The Unforgiving Servant 17th Sept. 2017 Madingley
Exodus 14:19-31 Romans 14:1-12 Matt. 18:21-35
From our earliest years of life, when we learnt to rail against the perceived injustices of life with the well-worn phrase, “That’s not fair,” we seem to have a strong sense of what is right and wrong, [in our own eyes anyway], and we are probably of the opinion that it’s entirely in agreement with what God thinks, as well. Yet over and over again, Jesus pulls us up short and says, “Think again. You really have a distorted view of what God is like.”
His way of helping us make the leap in our, at least partial, understanding of the nature of God, was to tell parables; stories with characters and situations drawn from the every-day life of his time, so that the listeners felt at home with the situations and would remember them. For those who not only heard, but were prepared to reflect on what they had heard, they provided astounding insights into the true being of God.
Today’s story of the unforgiving servant includes details so astounding that those who heard it would be unlikely to forget it. Here we have a servant who has got himself into a massive amount of debt, and when the king calls all his servants in to settle their accounts with him, this particular one has absolutely no hope of being able to pay up. And so the king, as was the standard practice in those days for people who were unable to pay their debts, orders the servant, and all his family, to be sold into slavery in order for the king to recover some of his lost money.
The servant drops to his knees and begs the king to be patient, and he would find a way to pay what he owed. Now, we are told that he owed 10,000 talents, which means nothing to us as we are unfamiliar with that monetary system. However, if I were to tell you that, in today’s money, he owed £3,578,000 – well, you can see what sort of mess he was in. Quite how he managed to run up such a huge amount of debt is not really relevant; the real point that Jesus is making is that that is a sum way beyond what anyone, never mind someone in his position, would be able to pay off, ever.
So what would we expect the king do in response to the heartfelt pleas of his spendthrift servant? Certainly, if we were in Jesus’ audience, hearing this story for the first time, we would not have guessed what he did do. The interesting thing is that the king goes far beyond what the servant asks for; the servant doesn’t even dare to hope that that amount could be forgotten about, so all he asks for is time to make arrangements for some level of repayment. But the king is moved to pity, and tells the defaulter that his debt is forgiven. Where the level of debt is breath-taking, the mercy and generosity of the king is even more so.
If the parable stopped there, it would make a striking illustration of God’s mercy towards us, because surely it is not about a huge financial debt, but about our indebtedness to God for all that he has done for us, and the way he has forgiven us for the ways we have ignored him, and grieved him by our wrong-doing towards him. That servant’s situation, and ours, appears to be absolutely without hope, until the king, God, wipes the slate clean.
But there is something else which the king is trying to show his servant, and as the story progresses, it is clear that he has not realized what that is. For the servant goes out and sees someone who owes him a trifle in comparison with his own, now forgiven, debt. This second servant owes him somewhat less than £10,000; still a substantial amount, but it was 350,000 times less than the first servant’s debt.
He grabs the second servant by the throat – not something which he had suffered at the hands of the king, however much it was deserved – and demands repayment. We then hear a repeat of the earlier plea for clemency by the first man as the second servant uses exactly the same words, but the first servant seems to have forgotten that not so long ago he was in this position himself. He reveals his meanness of character in his reaction, and we see that he has learnt nothing from his own recent experience. Instead of forgiving this comparatively small debt, he throws the man into prison until he could find a way to make the required payment. Quite how he was going to manage it when his earnings would have come to an end while he was in prison, the first servant does not consider; he’s more interested in exacting some form of punishment.
The king had wanted his servant not only to experience the relief of having his debt forgiven, but also to realize that this should have had a knock-on effect on how he lived the rest of his life. This was not just about a financial debt, nor the servant’s relationship to his master, but also his relationship with everyone else, and he had not recognized that there is a connection between the two.
Jesus’ parables show us different aspects of the nature of God. In the story of the Prodigal Son, we see the father, [in other words, God], watching anxiously for his errant son’s return, and his open- armed welcome when this happens, all previous wrongs forgiven. Here the concentration is on the tender love of God, and his yearning for us to be reunited with him. In today’s story of the Unforgiving Servant, there is a secondary emphasis, beyond the forgiveness of God, to the fact that we should behave in exactly the same way towards others. As Jesus’ primary directive in Luke’s Gospel to his followers says: “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.”
Unfortunately, the unforgiving servant fails to marvel at the overwhelming generosity of his king. Did he really not appreciate the appalling level of his debt? Was that why he seemed to forget the tremendous, seemingly impossible, act of forgiveness which he had just received?
There is a good reason why the confession and absolution take place near the beginning of our services. There is a recognition that we need to have our broken relationship with God restored, before ever we set about listening, and being able to hear, what he has to say to us in the rest of the service. With the lingering guilt removed, we can worship him with, as it were, our newly laundered beings, and we can leave at the end with the commission to, “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord,” as something which is now possible.
For the weekly gathering here gives us the strength and the authority to reveal to the world the full nature of God, and to be the people we are called to be beyond these doors. There are many out there in the world who need to hear the remarkable fact that their burden of guilt is forgiven by God, and that the church can reveal this both in its teaching and its action.
We heard last week about the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Mustard Seed appeal, where he is heading up the church’s work to help those who are ground down by debt and an inability to climb out of poverty. This is fully in keeping with what Jesus was encouraging his followers to do, sharing the freedom given us through God’s generosity towards us, and letting the ripples of that beneficence spread outwards through the world.
The unforgiving servant should have gone out with such a sense of relief and joy after his master forgave him his debt, that he continued in that vein himself, writing off the debt of those who owed him money, and forgiving those who had wronged hom in any way. We are called to be a people who are infectious, not with flu, but with a level of joy which cannot be hidden as we recognize what God has done for us. Let us go out and spread that infection into the rest of our needy world.