I had the opportunity to preach on the text of Matthew 18 today at Washington Union Alliance Church in New Castle, Pa. As before, I was given a warm reception. This time, though, the message I brought from the Scriptures was a hard message. God help us all to be more like our Lord Christ.
I'll post the audio as soon as I get a chance.
Before us is one of the most potent parables of our Lord. It is, in many ways, a hard parable, because we are not used to the language used about God in it. Yet, contained in it is the essence of what Christ had come to do, to bring the forgiveness of God to a death-bound creation. It is a challenging parable, though, because it does not just focus on the work of Christ, but calls us into that work. When we enter into forgiveness, we must also forgive, otherwise we forfeit the great and free gift that is given to us at such a great price to the giver.
Note that the passage starts with the word “then.” There is a larger context that we must take into account. As with most of the parables of our Lord, there is a specific situation that brings the story about. The context of the story goes back to the start of chapter 18, delineated by “’At that time,” which itself connects back further. But for now, let us focus our attention on this chapter. It starts out as a debate over who will be the “greatest” in God’s rule. The disciples are at this point still concerned with earthly visions of power and honor, even though they have seen the Lord enrobed in His full glory on the mountain of Transfiguration (ch. 16). Christ points out to them that they are asking amiss. It is not the great and powerful, the high and the mighty, who are joined to God, but the “little children,” the “humble.” So, his disciples must take care that they do not cause any of these that have become like little children to sin: better to lose parts of one’s body than to lose one’s soul! But not only must we seek the good of the humble (for, as He has told them before, these shall inherit the earth (5:5)), such seeking must be done with joy, not grudgingly. In fact, this is the reason the Lord Jesus has come, “to save that which was lost” (18:11) for “it is not the will of your Father who is in Heaven that one of these little ones should perish” (v. 14). Here Christ shifts, ever so slightly, to what happens if your brother – by which He means those who are Christians – sins against you. Already our Lord had said about these that “it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea” (v. 6). So, he is doomed, yes? Nothing to be done but resign him (or her) to the fearful judgment of God? Yet “it is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish” or “God our Savior…desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:3-4) or “the Lord…is longsuffering towards us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Pt. 3:9). It may be true that the sinner deserves the full wrath of hellfire, but instead of condemning, Christ calls us to swallow our own pride, our own sense of hurt and injustice, and go to them privately. “If he hears you, you have gained a brother” (18:15). If he or she turns in repentance, heeding your careful and pastoral warnings, he will be saved from such a terrible fate. James speaks similarly when he says, “Brethren, if anyone among you wanders from the truth [and let us remember that ‘truth’ here is not just facts, but the communion of life given to us by the ‘Way, the Truth, the Life’ Himself, our Lord Jesus Christ], and someone turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his ways will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins” (5:19-20).
So, the procedure that our Lord outlines – the private meeting, the meeting with two or three witnesses, the meeting before the Church – is not one of cold and hard justice, but rather a sort of spiritual medical consultation with a patient who doesn’t know he is sick. We are to act as careful surgeons of the Spirit, seeking their healing. If they refuse the treatment, if they refuse to repent, then they are to be treated as “tax-collectors and sinners” (v.17), that is, no longer as brothers or sisters in the faith, but those who need to be introduced to the Great Physician and called to repentance and faith, to healing. Here the Lord gives us great power by saying that “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (18:18). Shall we bind them to their sins? Shall we loose them? This depends, as we can see, on their own response. If they continue without repentance, they have done the binding, choosing to remain in their sins and separate from the life of Christ in His Body. The judgment of the Church, that the unrepentant are “tax-collectors and sinners,” is not a fiat declaration, creating the reality it proclaims, but rather a recognition of the self-condemnation the sinner has brought on themselves.
This brings us to our passage today. Peter, as is his habit in the Gospels, brings the question we all want to ask but are too afraid to. The gist of it is: “ok, Lord, my brother has sinned and repented, and sinned and repented, and sinned and repented, and sinned and repented, again and again and again and again. At what point do we say ‘enough is enough!’ we’ve given you all the chances you deserve. It doesn’t matter if you repent anymore, you’re through! We bind you out of the Kingdom! And there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth!” Peter puts it in rather magnanimous terms, asking if forgiveness should be offered “up to seven times.” Here the Lord answers with the abounding and overwhelming grace of God, “I do not say to you ‘up to seven times,’ but up to seventy times seven!” (v. 22) This doesn’t mean that at the 491st time Peter had every right to cast the sinner straight to the ninth circle of Hell, but rather it implies an infinite amount. To make sure we understand this, he tells the parable of the wicked penitent.
He starts by saying “the kingdom of heaven is like” tying this story back to the start of our passage: the disciples wanted to know who would be greatest in the Kingdom, now they will see what this Kingdom is like. It will redefine what power is and what living in this reality will consist of. As with all the stories of our Lord, it is meant to call the original audience and ourselves to a response. Are we willing to follow our Lord? To truly “be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect” (5:48), to be “a wise man who build his house on the rock” (7:24), to “deny [yourself] and take up [your] cross and follow [Him]” (16:24)? What does that actually look like on a mundane level? It all sounds good, but what practices and habits does it consist of?
The king in the parable begins to settle accounts, that is, he is calling in all the debts owed to him. One man owed him “ten thousand talents.” A talent, either of gold or silver, weighed 75 pounds on the scales and was the equivalent of 6,000 denarii, a denarius being the rough amount of a day’s wage for manual labor at the time. So, doing some calculation, we see that this man owed an egregious amount of money (my degrees are in education and theology, not mathematics). It borders on the practically infinite. To pay it off, he would have to garnish each day’s total wages for 60,000,000 days or approximately 164,204 years. And yet he says, “Master, have patience with me, and I will pay you all!” The threat that prompts this is that he and his whole family would be sold into debt-slavery to fulfill the obligation. Note, though, that this king, like our Heavenly King, does not desire this, but rather is quickly and easily “moved with compassion” (v. 27) towards a total remission of the debt. He is rather like the wise Solomon, who ordered a baby cut into two, not so that a child’s life might end, but rather that the true mother could be revealed (1 Kings 3:16-28). Here the king is seeking a repentant heart, to teach this debtor about mercy and grace. It is the same with us: Christ has just told us about the millstone and about cutting off limbs so as to avoid “the everlasting fire” (18:8). Our God does not desire this, as we saw above, but rather desires our becoming like Him, the ever-merciful One. What accounts will we have to settle with our God? We have become, through sin, unprofitable servants, indeed oftentimes outright rebels against His good grace. By doing so, as Paul tells us, we switch allegiances: we become slaves to sin (Rom.6). And what a cruel master that is! There is no Egyptian Pharaoh worthy to be compared with the tyrant of our souls, the one who illegitimately claimed us as his own in Adam’s Paradise. We are brought to death, helpless to resist, constantly giving into our corrupted flesh, which leads to death, which leads to sin, which leads to death, which leads to sin. There is no Sabbath, there is no relief, there is only making of bricks without straw, there is only a playing on our individual weaknesses to further our plight. And here, while we were “still without strength…when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life” (Rom. 5:6 & 10). Our debt, our ransom, is paid in full; this weight of sin and death that we could never pay off, God graciously takes upon Himself on the Cross “that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage” (Heb. 2:14-15). We have, through the infinite grace of our God, been released from the bondage of sin and death. Just as the Israelites, freed from Pharaoh’s grip, were to live “holy, for…the Lord your God [is] holy” (Lev. 19:2), so our release from cruel bondage sets us into true freedom, the freedom of righteousness, of holiness, of justice and mercy and love.
This freedom takes the form of offering the same freedom we have received to others. Remember that the point of this parable is to answer Peter’s question: how often shall we forgive our erring brother? Christ has put the answer into a powerful context: how much have you been forgiven? If we have been released from our rigorous labor of sin leading to death, what shall we do to our brothers and sisters who are likewise slaves of the evil one? Shall we bind them into that condition? Or shall we loose them? Shall we be like God or like the cosmic Pharaoh, the devil? What shall happen to our own free gift of forgiveness if we turn into mini-tyrants? Here is where the rest of the parable comes in, and it is a hard saying.
The forgiven servant meets on the way some other servant who owes, comparatively speaking, a pittance: 100 denarii, a 100 days wages, one day less than it was required in 2011 for us to meet our tax obligation to our government (interesting to note that the debt ratio of our nation is similar to the first servant, our debt ratio to the second…he who has ears, let him hear!). This second servant responds in the exact same words as had the first, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you all!” (v. 29). A decently reasonable request, yet the first servant responds with violence and threats, grabbing him by the throat and throwing him in debtors’ prison. He was not, like his king, immediately “moved to compassion,” but rather moved by a different spirit altogether. It is at this point that, when the king learns of this action, he condemns the first servant. Note that when he first appeared before his king, he was not judged, but rather brought to repentance and forgiven. Here, though, the king sees him for what he is, “You wicked servant!” (v. 32). The multitude of our sins, which bound us to the “father of lies” and the “murderer from the beginning” (Jn. 8:44), is easily (although with great cost) forgiven and annulled by our Great King. But the act of non-forgiveness, the act of treachery and tyranny to our fellows, brings about the king’s anger, so that the wicked servant “was delivered to the torturers until he should pay all that was due him” (v. 34), that is, forever, since the original debt was so overwhelmingly great. The forgiveness procured is revoked because the servant used his freedom as a license for sin. The servant had abandoned, implicitly, the gracious Master he had for a fraud, cutting himself off from that grace he originally received. One cannot serve two masters, one cannot claim God’s forgiveness, yet bind his brothers and sisters in the slavery of sin and death.
When we do not forgive the repentant brother, and let us remember that we are called to seek them out privately, not wait for them to come to us, we do not only hurt them, but ourselves as well. By holding grudges or vendetta, we bind ourselves as slaves back to the tyrant. We become like the Israelites who, after being freed from Egypt, complained over and over about wanting to return to the glories of Egypt. Since it was death they wanted, it was death they were given. They wanted to become like Pharaoh, the bringer of death, and so went to the tomb themselves. As Psalm 95 continually warns us, “Today, if you will hear His voice: ‘do not harden your hearts, as in the rebellion, as in the day of trial in the wilderness, when your fathers tested Me; they tried Me, though they saw My work. For forty years I was grieved with that generation, and said, ‘It is a people who go astray in their hearts, and they do not know My ways, so I swore in My wrath, ‘They shall not enter My rest’’’” (7-11). God is love, self-giving life, and He calls us and empowers us to be like Him. Let us see how our Lord Himself lives out this parable, so that we might have strength in the Spirit to follow Him.
“Father, forgive them, they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). The only One innocent, the only One free from the stain of sin, the only One whom death should not have had a claim, the only One who could truly bring judgment as He is righteous, gives forgiveness to those who murder Him. Let us look to this crucified One and marvel. How often have I held something petty in comparison, even if it seems important at the time, against my wife or my employees or my children or my family and friends? How often have I wallowed in my own bruised sense of prideful justice, wondering “How long, Lord, until You rise up against my enemies?” I am a great debtor holding out against those who owe me a pittance. How shall we respond to this? Let us now, this very minute, forgive one another “from the heart” (v. 35), that we might be forgiven. One pastor I’ve heard has the saying, “Forgive everyone for everything.” Let us consider the great weight of sin and death that our Lord has taken upon Himself on our behalf, and let us “bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the Law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2). Let us not put it off till tomorrow, but, as the Psalm says, “Today, if you will hear His voice, do not harden your hearts.” “As the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering; bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do. But above all these things, put on love, which is the bond of perfection. And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to which also you were called in one Body; and be thankful” (Col. 3:12-15). “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God, for God is love. In this the love of God was manifested towards us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the expiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (I John 4:7-11).
Friends, forgive me, a sinner. Amen.