“It’s a Dirty Job” Matthew 18:21-35 9/17/2017
He waded through sewers, peeled road kill, moved houses, castrated horses, and cleaned up monumental septic explosions. He did the jobs that most of us couldn’t bear to do, although we know how important they are. You might not think that many people would have wanted him in their living room, but in fact they loved to see him — hundreds of times a year. His name is Mike Rowe, and he was the star of the cable TV show Dirty Jobs.
While this show was on cable for 9 years (2003-2012) Rowe tried his hand at more than 165 of the dirtiest and most disgusting jobs being done today. He served slop to pigs, removed bones from fish, hunted plagues of vermin, and sloshed around in sewers — sometimes vomiting on camera.
He got coached by the people who do these jobs for a living, and got mocked by them as well. Unlike most reality-TV shows, it was the star of Dirty Jobs who ended up the butt of the jokes.
And a star he was. According to PEOPLE magazine, Rowe was swarmed by autograph seekers at airports, photographed by camera phones in coffee shops, and surrounded by dirty jobbers everywhere. Said a waitress in South Carolina, as Rowe was signing autographs, “I’m so excited, my family owns a sewer business!”
People loved Mike Rowe. Women adored his craggy good looks, and guys admit that they had “man crushes” on this star who was willing to roll up his sleeves and really get his hands dirty. Walking down a street in New York, Rowe once got a shout-out from both a police officer and the criminal handcuffed in his cruiser. Together, they said, “Man, you’re awesome!”
But there was something going on during that time that went deeper than good looks and dirty hands. Mike Rowe had a real curiosity about challenging jobs, and a respect for the men and women who did them.
The show sent such a powerful message, which TIME Magazine commented on, “There’s dignity in hard work, expertise in unexpected places and deep satisfaction in tackling and finishing a tough job.” That’s a message we need to hear today.
In this morning’s gospel reading from Matthew, the disciple Peter walks up to Jesus and says, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus answers, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times” (v: 21-22).
Forgiveness. It’s a tough job, but someone’s gotta do it. It’s not necessarily a “dirty job,” but it is a tough job. And, according to Jesus, the disciples were to do it again and again and again and again — seventy-seven times.
To make matters worse or should we say more challenging, the Greek word used by Jesus to describe this extravagant forgiveness can also be translated “seventy times seven,” (not just seventy-seven times) which means 490 unbelievable times. By comparison, maybe sloshing around in a sewer doesn’t seem so bad after all. Jesus is calling us to roll up our sleeves and do some very demanding work.
In our justice-oriented world, we expect that insults are going to be followed by apologies and crimes are going to be followed by punishments, but Jesus turns this system upside down by saying, “Just forgive!” Notice that Jesus doesn’t even expect the sinner to repent or make amends. Forgive them, orders Jesus — “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times” (v. 22). Or maybe 490 times.
The point is, your forgiveness should be beyond calculation. And you don’t keep score.
When you think about it, that kind of stinks, doesn’t it? Enduring hundreds of hurts, and then offering hundreds of expressions of forgiveness. Sounds about as pleasant as what Mike Rowe went through every week — getting seasick in eel boats, attacked by monkeys and lowered into storm drains and sewers.
Forgiveness is a dirty job; a tough job, and someone, namely you & me, has got to do it.
Now some will object to this open-ended approach to forgiveness, saying that it turns Christians into doormats, fails to hold sinners accountable, and invites abusers to continue their abuse. And you might have a point, and it’s hard to imagine that Jesus wants us to throw justice completely out the window; and he doesn’t.
Remember, you don’t forgive someone for his or her sake – you forgive them for your sake.
Forgiving doesn’t mean forgetting, nor does it mean that you’ve given the message that what someone did was okay. It just means that you’ve let go of the anger or guilt towards someone, or even towards yourself. That can be easier said than done. If forgiveness was easy, everyone would be doing it all the time.
But still Jesus says, “Forgive.” Not just seven times, but dozens or even hundreds of times. Jesus is saying that forgiveness is at the heart of life in the church — it creates a distinctively merciful, compassionate, kind, and generous community.
Why is this?
The parable of the unforgiving servant answers this question by revealing the reason we must offer forgiveness to one another. This story has nothing to do with the pursuit of justice, but it has everything to do with the character of God.
Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven “may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves” (v. 23).
So Jesus is saying that we can learn a little something about life in God’s kingdom by paying attention to a story about how this king deals with his debtors. The king begins the reckoning by calling a debtor to appear before him. The man owes him 10,000 talents, which is an insanely large sum of money. A talent is the largest monetary unit of that day, equal to the wages of a manual laborer for 15 years. 10,000 talents would be the wages of 10,000 manual laborers, over the course of 15 years.
By comparison, the annual tax income for all of the territories of the Hebrew King Herod the Great was 900 talents per year. Ten thousand talents would exceed the taxes in that day for all of the countries of Syria, Phoenicia, Judea and Samaria.
So this man is more than knee-deep in debt. He’s over his head, drowning in red ink, sinking like a rock. The king orders the slave to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, so that a payment can be made.
With nothing left to lose, the slave falls on his knees before the king and says, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” Surprisingly, the king shows pity and releases the slave, forgiving him the entire debt (vv. 24-27).
That’s the kind of God we have, says Jesus — a God who has mercy on us, and who forgives us our debts.
Lewis Smedes in his book, Forgive & Forget: Healing the Hurts We Don’t Deserve talks about belief in God is like being a pumpkin.
- God lifts you up, takes you in, and washes all the dirt off of you.
- God opens you up, touches you deep inside and scoops out all the yucky stuff — including the seeds of doubt, hate, greed, & anger etc.
- Then God carves you a new smiling face and puts his light inside you to shine for all the world to see.
It’s a dirty job, but we’ve got a God who will do it!
Now the parable of the unforgiving servant is a pleasant parable, but we haven’t reached the end. That freshly forgiven slave races out of the palace and comes upon a second slave who owes him a hundred denarii — 100 coins, each one equal to the daily wage for a laborer. This amount is a significant sum, for sure, but it’s positively microscopic compared to what the first slave owed the king.
The first slave seizes the second slave by the throat and demands that he pay him what he owes. The second slave falls down and pleads with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you” (v. 29). No way, says the first slave. Not gonna happen. He throws the second slave in prison until the whole debt is paid.
Here, the plot thickens.
When his fellow slaves see what has happened, they go ballistic — they run and give the king a full report. The king summons the first slave and says, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. You think that was easy for me? I had about as much fun as Mike Rowe performing a whale autopsy. Why didn’t you show mercy to your fellow slave, as I did to you?”
The slave is speechless. Then, in his anger, the king hands him over to spread hot tar on the roof of a church in California, like in Dirty Jobs episode 110. That’s my loose translation of verses 31-34; actually the slave is tortured because of what he did until he pays his entire debt.
The punch line? The result?
Jesus concludes with the words, “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart” (v. 35). There’s an unbreakable bond between the forgiveness of God and the forgiveness we are to offer one another, making it illogical and impossible for us to accept the forgiveness of God and then refuse to extend forgiveness to others.
Jesus summarizes this quite concisely in his teaching of the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12).
- Forgive us our debts (sins) — that’s what we ask of God.
- As we have forgiven our debtors (those who sin against us) — that’s what we offer our neighbors.
In the divine economy of the kingdom of heaven, you can’t have one without the other.
Our God is a merciful & loving God who is willing to do the dirty work of blotting out our transgressions, washing us from our iniquity, and cleansing us from our sin (Psalm 51:1-2). That’s a job that would overwhelm even a tough guy like Mike Rowe.
But God is betting that we have been transformed by God’s forgiveness into the kind of people who can do the hard work of forgiving others. God forgiveness can have a surprising and wonderful effect — it can create a community of forgiving people – people who are slow to anger & abounding in steadfast love for each other and the world. God is willing to do the most disgusting of dirty jobs — the removal of our sin through God’s gift of forgiveness.
We are all on a life long journey and the core of its meaning, the challenging demand of its centrality is forgiveness – to forgive & to be forgiven – seven times; seventy-seven times, or maybe even 490 times. That’s all that God is asking.
There’s deep satisfaction in tackling and finishing a tough job – but someone’s got to do it.
@Rev. Tim Wolbrecht, September 2017
Here’s the audio recording of the sermon. TO LISTEN, in the SoundCloud window below, CLICK (or double-Click) the red button with the white arrow pointing to the right. If that does not work, then click on the “Sermon 9-17-17” name of the sermon.