Servants Through Forgiveness
Text: Matthew 18:21-35
Proper 19, A
Maybe you picked up a common theme from our lessons this week. Each one of them, in their own way speaks of our call to be forgiving of one another. They all point to one idea: We are to be servants of God by forgiving those around us. If you remember from the past few Sundays the disciples had the wrong idea of what their relationship with God meant. They thought it was a great way to advance their position within the world. Jesus then goes on to explain to them that our relationship with God is one of servant-hood.
Now, in the Greek culture of the day servant-hood was not something most people admired. In Greek, the word for servant was the same as for slave. Slaves were looked upon as inferior people. It was completely contrary to the Greek ideal to speak of becoming a servant to anyone, even to God. While the disciples minds were focused on fame and power, Jesus instead called them to a very lowly position. In our passage for today, Jesus explains to the disciples that a great part of that call to service is found in forgiving others.
As funny as this might seem, the idea of servant-hood is not one bit more popular today than it was back in Jesus’ day. People are still focused upon fame and power, so much so that the concept of servant-hood has actually become offensive within many groups. You can even see this in some churches where "everyone is a Minister (not just a member!)" so that no one feels less than anyone else. But, you can also see this in churches where pastors are called "Boss."
Yet members are not less important because they are not ministers (or in charge of something) and pastors are sent not to be Bosses but servants! Servants whose role it is to administer God’s forgiveness to his people through the word and sacraments. Servants who are to forgive those around them as they have first been forgiven by Christ. Servants who are in need of forgiveness themselves. I am sorry to say that if you aren’t aware of it already, you will be painfully aware of my need for forgiveness before I’m done with you!
However, the role of servant is one that has been passed not only to pastors but also to every one of us here today. While it may not seem as glamorous as the job of a pastor, our service to God is much the same. We are to forgive one another.
Unfortunately, rather than playing the role of a servant, we try to use the very act of forgiving to advance ourselves. As often as not we don’t really forgive others at all. Have you ever found yourself giving out conditional forgiveness? Something that sounds like “I’ll forgive BUT I won’t forget!” “I’ll forgive BUT things will never be the same because I can’t trust you anymore.” Do you hold any grudges against anyone? Maybe you have vowed that you could never forgive a certain person no matter what. All of these are symptoms of a larger problem. Each of them, forgiveness on condition, grudges or just not forgiving no matter what; are signs of our unforgiving nature. This nature makes us servants not of God but of our own debt to sin.
Looking at the text, we see perhaps the most perfect example anywhere. When the king decides to settle his accounts we are introduced to a man who owes this king 10,000 talents. One talent of silver weighed nearly 100 pounds. A talent of gold was twice that much! It would have taken the average worker fifteen years of straight labour to earn just one talent. Thus the debt that this man owed would have taken the average worker 150,000 years to pay off! As a way of further comparison, the total yearly payment of imperial taxes for the Roman province of Judea was only 600 talents. To put it mildly … this was an astronomical debt. There was no way that he could pay that kind of debt - ever. “Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.” While this may have made a symbolic gesture, it certainly wouldn’t have come close to covering the debt.
That man, dear friends, is you. Before God you owe a debt so enormous that you could never hope to pay it off. It is a debt of sin. All the wrong you have done, said, or even thought. All the good you have failed to do when you should have. That debt of sin is something that we could never hope to pay off on our own. Not only is the debt too large … you have no credit at all. Beyond the sins of omission and commission you have the underlying problem in sin of the original kind. You don't just sin. You are sin. Sin is so much a part of you thanks to Adam and Eve that you simply don't have the currency to begin paying back even one of your wrongs.
In comparison to that great sin that we are accountable for, those that our neighbours sin against us are very small indeed. In the text we are given the comparison total of 100 denarii. A denarius was the amount given an average worker for one day's work. 150,000 years of service verses 100 days of service; there is no comparison. Yet we like that unforgiving servant cannot look past such a small thing to forgive. And each time we don’t forgive, or we hold a grudge, or we only forgive on a condition, that debt of sin we owe to God grows more insurmountable.
Even as we stand weighed down by a debt of sin too great to bear, we can find hope and joy for there is someone who can (and has already) forgiven us unconditionally. That someone is God. Our Lord knew that we owed him a debt that could never be repaid. Just like the unforgiving servant of our text, in the face of our debt there is nothing that we can do other than fall to our faces pleading for his mercy. God is like that king in that He shows us mercy beyond our wildest dreams! He doesn’t give us more time or opportunity to pay back that debt, He canceled it! Like the king in our text, he wanted the accounts settled, but knew that we could never do it ourselves, not even in a 150,000 years. That is why He sent his son, to be the servant we were meant to be.
Jesus Christ himself became a servant in our stead and on our behalf. He was a servant when he became man; he was a servant through his unconditional and limitless forgiveness; he was a servant when he died upon that tree in place of us for the sins that we committed.
And God continues to make that forgiveness readily accessible to us today. He calls Pastors to stand before their congregations as servants of Christ, sharing the forgiveness that Christ himself won for each of us through the spoken Word, through Baptism, and through the Lord’s own body and blood. Day after day that unfathomable debt of our sin is forgiven again and again. God's forgiveness in Christ Jesus is limitless, it holds no grudges and it has no conditions attached. You are free to draw from it again and again … no matter what … no matter when.