Fetti, Domenico, ca. 1589-1623. Parable of the Wicked Servant, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55009 [retrieved October 1, 2018]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Domenico_Fetti_001.jpg.
Scripture Reading • Matthew 18.15-22 (NIV)
“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.
“Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.
“Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”
Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”
Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.
Jesus’ parables invite us into a strange new world that is shaped by grace.
Jesus’ world of grace can be completely disorienting … the tools and skills we develop for navigating the world are challenged and, sometimes even, rendered pretty much useless. As Jesus invites us to follow his way, we develop new ways of navigating life and relating to each other.
Maybe that is why so many of Jesus’ parable have twists and turns that knock the wind out of us?
One of the most powerful things a parable can do is shock us. Usually these stories don’t go the way we expect them to. They lull us into a predictable rhythm and then knock us out of it … breaking patterns … surprising us. Parables open our eyes to see something new. I am curious if Jesus’ goal in many of his parables is to surprise us with a sinking gut feeling … and make us wrestle with why we feel that way and work through what we are supposed take from it into our lives.
I want to look at the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant with you all, today. It is, you guessed it, an intense example of one of those shocking-gut-punch-parables. Before we look at the parable it is helpful to see where it shows up in Jesus’ teaching.
In Matthew 18, Jesus teaches what it looks like for disciples to live together as the church.
When the disciples asked “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Jesus challenged his culture’s understandings and assumptions about status and power. Jesus calls a little child into the center of their circle and tells the disciples that unless they become more like little children, they won’t have anything to do with the kingdom of heaven … that whoever takes the lowly position of a child would be the greatest … and that “whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” It’s not about striving to be the greatest, it’s about humility … about service … it’s not about earning or deserving … it’s about receiving gifts of grace … and it’s about welcoming the littlest and most vulnerable … the ones who don’t have anything to offer in return .
Then Jesus warned his disciples how important the littlest ones are to him. He wants the disciples to avoid doing anything that would cause these little ones to stumble or get hurt at all costs … their culture may not have given the little ones the time of day, but Jesus wants to be sure his disciples understand, little ones are valuable to him.
Then, in the passage Logan shared with us, Jesus talks about how to deal with sin inside the church – he offers a step by step process of accountability and relationship to work through pain and hurt, that aims to find restoration and healing in the end.
Peter asks about forgiveness and about how many times he should forgive someone from the church who sins against him?
“Up to seven times?” I have a hunch Peter thought he was being really generous.
Jesus told Peter it wasn’t seven times, something more like seventy-seven times.
Jesus responds to Peter’s number with an even more generous number … a number that points toward the generosity and abundance of God’s grace.
(Forgiveness is something I take seriously … but it is also something I want talk about with humility … because forgiveness brings up real and painful things people are living with. It can be complicated … and I don’t want to underestimate how difficult forgiveness can be.)
After Peter asked about the limits of forgiveness, Jesus told a story (Mt. 18.21035),
23 “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him.
This is an overwhelming amount of money. It is impossible. Almost like saying “eleventy-bazillion” dollars. The talent (the NIV translates this “bag of gold”) was the biggest unit of money these people knew, something equal to fifteen years worth of a laborer’s daily wages. Ten-thousand (the ancient greek would be “myriad”) was one of the largest numbers people could imagine. This is the biggest of the big. In his commentary on this passage, Eugene Boring, writes, “…The combination is the largest figure that can be given. The annual income for all of Herod the Great’s territories was 900 talents per year. Ten thousand talents would exceed the taxes for all of Syria, Phoenicia, Judea, and Samaria. The amount is fantastic, beyond all calculation. The debt is un-payable” (NIB VII, p. 282).
The parable starts out with this almost cartoonish extreme.
25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.
There is no chance the master would get anything close to what he was owed from this transaction … it was simply a punishment …
26 “At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ 27 The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.
The servant was in a hopeless spot. He begged for mercy. “Just give me time … I’ll get you your infinity-gazillion dollars.” Something in the master’s heart ached for the guy … He had mercy and forgave the debt, letting the servant go free.
That insane debt was forgiven?
It would have been so much … it is so hard to imagine …
28 “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.
The silver coins would have been worth about 100 days’ wages for a laborer … worth something, but tiny compared to what the guy had just been forgiven. This is the part of the parable that is supposed to catch us in the gut … he had been forgiven so much … more than we could ever imagine … the story should have gone a different way … he should be more like Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas morning: “Hey, I know you owe me some money … but you know what? I have been forgiven so much … what you owe me is nothing … forget it!”
But, that’s not how it goes in Jesus’ story.
Experiencing all that grace doesn’t seem to have an impact … did he even realize what happened? He carried on with business as usual, went into debt collector mode, wrapped his hand around the guy’s throat and demanded what was his.
29 “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’
The second servant says almost exactly what the first servant said to his master … it doesn’t matter …
30 “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt.
His heart seems so hard.
It is painful … over-the-top …
31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.
32 “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ 34 In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
Does your gut ache?
He had been forgiven so much and he can’t pass along even a little piece of the grace he has been given.
Something beautiful happened in the master’s heart … something changed. He offered his servant extravagant forgiveness … overwhelming grace … he let go of everything he was entitled to … he stopped keeping score … even though it came at a cost, he let his servant walk away.
The servant couldn’t enter that world of grace … he couldn’t stop keeping score … he couldn’t let go. Does he actually think the master took him seriously and is expecting that “eleventy-bazillion” dollars to be paid in full? Did he even realize how much the master had given him … how much grace had been offered to him?
The master stepped into the world of grace … the servant just couldn’t.
In his reflections on this parable, Robert Capon, an Episcopal priest writes:
“And do you know why the [master] could do that and the servant couldn’t? Because the king was willing to end his old life of bookkeeping [of scorekeeping] and the servant wasn’t … all the servant knew was that the heat, which had formerly been on, was now off. He hadn’t the slightest notion of what it had cost the king to put out the fire … The king does indeed need to die to the life he had when the story began: he goes out of the debt collecting business altogether … the servant’s failure to perceive the king’s death in the first half of the story is actually the only thing that can make sense of his otherwise incomprehensible merciless-ness to his fellow servant … consider, therefore, this bizarre un-forgiveness that gives the parable its name” (Capon, p. 197).
It is a jarring picture of the world of grace Jesus gave his life to offer to us and a powerful insight into the life Jesus desires for the church. Yes, the little ones matter. Yes, sin matters and needs to be dealt with. Yes, all of this is defined by God’s grace. It is an invitation into the strange, disorienting world of discipleship. It is life shaped by laying down score cards … letting go of what we are entitled to and embracing God’s offer to give us so much of what we don’t deserve … and by willingness to pass that grace along.