Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 17, 2023

Matthew 18:21-35 Commentary

Having just been told that their community will be one known for its willingness to stand by people who are repenting and in need of reconciliation, Peter now asks Jesus how personal this work shall extend.

Peter’s question makes me feel more confident that the “against you” in verse 15 (which we talked about last week) is a later addition. It’s one thing to think about the community doing this hard work witnessing repentance, forgiving, and welcoming reconciliation; it’s quite another to do it yourself. “So, what about when it’s personal?” Peter asks Jesus. Where is the line?

Are we meant to imagine the same offender, committing the same offense against us over and over? That’s usually what first comes to mind, and it brings up the image of becoming a doormat or a punching bag. What if this initial response is our human defensiveness kicking in?

Becoming a perpetual victim isn’t the only way to understand Peter’s question—Peter could really just have an honest read on what it means to be in relationship with others. If there is going to be need for repentance and reconciliation (verses 15-20), then that means that there is likely going to be a good number of sins committed against one another. For what its worth, scholars intimate that the difference between verses 15-20 and 21-22 is that true repentance is present in the request for forgiveness.

Even though Peter’s asking about how often we must commit to forgiving someone, I think Peter really wants to know how much we have to be willing to endure; he understands that they are two sides of the same coin. Essentially, Jesus answers, “All the time.” It’s a rather well-known fact that being in human relationships opens us up to the risk of being on either end of being hurt or offended. Is it worth the risk?

Jesus says it is. Hence the parable. As a parable, we need to remind ourselves of the fact that Jesus is making a very specific point about one thing. Though he uses familiar images and offers a metaphor about what the kingdom is like, it is only about one aspect of the kingdom. In other words, we do not know all that we need to know about the kingdom of God based on this story, and parts of this story that are not about the main point cannot be used to make ultimate meaning about the kingdom.

Jesus tells this story to help Peter understand what being willing to forgive signifies about our relationship to God, our ultimate forgiver, and how what we believe about that relationship is shown by what we do towards others. Jesus tells the story in such a way that those listening admire of this king and won’t resist identifying with the first slave—at least at the beginning.

The debt that this slave is depicted as having is obscene. It would take many lifetimes of daily wages to pay it off. The king had every right to ruin this man, but instead, the king is benevolent and shows great mercy by forgiving the debt. Instead of taking the slave for all he had and letting the circle of injury expand to the man’s family, the king took the debt upon himself.

At this point of the story, we’re inspired and encouraged—just like the people who watch a member of the Christian community forgive someone who has wronged them and witness the transforming nature of repentance and reconciliation.

But now, the story takes a turn, like Peter’s question did, and it becomes personal. Because, at the first opportunity the freed-from-life-ending-debt-man has to be gracious towards someone else, he does not. Instead, his selfishness and his greed roar and he exacts his own punishment on a fellow slave whose debt is so miniscule in comparison that it wouldn’t even register as a percentage.

What the unforgiving servant was willing to receive, he was not willing to give. And therein lies the rub against what the kingdom of God is like: those who have truly received and know what grace and forgiveness are, these are the ones who know the true nature and value of the blessing and have let it change them.

The grossly-in-debt-slave could not hear or see himself in his fellow slave, even though the slave did the exact same thing as him: begged for mercy and promised to repay his debt; their pleas are almost exactly the same in verses 26 and 29. The difference is that the first slave desperately lies, saying he will pay back all that he owes, though it is impossible for him to do so. The fellow slave simply says he will pay his debt but is not given the chance.

The obscene difference in their amount of debt owed is the parable’s way of highlighting how in the wrong the unforgiving servant is—it seems worse than callous. Does the unforgiving slave doubt the king’s mercy? Is he afraid of the king and worried that the bounty hunters still have his name on a list? Or is he selfish and greedy and doesn’t think that his fellow slave deserves the same chance as him?

One thing is clear, though he is supposedly a citizen of and slave to the king, he is not living up to his king’s values, nor does he appreciate what the king has done for him. The king has literally given him his life back and all he can do is jump on the chance to step on the little guy.

So how is the kingdom of God like this? If the unforgiving servant could be the kind of person that Jesus describes to Peter, relentlessly forgiving, he’d be like his king and his God. The obscene, unpayable debt we all owe to God is one he happily clears off the books. And if we trust it to be so, we will be kind to one another and show similar mercy and patience with others because these are the very things we have received from God.

When we live another way, the greedy and selfish way of “taking what’s ours,” failing to see what hand-outs and hand-ups we have received, we do not shine with the character of God. We show that our allegiance is not to God’s kingdom. God doesn’t owe us anything. Let us not take God for granted, but revel in grace.

Textual Point

The unforgiving servant owes a “myriad” or “ten thousand” talents. Talents were the largest measure of money at the time, so the description of his debt is hyperbole: there was no repaying, and no amount of time in jail nor any number of family members sold into servitude that would even put a dent in it. If we were to try to compare the two sums owed, the first slave would owe 60 million denarii to the king, while his fellow slave owed him a mere 100 denarii. The unforgiving slave’s debt was 600,000 times greater than the slave he sent to be tortured in prison.

Illustration Idea

One of the complaints that student loan borrowers made about the lack of political support for loan forgiveness programs related to the pandemic was that corporations and politicians received loans that they were not required to pay back. How, advocates asked, could these same people who had benefited from a similar forgiveness adjudication, be so vehemently opposed to others receiving the same grace (and usually on a much smaller scale)?

Like our parable today, we have no idea why the money was borrowed, or what sort of goodwill efforts had been made to pay it back (or why it hadn’t been paid back). We have no way of knowing whether the money should have been loaned in the first place. The point isn’t the circumstances, it’s the greedy and selfish posture of the one who receives grace. If they are not willing to share and extend it to others, then they didn’t really have it in the first place.


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