Pentecost 15, September 17, 2017
Text: Matthew 18:21–35
If I started this morning by asking, “Who/what is the greatest?” what would be your answer? Muhammad Ali? He said he was. Tom Brady? Frosted Flakes? Phil Keaggy? (guitar player) To have this discussion, we would have to say the greatest at what, right? If I said the greatest at nailing a list to a door, we would all say Martin Luther, right? Greatness is often measured in terms of strength, winning, making it on your own, changing the world.
We dream about greatness: Wouldn’t it be great if you won the lottery or caught the game-winning touchdown pass or aced the exam or got that job? Wouldn’t it be great if I was the greatest sermon writer/speaker/preacher in the world? I know. I’m not. Not even close. Nevertheless, we want to be great, and Jesus’ disciples were no different. Matthew 18 begins with the disciples asking Jesus: “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (18:1).
Now the “who is the Greatest” stuff was in last week’s Gospel. We also know that a couple of chapter’s down the road, Mother Zebedee wanted her sons to be the greatest (20:20–21). She asked Jesus to make her two sons, James and John, His second and third in command, basically. The other ten disciples were mad, both at that family and at themselves for not thinking of asking Jesus first. Also with this greatness stuff, Peter was never shy to take the role for himself. The Gospels sure imply that Peter thought he was pretty great. It seems that’s what he’s after by asking Jesus how often he needs to forgive his brother. He wants to be the greatest, which means getting it right. And to show his greatness, he goes beyond what Jesus just said about seeking out an erring brother—bringing forgiveness first to him alone, then with one or two others, and finally, pleading with him to receive forgiveness from the Church as a whole. This was also in last week’s Gospel, if it doesn’t ring a bell. It looks to Peter that Jesus said you had to forgive someone three times. Peter wants to show his greatness not with three, but with seven chances for forgiveness.
And in the forgiveness game, that’s pretty good. Take the number he thought Jesus meant, double it and add one. What a forgiver!
Really, that’s pretty impressive! Just imagine forgiving your spouse for cheating on you seven times. Or imagine forgiving your neighbor seven times for stealing your car. And even the little things, think how hard it is forgiving your child for spilling milk seven times! It’s not easy! We lose our temper quickly. It’s easy to yell and fight or to stop talking and give up. So Peter seems pretty great, being willing to forgive even up to seven times.
But Jesus knows what is going on here. He knows what Peter is thinking and feeling. And Jesus says: No, Peter, not “seven times, but seventy-seven times” (or, as some translations have it, “seventy times seven”; v 22).
Now, Jesus wasn’t simply pushing back the cutoff line. It’s not that Peter just got the wrong number—not seven, but seventy-seven, or 490. No, what Jesus says is that forgiveness has no end; it’s unlimited. (In Jewish thought, 7 is the number of completeness.)
In any case, in the parable He now tells, Jesus teaches us exactly what this forgiveness means. There’s a master who decides to settle accounts. He calls in one servant who owes him ten thousand talents. Now a talent is about twenty years’ worth of wages. So on my salary, it’d be like owing $15 billion. It would take me more than 187,000 years to work off that debt. Your credit card statements don’t look so bad now, do they?
The point is this: the servant is caught in an unrepayable debt. In a last-ditch effort, “the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ ” (v 26).
Now that’s kind of funny, right? $15 billion? It’s bad enough that the average American family has 10 grand in credit card debt. But there is no way he can pay back $15 billion. Like Jesus with Peter, or a father with his child, you get the sense that the master smiled at this. So “out of pity,” Jesus says, “the master . . . released him and forgave him the debt” (v 27), no strings attached!
It’s unbelievable. It’s inconceivable! You can’t run a business on your gut, feeling sorry for your customers. Where’s the greatness when you run around canceling debt, looking soft? The servant was free! I mean, think about it…your bank won’t call you up and, “You know what? We decided to be nice and eliminate your mortgage.” This is 15 billion bucks! Now he does not have to pay it back. Wow, right? So what does he do?
The text says, “he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii [about one hundred days of work—you do the math: with weekends off, about a third of your annual income, let’s say 25,000 dollars], and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ ” (v 28).
Our “hero” here (he’s not really a hero as you can see) having been forgiven a debt nobody can pay, runs into a co-worker who owed him a debt. Now we are not talking 20 bucks here, but certainly something that can be repaid. A payment plan for this debt could be easily arranged. But our “hero” demands immediate repayment. No pity. No compassion. The second guy even pleads with the very same words the first servant had used only moments before! This guy’s coworker owed 1/600,000th of what the first guy owed to the BOSS. But the first guy throws the second guy in prison (which will make it hard to get paid back, you know.) This was so bad, all the servants went to the BOSS and told on him, tattled, narked, squealed.
As the parable closes—and the master hears how the first servant dealt with his fellow servant—we move from pity to wrath. The servant actually gets the master he imagined he had all along: the one who gives what’s deserved, who measures greatness by strength.
As Peter hears this parable, Peter no doubt realizes he is not as great as he thought. Same for us, right? We think of all those we’ve failed to forgive. How often we’ve lost our temper. Can’t forgive the spouse who cheated on you? The boss who wronged you/lied to you? That child of yours who just keeps messing up? That person who keeps telling lies about you/gossiping, trying to destroy your reputation?
And yet, how great is the forgiveness we have in Jesus Christ! How great is His sacrifice—setting aside His Godness, to suffer death on the cross in humiliation and weakness? That’s greatness as God sees it. He forgives us not seven times, not seventy times seven, but Googolplex plus infinity times! He forgives the cheating spouse, the stinker of a boss, the kid you want to toss, and the big mouthed louse. How can we possibly hold back forgiveness for things done to us so small in comparison to all the garbage we have done to, and against, God?
The Gibbs commentary you bought me says there are three effects to this. 1) Servant One should have forgiven Servant Two. We need to forgive those who wrong us because it is the RIGHT thing to do, as God has had so much compassion on us. He sent His only begotten Son to die and rise for us! Are you kidding me?!? We need to be like that, too. It’s the right thing to do. 2) There is no wiggle room here! God will condemn all who do not forgive. No playing with Jesus’ words here. This is not hyperbole or some rhetorical way to get our attention. We have to do this. No holding grudges. No holding some wrong done against us over somebody else. We have got to forgive. We have to let it go. We must forgive. 3) When you add up number one and number two here, the third thing here is us asking, “How is this possible? How can I do this?”
It is in knowing our place in the big scheme of things. We are sinners. We do wrong by God a million times a day. We do. And God forgives us. He decided he would rather sacrifice His Son, and all that entailed, so we could be in Heaven with Him. Knowing how that forgiveness pours down on us, we need to let it flow through us to the people who have hurt us. We are to forgive each other as God has forgiven us. If we don’t, we are doomed.
The Holy Spirit is in us, telling us this, reminding us of this when we are holding grudges, and withholding our love. When we are reading God’s Word, praying, worshipping, God gives us the strength, and the wisdom, and the ability to do this. It is a God thing. And we are always better off when we forgive. When we let it go. You know this to be true. You know how much work it takes to be MAD.
Recognizing this forgiveness does something to us—it changes us. The more we hear the magnitude of our debt and the complete forgiveness we have, simply by Jesus’ word, the more we’re set free to forgive others. Our forgiveness depends on Christ’s forgiveness, earned for us on the cross. And our greatness is only found in Him—that is, in His weakness, in His compassion, and in the joy His freedom brings.
Who is the greatest in the kingdom? Jesus Is the Greatest, for His Forgiveness Is Total, Undeserved, and Entirely for You. Today, you’re given to share in His greatness—and, in doing so, you can forgive one another.
In Jesus’ Name. Amen.