September 14, 2014 - Matthew 18.21-35

“Settling Accounts”

Matthew 18:21-35

September 14, 2014


21 Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

23 “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25 and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26 So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 31 When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32 Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35 So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”


Our text today begins with mathematics. Peter asks Jesus, "Lord, how often should I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me?" Seven times? That sounds reasonable, even merciful. Jesus responds with a geometrically progressive figure. Forgiveness is limitless; it cannot be tallied. Throw away the calculator and slide rule. Stop counting. There are no mathematicians or accountants in the kingdom. In this strange kingdom there is no forgiving seven times but forgiving seventy times seven. Seven times here, seven times there, before long we are talking big money. Peter is talking about settling up accounts.

Movie about the old west.  “I’ve come to settle accounts,” the action hero says through clenched teeth.  Then he starts shooting.  The revenge theme is omnipresent in Kung Fu movies.  “You killed everyone I knew.  I will train for years and them come after you.”  Or how about, “Hello.  My name is Inigo Montoya.  You killed my father.  Prepare to die.”  It seems that as humans we would much rather “get even,” or settle accounts than forgive someone who has wronged us.

Forgiveness, while contrary to our nature, is part of God's nature. In Christ, we are forgiven. That divine forgiveness calls into question many of our notions of justice or what's right. What is right? What is just? These are among the questions put before us in today's gospel.

In our text today, Jesus tells us that we must go to great lengths to give grace and forgiveness to others.  Notice that Jesus did not say to get forgiveness; he said to give it.  The lengthy rules for the church and the person who is sinned against are prompting us to not only go to the other person face to face, but to go to great lengths to give grace to that person.  Peter makes the generous suggestion that we should go so far as to forgive our neighbor as many as seven times.  Jesus far outdoes him.  The difference between Peter’s proposal and Jesus’ pronouncement is not a matter of mathematics or linguistics, but the nature of forgiveness.  Whoever counts has not forgiven at all, but it only biding his or her time.  The kind of forgiveness called for is beyond calculation.

Jesus answers these questions with a parable.

Compare God's kingdom with a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants, balance the books, set things right do justice. A servant owed him ten thousand talents. Don't get your calculators, I'll tell you how much that is. One talent is the equivalent of 15 years' labor. The servant owed his master something like $3.75 billion. We're talking big money.

When the little wretch couldn't pay, the king ordered him, his wife, and children to be sold. Does that seem harsh? But $3.75 billion is a lot of money. Imagine a king giving a servant even $1 million. That would be a generous king, very generous indeed. But this king has lavished $3.75 billion in loans on just this one servant.

What became of all that money? What kind of life would you have to live to blow $3.75 billion? How could this servant possibly have wasted so many millions. This must be some wasteful servant. You would have to work full time to blow that much money! Don't waste your sympathy on this guy. He blew $3.75 billion. He has nothing to pay back? Nothing? A wife, a couple of kids, a stint in jail; it really isn't so much when compared to $3.75 billion that has been criminally wasted.

You can't blame the king for being angry. If we were tallying only say, $10 million, then perhaps the king could have written it off. But $3.75 billion! It's time for decisive action. He has wasted his master's hard-earned money. Put him and his family in the slammer and let them think it over!

There then follows such a scene. The servant falls down and (literally) "worships" the king. "Have patience with me and I will repay you everything."

Who is he kidding? Repay $3.75 billion when he's blown every cent?

Well, the King must be a pushover, because that is exactly what he did.  Forgave him this UNBELIEVEABLE debt.  Without a doubt, that should have changed the servant’s life forever.

You’d think so.

But on his way out, the servant comes across a guy who owes him 100 denarii.  “Pay up!” he says.  (100 denarii is not a small amount probably like $1000 in today’s market.)

To contrast the two amounts, 100 denarii could be carried in one person’s pocket.  10,000 talents would require an army of 8,600 men, each carrying a sack of coins weighing over 60 pounds.

The figure of the debt owed to the King is not realistic. 

One talent = 15 year’s wages for a laborer.  20.4 kg of silver, equal to 6,000 drachmas. 

“Ten Thousand” was the largest number possible (myrias = myriad) 

The annual tax income for all of King Herod’s territories was 900 talents a year.

10,000 talents would exceed the taxes for all of Syria, Phoenicia, Judea, and Samaria.

10,000 talents would equal 150,000 years of labor for a single worker.

10,000 would be equal to (if the avg. worker earns $25 k a year) $3,750,000,000.00

2,143 lifetimes to pay.

The whole thrust of the parable is to bring the second scene in line with the first.  It doesn’t happen in the parable and the servant pays the price.  The lesson for us is to bring our lives into line with God’s will, which is to forgive us all.  It is about allowing the Holy Spirit to transform us into the likeness of Christ, and to forgive as we have been forgiven.

We human beings have our limits, especially when it comes to forgiveness. A wrong suffered, particularly against our honor, our self-respect, is most difficult to forgive. Injustice seems too easily explained away, excused by calls for forgiveness. Jesus is the one who has extravagantly forgiven us. He thereby rearranges our notions of justice. If justice is doing what's right, then after Jesus, what's right?

Sam Moffat was a missionary in China and later a professor at Princeton Seminary.  His tale of his flight from the Communists in China is a gripping one.  They seized his house, all of his possessions, burned the missionary compound, and killed some of his closest friends.  He and his family barely escaped with their lives.  When he left China, he took with him a deep resentment for the Communists of Chairman Mao.  It metastasized in him, he said, becoming a spiritual cancer, and eating him alive.  Finally he told his students that he faced as singular crisis of faith.  “I realized,” he said “that if I have no forgiveness for the Communists, then I have no message at all.”

If we cannot have grace to give to others, and especially each other, then we have no message at all.

The story begins by the king giving a wasteful servant what he deserves. And you and I feel genuinely sorry for the servant. Sure, he has blown a lot of money but, after all, he's a little servant and he owes to a big king and, why not give him a second chance? We experience a brief burst of generosity. Then the king has a brief burst of generosity. but after being forgiven, the servant gives his fellow servant what he deserves. Finally, the king gives the vengeful servant what he deserves.

Now, you might be thinking at this point, “OK.  Forgive.  I get it.  God has forgiven me this completely un-repayable debt.  So, I must forgive everyone who has sinned against me.  Got it.  So what has all of this got to do with me?”

Glad you asked.

We remembered 9/11 this week.  ISIS is decapitating people simply because they can.  Israel and Hamas are still trading blows.  Russia is invading its neighbors. Innocent lives are blown to bits by anonymous, faceless, cowardly terrorists. Before we begin to talk of forgive and forget, read a bit of the history of our tit-for-tat terrorism. Accounts are being settled.   The 9/11 terrorists bombed us because they see us as a big bankroll behind Israel.  It says a great deal that they did not strike the Washington Cathedral, or some other prominent Christian church.  They struck down the symbol of our money.  They wanted a war.  We gave them what they wanted.  They get bombed.  The Israelis bombed them.  They bomb us.  We bomb them.  Will this cycle never end?

The cycle begins, up at the White House or down in your and my house, with the desire to settle accounts. Just wait until your father gets home.

The only effective weapon against hate is love.  If this were a war against an army, we could use tanks and win it.  But this is a war against hate.  The only weapon that will do any good is love and forgiveness.  The only real weapon that can save this world is the gospel of Jesus Christ.

I find it very telling that those people who are in the business of “settling up” these “accounts” never seem to get anything settled.  Whether it is our own government or the Israelis and Palestinians, it seems that settling up accounts never settles much.

“Watch it Preacher!” you might be thinking.  “You’re getting political!”  No, I am not.  I am sorry if that is the impression I am giving.  I am aiming SO MUCH higher than that.  I am not trying to say anything political; I am trying to say something profoundly spiritual – because that is what Jesus was doing.  This is not about world politics – this is about our hearts.

We live, in an often unjust world, for those delicious moments when "what goes around comes back around," and accounts are settled.  See? The violence and retribution that characterize Jesus’ parable are continued in our lives and our world. Accounts are being settled.

This is our world, our kingdom, often bloody, exceedingly dangerous, wheels within wheels, eternal cycles of vengeance and repayment Arabic-Irish-Catholic-Korean-Black treadmills of retribution and no way to get off.  Grace is the only way to change anything.  In your life and mine, we often play the role of this unforgiving servant.  That is who we are in this parable.  Jesus' little story has revealed to us the big truth: we are probably no worse, but certainly no better than anyone else. 

God has forgiven us so much.  We must forgive each other.

God has forgiven us more than we can ever repay.  We must forgive our enemies.

God has forgiven us more than words can say.  Will we react like people who have been forgiven more than we could ever repay, or will we react like people who have no concept of forgiveness?

On a Friday afternoon, after we had stripped him of his dignity, after his friends had forsaken him and fled, after the soldiers had spit upon him and whipped him, after the trial (everything was done according to the law!), we dragged him up a hill, nailed his hands and feet, and crucified him. And as he hung there bleeding to death, he looked down at us, and this king said, "Father, forgive them."

Do you know what happened then? The wheels within wheels came to a grinding halt, the eternal cycle of retribution was derailed, our kingdoms crumbled, and accounts were settled.  As I open up the ledger of my life, I see that I deserve to go to Hell, and Jesus has paid that price for me.  Because Jesus has forgiven me, I must forgive you.  No matter what I do, my books are eternally in the red.  I will never pay off this debt.  My accounts can never be settled because I owe Jesus too much to repay. 

You take a look at your books.  Are they the same?  Isn’t your bottom line eternally in the red?  If so, how can we possibly hold a grudge against anyone…for anything?

  December 2017  
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