Serving Christ and sharing the Gospel

The Two Servants (Matt 18:21-35)

Financial debt is part of life, isn’t it? Just like death and taxes, debts are something most people find almost impossible to avoid:

  • If you are a student, you will have a student loan debt.
  • If you own a new car, you probably bought it with a loan of some kind.
  • If you have a credit card, you are in debt.
  • And unless you are fabulously wealthy, most people need a mortgage to buy their own home.

Even whole countries have debt. Almost every nation on earth has debts that it owes to private banks, other governments, and global institution like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Did you know that the UK’s national debt currently stands at nearly two TRILLION pounds, equivalent to over 80% of our country’s GDP.

Debt crises are nothing new, of course. During my economics degree at Bath University 20 years ago I wrote my final year thesis on the national debt of Zambia. Like many other African countries, the Zambian government accumulated huge debts in the 1970s and 80s. Debts to western governments and banks that it could not afford and could never fully repay. Even attempting to repay these debts meant that little was left for vital services like health and education, hurting the poorest and most vulnerable people in a poor and vulnerable country. Thankfully recent years have seen international debt relief and debt forgiveness initiatives that have begun to reduce the burden on developing countries like Zambia.

A debt crisis dominates our Gospel passage this morning, as Jesus tells a parable about two servants with debts. Two servants who need forgiveness – debt forgiveness – desperately.

Jesus didn’t tell this parable as a lesson in economics, of course. He told it to teach us spiritual truths. It’s a parable about ethics not economic. Today’s parable is a story designed to teach spiritual truths. Spiritual truths that anyone aspiring to enter the Kingdom of God should understand and take to heart.

The truths that I think Jesus teaches us in this parable are threefold. He is teaching us: i) About our Guilt before God, ii) About God’s Grace; and iii) About Genuine Repentance. Our Guilt, God’s Grace and Genuine Repentance. Let’s look at these three topics in turn, starting with our guilt before God.

  1. Our Guilt before God

In verses 24 and 25 of our parable, Jesus describes the plight of a King’s servant. A servant with enormous debts and no chance of repaying them. The original Greek text of our passage says his debt was ten thousand talents. One talent alone was the largest monetary unit of the time, so ten thousand talents was an astonishing sum, equivalent to many millions of pounds today. The first century Jewish historian Josephus tells us that the total tax revenue of the entire country of Palestine was only 8,000 talents, so this one servant had no hope of repaying what he owed.

In verse 25 we are told what future awaited him – destitution and slavery, not just for himself but for his whole family. Financial justice may have demanded it, but it was terrible prospect nonetheless.

What is most frightening about this scenario is that this servant’s debt before his King is a picture of human being’s guilt before God. It is fashionable nowadays to downplay the seriousness of sin. To treat sin as just a minor foible - a naughty disposition towards cream cakes or chocolate perhaps. But Jesus, and the Bible as a whole, is clear that sin is serious, deadly serious. Sin doesn’t just include a taste for chocolate and cream cake, but all our evil thoughts, deeds and actions. Sin includes all our thoughts, deeds and actions which hurt other people, demean ourselves and, ultimately, offend our perfectly good God.

If we are honest with ourselves, we are all very much like the first servant in our parable. Before God, before our one true King, we are guilty and in massive debt. Sin is serious, and all of us are in need of salvation. Justice demands that a penalty be paid, but it’s a penalty that none of us want to face.

But thankfully, and wonderfully, the story does not end there. Because, if we are Christians here this morning, we have benefitted from God’s amazing grace.

  1. God’s Amazing Grace

“Everything in Moderation” used to be one of my father’s favourite sayings on family holidays - usually spoken with reference to sangria and sun-bathing! Thankfully, “moderation” is not a word that can be used to describe God’s grace and mercy. God’s grace is lavish, extravagant, over-the-top and awe-inspiring.

God’s amazing grace and willingness to forgive is illustrated in our parable this morning. It is illustrated by the King’s immediate reaction to the first servant’s plight. In verse 26 the servant falls to his knees and pleads with the King for mercy. “Be patient with me” he says “and I will pay back all I owe”.  But the King is more than just patient. He knows the servant has no hope of repaying his enormous debt, however patient he is with him. Instead, we are told in verse 27 that the King simply cancels the debt and writes it off entirely. Total debt forgiveness.

Wonderfully, the King’s willingness to forgive his indebted servant is a picture of God’s great willingness to forgive us. Beautiful Bible passages describe what God does to the guilt of people who turn to Christ in repentance and faith. As Psalm 103 says “as far as the east is from the west, so far does God remove our transgressions from us.” When God removes our sin, he remembers it no more.

  1. Genuine Repentance

So how should we respond to God’s offer of full and final forgiveness? Here the parable has a final lesson for us. We receive God’s grace by repentance. But genuine repentance is more than just saying “sorry” and asking for God’s pardon. Genuine repentance is sincere and heartfelt, and is shown in a change of attitude to others. God sees into our heart and watches over our lives - he can see when someone’s sorrow is serious and sincere.

As we have seen, the first servant in our parable got off to a great start. He fell on his knees and asked for the King’s mercy. And that is quite right - saying sorry to God is the first element of true repentance.

But the servant’s subsequent actions in verses 28 to 31 of our passage show that his “sorry” was insincere , it wasn’t a serious apology. He subsequent actions show that his repentance wasn’t genuine. Because no sooner does he receive mercy himself, than he withholds mercy from a colleague. He aggressively corners his fellow servant, grabs him and begins to choke him. He demands immediate, full payment for a small debt owed to him.

Worth just one hundred sliver coins, one hundred denari, this debt was less than a hundred days wage. One commentator, Dick France, has done the maths and calculated that this debt was just one six hundred thousandth of the size of his debt to the king. A tiny amount in comparison to what he himself owed!

If the first servant had been truly appreciative of what the King had done for him he would have done the same for his colleague. If he had been truly grateful for the grace offered to him by his King, he would have shown grace to his fellow servant. But instead, in verse 30, he has the poor man thrown into prison until he could pay his debt.

Rightly angered, we learn in verse 34 that the King withdraws his previous offer of forgiveness and has the first servant himself thrown into prison, with little hope of release. The servant’s ruthless behaviour had exposed his insincere repentance, and his lack of genuine gratitude for the grace he was himself shown.

As I finish today, surely the lesson Jesus wants us to learn from this passage is that we must forgive as we have been forgiven. As Christians, we must try to wholeheartedly forgive others for their offences against us, and refrain from revenge, resentment or retaliation. However big others’ offences against us may be we can be certain that they are small compared to the scale of our guilt before God.

In response to God’s grace towards us, we must seek to show grace towards others. As Jesus says to Peter at the very start of our passage, we must be prepared to forgive our brother or sister not just seven times, but seventy-seven times - or more. And if we do this, we can say those famous words of the Lord’s Prayer with complete integrity: “Father, forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”.

Let’s pray: Heavenly Father, thank you for the amazing grace you offer us through Christ. Please help us to respond with gratitude, and to freely forgive those who sin against us. In Jesus name, Amen.