Sunday, September 13, 2020 “How many times?”
Exodus 14: 19-31, Romans 14: 1-12, Matthew 18: 21-35
That may sound like an awful contradiction, but it is, essentially, the conclusion of Jesus’ parable about the “unforgiving servant”
“Forgive or perish”
Either you will learn to forgive as you have been forgiven, or you will perish.
As that is what happens to the unforgiving slave in this morning’s parable:
This morning, Jesus teaches us about the importance of forgiveness in the Kingdom of Heaven:
23 “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves.
This King came into town and he called to have brought before him a slave who owed 10,000 talents.
The slave could not pay this large sum and so his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26 So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt.
A good ending for the slave. And yet look what happens next:
28 But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii;[d] and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt.
At this point, we should take a moment to understand the different amounts that the two slaves owed to their respective creditors.
The unforgiving slave, the main character in this story, owed the king an amount of 10,000 talents while the second slave who owed him money owed 100 denarii.
In the days of Jesus and his listeners a denarius (the singular of denarii) was one day’s wages for labor. So the second slave owed the first about 100 days worth of work, not a small amount. If this took place in our modern-day and the slaves made minimum wage (even the shockingly low minimum of $11.45/hour paid in Saskatchewan), this 100 denarii would convert to over $9,000. Certainly, a significant amount of money, even an amount worth getting upset over, as the slave did.
But the other amount, the 10,000 talents that the unforgiving slave owed the king, each of these talents was worth far more than the sum he was owed. Each talent was worth not double, not triple, or even quadruple a denarius, each talent was worth 6000 denarii, and the slave had just been forgiven 10,000 of these, an amount of $5.5 billion dollars in today’s currency.
Now, remembering that this is a parable (a story meant to teach us about God’s kingdom), and laying aside the need to explain how a slave could possibly rack up such a debt (a debt that would make Elon Musk take notice), what has just happened?
A slave, a man whose entire livelihood, whose entire life rests in the hands of his master the king, a man who a moment ago was about to be sold, along with his wife, his children, and his possessions to write off the debt he owed, this man has just been forgiven his entire $5.5 billion debt.
And this same slave, Jesus tells us, upon seeing the one who owed him $9,000 seized him by the throat and threw him in jail in order to settle his own account.
How would you react?
How would you react if you were this fellow’s neighbour?... or co-worker?... or friend?
Jesus tells us that the other slaves who saw this scene were “greatly distressed” and they went and told the king all that had taken place.
After the unforgiving slave was summoned to him, the Lord had no more pity or mercy for him:
‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt.
“Forgive or perish”
“Forgive (as you have been forgiven) or perish”
As we read the Scriptures, there are many times when we are shocked (or ought to be shocked) by God’s capacity for wrath.
When the Lord expelled Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden.
When God flooded the whole world in the time of Noah.
When God destroyed the Pharaoh and his armies in the Red Sea.
(and all of that is just in the first two books of Scripture)
And even in the Gospels, in Matthew’s Gospel that we have read from this morning there are five occurrences where a sinner is cast “into the outer darkness” a place where this is much “weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Even in the story of God’s greatest act of Mercy and Grace in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we are reminded also of God’s wrath.
And yet, in the parable we have just heard, the story of one slave who was forgiven so much and yet would not extend this forgiveness to another, how are we to feel about the Lord’s anger? How are we to understand, as Jesus tells us, that this story says something about the way it is in the Kingdom of God?
Should God not be more merciful?
Should the Lord in this story not forgive the man’s debt and also his unforgiveness?
Should God not simply remove the second slave from his debtor’s prison and restore everyone to fullness?
Why does the Lord of Scripture not act as we think he ought to?
And if there is a discrepancy between the two, who should we trust? Christ’s Words or our own understanding of what God is like?
In addition to the obvious lesson of “forgive (as you have been forgiven) or perish” there is another truth on display in this parable:
The truth that our human choices have consequences, even in the sovereign world of the Lord.
Notice: the reason that the unforgiving slave is punished, the reason he is sentenced to be tortured for his crime against his fellow man is because he has committed a crime against his fellow man.
Had the slave received his forgiveness and practiced it with his own debtor there would be no punishment, no wrath, no “angry” Lord.
The actions of the slave have consequences even (or especially) in a world where the Lord’s will is to be done.
This is a sobering thought, that we ourselves, in our own actions, are making consequences for ourselves by what we say, what we do, and how we treat one another in the time before we are summoned before the Lord.
And yet there is an even more sobering thought to keep in mind: the actions of the unforgiving slave, to demand his money back, to threaten his debtor, and to throw him into a debtor’s prison, these actions were perfectly legal.
The unforgiving slave was perfectly within his legal rights to demand his 100 denarii, to try to collect the debt, and to throw the delinquent debtor into prison as punishment.
His fellow slaves did not alert the Lord to what the unforgiving slave was doing because it was illegal, but because, under the circumstances, it was clearly the wrong thing to do.
It was wrong of the slave to be so cruel to one in a similar position to him after he had just been set free from a massive debt. Regardless of law, regardless of culture, or changing norms, we can see that just as clearly.
The slave was wrong and his hardness of heart bore him hard consequences of his own.
Therefore: “Forgive or perish”
“Forgive (as you have been forgiven) or perish (by the consequences you have made)”
If we look back to how this all began, to what prompted Jesus to tell the parable in the first place, we find that it was Peter, and his question about forgiveness in the church that caused Jesus to teach the lesson:
Peter asked Jesus, His Lord:
21 … “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”
In a similar way that Jesus taught us last week that that He is with the “two or three who agree about anything” in His body, the Church, Jesus again reminds us that we should expect to encounter not just disagreement but also sin in the church.
Even before there was a church as we would recognize it today, before there were buildings or budgets, committees or pews, Peter sought Christ’s instruction about what he ought to do when another follower of Christ sinned against him.
“Should I forgive seven times (as the Old Testament teaches)?”
“Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”
This may sound like an overstatement. It may sound like naivety. It may sound like foolishness, but we would do well to remember that “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise” (1 Cor 1: 27)
Christ could not be more clear about what we are to do: Forgive.
Forgive. Not like the unforgiving slave but like his master. Forgive debts that are owed to you. Forgive unkindness done to you. Forgive sin done to you. When given the choice between what is “legal” and what is “Christlike” choose what is Christlike.
“Forgive (as you have been forgiven) or perish (by the consequences you have made)”
Friends, in these days of deep political division, in these days when every news story, every Facebook feed, every tweet seems designed to instigate further arguing and division, we need to ask ourselves how to be “Christlike” in this time.
How can we be Christlike to those who sin against us?
How can we be forgiving to those who owe us something?
How can we get beyond what is legally ours in order to reach what is right as taught to us by Christ?
Like the Unforgiving Servant, we can identify, in our own lives, places where we are owed something by another.
A friend who owes us a favor
A family member who owes us an apology
Maybe even our own idea of a god who owes us something we have lacked.
How can we go on giving such easy credit to a world that owes us?
How can we ignore the things we are entitled to?
The things that we are in our legal rights to take for ourselves?
The answer, given to us by Christ this morning is to seek the Lord. To trust in the Lord. Not because He is one who restores perfect balance, or ensures each person gets exactly what they are entitled to, but because he is forgiving, and He has given us the opportunity to forgive as we have been forgiven.
If we are honest with ourselves and with Christ, we can see ourselves in the unforgiving slave, we can see the ways that we have been forgiven much and yet have continued to demand what is owed us, we can see the ways that we have wronged others, even after we have been treated with so much mercy from God.
And sometimes we do feel like we are being crushed under a debt we can not possibly pay, a debt of 10,000 talents.
Perhaps not 10,000 talents of money, but
10,000 talents of sin
10,000 talents of unforgiveness
10,000 talents of resentment
And yet, for as difficult as it is to believe, Our own Lord has forgiven this debt, not by writing it off in a book, not by recording a loss in His ledger, but by sending His Only Son to die in our place so that we would understand how much we have been forgiven. And how much we are loved.
The Good News is not that there is a future Kingdom of God where we will be forgiven our sins. The Good News is that we are already forgiven. Our debt has already been paid, two thousand years ago, on a cross, on a hill.
With the cross at the forefront of our very selves, can we not answer these questions more honestly:
Where is the balance of our account?
Have not we been forgiven much?
Have we not received unexpected mercy?
Has God not shown His love for us?
Looking to the cross, seeing how Christ has poured out His very life for us so that we would have freedom to live in Him, will we then take up our own cross in service to others, not for our own sake, but for theirs? That they would come to know the same freedom in Christ?
And if we have not, will we begin now?
To forgive as we have been forgiven, and to know that just as we have the power to condemn, we too have the power to offer freedom in Christ’s name.