Parables: Everyday Stories, Eternal Truths – Matt 18:21-35
It’s October-two months give or take before Christmas! I realize we haven’t reached Halloween yet-but it seems like the some of the stores are already in Holiday mode. One meme I saw said-I want to put up my Christmas tree, eat turkey and wear my Halloween costume-all at the same time! But has anyone started shopping for Christmas decorations or gifts yet? Anybody really eager and ahead of the game? Or who knows what they want this year as a Christmas gift?
I can remember when I was young-about 8 or 10 years old-a gift my Dad received for Christmas-a shiny metal birdhouse. It looked great. It stood atop a pole and had a little square house that held the birdseed-and then trays all around it where the birds could perch and eat their food. Of course all 4 sides of the birdhouse had glass windows that showed you how much birdseed was in there. And maybe you can guess where this story is going-and why I remember it as a kid-but really my Dad had no one to blame but himself for putting the birdhouse in the backyard where my brother and I played baseball! No sooner did my Dad have it up then one of us hit the ball right into it-shattering one of the windows. We felt terrible-he came right outside hearing the sound of breaking glass asking what happened. Sorry Dad-we hit your birdhouse. He was gracious, helped us clean up the broken glass and said I forgive you-just watch out next time you’re playing. But did he move the birdhouse? That is the question-and no he did not! Another fine day came along to play baseball and we hit the birdhouse again shattering a second window. We apologized and our Dad forgave us a second time-but his birdhouse was down to 2 windows! Again we went out to play baseball-and Boom, right into it-another shattered window! We were like Sorry Dad-but is there a magnet in this birdhouse for baseballs? Probably so because after a short time we hit the ball into it again and shattered the 4th and final window! I wish I could say that I went on to be a much better baseball player-but hitting that birdhouse was the most consistency I ever had as a batter! But the metal was all bent up from the impacts, the windows gone-my Dad realized it was a lost cause and took the birdhouse down. I never remember a single bird ever going there-no doubt they saw how dangerous it was! But my Dad forgave us 4 times-each time we hit it for each window. He never yelled at us-or made us buy him a new one-just graciously forgave us-4 times for doing the same thing.
And that’s exactly the nature of the question we see asked in Matt 18:21. And this is a very legitimate question-and one that I’m sure we’ve all asked about somebody before. Lord, how many times do I have to keep on forgiving them? With the underlying assumption-When can I stop? How much do I forgive before enough’s enough? Before they should know better and I don’t have to forgive them because they know what they’re doing is wrong? This is the very idea of keeping track of how many times somebody offends you or wrongs you. You think to yourself-My co-worker, my boss, my spouse has cut me down and ridiculed me every day this week-so I’m done forgiving them! And maybe it’s not everyday-but there are people who often hurt us and wrong us and annoy us. And if we kept track of how often we forgave we’d be angry and bitter people! Or reverse it-what if people kept track of how many times they forgave you? Ouch! Would you have any friends? Would you still be married? Would your family stop talking to you? That’s hard to think about! Peter believes he’s being very gracious and charitable suggesting to forgive seven times. This issue was debated in the synagogues of Jesus’ day-history quotes one Rabbi as saying-If a brother sins against you once, forgive him; a second time, forgive him; a third time, forgive him; but a fourth time-do not forgive. I would have been in serious trouble with the birdhouse because it was a four strikes you’re out culture back then! So Peter is expecting that Jesus will be really impressed with his suggestion of 7 times. Yea Peter you’re starting to get it now-way to go the extra mile on forgiveness-bonus blessings coming for you! But that’s not Jesus’ answer at all-Matt 18:22. He’s thrown out a much bigger number. If you have the NIV it says seventy-seven-but the ESV follows the Greek translation of the OT (the Septuagint) in which Jesus is quoting from Gen 4 which says 70×7=490. But either number 77 or 70×7 is far more than Peter’s 7. And so Jesus’ point is that we should forgive without counting; to forgive one another an unlimited number of times. Because who would actually say-Okay, I just forgave you for the 490th time-I’ve got a list here-been keeping track for a while-so that’s the last one. Next slip-up you’re out of luck-No forgiveness for you! Of course not! Jesus is saying there should be no restrictions and no limits on forgiveness-it’s generous, not stingy, it’s free, not earned, it’s graciously given, not bitterly withheld. Look at what Jesus says in Luke 17:4. Wow! Would your forgive someone 7 times in one day? Or would you stop and say-What is wrong with you? Stop acting like this and get away from me! I think we’d probably all default to that instead of 7 rounds of forgiveness. But Peter has raised a legitimate question-how much should I forgive someone-and Jesus has answered with a radical concept of forgiveness that Peter never imagined or anticipated. Back to Matt 18:22. Forgiveness to the nth degree. Exponential forgiveness (to bring in some math)! And Jesus then tells a parable to explain why. But before we start the parable-let me say the parade isn’t the answer. This is the answer-forgive without keeping track, forgive others over and over-there should be no limits to your forgiveness. That’s Jesus’ command in the passage-but His parable tells us why.
So let the curtain open and the parable begin-Matt 18:23-24. Typical start to the parables. Jesus isn’t talking about the values of the world or how society normally operates-He’s pointing to the Kingdom of Heaven-and He’s saying when it comes to forgiveness it operates very differently from the world. And so it begins with a King. And the King has many servants like most kings do-but the parable focuses on one particular servant who’s in a bit of pickle because he owes some money. In this case it’s ten thousand talents-which is a lot. Here’s this poor servant coming into the presence of the wealthy king with nothing but a giant debt in his name. Whenever I read this parable I always picture the King like Ebenezer Scrooge from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Scrooge is always sitting behind his desk hidden by stacks and stacks of money. He has to move the stacks out of the way in order to see his servants and speak with them-and one of his servants Bob Cratchett would love to have even a few coins that fall from his desk to feed his poor family. But while the difference in wealth between Scrooge and Bob Cratchett is great-it’s nothing compared to the difference in wealth between this King and his servant who owed him ten thousand talents. Now a talent was the largest monetary denomination that existed at the time-and it wasn’t just a $50 or $100 bill. A talent was equal to about 20 years of wages for somebody. You could work your job in the factory or out in the field or in the marketplace for 20 years and receive 1 talent. This is a large chunk of money. These days people can retire after they’ve put in 20 or 30 years of work-that’s 1 or 1.5 talents. This guy owed 10,000 talents! How do you even create that kind of debt? The answer is almost incomprehensible! So back to math-if you take 20 years for every talent and multiply it by 10,000 talents-you get 200,000 years of service this guy owed the king! Can he live two hundred thousand years to pay it off? Let me get started on that! Of course not! When Jesus is speaking 10,000 was basically the largest word they had for a numbed in the Greek language then-sort of like saying a guy owed a gazillion dollars today. So Jesus is really describing someone who owed an infinite amount of money-a debt that was insurmountable and impossible to pay back. And that means the next verse is one of the biggest understatements in Scripture-Matt 18:25. Obviously 200,000 years worth of labor can’t be accomplished so the King orders the man and his family to be sold-which sounds harsh and cruel-like something Scrooge would do-time to sell you off and recoup some of my money. But what else could the king do? There’s no way he’ll get his money back, no way the servant could ever repay. What else does the servant have to give but the service of he and his family? And in the NT times a servant was worth about 1 talent-so if this is a family of 4 the king recovers 4 talents by selling them-but still loses out on 9,996 talents. It’s a drop in the bucket compared to what’s owed! So the king isn’t being needlessly cruel-he’s doing the only thing he can. Quite honestly it’s an act of mercy because the king could have just sentenced him to death.
But mercy is what the servant appeals to-Matt 18:26. Here’s the servant begging and pleading to the king-Just give me some time and I’ll pay you back. I promise-I’ll get you the money. But is the king going to wait 200,000 years? Where’s this guy ever going to come up with that much money? These are completely hollow words. He can never hope to pay it back, there will never be enough time-he won’t even come close! The guy is helpless. And the king knows it-so he responds in a very unScrooge like way-Matt 18:27. The king wasn’t responding to the servant’s offer, he didn’t figure out a new way to make money off of him-this was charity, compassion, pity as it says-unconditional grace! There was nothing in the servant that warranted this response from the king. It was undeserved and desperately needed! So Pt1:The King’s Response: 1) Merciful, 2) Forgiving, 3) Freeing. Just the first part would have been enough-saying take your time and pay me back when you can. But the king takes it to the next level by totaling forgiving the debt, he cancelled it, wiped it clean. Those 10,000 talents were gone.
Don’t you wish your credit card company would do that? Here’s your balance and the list of all your charges-sure looks like you bought a lot! We’re going to go ahead and cancel that for you, hit delete on our system-your balance is zero! But that’s what the king did. Zeroed out the debt and released him. He still could have kept him as a servant-made him do chores around the palace and wash his dishes-but instead he set him free. The burden was lifted, the debt gone. He was free to go on his merry way. Can you imagine how he walked out of the king’s chambers? Shock? Amazement? A smile spreading across his face, joy filling his heart, relief flooding his soul? If someone asked if he wanted a ride home I bet he said-No thanks, I’m going to savor the moment and walk home. He’s singing Chris Tomlin all the way-My chains are gone, I’ve been set free! He’s got a whole new lease on life-his impossible debt is forgiven, life turned upside down. And if this were a play on stage this is where Act 1 ends, the curtain closes and its intermission.
And what do we do during intermission but talk about Act 1. Wow-didn’t see that coming? Can you believe it? How about the fortunes of that guy? What’s it about? And we know that it’s about the truth. In the parables Jesus uses these Everyday stories to point to Eternal truths. Because this great debt isn’t something fictional. It is very real, very great and very relevant to each of us because it’s sin. Your sin, my sin-and it creates an unrepayable debt. Our sin flies in the face of the King-but not just any random king-but the King of Kings, the Lord Himself who made us. And because He’s perfectly holy, He hates our sin. It’s an abomination to Him. Look at Ps 45:7. Or also Ps 1:6. We are to hate evil and wickedness and cling to what is good. The problem is that we have it reversed. Paul says it so well-Rom 7:15, 18-19. Who hasn’t struggled like that-or felt that way? Sin is an awful but true reality in our lives-1 John 1:8. We are all sinners-and the debt of our sin is death-physical death in this life and spiritual death in the life to come-meaning spiritual separation from the King’s presence. It describes our situation well in Rom 3:20, 23. That means there’s nothing you and I can do to make ourselves acceptable to God-nothing we can do in our strength to please Him and earn His favor. Our sin creates an impossible debt to pay. In hearing this parable you might think-Glad I’m not in that guy’s shoes-but you are-we all are! And our debt isn’t a monetary one-it’s a spiritual debt that goes far deeper. We’re just as helpless and stuck as the guy in the parable-and our only answer was his only answer-the unconditional grace of God. And do you know what I find so fascinating-that grace that we see pictured by the King in the parable is actually displayed by the very One telling us the parable-and that’s Jesus. He can talk about a King forgiving a huge debt because that’s exactly why He’s come to this earth. Forgiving a huge debt is exactly what the cross is all about and where that forgiveness was accomplished. Look at Col 2:13-14. You can think of it as long sheet of paper listing all your sins and failures and mistakes being nailed right to the Cross with Jesus. They were paid for and forgiven by Him. When He died so did you record of debt. It’s completely gone. Your Grace so free, washes over me as we sang this morning. And yet for our King it’s incredibly expensive because it was at the cost of own life. Go back to Matt 18:27. That can happen in the parable because that’s what really happens at the Cross. That’s a gospel verse. This detail in the story points us to what the Storyteller does for you and me. Out of pity and compassion for us Jesus forgives our debt. We’re released from the chains of our sin and guilt and set free. That means we are to be like that servant walking away fully forgiven and overjoyed, our lives transformed and turned upside down.
Or that’s how it should be-because what happens when intermission ends and Act 2 begins? This forgiven servant walks home amazed and at peace with a whole new outlook on life? Take a look at Matt 18:28a. And what do you suppose happens? The servant says-This is the best day of my life-you don’t owe me a dime. You’re forgiven-it’s the least I could do after what the king did for me. Let’s go grab some lunch together! You would think that’s how the parable ends-but take a look at what actually happens-Matt 18:28. Unbelievable! And a denarii was worth about 1 day’s wage-so 100 denarii is just over 3 months worth of wages. Money made over the summer. It’s not nothing-but how does a debt of 3 months ever compare to a debt of 200,000 years? You couldn’t find a scale big enough to balance the two. It’s so insignificant in comparison! What happened? One minute he’s graciously forgiven, next minute he’s grabbed someone by the neck choking him-not even patient enough to have a conversation and talk about it. There’s no compassion, no grace; it’s all rage and anger. As if Bob Cratchett leaves Scrooges office and then goes and chokes Tiny Tim! But listen to the response-Matt 18:29. Sound familiar? Those were the servant’s exact words to the king! Shouldn’t that have startled him in mid-choke-What am I doing? I’m so sorry. But he doesn’t-there’s no change of heart or ounce of compassion-v. 30. Zero forgiveness-pay me back every last dime-and until you do it’s the cold, dark dungeon. And that’s Pt2:The Servant’s Response: 1) Seized, 2) Refused, 3) Imprisoned. What a difference on the outline-the King showed mercy, the servant seized and choked him; the King forgives the debt, the servant refuses; the King sets him free, the servant imprisons him. There is something very wrong with this scenario-especially when the servant was just forgiven that morning, he was literally on his way home! He had tasted forgiveness, felt its joy and liberation, but now he’s refusing to show it to a fellow brother-v. 31-33. That’s the question that cuts right to the heart! This wasn’t advice from the King-it’s a command, an obligation-the very thing a forgiven person does-they forgive others. And what happens when they don’t? Jesus is very serious about it-v. 34. And his taste of forgiveness from earlier that day is gone. To be forgiven by the King and then not forgive is unthinkable! Jesus is saying the servant didn’t really understand forgiveness in the first place. He wasn’t transformed by it-and now he’ll have a long time to think about it-200,000 years-or basically eternity. And Act 2 ends!
What a parable! Not the happy ending we were expecting! And yet Jesus wants some audience participation. This isn’t just a little story-it’s where you and I get involved-v. 35. We’re back to the point that Jesus was telling Peter-App#1:Forgiveness isn’t an option. That’s where this parable is so effective because every time I read it I think what a terrible, cold-hearted, merciless servant that guy is-how could he act like that? Until I realize that’s how I act every time I don’t forgive someone and let bitterness grip my heart! That my lack of forgiveness chokes and imprisons people. Or way too often I’ll forgive someone only after I think they’ve earned it. When someone wrongs me or offends me or even annoys me-I’ll forgive them only if I see they’re trying to make it right. Not until they apologize or beg or learn their lesson and suffer a little will I forgive. Have you been there-making people earn your forgiveness? But that’s not this parable. App#2:Forgiveness is generously (not grudgingly) given. Way too often we see spouses who get bitter at each other, family members who stop talking, friendships that break, co-workers who hate each other, brothers and sisters in Christ who destroy each other-all because they’re bitterly insisting that the other person apologizes first. Not until they make it right will I forgive! And it’s a stalemate-each person waiting for the other. But that’s not what forgiveness is. Did God wait to forgive us until we had cleaned ourselves up and started living better? Not at all. How many times have you heard someone say-They know what they’ve done-I’m just waiting for them to admit it. Or fine I’ll forgive-but you can bet I’ll never forget it! That’s not forgiveness. Yes it’s hard-but App#2! Keller, King’s Cross, 101. And understanding that is how you forgive. Look at Eph 4:31-32. Forgiveness doesn’t begin with trying to get into a forgiving mood-if you wait until you feel like you’ll never forgive anybody! Forgiveness begins by centering on the forgiveness you have in Jesus your King-the very thing the guy in the parable didn’t do.
One of the things we say around here is that Good people don’t go to heaven-none of us will ever be good enough. Good people don’t go to heaven-forgiven people go to heaven. That’s the gospel-and if that’s true-forgiven people go to heaven-then App#3:Forgiven people forgive. It’s as simple as that. Is there anyone that you need to forgive? Who is God putting on your heart this morning? As you picture that servant who failed to forgive his brother-who is it that you need to forgive? Don’t rationalize it away. Don’t assume they already know you’ve forgiven them. Don’t tell yourself they don’t deserve it so you’re off the hook. They probably don’t deserve it-which makes the forgiveness all the more real because we don’t deserve God’s forgiveness. But as recipients of His abundant grace-as those who have been shown mercy and given new life. As forgiven people we are called to forgive! And start with those closest to you-right within your family or church family or circle of friends. It doesn’t do you a lot of good to forgive the people on the fringes of your life while the tension and bitterness is so thick at home you could cut right through it! Parents-if you’re child breaks every window in your birdhouse-forgive them! If your brother sins against you 7 times in a day-forgive him. We don’t live in a world of forgiveness-we live in a grumpy world of people holding grudges. But we’re called to change that. Let your life rewrite this parable. That as your great King has forgiven you such an infinite debt-so you go and graciously forgive the small debts others owe you. That instead of seizing and choking your brother saying pay me what you owe-you forgive him and together celebrate the grace of God!