This week the world was shocked by the sudden death of Michael Jackson. He was just 50 years old and preparing for a new tour when he died of an apparent heart attack. Despite his personal eccentricities and perverse behavior, I have to say I have felt nothing but pity for him since his death.
One of the most shocking pieces of information to come out since his death was that he was hundreds of millions of dollars in debt, which is the main reason he was about to go on tour. It is hard to imagine how someone who has made as much money as Michael Jackson could be so broke, but as we have been reminded here in America in the last year, it doesn’t take long for huge chunks of wealth to evaporate overnight.
One of Jesus’ parables is about the very issue of debt, a parable often called the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant.
Let’s begin by reading the parable:
18:23 "Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. 24 When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. 25 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. 26 So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, 'Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.' 27 And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But when that same servant went out, 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.' 29 So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, 'Have patience with me, and I will pay you.' 30 He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. 31 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. 32 Then his master summoned him and said to him, 'You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?' 34 And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. 35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart."
This parable is so typical of the stories Jesus told: just a few main characters (a king and two servants), and a very basic point about forgiveness. And just as the parable of the good Samaritan was prompted by a question (“who is my neighbor”), this parable was triggered by a question from Peter about forgiveness.
Jesus had just explained to the apostles how to deal with sin among brethren.
18:15 "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. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 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.
While we often focus on the punitive discipline in this passage, the withdrawal of association, clearly what Jesus wanted us to focus on was the prospect of winning that brother back who as sinned against us.
But how often do we have to extend this forgiveness? That’s what Peter wanted to know.
18:21 Then Peter came up and said to him, "Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?"
The rabbis had an answer to this question. “If a man commits an offense once they forgive him, a second time they forgive him, a third time they forgive him, but the fourth time do not forgive him” (Joma 86b).
If this tradition was already current in Peter’s day, then by asking Jesus if he should forgive up to seven times Peter was doubling the number given by the rabbis, plus one! Surely that would be the limit of forgiveness.
Some of your Bibles have a footnote that says “seventy-seven times” rather than “seventy times seven,” but clearly the point is not the literal total of 77 or 490. When I was a kid there was a guy in my neighborhood who was such a jerk that I started to count toward 490! Jesus’ point is that forgiveness is unlimited, that we must always be ready to forgive our brother when he asks us, which He then illustrated with parable.
22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.”
One more point before we look at the parable. Jesus said this parable was about the “kingdom of heaven.”
23 "Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants.
Sometimes in the Bible “kingdom” refers to the realm of God’s reign. In a concrete sense it can refer to the church, those who have made themselves subject to the reign of the eternal King. But other times it refers to the reign itself, the royal power and authority of the king. And that is what Jesus has in mind here. This parable will teach us how God reigns, specifically how He rules in the area of forgiveness.
What I would like to do is start toward the middle of the parable as we begin to draw basic lessons about forgiveness.
Lesson 1: When We Sin Against Each Other It Is Costly (18:28-30)
Let’s look again at verses 28-30.
28 But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii.
A denarius was worth basically one day’s wages, so 100 of them would be worth a lot, between a third and a fourth of a year’s paycheck. And in the parable that is how Jesus illustrates the debt we owe to one another when we sin against each other.
I think it is important to acknowledge this point. When we sin against each other there is a price. It hurts. And it is costly in a currency that really can’t be measured, the currency of emotional heartache.
Some of you have paid a heavy price for the sins of others. You have been betrayed by an unfaithful wife or husband. You have been slandered by your brothers and sisters (maybe even your spiritual brethren). You’ve been lied to, cheated, ill-treated.
You know how David felt when he lamented the vicious attacks of his enemies:
Psalm 64:1 Hear my voice, O God, in my complaint;
preserve my life from dread of the enemy.
2 Hide me from the secret plots of the wicked,
from the throng of evildoers,
3 who whet their tongues like swords,
who aim bitter words like arrows
Or Psalm 41:
5 My enemies say of me in malice,
"When will he die, and his name perish?"
6 And when one comes to see me, he utters empty words,
while his heart gathers iniquity;
when he goes out, he tells it abroad.
7 All who hate me whisper together about me;
they imagine the worst for me.
As we will see, our sins against each other are no comparison to our sins against God, but we shouldn’t take that to mean they are trivial and inconsequential. When we sin against each other the wounds run deep, the pain is real, and the price is costly.
But this only serves to reinforce how much greater the price is when we sin against God.
Lesson 2: When We Sin Against God We Owe an Infinite Debt (18:23b-27)
Now let’s go back to the beginning of the parable.
23 Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. 24 When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents.
Perhaps this is a king who has many governors or ministers, and in the administration of his kingdom he wants to audit their conduct. What he finds is astonishing, a scandal that dwarfs any of the financial crashes that have happened here. One of his servants owes him ten thousand talents.
A “talent” was the largest form of currency in the Roman Empire. I think the largest bill printed here in America was the $100,000 in the early 30s, but it has been long since discontinued. Well, a talent was the largest denomination of money in Jesus’ day.
And the number “ten thousand” was the largest named number (like billion or zillion for us). It is the Greek word we get “myriad” from.
So when Jesus combined the largest currency with the largest named number, what do you think His point was? The debt was astronomical! Infinite! Some of your Bibles may have a footnote trying to put ten thousand talents into modern equivalent dollars, but it is really impossible, and beside the point. This man owes a debt that is inconceivably enormous.
And in this parable, that represents our debt to God. Why do our sins place us in such liability to God? Think of it like this. Some of you may live in gated communities. If I decided to trespass into your complex or neighborhood, what penalty would I face? If there was a security officer at all he probably couldn’t do very much. Maybe at the most I would have a misdemeanor charge of some kind and have to pay a fine. Now, what if I did the same thing, but instead of trespassing in your apartment complex I snuck into the state capitol. That penalty would be a lot stiffer. And imagine if I tried to do get into the White House. I might be put away for a loooong time.
On one level the crime is the same, right? Trespassing. But the penalty, the debt, is much different depending on the rank of the authority whose property I am trespassing.
How could you put a price on trespassing the law of God? How could you measure what it means to disobey the Creator and Sustainer of the universe? You can’t – you could only illustrate it with the largest currency and the biggest number you could come up with. And that is what Jesus did here in the parable.
Jesus’ parables are tantalizingly short of details sometimes, and I would love to know how this man became so indebted. We don’t know how the man on the story became indebted, but we do know how we incur our debt – by sin. And just as with the servant in the story, there is no way we can pay it ourselves.
25 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.
Indebtedness was one of the primary reasons people were enslaved in biblical times, and in many instances if the debt was worked off a slave could be released. But how long would you have to work to recoup billions of dollars? This man is going to be enslaved for life!
26 So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” 27 And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.
Do you think the king decided to forgive him because he was so impressed with the servant’s earnest promise to pay back the debt? Of course not – that was an absurdity! How could he possibly pay back that debt if he had a million lifetimes to work?
No, the reason the king forgave him was because of pity. It wasn’t because he was impressed with how noble the servant was, but how pathetic he was.
Which of course is why God forgives us. He forgives us not because we are so noble, because He is inspired by our sincere pleas to earn His grace. God forgives us because He sees our wretchedness without Him, and He feels for us because He loves us.
Eph. 2:1 And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. 4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ— by grace you have been saved.
What is remarkable in the parable is not that a servant went into arrears billions of dollars, but that with the wave of a scepter the king forgave him. And it is stunning that God – because of love we could never understand much less deserve – forgives us our debt. We are utterly destitute – but God is rich in mercy because of His great love!
In fact God’s love is so extravagant that it not only cancels our eternal debt but transforms our character so that we become like Him. Or at least that is the affect it should have.
Yet when the first servant was approached by the one who owed him 100 days wages, he did not reflect this transformation:
18:29 So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, 'Have patience with me, and I will pay you.' 30 He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt.
And this leads to the third major lesson we need to take away from the parable:
Lesson 3: If We Refuse to Forgive Our Debts to Each Other, God Will Not Forgive Us (18:31-35)
18:31When 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. 32 Then his master summoned him and said to him, 'You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?' 34 And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers [some of your Bibles may say “torturers”], until he should pay all his debt. 35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart."
The king hears that the first servant refused to forgive a substantial debt while he was forgiven an incalculable debt, and his emotions swing from the pity he once felt to anger. Why is he so angered by this? More importantly, why is God so angry when we refuse to forgive others?
In the first place, we are made in His image. And the way we treat each other as those who bear God’s image reflects what we really think of the one whose image we bear.
This is what James said about the hypocrisy of using our tongue to praise God but curse each other-
3:9 With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.
Or as John said,
1 John 4:20 If anyone says, "I love God," and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. 21 And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.
Very often little kids will bring me pictures they have drawn of me preaching. And it is always amusing to see what I look like to them. I can hardly be too critical, but that picture simply reflects the original. And in the same way, we can’t abuse and mistreat each other who bear God’s image and say that we really love the imager maker.
But there is another reason that God is so angry when we do not forgive. Notice what the master says in verse 33:
33 And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?'
From the king’s standpoint, his mercy was to have a transforming affect on the first servant; he was to be merciful “as I had mercy.” To fail to reflect this transformation means that the first servant must not have internalized and appreciated the magnitude of the gift he was given.
When you put this parable in modern terms this really becomes clear. Imagine that I was goofing around driving one day in the Shell’s new neighborhood, lost control of my car and careened right into their house and destroyed it. And I go to Allan and beg for forgiveness because there is no way I could work enough to pay off the debt. And he just says, you are forgiven. The next Sunday we all show up at church, imagine Austin owed me a quarter, and that I went over to him and asked for it, and when he couldn’t pay me back I pick him up by the throat and start choking him!
That’s absurd! That’s unbelievable! Or to put it in the language of Jesus in
Verse 32 – that’s “wicked.” I think “unmerciful” is too kind for this man. It is wicked not to forgive so little when we have been forgiven so much. Not that what people to do us isn’t costly – it is. But on the scale of what God has forgiven us, it is miniscule, and when we are unmerciful, we are wicked.
I told you last week that I ought to be disbarred for malpractice because of some of the Father’s Day sermons I used to preach, for subjecting the men in the churches where I preached to my own personal anger at my father for abandoning me. I can tell you when that stopped. It stopped when I realized there was no way I could preach to others about forgiveness, about the sin of bitterness, when I was consumed with it myself. So one Christmas (1995 I think) I tracked down my father’s address, and I wrote him. It was a very brief note, and simply said, “As far as I am concerned the past is the past, and if you would like to have a relationship I would be glad to have one.” Now he never responded, but that wasn’t the point. I didn’t write that for him; I wrote it for me, so that my relationship with my true Father could be what it should be.
Matt. 6:14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, 15 but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
To fail to do this is to lose the forgiveness God has given us.
Anytime I teach about forgiveness this question comes up – what if the person who has sinned against me doesn’t ask to be forgiven? Should I forgive them anyway?
It is clear in the parable, and in the context of what Jesus teaches in verses 15-17 that we forgive when the sinful person asks to be forgiven. So no, if a person does not ask to be forgiven, there is not indication that we just forgive them anyway.
HOWEVER- here is what the Bible does teach.
1. We must always be ready to forgive. This is what Jesus modeled on the cross when he prayed “Father forgive them.” Those at the cross were not forgiven until they confessed their sin to God, but Jesus’ prayer showed that He was ready to forgive, and wanted them to be forgiven. We must always be ready to forgive sins against us, and in fact should be hoping for that to happen.
2. We must not dwell on the offense. Once something happens it is always in the brain, and we cannot keep it from periodically popping up from the subconscious mind into the conscious mind. But we can choose not to dwell on it, and to think on good things of virtue and praise.
3. We must not be spiteful. If someone has sinned against you, and is unrepentant, that does not give you the right to be hateful toward them.
Matt. 5:43 "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Back to my situation with my father, he has not asked to be forgiven. He has made no indication he wants to be, or that he wants anything to do with me. So I can’t treat him as if this never happened, not because I don’t want to, but because he doesn’t want to. But I let him know I am always ready, and I don’t dwell on it any more, and I prayed for him.
This teaching of Jesus is challenging. The extent to which we obey it depends on the extent to which we realize what God has done for us. And in fact there is one major element of what God has done for us that Jesus doesn’t mention in the parable. In the story, the king just canceled the debt, and no one had to pay the ten thousand talents. But God could not just wave away our sin-debt. He is holy and just. And for Him to be true to His own nature a price had to be paid.
To put it in the language of the parable, it would be as if the king then sent his son to prison to be tortured until the debt was paid. God’s forgiveness was not cheap or easy. It came at the cost of His Son.
1 Peter 1:18 knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, 19 but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.
And it is our hope this morning that such love, such mercy and grace, would compel you to respond and accept the gift of forgiveness.