Text: Matthew 18:21-35
Grace, mercy, and peace to each of you from our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
You don’t become a pastor because you are good at math. I’ve always known that because I am not good at math, but I had it confirmed for me some time ago when I was helping my dad with a project at his house. My dad is also a pastor. We were working on an archway that he was building for their back yard and some of the pieces just weren’t fitting right. We could not figure out the spacing for some of the boards. We were each trying to do the math but kept getting different answers. We’d try each answer out and neither of them would work. Then, thankfully, my sister came home. She is an engineering student. She’s good at math. We told her the problem we were having and in a matter of minutes the boards were all fitting perfectly. Pastors are not good at math. For this reason I am thankful this week for calculators because our gospel reading today is full of math.
Jesus told a parable in our gospel about a man who owed a debt. This man, a servant, owed his king 10,000 talents, Jesus said. For us that number doesn’t mean much because we don’t deal in talents anymore, but 1 talent was equal to about 6,000 day’s wages for the average servant. It’s a lot of money. By my calculations, if an average person working an average job worked six days a week and did not take any extra holiday time it would take them more than 19 years to come up with 1 talent. It would take 6,000 days of work. This man, however, owes much more than that. He owes his king 10,000 talents. He owes 60 million days wages to the king. According to my faulty math it would take more than 190,000 years for him to make enough to pay that debt. I read a few things this week that tried to put this debt in modern terms. One author I read suggested that in today’s economy this man would owe 16 billion dollars to his master. Wow. The first question we want to ask is how did that happen? How could he owe so much money? Why would the king let him run up a debt like that? We’ll, as we are about to find out this king is a little crazy.
The king decided one day that it was time to settle all of his accounts. He was going to call in all the debts. Not surprisingly, this servant who owed 16 billion dollars did not have the money. So, recognizing that he still isn’t going to get all his money back but wanted to at least get something the king orders that this man, his wife, and his children be sold into slavery and that everything that they owe should also be sold for as much as they can get.
Faced with the reality of being ripped away from his family and having all his possessions taken away, the servant is brought to his knees. He begs for mercy, “Give me more time,” he pleads, “and I will pay back everything!” At this point we’ve got to wonder if this servant really understood the magnitude of the situation. Does he know how much he owes? Is he aware of how bad it is? Does he really think that he can pay it all back? Unless he wins the lottery 10 times over it seems pretty much impossible to pay back the debt. And yet, the servant insists that he can do it. He just needs more time, he says.
The king, the same one who just finished ordering that this man and his family be sold into slavery, hears his servant’s plea for mercy and changes his mind. He has pity on this poor, miserable, foolish servant who owes him more money than we could ever imagine. Rather than selling him and his family into slavery he lets them all go. And, most amazingly of all, he forgives the whole debt. In an instant the 16 billion dollar debt that this servant owed to his master is gone.
Imagine what that must have felt like. Imagine having such a massive debt suddenly lifted from your shoulders. Imagine being moments from having your family split apart and all your earthy possessions sold for pennies on the dollar and then finding out that all is forgiven, the debt is gone. It’s unimaginable really.
As unimaginable as it might seem, this story is our reality. That servant’s debt is our debt. We don’t owe 16 billion dollars to anyone and likely (hopefully!) never will, but our debt of sin is of an even greater magnitude. Our sin debt is unimaginable. It is unpayable. It is beyond our understanding. We are 16 billion dollar sinners. Actually, 16 billion dollars would not even be a drop in a bucket against our debt of sin. Our debt is so massive, so overwhelming, that we could never even begin pay it.
That might sound a little over the top. We don’t think of our situation being that bad. Sure we’re sinners, but we aren’t that bad, are we? Part of what Jesus is showing us here in this parable is that we are that bad. Our situation is that bad. We are in debt way over our head.
The mistake we make when thinking about sin is that we think that sin is only the bad things that we do. We look around at our lives we don’t see that many bad things and we start thinking that our problem isn’t that bad. The thing is, though, that sin is not just that bad things that we do from time to time. Sin is a corruption of the very core of our human nature. A corruption we are born with. If it were possible for us to never think an evil though, if we never said an evil word, if we never did anything evil to anyone, if we just sat in a dark room not thinking, saying, or doing much of anything we would still be 16 billion dollar in the hole sinners. We are born with that debt and we only add to it with our sinful, evil thoughts, words, and deeds. Left on our own to pay that debt we would be lost, sold into slavery to sin, unable to pay eternally.
We have not, however, been left on our own to pay. God our Father, seeing that there was no way that we could pay our debt (despite our claims to the contrary) and having infinite mercy and pity for poor, miserable servants like us, forgave our debt in full. He sent His Son our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ to pay that debt in our place. On the cross He paid the full debt, every penny of it, for you, for me, and for every other person who ever has or ever will walk on this earth. Our overwhelming, 16 billion dollar debt, was paid in His blood and we owe nothing, not a cent. Your debt is paid, your sin is gone, all by the blood of Jesus.
The story, of course, does not end there. The servant in the parable, having been forgiven his unimaginable debt, himself goes and does something unimaginable. Walking out of the king’s palace having just been forgiven his debt he came across one of his fellow servants who owed him a few thousand dollars. He grabbed that servant by the throat and demanded that he pay his debt immediately. When his fellow servant begged for mercy the servant who had been forgiven a 16 billion dollar debt refused to forgive.
This brings us to the crux of the story. Like that servant we have been forgiven a massive debt. We have been forgiven a debt that we can’t really begin to comprehend or understand. And yet, despite that forgiveness that has been poured out on us we are often unwilling to forgive those who sin against us. We hold grudges, we cling to old hurts, and we refuse to let others get off the hook without paying the price. As much as we know that we ought to forgive others for what they have done our hearts remain unwilling. We know it’s not right, so what should we do?
If we look inside ourselves to try and find the strength to forgive it will never work. Peter, at the beginning of our gospel reading, asked if forgiving his brother 7 times was enough. To Peter and to us 7 times seems like plenty. But Jesus says not 7 times, but 70 times 7. An infinite number of times. Where does the strength come from to do that?
This is where we need to remember that forgiveness is not our strength, but it is what Jesus does best. He came to this world, was born as a child in Bethlehem, and died on a cross for the purpose of bringing forgiveness to our broken, sinful lives.
It is Jesus and His forgiveness for us that will change our hearts to forgive. His forgiveness as it comes to us in our baptism, in God’s Word, in the words of Absolution spoken by the pastor, and in His body and blood in Holy Communion transforms our hearts to forgive. As that magnificent, overwhelming, incomprehensible forgiveness, forgiveness that would cover 16 billion dollars of sin debt, comes to us again and again it changes us. It changes us so that we can forgive. Are there people in your life that you have trouble forgiving? Are there things that people have done to you that you could never even imagine forgiving? Come to Jesus in His Word and Sacraments, receive His unimaginable, incomprehensible forgiveness for you again and again and therein you will find the strength to forgive.
In Jesus your debt of sin is forgiven, now and always, and by His grace working in your heart you will forgive your brother who sins against you. Amen.