Summary: The parable of the Unforgiving Servant : Forgiving and Forgiveness. How can God grant forgiveness and then rescend it?
Sermon: The parable of the Unforgiving Servant: Forgiving and Forgiveness.
Text: Matt 18:21-35, Phil 1:3-11
Occasion: Trinity XXII
Who: Mark Woolsey
Where: Arbor House
When: Sunday, October 23, 2005
Audio link: http://providencerec.com/Sound%20Files/Matt18;21-35.TrinityXXIILittleOnesOffendedAndProtected.mp3
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Thy sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The church year is winding down. From the beginning we have walked in the footsteps of our Lord’s life, witnessing again His birth, nativity, temptation, passion, death, ressurrection, and ascension. Starting in late Spring we have entered the Trinity season, or, as it is sometimes called, Common Time. Instead of walking in His footsteps, we are sitting at His feet, learning from Jesus’ own lips about who we are, our sin, judgement, God’s forgiveness, etc. It is called "Common Time" because we need to see that God is not only in the special seasons like Christmas and Easter, but in every day. He is the God of the Holy Days, and of Common Time. As this season draws to a close the Gospel and Epistle lessons slowly draw our attention to the end of things: the end of the world, for example, but also the end of our lives. Today we heard St Paul tell us "the He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ" (Phil 1:6) and "that you may be sincere and without offense till the day of Christ" (v10).
Ah, but therein lies the rub, the "Day of Jesus Christ". What is this "Day", and what does it have to do with offense? To learn more out these things we must turn to our Gospel passage.
II. Gospel Context
The parable of the Unforgiving Servant comes at the end of a string of related teachings by our Lord. These teachings begin with a question by the disciples, "Who is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?" (Matt 18:1). If we had been asked that today, we might, depending upon our tradition within the church, have answered, "Billy Graham", "Mother Theresa", "John Calvin", or some other such luminary. These are people of great stature and accomplishment. Yet Jesus rejects accomplishment as the standard of greatness, and defines it in terms of humility, which children have in abundance. They know that they don’t know and are willingly led by the hand by someone they trust. Yet this great willingness to trust also leads to great vulnerability as Jesus warns next. In fact, He’s rather gross about it. He says that whoever offends or leads astray one of these little trusting ones, it would be better if he had simply poked his finger into his eye socket, grabbed his eyeball, and yanked it out. Offenses must come in the Christian life, but woe to him by whom they come! After assuing us that God the Father will search out and reclaim these lost sheep of His who were lead astray, He then gives two teachings, one straightforward and the other a parable, about dealing with offenses. In all these sermons I read as research for this one, not one brings out this fact, yet this context gives important insight to the proper interpretation. The parable of the Unforgiving Servant does not stand alone. Both teachings concern an offender and offendee.
III. Unrepentant Brother
In the first teaching we are told how to deal with someone who has wronged us, but won’t admit it. Suprisingly, we are not told to forgive anyway, but told to confront the brother, expecting repentance on his part. If he refuses to give that, we are to escalate the dispute, bringing witnesses. If he continues in obstinancy, the whole church is to cut him off and God promises to stand by that decision: "whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." (18:18). I’ve heard so many sermons on forgiveness, and how we need to forgive even those who do not repent, that this was rather a shock. But it seems rather clear, that we are under no obligation to forgive those who do not repent. This also helps to make sense of the parable of the unforgiving servant, where forgiveness is first given, then rescended.
IV. The Unforgiving Servant
This is a familiar story to most of us, so I’ll just give a brief outline and then clarify some details before getting to the main point. A man owes a king an unimaginable amount and is about to be sold, along with his family, into slavery to help pay it off. After begging for an extension the servant is released from his debt because of the king’s compassion. Later, the scene is repeated, with the forgiven servant being the creditor and another servant asking for more time to pay off his small debt. The first servant is unwilling and has the second thrown into prison. When the king hears about this, he is furious with the first servant and has him tortured until he pays all he owes.