Wednesday, March 10, 1999

The Unmerciful Servant


Matthew 18:21-35

A thousand years ago, Tsar Samuel ruled the Bulgarian Empire. His archenemy was Basil II, the Byzantine emperor. For decades they had fought without either side winning a decisive victory until Samuel set a trap for Basil in a gorge along the river Struma. Basil eluded the trap and captured Samuel's entire army. He then taught the tsar a lesson in Byzantine revenge.

Basil blinded the eyes of all but 150 of the 15,000 captured soldiers. He then blinded one of the eyes of the remaining soldiers so that they could lead their blind compatriots back to the Bulgarian Empire. A horrified Samuel watched the return of his once proud army, eye sockets vacant, shuffling, stumbling, clutching one another, each hundred led by a one-eyed soldier. The sight killed him, and his empire came to an end. Needless to say the Bulgarians never forgot the cruelty of Basil the Bulgar slayer.1

While only a tiny minority of humanity would stoop to such a horrific act of revenge, revenge is an immediate instinctive reaction when human beings are hurt or humiliated. Even though we recognize that everyone makes mistakes, and we wish to be forgiven for our own foibles, it is difficult to maintain a forgiving attitude when we believe ourselves to be harmed by the behavior of others.

The problem of forgiveness is dealt with in Matthew 18:21-35. The occasion for the parable was Peter's question. "Lord, if one of your followers sins against me, how often should I forgive?" He goes on to suggest what he believes to be a generous answer, "As many as seven times?" Peter was sure that the Lord would be pleased and would commend him for his generous answer.

But Jesus does not commend him. Instead he gives an answer that must have swept Peter off his feet. "Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times". (The literal meaning is "seventy-seven times" but it might also be a shortened form of "seventy times seven times.") If the answer is seventy-seven, it might be an allusion to the story of Lamech in Genesis 4:24: "If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-seven fold." Peter sensed soon enough that Jesus did not mean any specific number since he recognized that Jesus' answer was predicated upon the answer he gave. In other words, if Peter had said nine times, Jesus would have answered ninety-times nine. Jesus was simply using the figures Peter offered. He meant a limitless number.

In asking this question, Peter revealed that he did not really understand Christ's definition of forgiveness. Peter believed that forgiveness was a matter of intellectual mathematics. Christ's answer implied that every sin should be regarded as a "first sin". He meant that every time someone sins against us, it was to be forgiven as if it were that person's first sin.

Peter did not realize that it is a matter of the heart not mathematics. Forgiveness is not simply a matter of forgetting until another sin was committed but forgetting completely. True forgiveness means just that.

In order to help Peter really see what he meant, Jesus told him the parable of the unforgiving servant. This follows on the heel of Jesus' answer to Peter in Mathew 18:23-35. The parable concerns a king and two of his slaves. The first owed him 10,000 talents. Now this is a fabulous, incredible amount. The NRSV says a talent, the equivalent of 10,000 denarii, represented more than fifteen years' wages of a laborer. If that were the case the slave would have to work for 150,000 years to repay what he owed. Jeremias contends that both talent and 10,000 are the highest magnitudes in use, i.e., the talent was the largest currency unit in the Near East and 10,000 the highest number used in reckoning. 2 The amount was deliberately chosen by Jesus to indicate an amount that the slave could never hope to repay.

Since the slave cannot pay, the lord proposes to sell the slave and his family. But since a slave's value was between 500 and 2000 denarii, the sale of the family even with ten children would not come anywhere close to the 100 million denarii debt. 3 The slave begs for time and claims that he will repay the amount. The king, knowing that the slave cannot pay back this amount, forgives him the entire debt.

Jesus is telling Peter, "You' are like the slave. You owe God so great a debt that you cannot repay it no matter how much time you're given. But God, unlike the king, is forgiveness personified and has already forgiven you what is owed. You are already free."

The first slave who had just been forgiven a debt that would take 150,000 years to repay goes to his fellow slave and demands that he pay back his debt to him. This slave's debt was one hundred denarii, a debt equivalent to 100 days of labor. (This would be 1/1500 of the first slave's debt to the king.) The first slave takes his debtor by the throat and demands immediate payment. The second slave, like the first, falls on his knees and begs for time. The first slave refuses and throws his debtor into prison. When the king was made aware of the contemptible behavior of the first slave, the king "turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed."

While the parable warns of the emotional and physical consequences that may follow a refusal to forgive, Jesus' answer to Peter's question is clear. We should forgive our fellow sinners their sins since God graciously forgives even the sins of men as wicked and deserving of harsh treatment as the first slave.

We need this forgiving spirit in the church today. Church quarrels are like family quarrels in that members expect to be treated with kindness and consideration. Consequently, harsh words and criticism are difficult to forgive. Wilkinson Barton tells the story of the Ward brothers of Contoocook, N.H., who lived in the same house who had got into a dispute. For twenty years they did not talk to each other. In fact they built a wall right down the middle of their house. One side contained the kitchen and the other the bathroom. Even though it was the most inconvenient arrangement possible, they refused forgive each other and be reconciled. 4

Robert Louis Stevenson writes about two spinsters who lived without the spirit of forgiveness in Edinburgh, Scotland. They had just one room and one bed. Their "wall of separation" was a chalk line right down the middle of the room. They slept in the same bed and they could hear the other breathing, but they refused to speak to each other. 5

What if the offense is so repulsive that only God's grace can make forgiveness possible? On January 14, 1978, in the South Bend Tribune there was the story of the parents of a girl who had been brutally murdered who planned to visit the murderer in prison to offer him forgiveness. Bob and Golden Bristol drove from Dearborn, Michigan to San Luis Obispo, California, to forgive Michael Keeyes. In 1973 Judge Ross Tharp had called him a "cunning, calculating and callous--the most vicious killer I have encountered in my career." Diane Bristol, 20, had been selling encyclopedias door to door when she was found raped and strangled in San Diego's North Park area in 1970.

We have difficulty forgiving others when we ask Peter's question. He put himself in center stage and was concerned about what others had done to him. Instead of asking how much and how often others sin against us, we need to ask how much and how often we have sinned against God. If we ask this question, we would not need to ask the other for we will know that if God forgives our many and great sins, we ought to forgive others their relatively few and petty sins against us. He was primarily concerned about the mechanics of how and when to forgive others, rather than focusing on his own need to forgive and be forgiven "seventy times seven".

Jesus never just taught his principles in words; he lived them. His words on the cross are our reassurance and ultimate example. "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do."

1. Merle Severy, "The Byzantine Empire: Rome of the East," National Geographic, December 1983m p. 734.
2. Jeremias, p. 210.
3. Ibid., p. 211.
4. Wilkinson Barton, "Do You Suffer from the 'Druthers'? Reader's Digest, May 1960, pp. 131-132.
5. Robert Louis Stevenson, Edinburgh: Picturesque Notes, quoted in James Robertson, ed., Handbook of Preaching Resources from English Literature.

No comments: