by Rev. Priscilla Paris-Austin
“How many times should I forgive someone who does something wrong to me? Is seven times enough?” Matthew 18:21b
Grace and peace be with you, fellow Disruptors,
When I write for Disrupt Worship, one of my objectives is to offer seeds for preachers to disrupt old patterns of thinking for their congregation. But today, I want to disrupt you, preachers. I want to disrupt how you source your exegesis. And as someone who frequently names capitalism and nationalism as sinful, I am also going to disrupt myself.
So I begin today’s reflection on the text (Matthew 18:21-35) with a quote from the United States Constitution and another from Forbes Magazine. Yes, Disruptors, I want us to look at this week’s Gospel through the lenses of the U.S. Constitution and capitalism:
No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws. US Constitution 14th Amendment Section 1
On any given day, there are 450,000 people waiting for trial in jail, purely because they couldn’t afford to pay their bail...
...the United States and the Philippines are the only countries in the world that have a cash bail system. Forbes, June 2020
Jesus is responding to a question from Peter about how often we should forgive those who offend us. It’s curious to me that while Peter asks about a personal offense, Jesus responds with a story/parable about economic debt. I believe that Peter is checking in with Jesus to see when he can turn someone over to the authorities. How much offense must we tolerate and forgive, Jesus? And Jesus’ reply is: here’s how your systems could work, and do work.
We live in a society where we herald the ideas of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, while 450,000 people sit in jail for an inability to post bail. They can’t pay their debts and thus are sitting in debtors prison, a concept which we deem to be unconstitutional. Yet, we support the system by not questioning it. In Jesus’ story, the king calls his subjects to account for what is owed to him. He takes pity on one privileged member of his realm, an official. That official is granted immunity: full forgiveness of his debt. But that same official, understanding how the system works, demands payment from a more marginalized member of the community and has the poor man, “thrown in jail until he could pay what he owed.”
How does one pay a debt from prison? This action is clearly a passing of that debt from the person to their family. Does it align with Jesus' message of forgiveness? Does that align with our constitutional values?
Kalief Browder, was 16 years old when he was arrested for stealing a backpack; charges which were eventually dropped as the case against him continually fell apart. Unable to post bail, he spent 3 years in prison on Rikers Island, much of it in solitary confinement. Kalief paid the debt with his sanity and, eventually, his life. Where was forgiveness for Kalief? In what ways is the official in Jesus’ parable like the prosecutors of our day? Consider the cases of Kalief Browder, Sandra Bland, and too many more to name. Who are we in Jesus’ story? And most importantly, who is Jesus?
Through the lens of our unjust bail bond system, it is clear to me that Jesus is neither the unforgiving official nor the forgiving king who takes back his forgiveness. Both characters expose our sinful bondage as a community to debt as a communal value. Neither is particularly interested in deconstructing that system. Instead, I see Jesus in the person of the one who is beaten and jailed. Christ took on our debts and was punished severely for them while the community looked on. Every day, some 450,000 people in the image of Jesus, sit in prison, waiting for family to pay their debts. As you ponder what to preach this week, Dsiprutor, I hope that you will look to the other officials, the ones who could not stand by and be silent.
Resources about disrupting the Cash Bail Bond System
Bail reform, which could save millions of unconvicted people from jail, explained, Vox October 2018
How Cash Bail Works, Brennan Center for Justice, 2019
Color of Change No Money Bail Campaign
Netflix documentary on Kalief Browder
This is the Revised Common Lectionary sermonizing archive.