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Intro: The greatest stories ever told were told by Jesus Himself. We call them the parables. Jesus’ parables came later in His ministry – the first series on the kingdom of God were taught in Galilee in the second year of His ministry. The remainder came in the last year, as He prepared the twelve for His crucifixion and their enlarged role in the kingdom.
I. The Background to the Story: This is where the parable of Matthew 18 fits. It is an integral part of Jesus’ preparation of the apostles. It seems to flow from the events and conversation that occurred in Capernaum.
- Mark 9:33-37 – 33 They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” 34 But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest. 35 Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.” 36 He took a little child and had him stand among them. Taking him in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.” This corresponds to Matthew’s account in Matthew 18:1-5
A. It is important for us to notice the parable in the last part of Matthew 18 is the climax to a former discussion (argument) about greatness in the kingdom. Jesus has attempted to warn the disciples about His coming suffering and death in Matt 17.22-23, but their continuing fascination with “greatness” revealed that they not ready to hear Jesus’ words, and that they were suffering in the grip of selfish pride. This type of attitude leads to mutual harshness toward each other that would lead to disunity and possibly apostasy.
B. Jesus does not deal gently with the Twelve. Notice the flow of the lesson that Jesus is teaching to them.
1. (v. 1-8) Jesus does not choose one of them over the other, but rather chooses at random a little child, whose humble simplicity He says exemplifies kingdom greatness.
2. (v. 6-14) He then issues a very stern warning that anyone who causes one of His disciples to stumble would be better off dead and speaks ominously of “the eternal fire” (Matt 18.6-8).
3. (v. 15-20) To this is added instruction on the need to deal redemptively with those who sin against us, being quick to seek reconciliation through repentance and forgiveness (Matt 18.15-17).
4. The thrust of Jesus’ words was: be merciful, unresentful, easily entreated, willing to forgive.
II.Peter’s Inquiry:Peter’s response to all this shows that he has heard what Jesus was saying but totally missed the point. His answer is statistical, not spiritual. “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?”
A. Peter was being generous in his proposal. Rabbinical tradition said forgiveness was limited to three times, maybe four. (based erroneously on Job 33:29-30 – 29 “Behold, God works all these things, Twice, in fact, three times with a man, 30 To bring back his soul from the Pit, That he may be enlightened with the light of life.) and Amos 1:3-2:6 – Where God says He is bringing judgment on the nations for 3 or four transgressions.)
B. Jesus’ answer to Peter removes all questions of how many. “Seventy times seven” simply stands for an unlimited amount of times. Mercy is a quality, not a quantity.
C. Peter’s approach suggests that forgiveness is the temporary forfeiture of a right which might at some point be reclaimed. Jesus wants him to understand that no such right exists. When one extends forgiveness it is done.
III. Jesus’ Incredible Story – The parable that follows is full of incredible things. These elements make it impossible to ignore the parable – it must be sorted out and understood. The incredible elements:
A. v. 24 – The debt: First there is the incredible sum which the servant of the king owed. How could one chock such as enormous debt. – 10,000 talents! That was a sum 50 times larger than the annual taxes which Herod Antipas collected from Galilee and Perea (200 talents) and more than 10 times the annual revenue of the whole of Palestine (Josephus, Antiquities, XVII, xi, 4). How would even a royal servant get his hands on, much less manage to steal or lose, a sum like that?!
B. v. 26 – The appeal: The debtor is brought to the king. This servant who has lost a king’s ransom and is not remotely likely to be trusted again with a dime pleads for more time so that he can repay all of it! With a little time, he will take care of everything. “have patience with me and I will repay you all”. But there is NO chance he can work this off. The suggestion itself is incredible.
C. v. 27 – The King’s Response: But what is even more incredible is the King’s response. The King forgave the debt – ALL of it! Yet that is not as surprising as the king’s response. The king forgave him! A most unlikely treatment from an oriental ruler. It would be more appropriate and natural for the King to make an example out of this debtor. But inexplicably HE forgives it all. But the surprises do not end here. There is one final turn that tops all the rest.
D. v. 28 – The debtor’s lack of compassion: The second scene of the story opens with the forgiven man encountering one who owed him a debt. The debt is nothing compared to what he had been forgiven – 100 denarii (100 days wages, a little over three months) The forgiven servant nearly throttles the poor fellow while roughly demanding full and immediate payment! This is truly incredible, that a man so forgiven could be so unforgiving. It does not even seem to touch him that his debtor appeals for mercy from the same posture and in the very words he himself has so recently used. It is also ironic that while his own appeal for time to pay was ridiculous, there was a real chance this man could have paid his debt.
1. What was he thinking? Was he congratulating himself on how clever he had been to escape certain disaster? Did he think the king a fool for being so gullible, and he would not be so fooled himself? Or is it conceivable that he was so dull as to see no connection between his own situation and that of his fellow? The text does not tell us what he was thinking, only what he did and how this was a true absence of compassion.
E. v. 32-34 – The King’s Anger: The scene changes for the last time. The king’s servants see what has transpired and they cannot keep it to themselves. They are grieved by it and they report it to their master.
1. The king is angry and calls for the servant whom he had forgiven. Do you think he regrets his compassion? The text does not say that – only that this servant would get no further mercy.
2. He declares him to be “wicked,” not for his original debt, but for the misapplication of the received mercy. He did not have compassion. Matt 18:33 – Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?’
3. He is forthwith turned over to men who will painfully see that he pays for every dime! Brother Earnhart says “The unmerciful servant had decided that he wanted to play justice rather than mercy and his lord abundantly accommodates him.”
IV. Jesus’ Application: Jesus makes the point of His story exceedingly clear. “So My Heavenly Father will also do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses” (Matt 18.35). A. The essential place of forgiveness: This is no obscure lesson. Reciprocal forgiveness was essential to the unity of God’s people.
- Jesus taught it in the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy” (Matt 5.7). “And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” (Matt 6.12). “Judge not that you be not judged. For with what judgment you judge you will be judged; and with the measure you use it shall be measured back to you” (Matt 7.1-2).
- And nearer the time of our parable the Lord warns His disciples, “Take heed to yourselves. If your brother sins against you, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times in a day returns to you saying, ‘I repent,’ you shall forgive him” (Luke 17.3-4).
A. The Implications of the Incongruent Debt: The enormity of our sins against God is displayed in the debt that cannot be repaid. The small debt speaks well of how tiny by comparison are the injuries others may inflict on us. It becomes inconceivable then that those forgiven so much could refuse to forgive so little. And yet how many Christians rise from the Lord’s Supper to go out and live with merciless hardness in daily life?
1. We want to live under grace with God, but under law with men. With our Father we want mercy but with others we want justice. We can’t have it both ways, and when we try we are truly “wicked.” It is bad enough for us to have sinned against God’s righteous law, but how much more grievous must it be for us to treat His gracious mercy with contempt? “Of how much worse punishment, do you suppose, will he be thought worthy who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, counted the blood of the covenant by which he is sanctified a common thing, and insulted the Spirit of grace?” (Heb. 10.29) And when those of us who have received such mercy from God refuse to show it to others, we have surely done no less. “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb 10.31).
Conclusion: We are all human. We all make mistakes. We share in a solidarity with sin. This sentiment is based in fact. But it has been used to promote falsehood. This fact does not dismiss our sin or mistakes, or reduce their heinous character before a holy God. (“I was just following the flow of traffic, everyone else was going just as fast as me”) This did not change the how the law would treat me or make me a lawkeeper. I got a ticket.
- So what does our mutual solidarity with sin do for us? For those who have been forgiven, It provides a proper perspective from which we can offer mercy to each other. We are all recipients of God’s enormous grace – I do not have to fear forgiving my brother. God has erased the risk.
- Do we REALLY want to forgive our brother? Sometimes we say we do, but what do our actions demonstrate? Are we making it as easy as possible for our brother who has wronged us to come to us? Is our condemning spirit and unapproachable manner places obstacles in the way? What are we willing to give up so that we can forgive others and make it easier for them to seek forgiveness?