Scripture: Matthew 18:21-35
To date fifty-six Disney Animated Studio films have been released. I think it would take an extremely dedicated fan to have seen all of them, because some of the older and more obscure ones like the Three Caballeros or Melody Time are hard to track down today without paying high collector prices. So even though the group of elite people who have watched them all is small, a lot of people have seen a lot of them, and most people have their favorite. I am sure if we did a poll of “What is your favorite Disney movie” we would up with well over a dozen picks, but a few would probably rise to the top. This is a question that different websites have asked multiple times in reader polls. What is interesting is that different websites get different answers. Websites where the readership skews male, like College Humor, tend to pick the Lion King as the best. Websites where the readership leans female, like Oh my Disney, voted for Beauty and the Beast as their favorite. When children are asked the answers are more varied but currently it is a tossup between Frozen and Moana. For what it’s worth my absolute favorite Disney animated movie is hands down Big Hero 6.
It is my favorite movie for a couple of reasons. First it focuses on superheroes and not princesses. More importantly though it tells a compelling and nuanced superhero origin story. This movie handles deep themes like loss and forgiveness. It does so in a way that is genuine, mature, but manages to also be relatable for children. If you have not seen it Big Hero 6 is the story of Hiro and Baymax, a robot built by Hiro’s brother Tadashi. Tadashi tragically dies in a fire, and Hiro begins a quest to find the one who is responsible. However, his motivation is revenge and anger. Hiro makes Baymax a warrior when he was created to be a healer. Hiro’s anger and desire for revenge pushes him to consider doing evil and it all comes to a head in this climatic scene:
From this point on, Hiro’s attitude changes. He let’s go of his anger, his need for vengeance, and essentially he forgives the person responsible for his brother’s death. It is only after he makes the choice to forgive that he truly becomes a Big Hero. Perhaps this is why more than other reason why I like this movie the most of the all the Disney movies. Its central theme is downright biblical. Jesus talked a lot about forgiveness, and like Hiro one of the lessons we learn is that when we forgive we free ourselves.
This morning’s scripture of the parable of the unmerciful servant is one of Jesus’ greatest teachings on forgiveness and it is consistent with the gospel message. One of the things we can miss with this morning’s scripture is how it begins. Peter ask Jesus how many times he should forgive someone who has wronged him, and he offers seven times. What we miss is that essentially Peter is attempting to humble brag here. First century Jewish ethics did put an emphasis on being willing to forgive. However, it was a known teaching of some prominent Jewish rabbis at the time that if someone willfully wrongs you in the same way three times then they should not be offered forgiveness a fourth time. So Peter was trying to sound really righteous by more than doubling the standard number and picking the nice, holy biblical sounding number of 7. Jesus though goes a bit further and tells him seventy seven times or depending on the translation your bible might say seventy times seven times. Either translation could be valid, but most biblical scholars agree that Jesus is not giving a specific number. The thought that the expression is an idiom that essentially means an unlimited number of times. According to Jesus there is never a time when it is inappropriate to forgive. Which when we think about the reality of what the means is a remarkable statement. It does not matter how badly someone has wounded us, it does not matter how many times they have betrayed our trust, and it does not matter how wrong they are. Jesus instructs us to forgive them time and time again. That kind of radical forgiveness goes pretty hard against our natural impulses for justice (or vengeance) so to back this up Jesus does what he does best: He tells a story.
The genius thing Jesus does is he frames forgiveness in economic terms. This is good because it helps make the story relatable but it also offers a deeper point. Due to the fact that currency is radically different now we do not fully grasp the scope of this parable. The first servant owed the king 10,000 talents. A talent was the big money unit of the ancient world. Today when we talk about the cost of major projects of the wealth of the ultra-rich we talk in the sums of millions of billions of dollars. In the ancient world they expressed that level of wealth in terms of talents. A denarii was the wage of a day laborer, and it would have taken roughly twenty years of earning a denarii a day to get to one talent. I cannot fathom what this man blew the money on, but he owed 10,000 talents. If we do some rough math, using a minimum wage $7.50, we can calculate roughly how much this man owed in today’s money, and it is somewhere north of 3 billion dollars. In contrast the second servant owed this man 100 Dennari, which again we can figure out roughly in today’s terms to be somewhere around $6,000.
Telling a financial parable to illustrate forgiveness frames the lesson for us in two important ways. First it helps us really see the hypocrisy of the unmerciful servant. Now $6,000 is not an insignificant number but it pales in comparison to 3 billion dollars. That is why Jesus chose those numbers. One of the things that is rare about this parable is that Jesus partially explains it, verse 35 chillingly states “This is how my heavenly father will treat each of you unless your forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” The meaning of this parable is clear. God is the king in the parable, and we are the debtor who owes 3 billion dollars. We are in this situation because of our sin, because of the ways that we have willfully done wrong, for the times we have done things that we knew would anger God, or for the times that we did not do the good we know we ought to do. All of those slights, those wrongs, all of those trespasses add up to the point that the level of wrong we have done to God puts us in the hole as much as a three billion debt. As Paul wrote in Romans “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”, as well as “The wages of sin is death.” Yet like the king in the parable, God has had mercy on us, God has canceled the debt of sin against us and freed from the death we so rightly deserve. The message of this parable is clear God has forgiven us for so much more than we could ever have reason to forgive another person. If God has shown that kind of mercy to us, then we should show that level of mercy to the ones who have wronged us.
Jesus is fairly blunt in this parable, we must forgive others from our heart. This is consistent with what Jesus says because earlier in Matthew Jesus says, “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” We must forgive those who trespass against us, just as God forgives our trespasses. Of course for many of us forgiving is much easier said than done. By making this parable about money Jesus also illustrates why it is so hard for us to forgive. In a lot of ways, we treat being wronged like an economic exchange, we keep track of it, and we want the books balanced. This is why it can be so hard to forgive. We are like the forgiven servant who is owed $6,000. It was not like it just a couple of dollars, that is a decent amount of money and it is hard to let that go. In the same way when someone really wrongs us, we struggle to let it go. We want retribution. We want to be paid back in kind by getting revenge. We do not want to forgive, because we want to take what we feel is ours. We can justify it all we want. We can say “fair is fair” or “they need to learn their lesson” or even “If I am not tough on them they will never learn”. All of our justifications do not change the fact that if someone wrongs us and we hold it against them until we feel we have equaled things out then we are no better than the unmerciful servant.
I think the reality that is sometimes hard for us to see is that we do not really want to be that person who holds a grudge and refuses to forgive. Just look at the behavior in the scripture. Right after being forgiven verse 28 states, “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him . . .He grabbed him and began to choke him, ‘Pay back what you owe me’ he demanded.” That behavior is ugly, and even though we might want to get our revenge we also do not want to be that ugly, petty, spiteful person described by Jesus in this morning’s scripture. We have to choose between being that ugly person and getting the vengeance we have due or we choose to be the hero that forgives.
That is the choice that Hiro has to make in the clip we watched. With Baymax he had the power to get his revenge, to terminate the person who had killed his brother. But that would not have changed anything, it would not have ended his pain. It would have been ugly and it would not have honored the memory of his brother. Hiro chooses to let go of his desire to get revenge, and instead he chooses to honor his brother by being a big hero that seeks to help people. When someone wrongs us we are offered a similar choice. We can refuse to forgive and we can seek vengeance, or we can remember that a man who did not deserve to die hung on a cross so that we do not have to. He took the punishment we deserve to pay the debt we owed. We can choose to be ugly or we can choose to forgive as God forgave us.
Big Hero 6 is a work of fiction, but the experience of families in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania is very real and it perfectly illustrates just what it means to forgive. In 2006 for reasons only known to him, Charles Roberts burst into an Amish school house where he eventually killed five girls before shooting himself. This was a senseless, inexplicable act of violence and the Amish community responded in the exact opposite way: with an inexplicable act of love and forgiveness. The family of Charles Roberts, who had no idea this was coming, were horrified and confused. Mere hours after shooting, the Roberts family found members of the Amish community-including parents of the murdered children- at their doorstep. The Amish were not there for vengeance; they were there to comfort, to love, and to offer forgiveness. In that dark hour the family of Charles Robert found the very people he had wronged the ones who were there to meet their needs. The Amish community even set up a charitable fund to help the family of the shooter. In the face of unspeakable evil, the Amish community of Nickel Mines offered nothing but forgiveness and love. They put into practice what Jesus taught in this morning’s parable, and they were big heroes.
The unfortunate reality of living in a broken and fallen world is that some of us here today have been really hurt by some people. People who we trusted violated that trust, people we cared for treated us with contempt, or people who should have known better treated us unkindly. Many of us have been hurt, and perhaps several of you feel that temptation to hold onto that hurt until you can balance it out and they get their comeuppance. I urge you not to. There is a quote that has its origins in Alcoholic’s Anonymous in the mid 20th-century that states “Resentment is like drinking poison and hoping the other person dies.” Not forgiving is ugly, it is a poison of the soul, that keeps us from doing good and ultimately gets between us and God.
May you be quick to forgive and slow to hold a grudge. May you be willing to let go of the pain you have been holding onto and may you release your desire for revenge. May you instead follow the example of Jesus Christ, who died to forgive you. May you be quick to have compassion and love. In following the example of Christ may you be a big hero that helps a lot of people out there.