The Impossible Debt

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Throughout Lent, we’re exploring the parables of Jesus – the two dozen or so stories that were his chief means of describing the reality of God’s rule on earth. 

Lou Johnson was one of the heroes who helped the Los Angeles Dodgers beat the Minnesota Twins in the 1965 World Series. 

Nicknamed “Sweet” Lou because of his infectious smile and outgoing personality, Johnson hit a home run in the seventh and deciding game – a feat that forever enshrined him in the hearts of Angelinos.   

That awesome moment was followed by years of substance abuse.  In order to sustain his habit, Johnson pawned off almost everything of personal value, including his uniform, bat, and glove.  In 1971 he used his World Series ring as collateral with a Seattle cocaine dealer.  When he returned two hours later with cash to reclaim it, the dealer was gone.

“I was at my lowest ebb,” he would later say.  “It was the only thing I had of value, and now I had given that away.”

Johnson ultimately found his way back to the Dodger organization.  He got sober.  Sweet Lou became a member of the Dodgers community relations department, where he served as a drug and alcohol counselor until his death last October at the age of 84.  In the picture above, taken in 2019, he stands alongside legendary pitcher Sandy Koufax, whose Game 7 victory his home run had helped secure. 

Lou spent thirty years trying to recover his championship ring, but he had no idea how to track it down. 

Then suddenly, in 2001, the ring turned up on eBay.  Before serious bidding could get underway, however, somebody swooped in and bought it. 

The buyer turned out to be Dodger president Bob Graziano, who wrote a check for $3,457.  He then gave the ring to Johnson – no repayment required.  Graziano accomplished what the former player had been unable to do for himself.  When Johnson once again put on his championship ring, he wept.  He wept because he understood grace.  “It felt like a little bit of me had been reborn,” he said.  All he could do was gratefully receive a gift that he knew, for so many reasons, he did not deserve.

In Matthew 18, Jesus tells a particularly memorable story about grace and forgiveness.  It begins with an audit.

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.  At this 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, canceled the debt and let him go.  (Matthew 18:23-26)

Here we need to pause and acknowledge that the servant doesn’t owe just a big debt.  It’s an insane amount of money – impossible to pay off. 

The best way to grasp the enormity of owing someone 10,000 talents is to realize that the entire annual budget of the province of Galilee in the time of Jesus was just 300 talents.  So this servant is essentially in the same position as an average U.S. citizen who is suddenly asked to whip out his checkbook and reimburse the government for last week’s $1.9 trillion COVID stimulus bill.  It’s simply not going to happen. 

What is Jesus’ point?  We’re all in debt to God – a debt we can never repay. 

Several years ago, the actress Sophia Loren was asked during a USA Today interview about her relationship with God.  She said, “I pray.  I read the Bible.  It’s the most beautiful book ever written.  I should go to heaven; otherwise it’s not nice.  I haven’t done anything wrong.  My conscience is very clean.  My soul is as white as those orchids over there, and I should go straight to heaven.”

None of us has a soul as white as a cluster of orchids.  No matter how optimistic we might feel about ourselves, we owe God and we owe him big. 

This is frightening news.  How does the servant in the parable respond?  He pleads for more time.  “Be patient with me and I will pay everything back.”  This is ludicrous.  This fellow thinks he can skimp and save for the rest of his life – maybe by adjusting his Starbucks habit to just two drive-throughs a week – and somehow pay off gazillion dollars.

The king’s heart, however, brims with grace.  He says to his servant, “You’ll never live long enough to pay this one off.”  Then he turns to his treasurer and says, “Do you see the place in the ledger where it declares this man owes thus and so?  Cross it out.  Erase it.  Hit the delete key.”  Then, turning back to the servant, “My friend, your debts are canceled.  You are free to go.” 

But wait a minute.  Alan Greenspan over here has a question. 

“Who’s going to balance these books?  Who’s going to make up for this incredible financial loss?  Somebody has to pay.”  The king answers, “I will pay.  Charge the entire debt to me.” 

That’s what it means to be forgiven by God.  Our Father in heaven is willing to convert our over-the-top personal obligations into his personal loss.  When we abandon ourselves to Jesus, all of our spiritual indebtedness – past, present and future – is erased.  Jesus’ selfless, sin-canceling death on the cross balances the books for all who choose to put their trust in him.

And what does it cost to receive such a gift?  It’s free.

The basis of God’s decision to render our spiritual indebtedness null and void is grace, not expected repayment. 

In other words, God hasn’t forgiven us just so we can start working extra hard to pay him back.  If we choose to believe this, our lives will be transformed.  Our relationships with others will never be the same.  Grasping this produces a Sweet Lou Johnson moment of joy – only a million times greater. 

But this is the point, for all too many of us, where we run into an old familiar obstacle. 

We suspect this is too good to be true.  There’s no such thing as a free lunch.  Deep down inside, we continue to believe that “pay me what you owe me” is the way the world really works.

If we succumb to this temptation, everything runs off the rails. 

That’s what we discover in Act II of this parable – which is where we’ll pick things up tomorrow.