By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
September 13, 2020
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Matthew 18:21–35 (ESV)
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?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times. 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.”
I want to be as honest with you all as I possibly can be. The past few months have been extremely hard on me as a pastor. I try to be encouraging through the stay at home ordeal, and I often feel like the messages I have given were just adding more of a burden. And there is just so much negativity within the various forms of media that I feel as if I have gotten in a negative rut. I say this because the first few times I read through this week’s passage my mind went directly to news reports. I do not even consume much news. My average news consumption is under an hour, yet when I read about the parable of the servants my mind goes to the news reports. I think that this tells me a great deal. The first thing that it tells me is that our culture has been infected with the disease of discontent. We are allowing things of this world to distract our attention away from true life with Christ.
Peter asks Jesus an important question today. Last week we spoke about the process of reconciliation. First, we should go to those that have wronged us and speak to them personally. If that conversation did not lead a mutually beneficial conclusion, we should then bring some trusted friends to join us in the conversation. This is incredibly wise counsel, because when tensions are high sometimes the words of a mediator can allow us to see where both parties are being unreasonable. The third step if the situation is still not resolved is to bring the matter before the assembly or in our case the church. I find this to be interesting because I have had to work through things in the past. These steps are like the steps that our court systems take people through.
The teachings of Christ are often practical regarding interpersonal relations. They give us a good picture as to how to approach many things, but like many things if we do not continue to practice, we become rusty. If we do not continuously practice the methods of reconciliation daily; with our children, our spouses and family members, with our coworkers, and our friends we will continue a cycle of unrepentance and disunity. But if we practice these things, they become second nature to us.
Peter says, “OK, I get this process Jesus, but how long do we really do it. How many times do we have to go through this process?” I have been there. I understand where Peter is coming from. Those in my family are probably right there with him too when they consider all the times, I have not been at my prime around them. Peter is basically asking Jesus, when can we stop?
The last step in Jesus’s process is to treat the offending person like a tax collector and sinner. Have you really thought about that? How is a follower of Jesus supposed to treat those that are not part of the church around them? We are supposed to be bearers of the light of Christ, we are supposed to live our lives before them as examples of a different type of lifestyle than the one the world lives, so that they will at some point slow down and answer the great question of Who is Jesus and why should I care.
This is where Peter is. He knows the people he is being encouraged to forgive. He has lived in the same community with them since he was a child and some of them live in the same house. How long do we have to keep this process up? And Peter gives a number, seven. It sounds like a good number. It has great spiritual significance with the seven days of creation and all. And if we think of those people that have wronged us in a significant way, it might even be a number that is filled with a great deal of grace. Imagine forgiving an adulterous spouse not once but seven times, in my mind that would be significant. I could not even imagine extending grace to that extent to someone that took the life of a loved one. Those are the things that we are thinking about when we are presented with the issue of forgiveness, and why we often struggle.
Jesus responds to Peter’s question and personal response with something that floored the disciples. “I do not say to you seven, times, but seventy-seven.” Some other translations will also say seventy times seven times. The thing about this is that the ancient understanding of numbers is a bit different than we have today. Often in scripture the term 1000 does not necessarily mean a number but could mean infinity, so when John speaks of a thousand year reign of Jesus after the second coming he might be meaning a literal thousand years or he might be expressing the concept of eternity. I am not saying that we should disregard the numbers mentioned in scripture, but we need to recognize that at times numbers can be used as an expression especially when they are large numbers. In this case, the concept of seventy-seven or seventy times seven is not literal but is an expression of continuation. I say this because seventy times seven is four hundred and ninety, so if we are focusing on the literal number of seventy-seven or four hundred and ninety what are we doing? If we are counting the amount of times, we have forgiven someone are we focused on reconciliation or are we focused on when we can start kicking them out? If we are looking forward to that last time we have not reconciled with our brother, our sister, or our friend we are not putting in the work. We are allowing behavior to continue without consequences, we are letting people walk over us without expressing our concerns, and we are letting the situation get out of hand to the point that you and not them will blow up and cause a rupture in the relationship that is more difficult to mend.
To focus on the literal number is to distract our attention from what is most important. Jesus is using the numbers to illustrate the foolishness of the concept. If we have gained a brother through the process of reconciliation, we have spoken to that individual, we have let them know what transgression they have caused, we brainstormed ways to prevent further harm, and we have moved forward from that point because the problem should be solved. We do not need to keep track of that transgression any longer because in theory if both parties are honestly seeking mutual good of each other there should never be an additional transgression in that area. To keep track of a number means that we did not approach that first conversation with any desire to forgive or work things out, instead we approached that conversation with an agenda.
I say this knowing full well that when trust if broken it is difficult to move forward. It may take years to come to a point where trust is restored. That does not mean we should give up. Scripture tells us that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. If we really wanted to be honest, we could say all sin every day and fall short of the glory of God. Every day I do something that will irritate someone in my family. Every day I will annoy a customer or a coworker. Every day I could live better. Every day the opposite is true as well, I get annoyed by customers, I am irritated by family members to some degree, and I have been on the brink of quitting many times. This week reality hit me. I realized that I have not been the best example of living the love of Christ with others. And that realization came in the form of my son’s schoolwork. The assignment was that the student would draw a picture and write a sentence about the picture. And the sentence was, “My dad is always grumpy.”
That sentence got to me. It is not who I am. I love to laugh; I love to play games and goof off. At times it would be embarrassing for people to know just how unserious I can be. Yet something happened somewhere last week where the goof became a grump. I realized that I was not practicing the life I claim to be living. I was not promoting good conflict resolution with someone that means the world to me. I was neglecting true discipline and allowed grumpiness to displace love.
What do we do when that happens?
Jesus tells us, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wishes to settle his accounts with his servants.” Jesus often presents his most profound teaching in the form of a story. This is because we often remember the story long after we have forgotten the facts. And wrapped within the words of stories can be the most profound truth we can find. I love a good book. I am a quiet person and I find a day where I can sit and read about as close to heaven as one can get on earth. And I think part of the reason I have been grumpy is because I have not had enough time to relax in that way. But story comes in many forms, the movies we watch, the video games we might play, or even a sculpture or painting is a story. It is some creative aspect within our mind that is being used to express some truth or observation of the world. Stories are powerful, they make their way into our minds and we process them layer after layer. They reveal something to us we did not see before, and prompt us to confront it. Well at least a good story does that, some stories might just be entertaining.
Jesus uses story to drive home his teaching on forgiveness. A king wants to settle his accounts. He calls in his subjects that have debts with him and demands payment. We are told that one of those servants has a debt of ten thousand talents. Again, we have a number here, and it is a really big number. A talent is basically the amount of money an average person would be able to live on in a year. One talent would be the basic income to survive, and this man had a debt of ten thousand talents. Jesus told this story about two thousand years ago, so this guy’s family would still have a debt of eight thousand talents if they gave their entire salary to the king. The number here again is not so much literal, but outrageous. There is no way a common person would be able to pay this debt off. I think it is a bit crazy to have a debt that large. Imagine having that size of a debt hanging over your head and getting that call. You know you have nothing that will even come close to satisfying the debt yet the call came. We know it is just a story because if this were reality that man would have probably died on the spot, but instead he stands before the king. He begs the king for his life and for the life of his family on bent knees. He claims that he will pay everything back if only he would grant him time.
The king is unlike any king or ruler on earth. The king looks at this man with a debt that would be held over his head and the heads of his family spanning a hundred and fifty generations, and the king had pity for him. The king was moved deeply, and the ancients would say it moved him deep in his bowels. I am glad we no longer use that expression. Today we would say heart or soul, it shook us to the very core of who we are. The king looked at this man and he saw such potential in him that instead of ruining his life and that of his family, the king decided to forgive the debt. Imagine waking up one morning getting the mail and looking at a stack of bills, opening them up and reading the amount due as being zero, and in a panic you see that their was a credit added to the account that payed it off completely. And you see it on every bill, even the thirty-year mortgage paid completely. What would you do that day?
Well this man had just witnessed the king forgiving a debt that his family would still be paying off today, and he like anyone that has good sense went directly out of the royal courts and he finds a servant that owes money to him. This man has no debts, he literally owes nothing to anyone. He sees this man and he demands that he pays off the debt that is owed. This servant has a debt of one hundred denarii. If a talent was equivalent to a yearly salary, a denarius was a day’s wage. This man owed the other less than a third of a years’ wages. If we were to put this into perspective the 100th day of the year is April 10th, which is almost tax-day. This man if he wanted to could survive on a half of a loaf of bread a day and suffer for a bit and have his entire debt paid off after two hundred says, so on July 19th he could be debt free and back to full rations. He has a debt, a large debt looming over his head, but it is a debt that is manageable. With careful planning his family could be free and clear within one year. But it will take time. I am not able to pay a third of my salary to a debt today. Very few people could pay that amount of money off at a moment’s notice.
We have a man whose family would be continuing to pay off the debt even a hundred and fifty generations after his death, and another man who could pay it off within a year. And the man that was given grace of one hundred and fifty lifetimes, looked at the other and was enraged. The amount of the other man’s debt was insignificant in the greater scheme of things. Where the first man’s debt is beyond our comprehension. It is like comparing the average credit card debt American’s hold to the national debt.
What does Jesus’s story have to do with reality? All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, St. Paul tells us. And he also says that the wage of sin is death. Each of us has a debt that we cannot pay no matter how hard we work. In the eyes of our God, our king we are like that first man. We have no hope of paying it off, even if we gave everything more would be required. So much more is required that God sent his Son to take on that debt for us. Jesus was born as a baby and lived in a family of construction workers for thirty years before entering ministry. He then spent three years walking around Israel with his disciples while he taught, healed, and showed us a lifestyle of true holiness. He experienced a complete life with us. And he experienced the gross injustice humanity can perpetrate on another. He who was without sin, became sin for us. He took our sin, our debt, on himself when he died on that cross. And he released us from that debt when he rose again. A debt that would be impossible to pay like asking me to personally pay off the national debt tomorrow, Christ took on himself.
We got ourselves into that mess, and Christ frees us from it. Now we are asking, how many times should I forgive my brother? Jesus is telling us what to do, work it out. Ok your friend wronged you, let them know what is going on and come up with a solution so you do not have to have the same conversation again, and move on. And guess what you might have that same conversation again, because maybe we got distracted or stressed out. Start the process over again, stop being a grumpy dad and start living life again. We have been forgiven much, by the one that had nothing to be forgiven of, who do we really think we are?
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