Reflecting on Matthew 18:15-35
“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses.
If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”
The Lord Jesus gives us a teaching about how we should deal with a person who sins against – who fails us, or falls short of what we need or expect, or who doesn’t live up to their obligations. The simple teaching is you work for reconciliation, you go talk to them about how they failed you with the hope of restoring a right relationship.
But a simple teaching rarely can cover all the nuances and variations we can imagine. It doesn’t even tell us how often we are to do it. We want quantifiable directions – we then know when we have tried “enough” and when it is time to give up or move beyond the current situation.
Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.
Jesus teaches us to love, to show mercy, constantly to work for reconciliation. The Apostle Peter probably thought he was being generous in forgiving someone seven times for offending him. Jesus blows away Peter’s magnanimous offer – not seven times but 70 times 7 times. But then Jesus decides to show Peter how small minded he really is being, and He tells this parable about what we likely are to experience in the Kingdom of heaven:
“Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began the reckoning, one was brought to him who owed (a debtor) him ten thousand talents;
Jesus in telling a story about someone who owes ten thousand talents is immediately moving into the world of exaggeration and overstatement. Remember, one talent could be worth as much as 15 years worth of wages! This servant owes his king, $63 Billion! You don’t see numbers like this in all of the Scriptures.
and as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Lord, have patience with me,
“Have patience” -literally the Greek text has the man asking the King, “Defer your anger with me...”
Interestingly, so far at no point has the parable mentioned the king being angry – this is the assumption of the servant that the king is an angry with him or that the king is somehow an unfairly demanding person. But the whole parable is so ridiculously exaggerated to show us the king is anything but an angry judge. The king has time and time again lent money to this worthless servant. He has lent him 63 billion dollars! This is not the behavior of an angry, unfair ogre.
The servant doesn’t ask the king not to be angry with him, he knows the king has every right to be angry, but he asks him to defer or set aside his anger for a time to give the servant a a chance to repay. More to the point, the servant takes no personal responsibility for his own borrowing this ginormous sum of money. The servant sees the problem purely as the king is an angry man and that is why he wants to be repaid! His thinking is so warped and distorted. It apparently never occurs to him that he himself is responsible for the debt he has incurred. He is really a warped individual and thinks the king wants repayment, not because the king is just but because the king is angry!
Our parable continues:
So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’
The servant is asking the King to defer, to delay his anger for 150,000 years! Again we recognize the absurdity of the story/parable. It is not meant to be heard literally. How would a servant amass such a huge debt? Either the servant has been playing the king for a fool, or the king has already shown himself to be incredibly generous, patient and forgiving.
This servant can never possibly repay this debt, no matter what he promises. He is lying to the king, right to his face, when he says he will repay everything. Not only has he bilked the King out of fortune, but now he lies to the king to attempt to ward off the king’s anger! The man is as wicked as he stupid. But the king forgives him everything! The king doesn’t just defer his anger and say, OK, I’ll give you time and opportunity to be true to your word and repay me. The king realizes this lying scumbag, thinks I am a fool. But then the King does the most improbable thing of all and totally cancels the debt. You do not have to pay your debt.
And out of pity for him the lord of that servant released him and forgave him the debt (the loan).
The king remains consistently moved by mercy. He is not reacting to the man, but acting toward him according to the inner nature of the King. Most incredible, the king accepts the intention of the man – “I will repay you” – even though the king knows the man could never pay this debt.
The king finds the man’s expressed intention to be sufficient. St John Chrysostom in the sermon we read each year at Pascha says that God “both accepts the deeds, and welcomes the intention, and honors the acts and praises the offering.”
There is a message here that even if we don’t know how to change our life or to repent of our sins or to repay God for all the bad we have done or to thank him for all the good blessings He has bestowed on us – God will accept us if we just acknowledge we need to do so. If our intention is right, God will accept us, even when He knows we can’t or won’t live up to what we intend to do. This isn’t a matter of our pretending or lying about it. We need to be sincere in our intentions to do God’s will even if we realize we will fail. This is a message of tremendous hope for those of us who chronically repeat our sins and failures. Strive to do good, faithfulness in the effort will be rewarded even if you don’t succeed in achieving the goal.
But that same servant, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii;
A denarii is one day’s wages. So he is owed 100 days wages. A sizable amount, but not an impossible amount to repay. But compared to his own debt, this debt is a trifle. This servant has just been forgiven a debt of $63 Billion. Seems like he can now afford to forgive a few debts himself, but he is not willing to forgive $12,000. He acts as if he can’t afford to forgive this amount of money.
and seizing him by the throat he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and besought him, ‘Have patience (defer your anger) with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison till he should pay the debt.
The fellow servant begs for mercy and uses the exact phrase that the forgiven man used before the king.
He refused – The Greek could be translated: he was not willing, he did not wish to do what was requested of him. He willfully refuses to show mercy despite having just received unmerited and undeserved mercy on a transcendent scale.
When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant!
The King is not fooled, he knows exactly what this servant it – wicked. Yet he had forgiven him originally everything.
I forgave you all that debt because you besought me;
I forgave you for no other reason than you asked me to
and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’
Mercy – this is what we constantly petition from God: Lord have mercy. Kyrie eleson.
We are right to ask God for mercy, as He is phenomenally merciful, ridiculously merciful, merciful beyond measure. But the caveat is that if we want God to continue to show mercy to us – for all time, unto eternity, now and forever and unto ages of ages – we also have to show mercy to those indebted to us, or those who sin against us (miss the mark, fail us in some way) or trespass against us.
Here, we might call to mind two other passages from Matthew’s Gospel:
Matthew 6:12 – And forgive us our debts , As we also have forgiven our debtors;
Matthew 6:14-15 – For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
So now how does the king behave?
And in anger his lord delivered him to the jailers, till he should pay all his debt.
Now for the first time, we are told of the king’s anger. He was not being angry when he set out to collect the debts owed him. Then he was simply being just. Now he is angry.
And when would the servant be able to repay this debt? Never. So when will he get out of prison, away from being tortured? Never. Because he wouldn’t be merciful in one instance or for one moment, he loses the King’s mercy forever.
The anger of the king is not over the amount of the man’s debt, but his unwillingness to forgive or to change his ways. God’s anger is not over our own sinfulness, but He certainly can be angry that we don’t repent or don’t want His forgiveness or that we refuse to forgive others.
The King is angry, not because of the servant’s debt and his inability to repay the debt, but because the servant was unwilling to show mercy despite being shown phenomenal mercy.
So what’s the lesson of this parable? The moral of the story?
So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
This whole Gospel lesson started with Jesus teaching how we are to deal with someone – a brother or sister, someone we feel close to – who betrays us, who fails us, who falls short of what we expect or needed from them. Jesus says we should go and talk to them and try to restore the brotherly or sisterly or neighborly relationship with them – a relationship with they broke or betrayed or denied. They broke the relationship, but Jesus said, our response should be that we will try to fix it. We don’t go to them to condemn and criticize them and vent our wrath. We go to restore a relationship, to seek reconciliation.
The Apostle Peter then asked Jesus a reasonable question – how often do we need to try to reconcile with someone who betrays us, or fails us or disappoints us, or sins against us – 7 times? Jesus replied to that saying not 7 but 70 times seven times.
But even that exaggerated number doesn’t do justice to describing the mercifulness of God. For then Jesus tells us this parable of the unforgiving servant – a man who is so far in debt he will never ever be able to repay all that has been given to him, even if he had 3000 lifetimes to do it.
Love is not based in mathematical logic or reason. If we focus on “reasonable” questions, we won’t choose to love as Jesus tells us to.
We do not have to pay for our sins, Christ has already done that. The debt for our trespasses has been paid in full. Forgiveness was given to us with a huge price paid by God, but we didn’t pay that price. God didn’t simply cancel our debt, He paid for it in His own blood. Unlike the king in the parable who simply cancelled the debt, zeroed it out and wrote it off as if it never existed. Our God chooses to pay for our sins, our debt, our trespasses. He could simply forgive us because He is so rich in mercy, yet instead He pays for it with His death on the cross! He chooses to suffer for us. NO cheap grace here. No cancelling of a debt with no consequences for the debt. God shows His absolute love and grace for us in choosing to suffer and die for us. By His resurrection He shows the debt is cancelled and can never be reinstated no matter how much more we sin, trespass, get in debt. This is why grace is so amazing.
God not only gives us all we need for salvation and eternal life – God pays for it. He doesn’t give us something that doesn’t cost Him anything. God pays with His life that we might be forgiven and enter into His Kingdom.
All God asks from us is that we forgive one another, show mercy to one another, be patient with one another, defer our anger for as long as it takes us to get over it.