Sermon on September 14, 2014, “The Unforgiving Servant”

Jeff Garrison Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

September 14, 2014

Matthew 18:21-35

    Today, let’s consider what I think is the key to being the church in which Jesus envisioned.  Jesus gave the church something which distinguishes us from para-church ministries, civil and fraternal clubs, and special interest groups.  The church is to be a conduit for forgiveness in the world.[1]  We have the responsibility for displaying the Kingdom of God and the key to that is found in a willingness to forgive.  Perhaps the most important thing that occurs within worship is when a pastor or one of the worship leaders stands before you and pronounces that in Jesus Christ your sins are forgiven.   And, as Jesus taught throughout his ministry, not only are we to accept such forgiveness, we are to forgive one another.  As the Duke asks Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, “How shalt thou hope for mercy, rendering none?”[2] The 18th Chapter of Matthew is known for the section in it about church discipline.  But Jesus doesn’t want discipline to be the last word about the church.  He immediately follows up his teachings on the church, prompted by Peter’s questions, emphasizing the importance of forgiveness.[3]  Listen for God’s word as I read the passage about the Unforgiving Servant.  Matthew 18:21-35.

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“Lord, how many times do I have to forgive someone who has hurt me,” Peter asks.  The disciple has learned something important from Jesus: forgiveness is an essential requirement of discipleship. Perhaps Peter is trying to make himself look good by ending his query, “Is seven times enough? That is, after all, more times than was taught during that day.[4] “But, no,” Jesus says, “seven times seventy” or seventy seven times, depending on how one wants to translate it.[5] The number is not important here; the use of seven has more to do with a belief it is a divine number than with an actual amount.  There are those who will keep a list and forgive and 77 or even 490 times, and then joyfully let the offender really have it.  Such action isn’t Christ-like.  Jesus suggests our forgiveness, like God’s, should know no limit. John Calvin interpreted this passage to mean that “you never give up on anyone.”[6] This is a radical concept. It goes against our sense of fairness. It’s a slap in the face to the notion of everyone being responsible for themselves. We don’t like to forgive—we’d much prefer to assign blame and pronounce consequences. Remember the childhood saying, “cross me once, shame of you, cross me twice, shame on me.” Jesus knows his followers will have a hard time grasping what he means about forgiveness, so he tells a story… This is the way it is going to be in the kingdom of heaven. A king decides to get his books in order. He orders an audit. After the accountants and bookkeepers reconcile his accounts, he discovers one of his servants—most likely the one entrusted with managing his accounts—owes him a lot of money.  Ten thousand talents—this is not just a little bit of cash missing from the till, this guy is robbing the bank blind! In those days a talent was equivalent to the amount of money an average worker made in about fifteen years. And this guy owes ten thousand talents? That’s centuries of work. Ten thousand talents is a lot of money-in today’s market—hundreds of millions…  Trillions, Zillions!  In other words, there is no way this guy will ever repay his debt. He can’t even make the interest payment on it.  So the rich man orders that this servant and his family be sold into slavery. The debtor panics. Being sold into slavery is the worst thing that could happen. No longer will he have a cushy job managing accounts. He and the male members of his family will be forced to work in fields under the hot sun or perhaps to labor in an unsafe mine. And it’s even going to be worst for his wife and daughters; they may end up as prostitutes. Desperate, he falls to his knees and begs for his life. And the strangest thing happens. His debt is forgiven. There’s something of a comedy in all this. First of all, in the first century, there would be no way a man could have accumulated such debt. The amount would perhaps be equivalent to the entire GDP of the Roman Empire. Jesus is talking about more money than would have been in circulation at the time! There wouldn’t be a way for him to pay it back. Furthermore, if his debt is so great, he’d also take his lender to financial ruin; they’d both be sold off into slavery.  And we think the 2008, “too big to fail” scenarios were bad?  This would be catastrophic!  Jesus purposely exaggerates the numbers in this story to drive home a point.  We must understand the forgiven debt is so great—beyond comprehension in the first century—in order to demonstrate the amount of mercy God is capable of showing. There are also a few strange things about this story. Jewish law and tradition protected the man’s wife and family from slavery—so Jesus’ hearers would assume this man is a Gentile who lived outside Palestine.[7]  It would be horrifying to think of one’s family being sold into slavery, which is why Jesus tells the story this way. But knowing the debtor is a Gentile hints at the possibility of God’s graciousness being extended to all people. Matthew, writing to a mixed Jewish/Gentile population, would have wanted to include this little detail. This is, of course, a parable about the Kingdom of Heaven and the king represents God. But the parable is only partly about God and God’s compassion.  Jesus continues the story.  The kingdom is not just about what God does; we, too, have responsibilities. We, too, have a role to play.  In our story, the forgiven man—who has experienced such grace—then goes to one who owes him a small amount and demands payment. The text says 100 denarii, which when compared to a talent wasn’t much money at all, about a half-year’s wages for a worker.  Unable to pay at the time, the man begs for patience—knowing that, unlike the first debtor, he could eventually payoff his debt. But the one forgiven an impossible debt shows no compassion and has his fellow slave imprisoned. This, of course, does not happen in secrecy. Word gets out.  Other servants are distraught about what they’ve seen and tells the king. Predictably, the king goes into a tirade and has the forgiven slave brought back to him, chastises him, and orders him to be tormented until his debt is repaid. And since his debt is beyond measure, his torment is eternal. In this story, we have two visions of God—the compassionate God who forgives and the God of righteous anger who demands justice for those who cannot help themselves. On the human side, we have examples of helplessness, lack of compassion, and, with the fellow slaves who run and tell the Lord about the ungrateful servant an example of those who cry out for justice. These are the various character parts within the story? Where do we find ourselves? Do we see ourselves as the one doing the forgiving? Not likely since Jesus is talking about a debt that only God could forgive? Do we see ourselves the one’s witnessing the injustice and running and telling the Lord? Perhaps, especially if we are the type who stood up for the weak child on the playground or get incensed when we see injustices being committed. If we have a persecution complex, we might see ourselves as the second debtor, the one who owed a small amount and gets thrown in prison. But none of these characters are where Jesus wants us to find ourselves. This story is a trap. Jesus wants us to identify with the first debtor, the one who was so deep in a hole that he could never dig himself out, for we are that way with God, and we’re offered divine forgiveness. God has shown compassion upon us and we’ve been forgiven far beyond our abilities to repay. We should be joyous, and our experience of grace should transform us into a people willing to forgive others. We’re not necessarily talking about money here—the first debtor was probably a crook anyway, having stolen from his master, so he was being forgiven more than just a monetary debt. The story is also more about God’s forgiveness than the man’s debt. Experiencing forgiveness should make us more compassionate. But does it? As I said, Jesus tells this story as a trap—to show our unwillingness to forgive one another.  The story is a warning about the lack of forgiveness. Being unable or unwilling to forgive is a serious sin. We can’t, on the one hand, embrace God’s forgiveness, while being unwilling to forgive on the other. That’s why the Lord’s Prayer links God’s forgiveness with our willingness to forgive.[8] Are we good stewards of the compassion we’ve been shown? Are we willing to forgive? Do we show mercy? Are there people in our lives in whom we need to forgive?  Examine yourselves (we all fall down here sooner or later) and go to God in prayer, confessing and asking for help that we might be more compassionate.   And be willing to forgive!  Let’s put the past behind us; let us let go of grudges we hold.   If we, who make up the Body of Christ in the world, could truly be forgiving, we’d change the world for the better.   Amen.


[1] The “Confession of 1967” states:  “To be reconciled to God is to be sent into the world as his reconciling community.  Presbyterian Church USA, Book of Confessions, 9:31
[2] William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice IV.1.86,
[3] Frederick Dale Bruner, The Churchbook: Matthew 12-28 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004, 235.
[4] In Amos (see 1:3, 1:6, 1:9, 1:11, 1:13, 2:1, 2:4 and 2:6), God is shown as forgiving three times and punishing on the fourth.  The rabbis taught we should emulate God.  Bruner, 236.
[5] This is translated different ways but many translations, seeing Jesus making an allusion to the revenge sought by Lamech in Genesis 4:24 (Jesus undoes the revenge with an equal weight of forgiveness).  See Bruner, 236; Robert Gundry, Matthew: A Commentary on His Theological and Literary Art (Grand Rapids: Eerdman, 1982), 371 and Douglas Hair, Matthew: Interpretation, A Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1992), 217.
[6] Bruner, 234.
[7] Hare, 217; Gundry, 374; Bruner, 237.
[8] “For give us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”  Matthew 6:12.

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