Debits and Credits

By the Rev. Lee Woofenden

Bridgewater, Massachusetts, November 9, 2003


Readings

Deuteronomy 15:1-11
Be generous with your neighbor

At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts. This is how it is to be done: Every creditor shall cancel the loan made to a neighbor, not requiring payment from the neighbor or community member, because the Lord's time for canceling debts has been proclaimed. You may require payment from a foreigner, but you must cancel any debt that a member of your community owes you. However, there should be no poor among you, for in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the Lord your God, and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today. For the Lord your God will bless you as he has promised, and you will lend to many nations but will borrow from none. You will rule over many nations but none will rule over you.

If there is a poor person among your community members in any of the towns of the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted towards your needy neighbor. Rather be open-handed and freely lend enough to meet the need, whatever it may be. Be careful not to harbor this evil thought: "The seventh year, the year for canceling debts, is near," so that you do not show ill will towards your needy neighbor and give nothing. Your neighbor may then appeal to the Lord against you, and you will be found guilty of sin. Give generously, and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to. There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be open-handed towards the members of your community, and towards the poor and needy in your land.

Matthew 18:21-35 The unmerciful servant

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, "Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?" Jesus answered, "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven times.

"Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.

"The servant fell on his knees before him. 'Be patient with me,' he begged, 'and I will pay back everything.' The servant's master took pity on him, cancelled the debt and let him go.

"But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow-servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him and began to choke him. 'Pay back what you owe me!' he demanded.

"His fellow-servant fell to his knees and begged him, 'Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.'

"But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened.

"Then the master called the servant in. 'You wicked servant,' he said, 'I cancelled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn't you have had mercy on your fellow-servant just as I had on you?' In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

"This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart."

Heaven and Hell #357 Rich and poor: literal or spiritual?

There are various opinions about acceptance into heaven. Some people think that poor people are accepted but not rich people; some think that rich and poor alike are accepted; some think that rich people cannot be accepted unless they give up their assets and become like the poor--and all of them support their opinions from the Bible. However, as far as heaven is concerned, people who differentiate between the rich and the poor do not understand the Bible. At heart, the Bible is spiritual, though it is material in the letter. So if people take the Bible only in its literal meaning and not in some spiritual meaning, they go astray in all kinds of ways--especially regarding the rich and the poor.


Sermon

The kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. (Matthew 18:23)

This morning I am going to talk about debits and credits. In other words, I'm going to talk about money. I will also talk about that paper stuff that's in your pocket or pocketbook.

There is a great misconception floating around that money has little or nothing to do with religion, the Bible, and God. But in fact, one of the Lord's favorite topics was wealth and poverty, great treasures and small pittances, gold and silver, and little copper coins. More than once he compares the kingdom of heaven to treasure. And in today's parable, he speaks of heaven as a king settling his accounts.

You don't have to be an accountant to know that account books consist primarily of debits and credits. Debits are everything that goes out, or debts that are (or must be) paid by us. Credits are everything that comes in, or debts that others pay (or owe) to us. Debits go on the minus side, and credits on the plus side. And even though it doesn't make much sense in reality, at a gut level we like credits, and we don't like debits. In other words, we think money coming in is good, and money going out is bad. That is because we tend to focus on the money itself, and not on its usefulness.

After all, what is money? Today we do not actually have money in our pockets--except the coins. Instead we have "notes," or "bills," both of which mean debts. In our current monetary system, it is hard to figure out exactly what debt is represented by a "dollar bill." However, the bills are issued under the auspices of the U.S. government--which is trillions of dollars in debt. So the paper bills in our pockets and pocketbooks are essentially debt that we have all agreed to use as a medium of exchange, so that they represent money.

Money itself is a store, not of debt, but of positive value. In the earlier history of our country--and throughout the history of civilization--that store of value was primarily gold and silver. These metals provide an excellent store of value because they are durable, easily carried, have intrinsically useful qualities, and are sufficiently plentiful to provide enough to go around, but scarce enough that that the law of supply and demand keeps their value high.

In material terms, gold and silver, and to a lesser extent other useful metals such as copper and iron, have real value in themselves, while providing a convenient medium of exchange. That is why gold and silver are the most frequently mentioned, and the most desirable, forms of money in the Bible. Gold and silver are used in the Bible to mean something valuable. But what is the Bible really talking about when it mentions this money?

Of course, on the strictly literal level, when the Bible is talking about money, it is talking about what we ordinarily think of as money: a material thing that we use as a store of material value, with which we can buy material goods and services. But the Bible itself also points to a deeper meaning of money. In the Psalms we read:

The ordinances of the Lord are sure and altogether righteous. They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold. (Psalm 19:9, 10)

And the Lord tells us:

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6:19, 20)

Now we can begin to understand Swedenborg's statement in our reading from Heaven and Hell about why people are so confused by the Bible's teachings about money, and about rich people getting into heaven. As Swedenborg points out, when the Bible talks about money--about gold and silver, treasure, pearls, diamonds, and so on--it is not really concerned with material money, but with spiritual money. Spiritual wealth is real wealth, whereas what we have here on earth is only a crude and temporary form of that real wealth.

We are back to the question, "what is money?" We can find out what real, spiritual money is by learning the spiritual significance of gold and silver in the Bible. Gold, Swedenborg tells us, corresponds to the goodness of love, while silver corresponds to our understanding of the truth--especially spiritual truth. In other words, real money, real wealth, is the only real value in the universe: love and truth. And these come from God. All of the "money" that we carry with us physically is only a material shadow of that real wealth, which we carry, not in our pockets or pocketbooks, but in our hearts and minds.

This can be hard for people to accept in this materialistic culture. But the old saying "you can't take it with you" sums it all up. When we die, we will leave behind all the "treasures on earth" that we may have built up here. But we will carry with us all the "treasures in heaven"--the love and goodness, the truth and understanding--that we build up within and around ourselves while we are here on earth. Swedenborg expresses it this way in an entry in his diary of spiritual experiences:

Being promoted to honor and wealth in the world are not real gains or real blessings, both because they seduce us and lead us away from heaven, and because they are temporary and thus nothing in eternity. Therefore, relatively speaking, they have no reality in themselves. The Lord's gifts are eternal gifts, and he gives these gifts by means of things that lead us to heaven--and riches and honors do not lead us to heaven. (Spiritual Experiences #5710)

To borrow a phrase from Paul, the wealth we possess materially here on earth is only a "copy and shadow" of the wealth that is in heaven (see Hebrews 8:5). And we are being rather foolish if we work only for temporary wealth that we know we will eventually lose, and neglect working for eternal wealth, which we will continue to enjoy forever. That eternal wealth, as I already mentioned, is God's love in our hearts, and God's truth in our minds.

With all of this in mind, we can begin to understand what the Lord was talking about in our parable from Matthew--the parable of the unmerciful servant.

This parable is prompted by a question from Peter: "Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?" And the Lord's answer means, in essence, that there should be no limit to our forgiveness. Jesus answered Peter, "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven times." He then went on to tell the parable of a man who was forgiven a huge debt (millions of dollars in today's currency) by his king, but who then turned around and refused to forgive a small debt (a few dollars in today's currency) to someone who owed him--and the consequences of that man's lack of mercy when he himself had been shown great mercy by his master.

As Jesus indicates in the final line of the story, the king in the parable is none other than God, our heavenly Father.

The fact is, all of us owe a huge debt to God. If you have any trouble accepting this, here is a simple demonstration: That big old universe out there, and the earth that we live on, the air that we breathe, the sunshine that sustains life on earth, and all the plant and animal life that we depend on for our sustenance? God created them all. It's simple, folks. If God hadn't made the universe and everything in it, including us, we wouldn't exist. So we owe our very life--everything we have and everything we are--to God.

This is a debt that we can never repay. We simply don't have the ability to create a universe and give it back to God in payment for the one God gave us. Every single one of us is in the position of that servant who owed the king millions of dollars. When the Lord settles spiritual accounts with us, we will have to admit that we simply cannot repay all that the Lord has done for us.

In fact, each one of us would have to admit that not only can we not repay the Lord, but we have actually squandered much of what the Lord has given us. Instead of using all of our abilities and all of this world's goods to do good to others as the Lord has done to us, we have used much of it to gain benefits for ourselves, even at the expense of others. We humans have laid up a lot more treasure here on earth than we have in heaven. We are all hopelessly overdrawn on our spiritual bank accounts, and we can never catch up on our own.

If the old Christian theology were correct, and God was a God who condemns us, we would all be heading straight to hell, and all we could do would be to beg God's mercy and hope for the best. But the parable clearly shows that the old theology is not correct. It shows that God is not a God who condemns us, but a God who has mercy on us, and forgives us our debts. When the man who owed the ten thousand talents fell on his knees and begged the king to be patient, and promised to pay it all back, the king took pity on him, cancelled the debt, and let him go.

This is how God will treat us, also, if we recognize that we are hopelessly indebted to the Lord, and commit ourselves to at least do what we can to repay that debt.

We'll get to that in a minute. But first, a word about the nature of God's forgiveness. The parable makes it sound as if God's forgiveness is changeable and conditional. First the king demands repayment of the debt, then he forgives the debt, and then, when he sees how hypocritical the servant is, he demands the debt again, throwing the debtor into prison. The story gives the impression that God's forgiveness is conditional because when Jesus spoke to the people--and when the Lord speaks to us--he has to do it in terms that we will understand. So he uses human character traits to illustrate divine ones. In this case, he uses the character of a king whose forgiveness is conditional.

In fact, it is not the Lord's forgiveness of us that is conditional. God forgives everyone "until seventy times seven times," meaning always, continually, forever. In the words of Jesus, "He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous" (Matthew 5:45). It is our acceptance of God's forgiveness that is changeable and conditional. The servant who owed the ten thousand talents was happy to have his debt forgiven. But he turned around and refused to show the same mercy to someone who owed him a far smaller debt.

Spiritually and psychologically speaking, we cannot accept the Lord's forgiveness when we do not have forgiveness in our own heart. If we are hard-hearted and unforgiving of others, we simply will not believe in our heart of hearts that the Lord forgives us for the wrongs we think and do. And so we will laugh at the idea of God's forgiveness, and close our minds and hearts against accepting it. We will spiritually condemn ourselves to prison.

Like the unmerciful servant, we will find ourselves "turned over to the jailers to be tortured, until we have paid back all we owed." In other words, if we refuse to learn love, mercy, and forgiveness the easy way by listening to the Lord, we will learn it the hard way: through pain, struggle, trial, and temptation, until through hard experience, our hearts soften and our minds open to the Lord's truth, the Lord's love, and the Lord's forgiveness.

The parable does speak according to how we see things. When we are facing the pain and struggles of this life, we tend to blame it all on God. When something particularly hard has happened, we even say things like, "Why is God doing this to me?!"

But God does not do anything evil to us. God merely allows us to experience the results of our own individual and collective actions. When those actions are wrong, they bring pain and suffering not only on us, but on those around us. That is why the Lord wants us to build up our spiritual capital. The Lord offers us rich treasures of love and understanding. We do not have to repay that incredible debt. We are simply asked to show our fellow human beings a tiny bit of the infinite love and mercy that God has shown us. Amen.



Music: The Winds of Time
Bruce De Boer - Used with Permission