Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 11, 2011
“Jesus Raises the Debt Ceiling” (Matthew 18:21-35)
We’ve heard a lot lately about “the debt ceiling” and “raising the debt ceiling.” Now when our government does this, raising the debt ceiling way beyond our ability to repay–and the bill will come due–many people think this is not such a good thing to do. But in the government of God, that is, in the kingdom of God, raising the debt ceiling is the only way that you and I will ever live. And that same principle applies, then, to how we treat our brothers and sisters within the kingdom. We’re all here the same way, purely out of God’s lavish forgiveness. And so that’s how we are to treat one another. This is what our Lord teaches us today, and strongly emphasizes, in the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, or, as we might call it, “Jesus Raises the Debt Ceiling.”
Our text naturally breaks into four parts: first, Peter’s question that prompts the parable; second, the beginning of the parable itself, in which the master forgives the massive debt of his servant; third, that servant then refuses to forgive his fellow servant for a much smaller debt; and fourth, the conclusion of the parable, what happens to the unforgiving servant, and the application to us. So let’s go.
First, there is Peter’s question: “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Followed quickly by Jesus’ answer: “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.”
What is the background for this exchange? How did this topic of forgiving one’s brother come up? Well, Jesus has just been teaching his disciples the importance of gaining your brother back, that is, the brother who has sinned against you. We heard that lesson last week, in the verses just preceding today’s reading in Matthew 18: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault,” etc. “If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.” And so forth. The part we normally think of when we say “Matthew 18.” But that’s not the end of the chapter. Today’s reading picks up where last week’s left off.
So now Peter and the disciples are thinking this matter over. What are the implications of seeking to win the brother back? What are the limits on trying to win him back, rather than taking revenge on him? Surely there must be some limit on this forgiveness bit, Jesus! I mean, c’mon, be reasonable! After a certain while, isn’t it OK to get back at the guy? I know you’re big on forgiveness, but really!
Peter thus asks, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him?” Peter’s question right away reveals there’s something lacking in his thinking. He’s thinking in terms of scorekeeping, and that’s not the way forgiveness works. But Peter will at least try to sound magnanimous, more forgiving than most. Because he adds: “As many as seven times?” For Peter this must have sounded like a lot, that he would be going above and beyond the normal limit, by going up to seven. You see, the rabbis taught that you could forgive someone three times, but the fourth time. . . uh-uh, that’s going over the line, and you do not have to forgive that person any more. So Peter must have thought he was being pretty big about things, more than doubling the usual amount of forgiveness.
But Jesus ups the ante: “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.” Seventy times seven?? Let’s see: Zero . . . seven times seven is forty-nine. . . . Yikes, 490 times I’ve got to forgive that guy who does me wrong? Whoa, Jesus is really raising the debt ceiling! I guess I’m gonna need a bigger scorecard! But just wait! Once that guy gets to 491, then. . . .
No, Peter, you’re not getting the point. That’s not how forgiveness works. No mathematics! If you’re going to play that game, you’re going to find yourself in a whole heap of trouble. If scorekeeping is the basis you want to operate on, rather than forgiveness, then in the end that will show you’ve never gotten what the kingdom of God is all about in the first place.
And to drive home the point, Jesus continues with the story we call the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant. He begins: “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents.”
Let’s pause here. Ten thousand talents. A talent was a unit of money, and a very large one at that. And this is not just one talent we’re talking about, but ten thousand talents! This is a huge debt we’re talking about! Astronomical! Some scholars estimate it would be the equivalent of several billion dollars, way beyond anyone’s ability to repay.
“And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made.” Oh oh. The bill comes due. “So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’” Well, good luck with that, buddy. You and your family could be working every day for the next several hundred years, and you still wouldn’t make a dent in your debt. A working-off-your-debt scheme isn’t going to work.
So I guess the guy’s goose is cooked. But wait, Jesus puts a surprising twist in the story: “And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.” Incredible! What an incredibly forgiving master! To forgive all that debt, billions of dollars? The guy certainly didn’t deserve it.
But that’s the point Jesus is making here. This is how it is between God and us. You and I have racked up a huge debt before God, in terms of how much we have sinned against him. Our debt is way, way beyond anything we could ever be able to repay, even if we spent an eternity trying, which we don’t anyway. No, God gives us way better than we deserve, infinitely so.
Why? Our text tells us: “And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.” “Out of pity.” Other translations have, “he was moved with compassion.” It’s a form of the Greek word many of us have been hearing in Bible class: “splanchnizomai,” that is, to be moved, deep down in your guts. It’s a mercy word. It’s the same word that’s often used about Jesus when he sees someone in distress: “He had pity on them.” “He was moved with compassion.” And then Jesus did something about it. His compassion moved him into action. He healed the sick. He shepherded the crowd. And ultimately, Jesus’ compassion for us poor sinners moved him all the way to the cross.
The cross of Christ. That is how our master releases us from our prison and forgives us all our debt. Because Jesus took all our debt, all our sins, upon himself on the cross. And with his holy blood, in big letters Jesus wrote across our debt, “Paid in full.” When the Son of God dies for you, there’s nothing left to pay. Your debt is completely paid, your sins are forgiven, totally, for Christ’s sake. God does not deal with us according to our sins.
Nor–and this is the point of the parable–nor are we to deal with one another. The story continues: “But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii. . . .”
Okay, pause. A hundred denarii. That would be about a hundred day’s wages. A not insignificant amount. But in comparison to what the first servant owed–in relative terms, there’s no comparison. Ten thousand talents would be about 600,000 times as much! That’s what it’s like if we want to talk about how much each of us would owe God–and how much God has forgiven–in comparison to how much my brother owes me. One is like an ocean, the other is a drop in the bucket.
“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.’ So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’” Those words should have sounded familiar, because that’s the same thing the first servant himself said to the master.
However: “He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place.”
Well, this is distressing. This is not how things should be in the master’s kingdom. It says that the servant refused to forgive. “He refused”: The Greek there could be translated, “he kept on not being willing.” This was a persistent, stubborn unwillingness to forgive. For a servant who just has been forgiven bazillions of dollars by his gracious master–for him to then go out and refuse to forgive–to forget everything he should have learned by way of his master’s mercy and compassion–this is a sheer betrayal of the ways of the kingdom.
“Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt.”
The wicked servant has just score-kept his way out of the kingdom. Leave forgiveness behind, the forgiveness you yourself have received from the master, but then refuse to share with your fellow servant–keep on doing that, and there will be hell to pay. Literally.
And so finally Jesus switches from parable mode and moves to the application: “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” This is a hard word to hear, but it is a necessary word and a very stern warning. If we fall back into the ways of the world–retaliation, revenge, keeping score–if we refuse to forgive, if we keep on not being willing to forgive that brother who sins against us, then we are in danger of the fire of hell, eternal damnation. Because by this refusal, we will show ourselves to have fallen into unbelief, resisting the Holy Spirit. Let me make the point absolutely clear: If you stubbornly, persistently refuse to forgive the brother who sins against you, you will go to hell. You are no son of the Father in heaven. You are no disciple of Jesus Christ. Refuse to forgive, and you will go to hell.
That is the warning Jesus gives us, and it is clear, and it is serious. But I know there are better things in store for you, dear Christian–just as there were better things in store for Peter, who did heed the warning, who did finally “get it,” who himself received incredible forgiveness from his Lord even after he denied him. And so I have hope and good news for you, my friends: There is no limit to God’s forgiveness! Your many sins, too many to number, all are forgiven for Christ’s sake. And there is no limit to the help that God will give you to forgive others! Call on him for that mercy and strength. He will give it to you.
Yes, real sins hurt. God knows you’ve been on the receiving end. But God also knows–and I think you know–that you’ve been on the dishing-out side of that equation, too. You have hurt others. So, no more scorekeeping! Forgiveness doesn’t work that way, either for you from God, or from you toward your brother or sister in Christ.
God will help you, I know he will. By God’s great grace, his undeserved and unlimited mercy and compassion, all your sins are forgiven. You are indeed going to heaven, not hell. And along the way, we brothers and sisters in Christ will treat one another in the same way our gracious God has dealt with us: by forgiveness, free and full forgiveness.
Yes, Jesus has indeed raised the debt ceiling. And thank God he has! Because now there is no more dark cloud of debt hanging over our heads, but only the clear, wide open skies of God’s blue heaven!