(Please read Matthew 18:21-35 in your favorite version of the Bible. I have used the NIV to prepare these remarks.)
Those of us of a certain age will recognize the name W.C. Fields, the rest of you will have to google it. A famous comic actor in the black and white era of motion pictures, Fields played mostly grumpy old men in his movies. It turns out that off-screen, he was a grumpy old man and a drunken rascal.
W.C. Fields was also a notorious atheist. That’s why a friend of his was astonished to discover Fields, at the end of his life, reading the Bible. He asked Fields, “Why in the world are you reading the Bible? Are you looking for answers?”
The comedian replied, “No, I’m looking for loopholes.”
Looking for loopholes. That pretty well describes human nature doesn’t it? We want maximum gain with minimal effort. We expect to be rewarded above and beyond our lukewarm commitment and selfishly motivated actions. Justice and mercy are things we want when they benefit us, but are far less concerned about them for the sake of others. Particularly for people whom we do not happen to like.
The last time I preached on this passage was 20 years ago. At that time, God was using a peculiar method to teach me about mercy. God used Woofie to give me daily opportunities to show forgiveness.
Woofie came into our lives as “Wolfie;” we changed her name to make her sound less aggressive. The change of name had no effect on her nature, however.
Woofie was the poster dog of the local Humane Society. Really. She was a stray who’d been hanging around a cemetery, barely eking out a living, in bad shape when she was caught. Life on her own did not prepare Woofie to be a house dog.
She loved everyone in the family and hated all other life forms. She was a barker. A jumper. She bolted every chance she could get, so we had to devise an elaborate and strong pulley system to let her outdoors. One of her favorite tricks was to walk up next to Melanie and bump her with her backside, sending Melanie, then a toddler, sprawling and bawling on the floor. When we watched a movie and ate popcorn, she would bark angrily if you didn’t frequently flip a kernel her way.
The story has a happy ending. Woofie lived with us for more than a decade. She peacefully lay down to sleep one day and never awoke again.
What eventually made the difference was love. And forgiveness. Lots and lots of forgiveness of her canine sins.
Now, twenty years later, we find ourselves in a similar situation. We adopted Rue from the Sioux Falls Humane Society just before Christmas and her list of doggie offenses is growing. I must be a slow learner to have to go through this again!
- The occasion: Peter asked a question.
Rabbis (Jewish teachers) are and were tasked with applying the Law of Moses to everyday life. When they did so, they tended to use a very legalistic approach. They taught that a person might be forgiven three times for a repeated sin. On the fourth occasion, however, no one was required to forgive something a fourth time.
It’s possible that when Peter offered the number SEVEN, he was surpassing the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees as Jesus had commanded in 5:20. (“For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”) Or Peter may’ve settled on SEVEN since that was seen as “the perfect number,” the number for God. (Six is the number for man; always one short.) In either case, Jesus had just been talking about the steps in restoring fellow church members from sin to forgiveness and this sparked Peter’s questioning mind. He wanted to know if there were any loopholes in this matter of forgiveness and restoration.
In the first part of His answer, Jesus one-ups Peter and adds a second seven. (In some texts it’s plus seventy, in others, it times seventy. Since we’re NOT dealing with a legalism here, the difference makes no difference.) Jesus sometimes uses humor and exaggeration to make His point and I believe that’s what’s happening here. SEVENTY-SEVEN and 490 are both ridiculous numbers if you intend to make it a law. Who would have the capacity to keep such a command? How would keeping an exhaustive count of offenses make anyone feel better or make you more godly?
No, SEVENTY-SEVEN is obviously a metaphor for a limitless number. Once they’ve had a chuckle over the first part of His answer, Jesus goes on to tell them a story that will justify effectively limitless forgiveness.
- The one main point of the parable: “Forgive one another as you have been forgiven by God the Father.”
We will show how Jesus’ parable develops this truth in just a moment. For now, we note the large strokes.
The KING is God the Father. Because of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, He forgives the massive, impossible-for-us-to-fix debt of our sin.
We are the unforgiving servant when we take out our petty anger on the people around us, who are represented by the FELLOW SERVANT.
The unforgiving servant had no mercy, so he received justice instead; justice in the form of judgment. The warning in v. 35 could not be clearer: people who are unwilling to forgive will miss out on God’s forgiveness.
- The sub-points of the parable:
One: The debt the king forgave was impossible to repay. In Jesus’ world, it was possible for servants of a KING to amass a debt in the course of their service to the king. They were tasked with managing their master’s assets and logically their management wasn’t always successful. In such cases, the master didn’t write a loss off, but held the manager accountable, counting the loss as a debt owed him. (This system sounds a bit like riding a tiger; choose carefully which end you face!)
Even so, this amount is another purposeful exaggeration: Jesus used an impossibly large amount of money to create the impression that the debt was impossible to repay. For context, I refer you to a 2010 article by Philip Massey who calculated the debt to require 200,000 YEARS of labor to repay. The 2010 equivalent, his math said, was $7.04 billion.
– OR, the net worth of Bill Gates.
– OR, more than the national debt… in 1917!!
<Retrieved from http://chimes.biola.edu/story/2010/oct/27/parable-two-debtors/ on 1/6/17.>
The king did the math and realized that even if he sold this man’s entire family into slavery (as he did in v. 25), it would not make a dent in his losses. His original motive must’ve been to get what he could and make an example of this servant and his horrible mismanagement of the king’s funds.
He orders the servant and all his family and possessions seized for the debt. Our sympathy may naturally go to the servant, but think about it: if the indebted servant realized the debt was impossible to pay, his pleading with the king to be PATIENT, promising to repay all, was a lie.
Let’s note the character of the KING on the basis of his response to his servant’s plea. His character is substantiated in v. 27: it was PITY, not the empty promise of repayment that motivated the king to cancel the servant’s debt. Let there be no doubt this king is a figure symbolizing God the Father.
– Each person’s sin is an insurmountable debt, a problem we can’t fix.
– Not because of our empty promises to be good, or anything else we can do, the debt is cancelled.
– Does this help you understand the incredible seriousness of your sins AND the depth of God’s forgiveness?
– Remember, the money is a metaphor; the actual situation is even more dire, for the wages of sin are DEATH (RMS 6:23).
Two, the debt the servant did not forgive was tiny in comparison. The modern value of A HUNDRED SILVER COINS would be up to $45,000. That is a princely sum for most of us, I would guess, but it’s a drop in the bucket compared to $7.04 billion.
This is a third exaggeration, a sum chosen carefully by Jesus. On the one hand, it is not so small a sum of money that a person could easily forgive the debt and not miss it. A needy or greedy person would be motivated to insist on repayment. On the other hand, it is not so large a sum that it compares at all with the debt this servant’s master had JUST CANCELLED.
In v. 29, the second servant’s plea reads almost exactly the same as the plea the unforgiving servant has just made with the king. Here Jesus is using irony to make sure that we connect the unforgiving servant with the one who owed him money. The unforgiving servant takes the place of the KING and the second servant takes his place. Though the debts are very much different, the situation, through the wording, is very much the same. What is different is the outcome.
It is a terrible, immoral deed that the unforgiving servant does to his peer, throwing him in prison over this comparatively tiny debt after he has been forgiven so much (30). What he did was as illegal as it was immoral. According to the law of the land, you could not sell a person into slavery for a debt that was worth less than the person’s life. In other words, the unforgiving servant was trying to not only recover his debt, but make a profit too. This detail exposes the unforgiving servant as greedy, not needy.
Three, the king’s justice is an example of God’s justice. The injustice of the unforgiving servant’s actions was not lost on his peers. Jesus says they were GREATLY DISTRESSED (31). Probably at some personal risk, they went to the KING and told him what had happened. This makes even more sense if the actions of the unforgiving servant are illegal AND immoral.
In vs. 32-34 we are pleased to see that this KING, who was so good-natured as to forgive such a massive debt, also had a good sense of justice. He was indignant at the unforgiving servant’s actions and rebuked him for his pettiness, his unwillingness to demonstrate the same kind of mercy as he had recently received.
In righteous anger, the KING delivered a just condemnation of the unforgiving servant. The word translated in the NIV as JAILERS is really too tame a choice of words. It should read “torturers.” The justice and mercy of the KING are a stark contrast to the greed and injustice of the unforgiving servant.
Four, let unforgiving folk be warned (35). God’s justice is perfect; He knows who is guilty and the punishment always fits the crime.
This warning could not be more clear. Unforgiving people betray the true status of their soul as themselves being unforgiven. There is a cause and effect relationship between being shown mercy and giving mercy.
This warning could be more serious. Our eternal destination is at stake. Just as the unforgiving servant was handed over to the “torturers,” so can an unmerciful person expect only the wrath of God.
This warning could not be any more certain. The unforgiving servant was exposed and justice was rendered. He may have gone away from his first encounter thinking he’d fooled the king but his true nature emerged and he was dealt with justly.
Several years ago, on a beautiful spring day a man walked along a country lane to enjoy the sun. He chanced upon a farmer plowing his field with a mule. He was having a tough time of it. The mule was not very responsive.
The visitor waved to the farmer and motioned for him to come over to the fence. The farmer mopped his sweaty brow as he came over to the fence to greet his friendly visitor.
“Say,” the visitor said, “I’m not one to tell a man how to do his business, but I think that mule would be more cooperative if you’d say ‘Gee’ and ‘Haw’ to him when you wanted him to turn.”
The farmer considered this advice for but a moment and replied, “Reckon that’s so, but that mule kicked me five years ago and I haven’t talked to it since.”
Holding a grudge against people makes about as much sense, doesn’t it? As this parable makes plain, grudge-holding and all forms of being unforgiving and unmerciful have no place in the life of a follower of Jesus.
Instead, just the opposite is true. A claim to faith by a person or a church is proven by a character of mercy. This quality of a fellowship (church) is also necessary to attract and retain new people in a church.