Bible Passage: Matthew 18:21-35 Pastor: Pastor Schlicht Sermon Date: September 17, 2017
For the next 5 weeks, our lectionary Gospel readings are all parables. And in order to trace the connection of those readings, today we are starting a sermon series called, “Parables of the King.”And I’m pretty excited about it because Jesus’ parables are fascinating. When you read one, it won’t address you directly, it won’t just state a truth. It simply invites you into a story and you end up learning indirectly, almost instinctively understanding the truth that is taught. He was pretty fond of them too; about a third of Jesus’ words recorded in the New Testament come to us in the form of a parable. It’s also a great way to teach because parables are at the same time incredibly simple and yet astonishingly deep, the more you think about them. Our sermon series is called “Parables of the King because toward the end of Matthew chapter 18 Jesus’ parables take a regal turn. He doesn’t teach just about the Kingdom of God, but about the King himself. So each Sunday for the next five weeks we get to hear a Parable of the King. Each week we will explore a specific quality of our King that is illustrated by the parable and each week we get to see just how blessed we are to be a part of his Kingdom. So today we start with the first parable of the king: The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant.
Jesus told this parable because of a question. Peter came up and asked Jesus, “Lord, how many times must I forgive my brother when he sins against me?That’s a good question, isn’t it? But to understand it, we need to focus on two words in that question. First, the word “forgive.” What does it mean to forgive someone? It means letting go, quite literally. The word for forgiveness in Greek is ἀφίημι and it means to “let go.” Look at my hand, a closed fist. This is not a picture of ἀφίημι; this is not a picture of forgiveness. This is [open and relaxed hand] forgiveness. It’s unclenching the fist, letting go of the anger, letting go of a grudge.
The second word I want you to focus on is the word “brother.” Peter’s not thinking about strangers here. He’s thinking about brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, co-workers, friends, neighbors, husbands, wives, ex-spouses, stepchildren, etc. People close to us are the ones who can cause the most pain. And they do it by sinning. Peter asked about the sinning that is actually “against me.” He’s talking about everything from the repeated daily annoyances of your partner’s sinful personality to those moments of tremendous pain inflicted on you by the bald-faced lies, the taking advantage of trust, the whatever kinds of sin against you that makes the rage burn inside, that makes you want to hold onto hate and anger with a clenched fist.
Peter asked, “Lord, how many times must I forgive my brother when he sins against me? And then he offered a guess. As many as seven times?” Rabbinical tradition suggested that forgiving someone three times was a good limit. So Peter, in his mind, is exceeding the standards of his day to meet the higher standards of Jesus (Matthew 5:20). And seven was the number in the ancient world which suggested completeness or perfection. So it seems like a really good suggestion, a generous suggestion even, but Jesus, as usual, does more than exceed expectations.Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but I tell you as many as seventy-seven times.” Some argue whether the original text means to say 70 times 7 or 77 times, but the point is clear regardless. Jesus multiplies the number 7, which already symbolized completeness. It’s a play on words. Jesus doesn’t actually want us to count up to 77. He wants us to take the concept of complete forgiveness and multiply it with complete forgiveness. The point is we should not be keeping a count at all. He is saying that a Christian’s forgiveness should not just exceed the standards of those around them, but should be infinite, both in number and quality. Go way beyond any preconceived limits of patience and mercy and offer genuine forgiveness, time after time after time.
I can imagine the disciples looking around with eyebrows raised. Infinite forgiveness? That sounds ridiculous! That sounds like a really good way to get taken advantage of. In fact, it doesn’t even sound right. Some grudges feel legitimate. There are really hard things to forgive, aren’t they? I think of the woman whose husband had an affair, they got a divorce, and she was left with the kids. And then, of all places, at their oldest daughter’s wedding, that woman is seated right behind her and her ex-husband gets to walk their daughter down the aisle, as if he did anything to raise her. Is she supposed to forgive him? I think of the man who just lost his job after his company’s latest buyout. Even after he sacrificed so much time, so many opportunities, even relationships for that job. Even after his boss had assured him that he would be fine. But there he is unemployed, too young to retire, and too old to hire. He’s just supposed to let all that go? I think of the person who is a faithful member of a church for 20 years, their family has grown up in the congregation and yet, someone has said something or done something in a way that makes it difficult for them to even focus on God when they come to worship. Because it’s hard to focus on God when your heart is curled up in a fist. I think of the student who hasn’t done anything wrong. But they find out that someone said something behind their back and their reputation is ruined! And it’s hard to focus in class when your heart is a clenched fist! Forgiveness is hard! It almost seems like a grudge is called for in these cases, I mean who could blame them? Especially when they are repeated offenses. Even forgiving someone seven times, as Peter suggested, seems impossible. Infinite forgiveness? That just doesn’t make sense.
But in Jesus’ mind, it does. And he explains his expectation for Christians to offer infinite forgiveness by telling a parable which illustrates how forgiveness functions in the Kingdom of God. He begins in verse 23, For this reason the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. Servanthood or slavery was common practice in the 1st century, making up about 30% of the Roman Empire during the time of the New Testament. Some of these servants were allowed to live and work outside of their master’s household, with freedoms and responsibilities. It seems like these are the type of servants indicated in the parable.
When he began to settle them, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. Because the man was not able to pay the debt, his master ordered that he be sold, along with his wife, children, and all that he owned to repay the debt. The amount of money this servant owed is beyond enormous. Ten thousand talents was an impossible figure in that time. In comparison, 800 talents was about the total tax income of Palestine. So this debt may have been greater than the amount of money in circulation in that region at the time. It is a shocking amount. I don’t even know how someone could be this far in debt. And unfortunately, the sale of people and property as punishment for failure to pay a debt was commonplace in those days and that is what would have naturally followed for this servant.
So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything. He could never pay back 10,000 talents. If you do the math, even if he worked every day for the rest of his life it would take over 160,000 (164,383) years to pay it back. It’s impossible. And that is what makes the next moment so incredible.Out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. The king does the unimaginable: he forgives the servant without any consequence. Forgiving such an enormous debt would have come at a great personal cost to the king. It is absolutely ridiculous to think of him forgiving such a debt.
Continuing in verse 28, But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’This second servant had a debt of 100 denarii, 1 denarii was a laborer’s daily pay. So it was a sizable debt, about a third of a year’s wages, but it’s nothing compared to the first servant’s. The first servant owed 10,000 talents. Just one talent was worth 6,000 denarii. If you do the math, the second servant’s debt was 600,000 times smaller than the amount the first servant owed. And yet the first servant, who just walked out of the light of unimaginable mercy, having a debt of ten thousand talents freely let go, decides to choke his fellow servant for a comparatively microscopic debt. The craziness continues in verse 29, So his fellow servant fell down and begged him, saying, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back!’ Sound familiar? These are the exact same words the first servant spoke to the king. But he refused. Instead he went off and threw the man into prison until he could pay back what he owed. At this point, I wonder if the first servant is even sane. Does he have amnesia? Does he even understand what just happened to him? It is ridiculous for him not to forgive the second servant and just shockingly wrong.
But that’s the point. Refusing to forgive in light of unimaginable forgiveness is crazy! It doesn’t make sense.
This is why Jesus asks us for infinite forgiveness. The Rabbis said to forgive three times, Peter suggested seven, and both seem quite generous by earthly standards, but Jesus’ paradigm for forgiveness doesn’t operate according to this world. Christian forgiveness is based on the Kingdom of God. And if you are a part of God’s kingdom, you know that the King has forgiven the impossible debt that you owed. Our eternal debt of sin was forgiven by God. We could never have repaid our debt, not in million lifetimes, yet out of his mercy, and the great personal cost of his own Son, we are declared forgiven by God. In light of that, it isn’t ridiculous to forgive someone even 77 times. In fact, in light of God’s forgiveness, our refusal to forgive looks ridiculous, it doesn’t make any sense. In light of God’s unimaginable mercy, our mercilessness would be a sign that we don’t really grasp the forgiveness we have experienced. It would be a total shock, and injustice, just as in this parable.
And that’s what makes the end of it so terrifying. Verses 31-34, When his fellow servants saw what had happened, they were very distressed. They went and reported to their master everything that had taken place. Then his master called him in and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt when you begged me to. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had mercy on you?’ His master was angry and handed him over to the jailers until he could pay back everything he owed.Since no mercy is shown, no mercy is offered. And Jesus finishes by saying, This is what my heavenly Father will also do to you unless each one of you forgives his brother from his heart.
Jesus told this parable in order to cut our consciences by placing God’s forgiving of us and our forgiving of others into perspective. This is not a parable about whether or not you should announce God’s forgiveness to someone who refuses to repent, nor does it speak to the need to protect yourself and those you love, if the sin against you is abuse. This is a parable about what happens to those who seek God’s forgiveness for their sins but won’t let go of someone else’s. Sure the poison of your inner hate hurts your mental, physical and emotional health, but it eats away at your spiritual health too. And it turns you into a hypocrite of the worst kind, one that begs for God’s forgiveness but won’t give forgiveness to anyone else. Jesus said that such a person will be thrown into an eternal prison, that such a person has no part in the Kingdom of God.
When I first hear King’s condemnation of the unmerciful servant my soul is convicted and part of me feels quite hopeless, because I know that I haven’t always forgiven others, not infinitely, not in my heart. But the more I think about it, God’s condemnation of those who are unmerciful is really a sign of his mercy in and of itself. Kind of like when God didn’t allow Moses to go into the Promised Land for striking the rock at Meribah (Numbers 20). At first glance, it seems like a monstrous overreaction. How could God do that to Moses over one moment of anger? But a closer look shows that God meant the occasion to be a revelation of grace. God had promised to bring Israel home no matter what, even if he had to make water pour out of rocks to quench their thirst. And when Moses turned that gracious moment into a guilt trip, the Lord was not amused. The account becomes quite a different story; the meaning of God’s offense slowly dawns—how serious he is about his grace.
And that is how this parable transforms for those who feel the crushing debt of their sin. I brace for rebuke as I see the unmerciful servant thrown in prison, but when I look closer I see the second servant go free. I see the King, in mercy, take a stand against all mercilessness and hatred.The parable becomes quite a different story; the meaning of God’s anger toward the unmerciful servant slowly dawns—how serious he is about his forgiveness.
And suddenly it all becomes clear: The poor, bloodied man strung up on the middle cross, isn’t just some criminal, but Jesus himself, the very one who told this parable. And though I am offended that such a loving and innocent man should be condemned by God, I realize now that this is the great sacrifice the King made so that I could go free. This blood is the payment for my debt. I find myself in the place of that servant, on my knees in front of the King knowing that I deserve an eternal sentence, but certain that in Christ I will receive unimaginable forgiveness. I find myself certain that I am debt free, forgiven, and loved because I know beyond the shadow of a doubt that when God says “I forgive you.” he means it. I know that my King is serious about forgiveness, serious enough to pay for it himself, serious enough to die for me.
My friends, to the degree we grasp our own shocking forgiveness, we will be able to forgive others. It’s that simple. I’m not saying that is going to easy, especially when letting go, that ἀφίημι, is something, according to verse 35, that we are supposed to do in our heart. When your heart feels like a hardened fist, it’s hard to let go. But if you can simply trust the fact that in Christ, you are forgiven infinitely, then you’re going to want to let go of those grudges so that God can pour his forgiveness into your open hands. And his forgiveness will fill your hands so full that you won’t have any room to hold onto hate or anger. In fact, you’ll be so preoccupied with the shocking forgiveness that you’re holding, that you wouldn’t dare set it aside to hold onto a worthless grudge. We have all been sinned against. There are grudges that feel legitimate and if you were living according to this world, you would have every right to hold onto them. But you are part of the Kingdom of God. And here, in this Kingdom, forgiveness is what we do best. Our King is infinitely merciful and anything less just doesn’t make sense.