Sermons are meant to be heard. There is something that gets lost in just reading one. The following sermon was written to be spoken aloud which explains why the writing is not always perfect and the punctuation is at times nonexistent. Nevertheless, I pray that it speaks to you.
BOOKKEEPERS, LIST-MAKERS, AND THE DEATH OF THE KING
September 20, 2017
Tonight our Gospel lesson is a parable. It’s been awhile since we’ve dealt with a parable. The lectionary gave us the parable of the seeds back in the Spring which is a parable about the Kingdom of God, you will remember. But tonight our passage is a parable about Grace and Forgiveness and changing our ways and living into a new and different kind of life.
I have to admit to you that I’ve been reading a book about Parables by an Episcopal priest named Robert Capon and a lot of what we are going to talk about tonight has been influenced by his writings. And that’s ok. Preachers do not sit in their offices and just type words that come into their heads. I wish it were that way. It’d be easier that way. But instead we study and read and learn what this person says and what this other person says and what commentators say and what study Bibles say - and then the Spirit uses all of that to help us craft something that we think God might be telling us to say to you. That happens every week but this week in particular I wanted you to know that I was influenced by the work of Father Capon and if you are interested in parables I can get you the titles of his books. They’ve been very helpful to me.
So tonight our Gospel lesson is the parable of the unforgiving servant. Let’s read it together. You can follow along on the back of you worship guide or in your Bible or on your device. It’s found in Matthew 18:21-35.
21 Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church[a] sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven[b] times.
23 “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25 and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26 So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 31 When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32 Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35 So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
Let us pray…
God give us the eyes to see and the ears to hear and the heart to understand what it is you want us to learn this day. In Jesus’ name we pray… Amen
Last week the Gospel reading was about what to do when someone in the church sins against you. The sermon was not based on that passage but we read it – and you’ll remember that Jesus talks about how to approach and deal with someone who sins against you but does not listen to you. That passage is then followed by the one we read tonight and it all starts with Peter’s question.
You can almost see Peter thinking things through about what happens if someone sins against me. And he’s thinking it though and thinking about what Jesus has said about forgiveness and out pops the question that we find in verse 21: How often should I forgive? As many as seven times?
You’ve gotta love Peter. Even in his question he’s building himself up. He answers his own question with what I am sure he thought was an overly generous answer. “I’m going to ask this question of Jesus but I’m going to show him and everyone around me how clued in I am and give him MY answer which is obviously WAY more forgiving than we need to be.”
But Jesus shuts him down and says not seven times – but seventy seven times – or seven times seven. And we get a sense right away that the point of forgiveness is not about a number of times we do it - but about something much deeper.
In fact, Jesus decides that maybe Peter doesn’t get it and immediately starts in on this parable. The phrase that begins this parable is “For this reason” or “on account of this”. In other words, Jesus is saying I’m going to tell you a story that will explain what I’m talking about Peter – because I’m not sure you are with me. You see, you’re acting like a bookkeeper and I’m more interested in a changing the way you see the world.
And that’s really what parables in general are about. They are a way of telling the truth – but telling it slant. They come at the truth from a left handed, sideways position rather than a right-handed, perfectly formed argument with points and sub points and formulas to memorize.
So Jesus jumps into the parable by introducing us to a king who wished to settle accounts.
The first thing we notice about this king is that he has to be pretty wealthy and pretty shrewd. He has multiple servants and decides that he wants an accounting – he wants to settle the accounts. So we can also assume that he’s a bookkeeper type. He knows what he owes and what is owed to him. And just like any good businessman he decides that it’s time to restructure some things – see where things stand – and take account of his assets. If the king is to represent God then maybe we can assume that God is a bookkeeper who makes lists and checks them twice and keeps account of what is owed him.
And the people listening to this story would have totally understood that kind of God. So far the story is straight forward and I would dare say it’s straight forward for us as well. Because we too sometimes think of God in this way – someone who is watching from above with a big tally sheet marking our good actions and our bad actions and we are hoping that when our days are over the good marks outweigh the bad. God as cosmic bookkeeper is something we are familiar with I’m afraid.
So the king has a servant – who must be an important servant – who comes before him owing 10,000 talents. The amount that he owed was just ridiculous. In fact one talent was equal to 15 – 20 years of salary. And this guy owned 10,000! That’s 200,000 years of wages! If you make $50,000 a year then you would owe $10,000,000,000 (ten trillion) dollars to this guy. Jesus was making sure we know that there was no way this guy was going to pay this debt back. And, I think, Jesus wants us to know just how much money is due to the king.
So the king demands that he pay him and of course he could not so the king decides to write the debt off, get what he can by selling the servant and his family and all his belongings.
Now, up to this point the king is doing everything a normal bookkeeper would do. He’s taking account of his finances. He decides to call in some debt. He realizes that he can’t get it from this guy so he writes it off and gets what he can. Is there anyone in this room who would do anything different? Of course not. Cut your losses. Get what you can. Move on. It’s not personal. It’s business.
But the servant is not done yet. He knows he can’t get out of this but he decides to fall on his knees and beg the king to have patience. Notice that the servant does not beg for forgiveness of the debt – but rather patience. “I’ll pay you everything” he says. “Just give me a little more time.”
What is it with this guy? We all know he can’t repay. The king obviously knows he can’t repay. But the servant is still “I can do it. In my own power, I can do it. I just need a little time. I’ll pay you back. I promise!”
I think sometimes we get in our heads that WE can do it all. It’s in our DNA as Americans that we can pull ourselves up and get out of binds and do it all ourselves. We are the model of self-sufficiency. I don’t know about you but I can certainly see myself in this servant. Just give me a chance – I can do it myself. I don’t need you and I certainly do not need God.
But then something happens. While we are laughing at the servant for thinking he can repay, something changes in the king. For some reason he is moved in his gut – the Greek says – to change his mind and forgive the debt completely. He doesn’t even take up the servant on his stupid little offer to repay. Instead he just wipes the debt away. The old bookkeeping, list-making, accounting king is gone. And a new gracious, forgiving, “I don’t care what you owe” kind of king is in his place. It’s almost as if the old king died and a new king was raised to life. It’s almost as if the death and resurrection led to the forgiveness. The death became a means of grace.
And our friend the servant just walks out of there with no clue what has just happened. Instead of accepting the king’s grace and then changing his own life – he just keeps on with his own bookkeeping ways. Instead of taking in what the king did for him and internalizing it - instead of dying himself – he stays focused on making sure other’s follow the rules. He keeps on with his own list making and makes sure that the grace and forgiveness given to him does not spread to anyone else. He was not even affected by what the king did.
Becoming a follower of Christ is not just about getting your own slate wiped clean. It’s not about only making sure you get into heaven. It’s not all about you and your personal relationship with God. Now, don’t get me wrong. The relationship you have with God is super important. It all starts there. But it doesn’t end there. If recognizing that you have been forgiven does not lead to you forgiving others – then what’s the point? If we remain bookkeepers and list makers and bind other people’s sins to them – then we don’t truly understand what it means to be a child of God. The point is not to count how many times we should forgive – the point is to live like we have been forgiven.
A point the servant just did not get. Even though the second servant only owed a little in comparison – even though the second servant used the exact same language to make his plea as did the first servant.
How often do we live like this servant? At first glance we say “no way would I act like that.” When in fact we act like that all the time. We compartmentalize our lives into the religious and everything else and as a result we live just like the rest of the world making lists and keeping account and not showing grace. After all – it’s just business.
Of course the servants, knowing what has happened, immediately tell on the guy.
And this is the part of the parable that scares me the most, actually. Because this part of the parable shows me what can happen when we don’t let what Christ has done for us impact our lives. This part of the parable lets me know that living as someone who keeps grudges and holds onto debt leads to a life of torture.
We could argue if it leads to an after-life of torture. But maybe that’s for another time and another place. Suffice it to say for now that when we live like the servant we are not living the life God would have us live – we are not acting in ways that God would have us act – we are not loving in ways that God would have us love.
And maybe that’s our point tonight – to recognize the areas in our own lives where we are the servant – to think about those ways that we bind other’s sins to them – ways that we keep track of what is owed – ways that we keep other people to account. Maybe that’s the point – to evaluate our lives and find those ways that we need to die and be raised again.
As we come to the table tonight – think about that. Think about the ways we need to die in order to live the life we care called to live.
Let us pray…