happened.
Then the big businessman sent for the guy who had owed him the huge debt and said to him, ‘You low-down bum! I marked off all that debt for you because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you, then, have been kind to that little man just as I was kind to you?’
Still hot under the collar, he turned the fellow over to the law to be thrown into the clink until every last dime of the debt had been paid. And my spiritual Father will treat you along the same lines unless every single one of you forgives your brother from your heart.”
(Cotton Patch Gospel: Matthew and John (Clarence Jordan’s Cotton Patch Gospel) Smyth & Helwys Publishing. Kindle Edition)
Many hearing Jesus’ story would relate to owing money to someone rich and powerful. Many would have been tenant farmers, in debt to the land-owner, trying to pay their rent on the land, cover the cost of seed, and feed their families.
This summer my son Joel and I visited a coal mine museum in Scranton, Pennsylvania. We went 300 feet underground, to learn how it was for the miners. There were about 20 of us crammed into a covered rail car. As the car rolled down its tracks into the shaft, we could feel it getting colder and colder, while it got very dark, and then pitch black, until we rolled towards the spotlit tunnel where they let us out. The tunnel was damp. We looked down side tunnels in which miners would have to slide on their backs, pushing with their feet, to get to the coal seam. In other tunnels they could stand, but would always be a bit bent over because of the low ceilings. It must have been brutal, awful work.
They lived in rented company houses, bought all their basic needs from their employer, and usually ended their weeks of hard labour even further in debt, caught in a downward cycle more grim than the tunnels of the mine itself. The tour guide even quoted the song about how they owed their souls to the company store. After Joel and I had been down in the dark, cold depths of the mine, the bright shining sun of a summer afternoon was a bit overwhelming, almost unbelievable.
The person in the parable owed ten thousand dollars. In the original version, it was ten thousand talents. A talent was the equivalent of 15-20 years of daily wages. This is an insane amount of money for a person to owe, exaggerated to show the person was relieved of a huge burden, when his debt was forgiven. It highlights the harshness of the way he treated the one who owed him a comparatively small amount. How could he be so petty, when he had been given such a gift of mercy?
This person was shown a glimpse of a possible new way to live. It was like they had left the darkness behind. In that moment the power of the sun radiated into his life. He felt the warmth, was blinded by a glorious light, and then it all changed. He was overcome by shadows. When he met the person who owed him money, it was as if the vision of a new way, with the light and warmth of love had faded. He was back in the murky world of business is business, and you have to get ahead, even if it hurts others. He forgot the mercy he had been shown, and he bought even more darkness down on the one who owed him a pittance, compared to what he himself had owed. He failed to pass on the forgiveness he had been shown.
People in Jesus’ audience undersood the world being a hard and harsh place. Like us, part of them might want the man in the story to be taught a lesson. The one who forgave the huge debt heard about the way this man treated his own debtor, and changed his mind. The man would be put in jail until he paid what he owed. Never mind that if you are in jail you probably can’t earn anything to pay anyone.
At this point those who heard Jesus’ story might realize nobody came out a winner. They are all back to playing by the rules of the cold, cruel world. No one gets forgiven, no one actually gets paid back, and no one finds any real peace. Jesus has drawn us into a story that shows us how the world works, and would keep on working, without love, and without the power of forgiveness. We can see how things work, and how they could work, with a little more light and warmth.
Forgiveness is a complicated thing. Sometimes people get hurt by the cruelty of another person, and then hurt again, when the idea of forgiveness gets mis-used. I have heard too many stories about people, usually women, who were being abused, emotionally, or physically, or both, and told they should go home and forgive the abuser. People need to do what they need to do, to get to a safe place, out of the reach of the abuser.
Forgiving a person does not mean accepting their bad behaviour. Forgiveness should be part of correcting what is wrong, not overlooking the offence. I am not an expert on forgiveness. It is as hard for me as for anybody here, to get over being hurt. It is something we work at day by day, step by step, just like anyone else. It is soul work.
There is soul work, and “sole work”. (Open running shoe box.) It might surprise you to learn the idea of forgiveness shows up consistently in reviews of new running shoes. I own many pairs of runners, and I read reviews before I buy them.
An important aspect of running shoes is their cushioning. The sole is designed as a platform for the foot. If you are a runner who lands hard on the heel with each step, you may need shoes that have heavier heel cushioning, to soften your landing, and minimize the jarring damage done to your joints.
If, with each step, each stride you take, you tend to land more on the outer edge of your foot, and then kind of roll to flatness, that is called over-pronation. There are shoes that correct for that. Same thing if you tend to land on the inside edge of your foot, and roll outwards, which is called supination. The cushioning of the sole compensates for our natural tendencies, and frees us to keep on going, doing the best we can.
The built-in capacity of a shoe to compensate for, to correct our faulty, imperfect running style is called forgiveness. Running coaches work with athletes to alter their stride, to correct it to what they call neutral, which would mean landing on the forefoot, and not the heel, and not rolling the foot either too much inward or outward. But in running, like in life, no one is perfect. We make mis-steps. We all need help. We all need forgiveness. Sometimes with every step we take.
Poor running form only harms you. Excessive rolling can stretch or tear ligaments, and cause a lot of pain. Landing hard on your heel sends a shock up through your leg, your knee, and ultimately your spine, and can lead to joint problems all the way up. But again, it only hurts you, and your ability to run, or walk.
But in the rest of life our mis-steps, conscious or not, cause pain and harm to others. The mis-steps, the mistakes of other people can cause us great harm. It can be hard to get past the pain, the harm done to us. As I said earlier, I am no expert on this, but it seems to me that one thing we can see in the parable is that if we forget that we ourselves need forgiveness, we are less likely to be forgiving of others. If we remember that we do things that hurt ourselves and others all the time, we may also remember how much we are like the person who needs our forgiveness.
This reminds me of what has sometimes been called a Cherokee prayer: O Great Spirit, grant that I may never find fault with my neighbor until I have walked the trail of life in his moccasins.
When we remember how we are all equally in need of forgiveness, it can be like coming out from a dark place, and back into the light of God’s love. Amen