The Unforgiving Servant
Our sermon series on Bible Stories You Should Know brings us to the parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18:21-35. You should know this story because it illuminates a key element in one of the core principles of our faith: forgiveness. Jesus taught us to pray that God forgives us as we forgive others. Forgiveness from God should pour forth in the forgiveness of others. He said we should forgive someone who sins against us as many as 77 times.
But forgiveness is difficult to grant or receive. It’s not like you just squeeze your eyes shut and declare something forgiven and everything reverts to the way it was before the offense. Have you ever thought you’d forgiven something and then later you feel the same animosity as you did before we made the declaration? We might have to forgive the same offense 77 times. I forgive you, and I’m working on continuing to forgive again and again. So, how do you forgive?
In scripture, forgiveness is usually talked about using images of balancing scales. When there is an offense, the relational balance is thrown off, and one side of the scale is weighed down. Until it is dealt with, the relationship is out of balance, and askew.
Our language is similar. If someone does something to us, we think, “I’m going to get even with you.” Or, “There is a score to settle.” When someone has wronged us, the scales have been tipped, and we have to do something to make it even. The symbol of our judicial system is what? A set of balancing scales. Justice demands a response. Some believe that getting back at them is the way to even things out. But Jesus says not to do that, but to forgive the debt instead.
The way some people try to even things out is to get revenge. It can take all sorts of forms, from violence to snubbing to biting comments. We want to even the score. At its most basic, forgiveness is making the declaration not to retaliate, punish, or even the score. Instead, you declare that you will not try to punish the other person or even the score.
Forgiveness is not…
Forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting or pretending it didn’t hurt. Forgiveness does not mean that you don’t still get angry about what has happened. Forgiveness does not mean that what happened to you was not terrible or evil. Forgiveness does not mean people should not be held accountable for criminal actions. Forgiveness does not mean people have the right to use you as a doormat and walk all over you. Forgiveness means that you aren’t spending your energy plotting, scheming, and punishing. It means that you will make a conscious effort not to let them drag you down to their level. It means not to let yourself become spiritually ugly.
The first step is realizing you have been forgiven
When someone has something against you and doesn’t forgive, it can feel like they’ve put you in a metaphorical prison. When you don’t forgive, you put yourself in prison—especially when you don’t forgive yourself.
Jesus indicates the key to that prison or the first step toward forgiveness is a process that starts with realizing how you have already received grace and forgiveness. That is, if you are going to ever be able to forgive anyone of anything, I think you first need a larger perspective of how much you have already been given. It’s not just the Bible; recent psychological researchers on forgiveness say the same thing. Usually, the people who are the best at forgiving are people who have been forgiven for something pretty big. Those who have hit rock bottom and received forgiveness and affirmation of their worth have the attitude. I have been forgiven so much; how can I ever withhold forgiveness from someone else?
The parable of the unforgiving servant
Jesus told a story to shed light on his point. It’s a story that I keep coming back to. It opened up to me when in the mid-1990’s I heard a sermon on it by Rev. Bill Nichols, former General Minister and President of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). I hope this story will be as good of a partner to you as it has been to me through the years.
The day of reckoning came. The King summoned a peasant who owed him a lot of money. So, the peasant left his humble abode and traversed through high rent district, ascended a long set of stairs, and through the double front doors to the throne room.
Rev. Nichols said Matthew omitted the detail of the long flight of stairs. But there had to be one. From time immemorial, people of importance have put headquarters on top of high hills. In antiquity, if no hill was available, they would build one and create a long flight of stairs. Think about our own US Capitol building. And the more important presence you wanted to enter, the longer the flight of stairs you had to climb to get in. And to get into the kings’ presence that’s the longest flight of all. After our peasant comes through the doors, he stands there panting, out of breath, sweat streaming down his face like a fountain.
Enter the king–calm, respite, and in control. He has his account book in hand and opens it to the name of this cringing, sweating servant standing before him. And the king says to him, “It says here, you owe me a lot of money, 10,000 Talents. And I mean to tell you, I want my money, I want it now.”
And the servant says, “Oh, yes, no, I mean I don’t happen to have 10,000 Talents on me at the moment, but if you would just have a little patience, give me a little time, I will repay it all.”
But by this time, the king has turned around and is conferring with his aid, and they are talking about what they are going to do with this man who owes the king an enormous debt he cannot pay. He worries. Maybe they will confiscate his house, furniture, tools of the trade, and animals or put him in debtors’ prison.
The king turns to his servant, who is now on his knees. And you know, of course, what the king did. He did a whole lot more than give him a little time. He reached into that account book, tore out the sheet with the servant’s account, ripped it up into little pieces, threw them in the air like confetti at a party, and said, “I forgive you this debt. You are free and clear. Go in peace.”
Can you imagine his joy? I mean, there is a picture of utter ecstasy, right? That one magnificent act will utterly transform his whole life, right? Well, I’m not so sure.
Down the up staircase
Let’s look at him as he travels down the up staircase. When reaches the bottom, he happens to see a buddy of his, a fellow servant who owed him 100 Denarii, which would be something like $20. But it is nothing to sneeze at. Because that happened to be 3 months’ wages for the average working person in Jesus’ day. But how much is that compared to that enormous sum he had been forgiven by the king: 10,000 talents?
The value of 10,000 talents
Ten thousand talents was an enormous sum. I read that it might be as high as $1.6 trillion in US dollars. Or that it would take 160,000 years to pay off the debt. After he had just been forgiven that enormous sum, he grabs that servant by the throat who owes him a measly 20 bucks saying, “Pay what you owe.”
This fellow servant falls on his knees before him, making the very same pleading, in the very same words that he had just used when he was up the up staircase before the king. “Please have patience, and I will pay all.
But you know what that ingrate did? He refused to have mercy. He called the cops and said, this man owes me money and refuses to pay; take him off to jail. And the police did. Well, by now, a rather large crowd of people had gathered at the bottom of the staircase. They had been watching and listening. And they didn’t like what they saw, and they didn’t like what they heard.
They had already heard what had happened to him in the king’s presence and didn’t like what they saw of him as he came down the staircase. They reported his shoddy behavior. “Your Majesty,” they said, “you will not believe what we just saw.”
The servant joins his buddy in prison
And so, the king called his servant back for another time of accounting. The man climbs the long flight of stairs to the magnificent palace. The king says, “Didn’t I see you here just a little while ago? Yes, if I remember right, I forgave you a big debt. Now, what do I hear about You refusing to have mercy on a friend who owed you a measly $20? You had him sent to jail for that? Well, I have news for you. You know that cell that happens to be a suite for two. And you can join him until you have paid off your debt.” As far as I know, he’s still there today.
The exaggeration in the story
I hope you can see that Jesus clearly intended this to be a funny story. Consider the debt he said this man owed. $1.6 trillion. He owed 10,000 talents, which was about 10 times the amount of the GNP for the entire Roman Empire. With that much money, you could pay everybody’s wages in the whole world and build all the streets, parks, bridges, and aqueducts, and finance all the armies and industries, and Caesar would still have plenty left over for his diamonds and rubies. No one could owe that much. It must have raised laughter when Jesus said a peasant owed that much.
And then did you notice in the middle of the story, the servant is down on his knees, and what is it that he asks for? A little time. A little time? Do you know how much time he needs to pay back that debt? At the avg. Annual income for the working man in Jesus’ day will take him 160,000 years—if he uses none of the money for living expenses and makes brilliant investments. When I was a kid, I wanted a million zillion dollars. And that happened to be how much this man owed. A million zillion dollars. He was, shall we say, in a little over his head.
But even with this story’s flashes of humor, it has always bothered me a little. Because it pictures the king who represents God as one who gives forgiveness and then takes it back again. Now that is not always what I have heard about forgiveness. I have always heard that once you forgive somebody, that’s it. No regrets, later change of mind.
Why was he so unforgiving after receiving so much forgiveness?
But recently, it has come to me that the reason this man was not permanently forgiven. Was that he simply could not accept that gift? Simply could not let himself off the hook. And you know how I know that? Because of what he did when he went down the up staircase. What he did in refusing to forgive that fellow servant the measly $20. Not that it was wrong — although it was, not that it was uncouth — although it was, but that it would have been impossible. If he had been forgiven that debt and had accepted that gift, when he came down the up staircase and a fellow approached him about the $20, he wouldn’t have even noticed. He would have said, what $20?
The only thing I can figure out about this man is the king tried to forgive but could not. Because he just could not accept that gift. Why? Because he went to the same school I did that teaches us to rely on your own, and never take anything from anybody.
Some of us can’t even accept a compliment. Your best friend comes unexpectedly to your door bearing a package and says, “It’s for you.” But it’s not your birthday. She says she thought of you when she saw it. You open it. It’s perfect for you. The first thing you say is, “O, you shouldn’t have!” Well of course she shouldn’t have, otherwise, it would be fulfilling an obligation for services rendered, not a gift.
So many of us find it difficult to accept anything from anybody even from God. We keep thinking we must do something to earn what God gives to us. If God ever finds out how little we deserve what God has already given us, God will snatch it out of our hands and put us in debtor’s prison again.
Somehow, we must get it that God gives us what we need ever-lastingly, and what we could never earn or deserve, because God loves us. God loves us. That’s all. Because God loves us.
Our time of reckoning
So, this morning we have come into the king’s presence for another time of accounting, another time of reckoning. We’ve all come up the up staircase the king comes with the account book and opens it up and plops it on the table, and finds that page where it has your name written in upper right-hand corner and quickly scans page down to the bottom line and he looks over spectacles at you and says, “It says here you owe me — can this be right — you owe me a million zillion dollars. Can that be right?”
Some might be tempted to say, “NO!” I’ve never done anything that bad. My sins are minor, in comparison to a lot of people. I’ve kept my nose clean. We get blinded to how much any sin hurts our creator or ourselves. But consider how much you owe God. To the king’s question every one of us must in truth say, “I owe it.” Unless of course there is someone here who is prepared to invent air, or manufacture sunlight, or produce the beauty of a butterfly, or wire ourselves for sublime bliss. Every one of us must confess before God that we are in debt so much so that even 160,000 years of labor would not pay back what we owe.
And you know what God does. God reaches into that account book and tears out that sheet that has your name on it and rips it into little pieces and throws it into the air like confetti at a party and says, “I forgive you this debt. You are free and clear. Go in peace.”
Let us be very clear about the good news this morning. Through Jesus Christ, God wants to give us this gift. In the name of Jesus Christ, your sins are forgiven. In the name of Jesus Christ, your sins are forgiven. In the name of Jesus Christ, your sins are forgiven. As Richard Rohr said in a devotional this morning, we all stand in a waterfall of mercy pouring down on us.
You know what that means? It means a lot of things. But I’ll tell you one thing it means. It means that when you go down the upstairs case when you leave this place to return to the world where you live seven days a week, nobody is going to have to tell you how to live. For if by God’s grace you have been forgiven that enormous debt up here, then when you go down that up stair case, no $20 debts of grudges or dishonesties, or greed, or selfishness, or stinginess, will touch you. Because if you have received grace up here that grace will control everything you are and do down there. Amen.