Ethical & evangelistic lessons from the Parable of the Indebted Servants
The 13th Sunday after Trinity
Gospel Reading: Matthew 18:21-35
“So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (Matthew 18:34 ESV).
Pastors and Evangelists fulfill very different vocations. They therefore tend to see Bible texts from different perspectives. When it comes to our Gospel reading for today, I suspect most pastors see the profound ethical points that Jesus made in this passage, all of which rotate around the theme of forgiving one’s brother. The ethical point was and remains the primary point. But where a pastor might see the ethical point, the evangelist who looks into this passage sees the evangelistic point that makes clear just how indebted a sinner is, how impossible it is for him to pay that debt, and how much he stands in need of mercy to have his debt forgiven. The evangelistic point, though a subsidiary point in the passage, is nothing short of remarkable.
The ethical point of this passage, if grasped and applied, can and will make for much improved harmony within the ranks of the people of God. The evangelistic point of this passage, while subordinate to the overarching theme, could change for the better how we approach sinners with the saving message of the gospel of Christ.
In this message I want to cover both the pastoral and evangelistic points. As a bishop, I find I am both a pastor and an evangelist, and in this message I cannot do otherwise. Also, I write these sermons with both pastoral and evangelistic leaders in mind, so it falls to me to speak to both. In any event, a great meal has more than one course, so I pray that this message will be just that for each who reads it.
THE ETHICAL QUESTION & ANSWER
In the previous passage, Jesus taught the disciples how to handle offenses within their ranks. (His instruction of course applies across the board to all Christians.) But following that Peter approached the Lord and asked him the following question, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” (Matthew 18:21 NKJV)
The question was an important one, and the Lord took time to give it a thorough answer. The answer came in two parts. The first part was this, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven” (v. 22). The Hebrew teacher, and indeed, the Hebrew prophets and psalmists, often used hyperbole (exaggeration) to make their points. Jesus used hyperbole here. Peter suggested that forgiving a brother seven times, which was a figurative number that meant a lot in Hebrew parlance, would be enough. But Jesus multiplied that number seventy times. If seven signified a large number seven times seventy was exponentially larger. What was Jesus’ point? The number of times a brother is to be forgiven is for all intents and purposes limitless.
An inexhaustible store of forgiveness is a tall order for fallen human beings, even Christian ones. The principle, clearly stated (and shocking) though it was, simply wasn’t enough to make the point. To strengthen the point the Lord then added a parable to engrave it on Peter’s heart—and on ours. The kingdom of God, Jesus says, is like the story he’s about to tell.
II. THE EXPLANATORY PARABLE (vv. 23-34)
The parable is one of the most memorable in the Gospels. Its main point, as we will see, is made with hyperbole (an exaggerated overstatement.) The hyperbole will expand on the “seventy times seven” principle to stratospheric proportions.
The main characters
The main characters in the parable are a just but fearsome king, a servant who owes the king an unpayable debt, and a second servant who owes the first servant a small debt.
To understand this parable, the Lord expected Peter to place himself in the role of the first servant, the one with the unpayable debt. We should as well. The second servant represents the brother that sins against us. The king represents God.
The first debtor
The king called his servants to account and demands payment of their debts. The first servant owed 10,000 talents, a debt of almost unimaginable proportions.
One reliable source I researched calculated the debt as follows. A talent was 6,000 denarii. One denarius was a day’s wage. A talent was therefore 6,000 days worth of wages. Divide 6,000 by the number of days in the year, 365, and those days add up to, or 16.44 years of labor. Multiply 16.44 years by ten thousand, and the debt was the equivalent of 164,000 plus years of labor.
Let me repeat that figure: One hundred and sixty four thousand years of labor. The debt was unpayable. The servant could not pay.
So the king commanded him to be sold, along with his wife and children and all that he had, so that payment could be made. The sale of the servant and his family and his possessions would not have settled the debt of course, but under the rules of those long ago days, the king had the right to do this sort of thing to punish a debtor and to collect at least something from him.
At this, the servant fell down before the king saying, “Master, have patience with me, and I will pay you all” (v. 27). The plea for mercy was legitimate. The offer to pay the unpayable debt was completely unrealistic. But the king was moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt.
The ethical & evangelistic points
Now, the ethical point is that Peter’s sin debt to God was that big. So also is ours. The evangelistic point is that every sinner’s debt is that large. No one can pay a debt that large. No one.
The first servant and the second servant
The story continues. Freed from his unpayable debt of 168,000 plus years of labor, the forgiven servant encountered a second servant who owed him a mere one hundred denarii, about one hundred days’ wages. One would expect the recipient of a great mercy to extend a small mercy. But that isn’t what happened. The forgiven servant grabbed the second servant by the throat and demanded, “‘Pay me what you owe!” (v. 29) At this the second servant fell prostrate at the first servant’s feet and begged, imploring for patience and promising to pay the whole debt. But he obtained no mercy, and was thrown into prison “till he should pay the debt” (v. 30).
The ethical point is this: One forgiven by God of an enormous, unpayable debt should forgive someone who has incurred a much lesser debt with him. Peter would have gotten the point. So should we. As recipients of God’s great and forgiving mercies, we should reflect His grace in our relationships with others.
The principle stated and illustrated, the Lord then moved to describe the consequences that the king visited on the first servant. When the other servants observed the graceless cruelty of the first servant to the other, they reported him to the king. The king summoned him again, and said, “You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. 33 Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?” (Vv. 31-32)
The consequences were severe. “And his master was angry,” Jesus continued, “and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him” (v. 34). So, the unforgiving servant was condemned for wickedness, sent to prison and there tortured until he paid his debt to the king. Because of the enormity of his unpayable debt, his torturous prison sentence would be his portion for the rest of his life. The servant’s unforgiveness cost him his freedom, his family, his goods, and his wellbeing.
The severity of the sentence fit the crime: Unforgiveness is a great wickedness, and for that reason merits severe punishment. The parable concludes in a way that shocks our modern sensibilities. I suspect it shocked Peter as well. But that was the Lord’s aim. The hyperboles were meant to make the point: The forgiveness of offending brothers should be limitless.
Lest Peter and those of us who take the Lord’s words seriously fail to miss his point, Jesus concluded, “So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses” (v. 35). The thought of God consigning us to prison and to torture is one that Jesus wanted Peter, and now us, to believe. It is thus a warning. The principles and the parable should not be taken lightly. Not if you want to stay out of a prison with torturers.
III. CALL & CAUTION
Peter asked a simple question: How many times should I forgive my brother? The Lord answered with a powerful parable sandwiched between two clear commands that made this point: Forgive as you were forgiven—i.e., generously, fully, and with great mercy—or you will pay dearly. But as I stated at the outset, an evangelistic point is embedded within the overarching ethical aim of this parable. As I move toward a close, I want to comment on both.
The ethical standard is simply this: We are to forgive our brethrens’ lesser offenses in the same way God has forgiven our great offenses. In this regard, we are to be like God. We are to imitate Him, reflect him. The forgiveness we have received in Christ should thus dominate our thinking and doing with regards to offending brethren.
I don’t think the forgiveness called for here is a sort of blanket forgiveness that covers unrepentant sin. Both servants acknowledged their debts, and both asked for mercy. Excusing sin and forgiving it are two different things, and the former is in itself a sin. But where offense is acknowledged, we are to forgive.
We should forgive because God commands it. But if we need extra motivation, the stay-out-of-jail component of our passage provides it. The Christian who withholds forgiveness from a repentant brother will find himself in jail and torment until he forgives those who offended him. If you want jail and torment, withhold forgiveness. If you want freedom and peace, forgive.
The Lord’s teaching, while including a really stern warning, is really aimed at guiding us into peace.
Now let’s look at the parable through an evangelist’s eyes.
First, the immensity of the first servant’s debt—168,000 plus years worth of earnings—serves as a parable for every sinner’s unpayable debt. The evangelist must make the sinner know that his sin debt is unpayable and that he is doomed to judgment because of it.
Second, just as the king called the first servant into account for his debt, so also must the evangelist call the sinner into account for his. Sinners will not call themselves into account. That is something the evangelist must do.
Third, the evangelist must make clear to the sinner that his only hope for relief rests solely in the mercy of God. With God’s help, the evangelist’s job is completed when the sinner appeals to God for mercy.
Fourth, even when he begs for mercy, the sinner thinks that with more time he can pay his debt. He can’t. The evangelist needs to obliterate the sinner’s false notion that he can somehow make his sin debt right through his own labors.
In sum, the evangelist must know the enormity of the sinner’s sin debt; he must call him into account for it; and he must point the indebted sinner to the mercy of God even has he destroys the false notion that the sinner can right the debt in and of himself.
We are all great debtors to our Father. Let us do unto others as He has done to us. Let us forgive our brethren. As we look beyond the Church, let us tell sinners of their sin and hopeless condition. Let us call them into account. And let us point them to the mercies of God. Amen.