The Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Love of God, and the Fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.
Matthew 18:21 “Then Peter came and said to Him, ‘Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?’ 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven. 23 “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a certain king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 “And when he had begun to settle them, there was brought to him one who owed him ten thousand talents. 25 “But since he did not have the means to repay, his lord commanded him to be sold, along with his wife and children and all that he had, and repayment to be made. 26 “The slave therefore falling down, prostrated himself before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will repay you everything.’ 27 “And the lord of that slave felt compassion and released him and forgave him the debt. 28 “But that slave went out and found one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and he seized him and began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay back what you owe.’ 29 “So his fellow slave fell down and began to entreat him, saying, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you.’ 30 “He was unwilling however, but went and threw him in prison until he should pay back what was owed. 31 “So when his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were deeply grieved and came and reported to their lord all that had happened. 32 “Then summoning him, his lord said^ to him, ‘You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt because you entreated me. 33 ‘Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, even as I had mercy on you?’ 34 “And his lord, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him. 35 “So shall My heavenly Father also do to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart.” (NASB)
Today’s Gospel lesson seems clear enough. A king wants to clean up his financial books and calls men who owe him money to settle their accounts. Among the debtors is a man who owes the king an enormous amount of money. In today’s currency six to one hundred million dollars. When the king calls him to account and to pay back the debt, it is obvious to everyone that the debtor can’t possibility pay the bill.
The king’s initial reaction is to apply the full extent of the law. The king ordered the debtor “to be sold, along with his wife and children and all that he had, and repayment to be made.” Even at that, the money recovered would have been only a small fraction of what was owed.
When the debtor heard the judgment against him, the man fell “down, prostrated himself before [the king] saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will repay you everything.’ And the lord of that slave felt compassion and released him and forgave him the debt.”
The man was so grateful for the mercy and forgiveness he had been shown he immediately went out and found a fellow servant who owed him about $10,000. He demands from his fellow servant immediate payment in full.
Listen to the picture Jesus paints. The man “went out and found one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and he seized him and began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay back what you owe.’”
But his fellow servant begged, “Have patience with me and I will repay you.” Compared to what the first man owed the king, the second man owes mere pennies. The second debtor asked for the same thing the first debtor asked . . . . more time to pay back the debt. The difference was, given time the second man could have pay the debt. The first man’s debt was so large, he’d never even come close to paying it off.
Yet, the first debtor “was unwilling [to give his fellow servant more time], but went and threw him in prison until he should pay back what was owed.” He brought the full weight of the law against his fellow servant. He shows no mercy or kindness toward the man. He could not even show a fraction of the same forgiveness that had just been extended to him.
When the king learned what the first debtor had done, he summoned the man to court and called him out on what he had done. “‘You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt because you entreated me. Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, even as I had mercy on you?’ And his lord, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him.”
Jesus even ends this parable with this statement. “So shall My heavenly Father also do to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart.”
The moral of the story seems clear enough . . . right? Forgive as we are forgiven or we will be held accountable for our great debt of sin.
Is that really the lesson of the parable? Is Jesus actually teaching a form of works righteousness, a tit-for-tat. You forgive and you will be forgiven. If you don’t, then you won’t.
That seems to be what we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, at least in the English translation. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
To forgive is to release, or to let go of debt, injury, or offense. Letting go is the “end result.” It is not the starting point. The Christian heart is to be a forgiving heart. Christ came to pay for our sins and to dispense forgiveness through His Church. A Christian, by definition has a forgiving heart.
Let’s go about this this way. Why does God forgive you all your sins, or even a particular sin? Why did God the Father send God the Son into the flesh, live a life of perfect obedience, die as the atoning sacrifice, and rise on the third day? Why did He create the church and send pastors and teachers out into the world? Why did He create the means of grace?
Did God do all that because He wants or demands something from you in return for all His work and forgiveness? Does God do all that in order to feel like God? Does He do all that because He needs your praise, your good works, your money? By all conventional arguments and by the testimony of Scripture itself, God does not need you or anyone else to be God.
When you forgive someone, perhaps a loved one, perhaps a stranger, why did you do it? And when you do forgive, does the forgiveness you extend have a shelf life. Do you let it go “for now” or do you let it go forever? Do you forgive as a quid pro quo? As sinners we know that sometimes, perhaps all too often we turn “forgive and forget” into “forgive and file away for later, just in case.”
We learned in the parable that the king did forgave his debtor, but then when the king heard what had happed, he pulled his debtor back into court and brought out the old ledger and the old judgment.
So the parable presents us with a bit of conundrum, but that is only because we haven’t considered the two most essential elements in the parable. 1. Compassion and 2. Mercy.
The first debtor pleaded with the king, “Have patience with me, and I will repay you everything.” and Jesus tells us that “the lord of that slave felt compassion and released him and forgave him the debt.”
Upon the first debtor’s return to the court the king said to him, “You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt because you entreated me. 33 Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, even as I had mercy on you?” Jesus calls the first debtor wicked. That is, the first debtor did not have a Christian heart.
Here the king felt compassion toward the debtor whose debt was so great there was nothing he could to satisfy it. He felt compassion for the suffering that the man and his family would suffer under the law. Parables are always about the law and the Gospel.
As for the word “mercy,” the king uses “mercy” and “forgiveness” interchangeably in verses 32 & 33. Most of the time “forgiveness” and “mercy” is not always the same thing. Grace and mercy aren’t the same thing. To be merciful in Scripture, that is to show mercy is to show forth a compassionate and complete forgiveness that expects nothing in return. When God shows mercy to someone, He does so without an expectation of getting anything back. To show mercy is to forgive and expect nothing in return, not even a “thank you.”
A person shows mercy, true mercy because of who he or she is, not on account of the other person. When I wrote my book “The Death of the Lutheran Reformation,” I struggled with a question of whether or not I should include a story and documents a professor had given me. If I told the story behind the documents and published the material in my book, it would have shown laymen just how dishonest churchmen were being in what they were telling laymen leading up to the ELCA merger. Adding to my dilemma was the fact that the professor had betrayed a promise he had given to me.
I approached the late Professor Marquart and asked him if I was still bound by my promise given what this man had done. Prof. Marquart asked me a simple and painful question. “Is a man’s word based on the person to whom it is given or is a man’s word based upon the character of the man who gives it? The answer was clear. A man’s word is not based on the action of another. Its value is rooted in the character of the giver. The same is true of mercy. This is what this parable is really about – the mercy the King has shown you.
This parable is not about what you need to do in order to obtain God’s mercy. That way of interpreting this parable runs contrary to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and Christ cannot and does not teach contrary to the Gospel.
This parable is not about what you need to do. Rather, it is about what God in Christ has already done for you. Jesus looked on the crowds that followed Him and had compassion on them, that is He had mercy on them because of Who He is.
He showed mercy by forgiving you everything. No quid pro quo, no probation, and no demand to go and do likewise for the purpose of sealing that which God has already shown you. Namely, His divine mercy by forgiving you and releasing you from the bondage of all sin, death, and the devil.
God did not show you mercy because of who you are or because of what you might do for Him in return. He showed you mercy because that is the kind of God He is. You can do nothing to repay your debt of sin, which is precisely why God is merciful and forgives your debt of sin. He knew and knows the cold, hard, and deadly truth of you and of me and of all people. That is why He has shown you a mercy based on Who He is and not on who you are.
Grace and mercy are different. Mercy is not getting what you deserve. The man in the parable deserved to feel the weight of the law, but he was spared the law, initially anyway. It was his subsequent sin of being wicked and unrepentant that brought the weight of the law against him. Mercy is not getting the bad thing that you have earned. For Christ’s sake, God doesn’t give me what I deserve.
“Grace” is being given something that you don’t deserve. On account of Christ, God the Father freely gives His gift of grace, something you do not deserve. He gives you Jesus’s perfection and righteousness, the status as sons and daughters, brothers and sisters of Christ, a heavenly mansion, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and all the rest.
I can’t make you be merciful to anyone. That’s the point of the parable. It’s not about you being merciful so that God will, in turn, show you mercy. God has already shown you mercy and grace, and He continues to do so today in our very midst with His Word and Sacrament.
These are realities of God’s mercy and grace that we take hold of in our lives and carry out into the world with us. We forgive as and because we’ve been forgiven and that is what we pray in the Lord’s Prayer. We show mercy because God’s mercy has already been shown to us and has forgiven you all you sins.
May the Peace that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.