Matthew 18:21-35 NRSV
Early estimates of the combined damage from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma could reach $300 billion—that’s a quarter of the total costs of all natural disasters in the United States since 1980.
I don’t own a calculator that can compute that. My phone doesn’t do billions.
I was never very good in math. One day, I remember someone asking me, “Jarrett, what made you decide to go into the ministry?” I responded, “No math in seminary.”
It is interesting that math is not the forte of most ministers I know. Someone told me that they once played golf with a pastor who always insisted that he keep score. He said: “At first, the other golfers and I didn’t mind the preacher keeping score, because surely a man of the cloth would never cheat. However, one day after looking over the scorecard, I had to speak up: “Preacher, I don’t question your theology, and I don’t question your honesty, but I do question your mathematics.”
Now, I’m not a total idiot when it comes to math. I can do simple math, good ol’ common sense math. One plus one equals two. Two plus two equals four. Three strikes and you’re out. But, if it starts to get more complicated than that, I tend to have some trouble.
Like our gospel lesson this morning:
‘For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him.”
Sounds like a fourth grade math word problem that used to stress me out!
Unfortunately for me, there is, even in the gospel, a sort of mathematics. It appears that when Jesus entered the world, he brought us a new way of making calculations, and this math of Jesus is oftentimes very difficult for us to figure.
I am thinking about that woman who took nearly a quart of fine perfume, costing over a year’s salary, and poured it all over Jesus’ feet. On his feet! The woman wastefully pours all that perfume, 40, 50 thousand dollars worth all over Jesus, and then, Jesus has the audacity to praise her. What kind of mathematics is that?
I am thinking about that time Jesus praises a shepherd who left behind 99 sheep, “in the wilderness,” in order to look for one lost sheep. What kind of math is that?
If you leave 99 sheep alone, vulnerable, in the wilderness, what do you think is going to happen when you are gone? When you get back from finding the one lost sheep, if you find it, common sense says you’re certain to return to far fewer sheep!
Jesus watched the rich making a big show dropping their bags of money into the temple treasury. Think about that: “A bag of money.” When’s the last time you’ve seen “a bag of money?” That’s a lot of money! But when Jesus saw a poor widow come and drop one penny into the temple offering, he said that she had given more than all the others put together.
Get out your calculators and try figure that one out.
And then there was a farmer who hired people to go to work in his vineyard. Some arrived at work just as day was dawning, others came mid-morning, others at mid-day, some in the afternoon, and then some slackers showed up just one hour before quitting time.
At the end of the day, this eccentric farmer called everybody together and paid everybody the exact same wage. Now, how on earth do you figure that one hour of work is worth the same amount that 12 hours of work?
Do you see the common theme which runs through all of these parables? It’s an entirely different kind of math. In our mathematics one plus one equals two—one plus one always equals two, only two. But here in this new math, the value of 1 may be equal to the value 99, depending on who’s doing the counting.
And one little coin is said to be worth more than several big bags of money, depending on who’s keeping the books.
When Jesus tells us the story about the farmer who hires servants to work in his vineyard, I suppose most of us hard-working, tax-paying, responsible citizens of the vineyard immediately identify with the servants who worked in the vineyard all day. To be told that somebody shows up in the vineyard just one hour before the end and gets the same as those who labored all day, well, that just doesn’t add up. And it doesn’t sit too well with us.
However, if we could hear this parable from the standpoint of those workers who showed up late—the person who because of a disability, because of a family crisis, because of lack of training, lack of language proficiency, lack of education, or for whatever reason only got hired at the end of the day but received the same wage as those who had been there the whole day—if we could hear it from their vantage point, I guarantee you, we’d be ok with it.
Yes, there’s a common theme running through these parables. And maybe it is not so much math as it is grace.
And if we are honest, this thing we call “grace” is sometimes difficult for us to figure.
We think to ourselves, “As far as God is concerned, if I do this, then I will get that.” But the truth is that our relationship with God is not a matter of what we do, or the way we figure it, but a matter of what God does and the way God figures it.
Peter came to Jesus wondering how often he should forgive someone who had wronged him. “Seven times?” That number seems perfect, more than reasonable. It’s hard enough to forgive someone one time, much less seven times.
But Jesus said, “You must forgive not seven times, but seventy times seven.” That’s a huge number, whatever it is.
It does seem that, built right into the heart of the gospel is an extravagant graciousness which refuses to be calculated. And with our pencils and our formulas, we have a difficult time figuring it out.
Perhaps that is why many of us love the passage of scripture that comes right before our gospel lesson this morning.
Jesus said, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone…if you are not listened to [STRIKE ONE], take one or two others along with you…If the member refuses to listen to them [STRIKE TWO], tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector [STRIKE THREE, YOU’RE OUT OF THERE!].”
Finally, something that makes some good common sense! Some simple math—One plus one equals two. Be good and be rewarded. Three strikes and you’re out. Be bad and be punished.
But here’s the problem. When we place this mathematical calculation in the context of Jesus’ mathematics of grace we get another result.
As Eugene Boring has commented, Jesus’ “context is not of self-righteous vindictiveness, but of radical caring for the marginal and straying, and of grace and forgiveness beyond all imagining.”
We like to think, “Yes! Treat them like tax collectors. Three strikes, they’re out.” But have you thought about how Jesus treated tax collectors?
Last time I checked, Jesus called them to be his disciples. And when they deserted him and denied him, he said, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Then, he died on the cross for them.
The truth is, in our self-absorbed, self-centered, oftentimes vindictive little world, God’s math just doesn’t not add up.
On one of the news channels, someone was making the comparison between the damage in Florida and the damage to Barbuda. They actually said that the damage was worse in Florida, because the poor who lost everything in Barbuda, really did not have that much to lose. They said that the wealthy living on the coasts of Florida had much more to lose. And if you think about it, the numbers add up.
But, that’s our math. It’s not God’s math.
United Methodist Pastor William Willimon would say that what they failed to calculate is that “small, insignificant numbers like one sheep, or one insignificant person,” one little coin, one hour of labor, “become very large in God’s mathematics.”
Willimon continues: “On the other hand, the impressive accomplishments and wealth of the rich and powerful are seen as nothing. As the prophet says, God’s ways are not our ways. God’s measurements are not our measurements.” What we think adds up, doesn’t add up.
And, here’s the really good news. Because of God’s amazing grace, what we think doesn’t add up— adds up.
We look at something and say, “That just doesn’t make any sense. I don’t care how many times you count and recount, check and double check, that just doesn’t add up.”
And God responds: “O, yes it does! In the mathematics of my grace, it adds up!”
Pushing a child with special needs in a 5k 3.1 miles is greater than running a marathon by myself 26.2—adds up.
Giving a $100 to a flood survivor; expecting not one cent in return; yet feeling like someone gave you a million dollars —adds up.
Volunteering an hour to help someone in need when you do not have five minutes to spare only to discover that you had plenty of time—adds up.
Going to a nursing home to give a blessing to someone, but leaving the nursing home having received a greater blessing—adds up.
Coming to church with this incredible peace in their heart and a smile that lights up the entire room, just a couple of days after the death of her beloved husband of 69 years—adds up.
Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, yet he still has reasons to worship and to praise God in the sanctuary—adds up.
Facing one’s own imminent death, yet feeling more alive than a newborn and more hopeful than a newlywed—adds up.
With the meager full-time ministerial staff of one, a congregation that is much smaller than it used to be loves the people in their city so unconditionally, offers grace to others so unreservedly, and extends mercy so extravagantly, that it transforms not only their church, but their entire city, the region, even other parts of the world in ways beyond their calculations—adds up.
Lord, continue to take us to school. Lead us each week to this Sunday School of Math. Keep teaching us, keep training us, keep instructing us to count as you count, measure how you measure. Amen.
Invitation to the Table
The Lord prepared a table for Christ in the presence of disciples who didn’t deserve it.
Yet, when Christ lifted the cup, it overflowed;
When Christ broke the bread, it multiplied.
So let us hold fast to our hope, that by grace all of us have been counted and are welcomed to this table. Let us prepare our hearts to receive this grace, as we remain seated and sing together.
Commissioning and Benediction
God has done accounting, gone over the figures, kept the books.
And by grace, each one of us here today has been counted.
Let us go and share the good news that in God’s mathematics, all people count, and all means all, in the name of the Christ our Teacher and Savior.
Idea for “Mathematics of Jesus” in the Matthean Parables was derived from William H. Willimon, The New Math (PR (33/3; Inter Grove Heights, Minnesota: Logos Productions, Inc., 2005), 49.
Bruce Metzger, ed. The New Oxford Annotated Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 27 NT.
Leander Keck, ed., New Testament Articles, Matthew, Mark, The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, vol. 8 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 379.