Jesus began his parable because of a question Peter asked about forgiveness. “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times,” (Matt 18.21b, ESV)? Jesus’ famous response to him was the famous line of not seven times but seventy times seven or some translations have it as seventy-seven times. Both would of course mean that there should be no limit to our mercy and forgiveness.
But the question was raised because of a lesson Jesus was giving about church discipline. Jesus had taught His disciples about the need to confront the person who sins against them, and have them repent. If they didn’t repent then two go and confront him. If he still won’t repent then they bring the matter before the church. Hopefully by then they see their sin and confess and repent.
So Peter asked, how many times should one forgive someone who sins against him/her? How many times should he/she have to go up to him and work things out? Jesus’ response was basically, as many times as it takes. So Jesus tells a parable about a king and his servants, one of which owes an exorbitant amount of money. “When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed ten thousand talents,” (Matt 18.24, ESV). Exorbitant does not even begin to describe this amount. This was unthinkable. A denarius was a day’s wage. If this servant worked six days a week, making a denarius, he would have to work 10 million weeks to pay back the debt in its entirety. If you do the math, the average pay in America is $25.00/hr. That means that the average daily wage before taxes is about 200.00. Thus, a week’s pay is $1,200. Therefore the amount that 10,000 talents equals in American terms is about $12 Billion! That debt is massive. It is impossible to pay back.
That being said…the servant who owed $12 Billion had a fellow servant indebted to him. “And when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii,” (Matt 18.28, ESV). That’s 100 days’ worth of wages, which comes out to be about $20,000. That’s a lot of money, but not even a drop in the bucket of what the first servant owed.
Here is what is often overlooked in this parable, and I do not believe that Jesus wanted this aspect overlooked. The second servant owed a lot to the first servant. That debt was real. Comparatively speaking, it was small, but it was no less real than the debt the first servant owed. The servant was owed that money.
It is so easy for us to tell someone else to get over it. I’m that way. My first instinct is to tell someone, you gotta let it go. But we don’t do that with money do we? If someone promises to fix your roof for $20,000, and takes the money but never repairs the roof, you’re not going to say, eh, I’m going to let it go. You’re doing everything you can to get those sheisters in jail! They owe a debt to you, and one way or another you’re going to get yours. So it is with offenses. It may not be money, but it’s deeper than that. It’s your heart, your mind, your time, your family, your body, that has been encroached upon and hurt. Sometimes there is so much pain that no amount of money could make it better. Letting go of $20,000 would be easy compared to letting someone get away with the pain they’ve caused.
So we cannot pretend as if the debt isn’t real. Jesus understood the debt. He didn’t say that they owed a penny. They owed $20,000, a large sum–nothing to sneeze at. So if that is you, who have been hurt deeply, Jesus never makes light of your pain. For us who have never experienced such pain, we cannot allow ourselves to be so calloused as to pretend it is no big deal. At the same time, there is no getting around what Jesus was saying when He compares the two debts. He is not making little of how much was owed to the first debtor, but rather helping us to see that if we have been hurt to so great a degree, we have a small understanding of how much we have hurt our king. We know the pain of being sinned against, and thus we have a taste of how much we have sinned against the king.
Which leads us to how these two men responded to the debt that was owed. The King saw the debt, “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,” (Matt 18.25). The servant saw his fellow-servant and knowing the debt, “Seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe,’ (Matt 18.28b).
The King was dealing justly with the man. He owed a massive amount that would be impossible to pay. The way this would be reckoned was by the man selling himself into slavery and if necessary his wife and kids to pay back the debt. The problem was that this wasn’t going to pay the debt back. I don’t care how much the price of a slave was, unless he/she was $4 Billion each, the debt would go unpaid. Whatever payment was to come would not suffice the amount owed.
This is why I don’t believe the world, or even the church in many cases, understands the immensity of sin. There is the constant idea that a loving God would not send anyone to hell. But in reality, what they are saying is that they don’t think they could do anything that could be so offensive as to deserve hell. This parable shows us that the sin that we commit against God is so vast and so great that it is impossible to make up for it, even if we were sold as slaves.
Again, if a roofing company took our $20,000 and never did the roof, we would have no problem having them go to jail and punished for their sin against us. So when we see the reaction of the servant to his indebted fellow-servant, seizing, choking, and demanding payment, we should be able to understand it. But what gives us pause, and makes us rethink our position on this type of reaction is the change of heart on the king’s part. He’s ready to sell the whole family into slavery, cut his losses, and take what he can. “So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the master of the servant released him and forgave him the debt,” (Matt 18.26).
The man repented. Rather than taking more from the king, he wanted to make things right and pay it back. He offered to pay it all back, but the problem was that he’d never be able to do that. He knew it; the king knew it. The king accepted his repentance, and let him go free. From that point on He would owe no debt to the king. It was all forgiven.
You would think this man’s heart would be lighter. The burden and fear of such crippling debt was released. You would think that he’d be whistling a happy little tune, and all be right in the world. Maybe he was, until that is, he saw his fellow-servant. Out of nowhere, the grabs him and starts to choke the life out of him, screaming, “Pay me my money! Pay me my money!” That would be understandable if that scene occurred before meeting with the king. But it didn’t. It was after having been forgiven and set free by the king.
Just like the forgiven servant, the fellow-servant, pleaded. “So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you,’” (Matt 18.29, ESV). Here is the fellow-servant repenting of his debt, and wanting to make things right. But there was no mercy offered to him. “He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt, “(Matt 18.30).
Perhaps like many of us, this servant was blind to the vast indebtedness that he was in. Like us, we can’t even begin to think about what it would be to have a billion dollars, let alone owe someone $12 Billion. The sum of our indebtedness would be so great that since we cannot comprehend it all, we shut it out and don’t comprehend it in the least. Perhaps that is what this guy was doing. It was so great that he put it out of his mind, and focused on what was happening to him in the moment.
We as believers know that we have been granted mercy and forgiveness by God. But we don’t understand how expansive and abundant that mercy has been, so we tend to put that on the back-burner, and focus on what is happening now, at his moment and time. Since we are not so much focused on the mercy we received, it is easier not to focus on the mercy we are to give. So while we have been offered mercy beyond comprehension, we refuse to offer that kind of mercy, for that which others have indebted themselves to us.
The question is, what does this attitude of forgetfulness and taking mercy for granted do to the great mercy-Giver? The king hears about what happened and is outraged. “Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you’,” (Matt 18.32-33).
The servant is not wicked because he owed the king money. He didn’t owe him a dime. He is wicked because he refused to imitate the king in mercy. Sure we’ll gladly receive it, but we will not gladly give it. That’s hypocrisy. Some of Jesus’ toughest words and condemnations were reserved for the religious who were hypocrites.
The debt that is owed to you is real. It is enormous. No one says otherwise. Yet the debt that you owed to the king, your Master, is so much greater, infinitely greater. In fact, if you wanted to strictly go by mathematical standards, the debt owed to you is 1/600,000 the amount of what you owed to the king. So rather than wrestle with the person who wounded you so deeply, a better approach would be to wrestle with your own heart until you can grant him mercy.
If you won’t wrestle with yourself, the king will order you to be wrestled with. “And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay the debt,” (Matt 18.34). The word for jailer is actually the word torturer. Until you can let go of your anger, your bitterness, your pride, your pain, you will be tortured. You are tortured until the debt is paid. What debt? Not the $12 Billion debt; that was forgiven. What you now owe is the debt of mercy. Until you are willing to show mercy as your Father showed mercy, you forfeit your right to further mercy. “It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons…For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it,” (Heb 12.7a, 11).
As we close, there are some reading this who may have never experienced what it is to have all your debt forgiven by the unending mercy of God through Jesus. All the debt that you owe due to your sin and rebellion was paid for by Jesus on His cross if you will receive Him as your own, and follow Him with your whole being.
But for us who have received such mercy, there are possibly some reading this who have been holding on to hurts and anger for a long time. You know what it means to be tortured by them. You know how often you pray but your prayers seem so powerless. You know what it means to be receiving God’s discipline. Maybe today, you realize that you must let it go. Though it costs you so much to show mercy, you realize that it is worth it all.