Summary: Those who appreciate the depth of sin that God has forgiven in them will forgive others as well.
This morning, we continue our journey through the parables of Christ. Parables, as I’ve noted before, are short and simple. They don’t have complex plots, or dozens of characters, like a Russian novel. You don’t need a Ph.D. in theology or Hebrew literature to understand them. And yet, despite their brevity and simplicity, or perhaps because of them, they pack a terrific spiritual punch. They hit us right in the gut. On the surface, they seem so benign, so inoffensive, so harmless. They’re just stories, after all. A child can understand them. But the more we think about them, and meditate on them, and listen to God’s voice speaking to us through them, the more we experience their power to expose our inner thoughts, to reveal our motives and our hidden sins.
When I consider the power of these little narratives, I’m reminded, on this Memorial Day weekend, of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, a speech he gave in 1863 to dedicate a portion of that battlefield as a cemetery for the Civil War dead. It begins: “Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation: conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” The whole speech, from beginning to end, is only 272 words long. It took Lincoln barely two minutes to deliver. But what most people don’t know is that Lincoln wasn’t the only speaker that day. A man named Edward Everett, who was considered to be a great orator, came before Lincoln in the program and gave an address that lasted a full two hours. It contained over fourteen thousand words, and it began like this: “Standing beneath this serene sky, overlooking these broad fields now reposing from the labors of the waning year, the mighty Alleghanies dimly towering before us, the graves of our brethren beneath our feet. . . ” blah, blah, blah, etc., etc., etc. Now, let me ask you, which of those speeches is familiar to every one of us here, over a hundred years later? Lincoln’s, of course. Why? Because in just a few short sentences he captured the terrible significance of that occasion. It was not the actions of the living which would consecrate, or hallow, the ground, but the actions of those who had given their lives to defend it.
I say all that by way of introduction. Don’t be fooled by the fact that these parables are short and simple. They have greater power than you know. Listen to them, and listen to God speaking to you through them.
Today, we’re considering the parable of the unmerciful servant, from Matthew, chapter eighteen.
Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, "Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?" Jesus answered, "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.
"Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.
"The servant fell on his knees before him. ’Be patient with me,’ he begged, ’and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.
But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ’Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.
His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ’Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’
"But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened.
"Then the master called the servant in. ’You wicked servant,’ he said, ’I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
"This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart."
This is a sobering story, to say the least. But I think it would be easy for us to ignore it, to disregard it as having little application to ourselves. After all, we aren’t slaves. In America, we don’t have to worry about being thrown into jail because of a debt; if it ever came to that, we would just file for bankruptcy protection. We don’t live in a world where people can be forced to sell wives and children in order to pay their bills. And besides that, the actions of the main character are just too outrageous. Being forgiven an astronomical amount of money, and then immediately going out and assaulting someone who owed him a relatively paltry sum. We can’t identify with someone who would act in such a callous manner. And that’s the problem. This parable is holding a mirror up to our hearts, and yet we can’t see our own reflection. We can’t admit that this ungrateful wretch looks a lot more like us that we care to acknowledge. We refuse to recognized the parallels – being forgiven an immense debt by our master, but then turning around and refusing to forgive a much smaller debt. Being forgiven all of our sins by God, and yet refusing to forgive others; holding grudges; nursing resentments; consoling ourselves with thoughts of revenge. And as Jesus warns us, those who persist in such attitudes will pay a terrible price.