Sermon for Sunday, September 13th, 2020, the Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity
The Lessons: Psalm 103:1-14; Ecclesiasticus 27:30 – 28:7; St. Matthew 18:21-35
The Text: St. Matthew 18:21-35
The Topic: The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant
Richard Hoefler’s book Will Daylight Come? includes a homey illustration of how sin enslaves and forgiveness frees.
A little boy visiting his grandparents was given his first slingshot. He practiced in the woods, but he could never hit his target.
As he came back to Grandma’s backyard, he spied her pet duck. On an impulse he took aim and let fly. The stone hit, and the duck fell dead.
The boy panicked. Desperately he hid the dead duck in the woodpile, only to look up and see his sister watching. Sally had seen it all, but she said nothing.
After lunch that day, Grandma said, “Sally, let’s wash the dishes.”
But Sally said, “Johnny told me he wanted to help in the kitchen today. Didn’t you, Johnny?” And she whispered to him, “Remember the duck!” So Johnny did the dishes.
Later Grandpa asked if the children wanted to go fishing. Grandma said, “I’m sorry, but I need Sally to help make supper.” Sally smiled and said, “That’s all taken care of. Johnny wants to do it.” Again she whispered, “Remember the duck.” Johnny stayed while Sally went fishing.
After several days of Johnny doing both his chores and Sally’s, finally he couldn’t stand it. He confessed to Grandma that he’d killed the duck.
“I know, Johnny,” she said, giving him a hug. “I was standing at the window and saw the whole thing. Because I love you, I forgave you. I wondered how long you would let Sally make a slave of you.”1
Johnny must have felt a great sense of relief upon knowing his grandmother had forgiven him. So, by forgiving others, we help to bring back their peace and joy, and in forgiving people, we show them mercy as we have received mercy. William Shakespeare wrote these beautiful lines on mercy, spoken by Portia in Shakespeare’s play, The Merchant of Venice:
The quality of mercy is not strained,
It droppeth as the gentle dew from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice bless’d:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
’Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His scepter shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the fear and dread of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway,
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute of God himself,
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice.2
THE PARABLE OF THE UNFORGIVING SERVANT
The Apostle Peter’s question about the limits of forgiveness is answered by Jesus in a saying that shows that mercy must be limitless in dealing with one’s fellow human beings, as far as individual offenses go. St. Peter no doubt thought that it was very reasonable to forgive the same person up to seven times. The Lord’s amplification of that number to seventy times seven indicates no limit to forgiveness. In Judaism it was taught that God rules the world by the two measures of mercy and judgement, but at the Last Judgement he uses only judgement. The Lord Jesus Christ, however, teaches that mercy outweighs judgement for the one who forgives others, thereby showing mercy. But if a person shows no mercy, and refuses to forgive, he also will be treated by God as not forgiven but bearing the weight of his guilt.
The parable begins with a king settling accounts with his servants. The servant who owed the king ten thousand talents, owed a ridiculously high sum of money. Today’s equivalent of ten thousand talents would be more than a million dollars. The annual tribute of Galilee and Peraea in 4 B.C. was only two hundred talents (Joesphus: Antiquities, 17, 318). The sum of ten thousand talents was intended to suggest a debt impossible for anyone to repay. As this servant could not pay the debt, the king ordered that the servant, his wife, his children and all his possessions should be sold to pay the debt. Now if the servant had acquired large and valuable properties in the course of discharging his responsibilities, it might have been possible to pay the whole debt by this means. But the ordinary market value of human beings and property at that time would probably mean the debt could not be fully paid by such sales. We are reminded of our Lord’s saying earlier in the same Gospel:
For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?
(Matthew 16:26, KJV)
Therefore, the king’s orders that the man, his family and possessions should be sold to pay the debt when it was unlikely that the debt could even be paid like this, proceed from the king’s anger at the man and his excessive debt.
Now the servant’s humble request for patience from the king, so that he may have time to repay all the debt, leads to a surprising response from the king. He is moved with compassion and forgives the servant all his debt.
We can appreciate that this servant represents the Christian who has been forgiven so much, on the basis of Christ’s atoning death on the cross, and who should now live with love, joy and mercy springing up in his soul, ready to forgive everyone who sins against him.
In the parable, though, the servant who has been forgiven all his debt, goes out and finds one of his fellow-servants who owes him a hundred denarii (at that time the equivalent of a hundred days of laborer’s wages), which is really insignificant compared to ten thousand talents, and grabs him by the throat, demanding he pay him his debt at once. The fellow-servant’s pleas for mercy go unheeded and he casts him into prison until the debt is paid. The fellow-servants who see how one of their number has been treated, report the matter to the king. The unforgiving servant is brought before the king, who rebukes him for acting wickedly, and hands him over to the torturers, or jailers, until his original debt is paid.
At the end of this parable comes the warning that the heavenly Father will deal with unforgiving Christians in just the same way the king dealt with the unforgiving servant – they will be delivered to the torturers, or jailers, until the debt of sin is paid. Now there are two ways in which this happens: firstly, in this life, all who refuse to forgive will be tormented in their thoughts as they continually remember the offence done against them and stew in it; secondly, being delivered to the torturers is a symbol of everlasting hell, since the debt of all our sins rests upon us forever if all our life we refuse to forgive those who have done us wrong.
In conclusion, then, as God has forgiven us all ours sins, such a vast debt, let us readily forgive one another, and hold no grudges! When we forgive each one who sins against us, we share with them the joy of having been forgiven, and release them from the burden of guilt, just as we have been forgiven by God and released from the burden of all our guilt by the redeeming death of the Lord Jesus Christ on the cross. Let none of us be like the unforgiving servant, who so quickly forgot how much debt his master had forgiven him.
1p. 179, 750 Engaging Illustrations for Preachers, Teachers, and Writers from Craig Brian Larson and the Leadership Journal. Grand Rapids, Michigan: BakerBooks, 2002. 2nd Printing, 2008.
2Act IV, Scene 1, 188-201, W. Shakespeare: The Merchant of Venice. The Yale Shakespeare, 2006.