A Tale of Two Servants

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Ordinary Time 24
September 17, 2023
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: Rather than offering a simple message of "forgive or you won't be forgiven," this parable offers a picture of what life in the church should be like, and of what life in the kingdom the church represents will be like.

Peter's question to Jesus about how many times to forgive someone who sins against him serves as a transition from an emphasis on the church to an emphasis on the kingdom of heaven. Just prior to today's passage, in Matthew 18:15-20, Jesus was teaching about how Christian brothers and sisters should conduct themselves in church. The teaching wraps up with a discussion about forgiveness. Jesus lays out the procedure one should follow if a "member of the church sins against you," and what should be done if the recalcitrant brother or sister won't listen.

And then Peter asks a follow-up question: "Lord, how often should I forgive...?" And Jesus says...a lot! In fact, Jesus says, between brothers and sisters there must be no practical limit to forgiveness. Forgive 77, or 490 times (depending on how the original Greek is translated), if it comes to that!

From there, Jesus transitions into a parable of the kingdom: "The kingdom of heaven can be compared to ...." And this, according to one commentator,1 reflects Jesus' original intent, as opposed to Matthew's purpose of taking Jesus' parables and using them as allegories concerning life in the church. "The kingdom of heaven is like this," Jesus says. And he proceeds with a tale of two servants, a tale intended to show what life in the church should be like, and what life in the kingdom, which the church should ideally reflect, will be like.

Servants - not slaves

The two men depicted in the parable before us are more accurately defined as servants, rather than "slaves," as some translations have it. The first servant is an official in the king's administrative offices, charged with bringing in tax revenue from subject nations, or otherwise raising income for the kingdom through various fundraising efforts. And he has, either through incompetence or mismanagement, failed miserably. The size of the debt reflects this, and not personal extravagance or misfortune.2 He's not a ne'er-do-well who has racked up a ton of gambling debt, or anything like that. He's more like a failed businessman, or an incompetent government servant.

And the debt he owes is huge - literally fantastic, in the strict sense of that word - amount of capital - ten thousand talents. For the average worker, that would be literally 60,000,000 days' pay. And so the king orders him thrown in prison as punishment, and not as a way of having him work off the debt - working off such a debt would be literally, humanly, physically impossible. "Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything," the servant says - even though both he and the king know that any kind of literal repayment just isn't going to happen.

This servant has a problem.

The king, however, has a solution to the problem: really, the only solution practical or possible. He does not continue with the charade of "being patient" or waiting patiently for the servant to pay back what he owes. He has compassion on the servant, and simply lets him off. He absolves him of his debt. The first servant is free.

What was he thinking?

What does this first servant do? His sigh of relief has barely escaped his lungs before he locates a fellow servant who owes him a debt.

It's interesting how the encounter that follows is worded. To quote from the Common English Bible (CEB): "When that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him" a much smaller debt, a couple of months pay - a big enough debt, to be sure, but not insurmountable.

The emphasis in the quotation has been added. According to the CEB, and a number of other translations, the first servant "found" his fellow servant; it sounds as if he intentionally went looking for him, tracked him down. And he grabs him by the throat. Pay! he says.

And the second servant falls down and begs. He uses the exact words the first servant used when begging forgiveness from their king. but the first servant refuses to forgive. He has him thrown into prison until he works off his debt. Working off this particular debt is, at least theoretically, possible.

What was that first servant thinking? we might ask. Well ... as indicated, the debt owed him by the second servant was large, but not insurmountable. A few months in the workhouse should pay it back. Perhaps the first servant just didn't see a connection between his literally insurmountable debt and the relatively small amount owed to him by his colleague.

Or perhaps that first servant was a proud man, and just couldn't stand the notion that such a huge debt had been forgiven him, couldn't stand the idea that he was in debt - both monetarily and legally - to the king. Perhaps he couldn't stand the idea that he was that wrong, that broken, that indebted that all that was possible for him was to accept forgiveness. He couldn't stand the idea that he had received a pardon that he would never be able to return. So he continued to entertain illusions about raising that money and paying off the king after all, beginning that project with ruthless demands upon those who owed him.

What's our excuse?

What do you think?

What makes it difficult for you to accept forgiveness? Or, perhaps more to the point, what makes it difficult for you to forgive? Simple pride? Or perhaps what is owed you isn't as great as what you owed? Or perhaps the one in need of forgiveness hasn't been sufficiently repentant - or hasn't been repentant at all?

But let's leave that aside for a moment. We are not yet done with that first servant. All the king's servants all seem to know one another's business, and the other servants get wind of this first servant's churlishness. They are distressed by this and report the affair to the king. The king, furious with the first servant, rescinds his earlier absolution and has that first servant cast into prison until he has paid his literally unpayable debt in full - which is to say, for the rest of his natural life.

What shall we make of all this? What shall we say about the fact that the king, when all is said and done, reneged on his earlier extension of forgiveness - refused to forgive - as a way of making a statement about forgiveness? What made him do that?

Brothers and sisters, church and kingdom

But we don't need to take all this literally. As hinted earlier, we do well not to treat this parable as a strict allegory, making rigid comparisons - do this, and this will happen, end of story. This is a parable of the kingdom, the coming kingdom of God that we all hope and pray for. To make the analogy, Jesus tells a story of a decidedly earthly king and kingdom. This is not, after all, any kind of kingdom idealized in the Jewish tradition out of which Jesus comes. It would have been unthinkable for a Jewish person to "worship" a king as these servants worship theirs. The Torah forbids selling a debtor's wife and children into debt along with the debtor. A Jewish man could be imprisoned for debt, but not tortured, which is the ultimate fate of the first servant.2

Jesus is using a decidedly earthly analogy to offer us a tale for those of us who desire to dwell in the kingdom of heaven, forever. How shall we act toward one another, as aspirants to that kingdom, as brothers and sisters in the church, as imperfect people redeemed, forgiven, absolved of guilt and set free to love and serve one another and the world?

We are to be, insofar as we have been forgiven, above all, forgiving.

So, to return to an earlier question, what's stopping you? What prevents you from forgiving? What tempts you not to forgive?

"... the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king," Jesus says, who is faced with subjects who owe more than they could possibly repay. To be "in" this kingdom of heaven, we have to be like that king. We simply can't be in the kingdom of heaven if we refuse to forgive. Without forgiveness, there simply is no kingdom of heaven. If we refuse to forgive, we nullify forgiveness, and nullify the kingdom. If we come up with excuses not to forgive, if we think forgiving somehow doesn't apply to us - because we presume to believe that the debt owed us isn't as great as the debt we owe, or because the "object" of our forgiveness wasn't appropriately repentant, or for whatever reason - we place ourselves outside the kingdom whose primary value is forgiveness.

This can be hard for many to hear. There are among us people so horribly sinned against that forgiveness may be, for all practical purposes, impossible for them. May we remember that we are not dealing here with any earthly king who is laying down an implacable, tit-for-tat rule of forgive or no forgiveness for you. We might do well to remember things we can't let go of, and then forgive even those who won't, or maybe can't, forgive.