An Understanding

Video of the Divine Service is here. The sermon begins around the 19:05 mark.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I don’t like owing anything. Whether it’s money or an apology, I don’t like it when I owe something to someone. If I borrow something, I feel a weight and a burden until I can pay it or give it back, so I can be free of that debt. But the fact is, all of us owe something to someone at all times. We heard St. Paul last week that we are to owe no one anything except to love one another. But when is the debt of love paid completely? When do you no longer have someone who needs something from you? Love is always owed, in some way, to someone, until you die.

And more than just owing people those concrete actions of love, we all owe everything to God. Everything we have—every breath, every heartbeat, life itself; our families, our jobs, our livelihoods—all of it is from God. As Luther reminds us in the explanation to the First Article of the Creed, God has made me and given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my members, my reason and all my senses, and still takes care of them; house and home, wife and children, land and animals, and all that I need to support this body and life. Everything I have is from the God who made me.

As the servant finds out when the King calls him in to settle accounts. He owes ten thousand talents. Even taking that literally, on the surface of the parable, a talent is, on average, about a year’s worth of wages. So this servant owes ten thousand years of debt to the King. And when he can’t pay it, the King orders that he and his wife and his children and all that he has are to be sold in order to pay the debt. Everything he has belongs to the King; everything he has is from the King. And it’s far more than he can ever pay. So he just looks ridiculous; he looks silly when he falls on his face and begs the King to be patient with him, and he’ll pay back everything. He won’t. He can’t. To even suggest such a thing is ridiculous. And what is he going to pay it back with? The King’s own gifts?

But the King does not agree to his terms. He doesn’t give him more time to pay it back, as if more time would make the difference. He doesn’t refinance his loan or give him a lower interest rate. He simply forgives the debt. He releases him from what he owes. He says, essentially, it’s all gift. And the servant is free. He’s released from the burden of his debt. He and his wife and his children and all that he has are given back to him as gift.

What freedom as he leaves the presence of the King! He must feel like Ebenezer Scrooge when he wakes up to find it’s still Christmas. But Jesus describes the scene as if the man is on his way out of the King’s presence when he sees someone who owes him some money. He runs over and grabs him and chokes him and says, pay what you owe! The man owes him 100 denarii. And again, if we’re taking the parable’s numbers literally, a denarius is, on average, what someone would have received for working for a day.

So 100 denarii is not nothing. Consider what you make, or would have made, over three months of work. It is a significant amount. And the second servant says almost verbatim what the first servant had said to the King: be patient with me and I will pay you. But there is nothing of the King’s mercy here, and this is an amount that actually could be paid back. More than that, what the second servant owes him is probably also from what he was forgiven by the King. He has no mercy for his fellow servant and has him thrown into prison until he can pay it back.

Jesus has said, with what judgment you use, you will be judged, and with what measure you use, it will be measured back to you (Matthew 7:2). And so the King issues the same penalty as the first servant gave to the second servant: you wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt when you pleaded with me. Should you not have done the same, and had the same mercy on your fellow servant? And he put him in jail until he could pay back the debt—which is, forever.

Nothing of the King’s mercy has gotten into his heart. Maybe it was all a show. Maybe he knew that the King was supposed to be merciful, and he went in and put on a show of repentance and begging for mercy, knowing he would get it. But he takes it for granted, and that it belongs only to him and not to the other servants of the King. To take the mercy of the King for yourself and not to give it to others is to pretend that His mercy is only enough for you. But if it’s not enough for others, then it is not enough for you either. And if you judge someone else as being outside your mercy, then you are outside the mercy of God.

Nothing the first servant had, or loaned, or was owed was actually his. As we heard, everything we have is a gift from God in the first place. What he was owed was not really his anyway. He should have let the King deal with it. It all belongs to Him, after all. And the King has dealt with it. His compassion and forgiveness is found where Jesus takes everything that is owed as His own, though He owes nothing. He takes the eternal debt of the entire world as His own, and the wages of sin are paid out to Him in crucifixion and suffering and death. And in His resurrection life, He releases all debts. The one who gives everything now forgives everything.

And it is this Jesus who teaches us to pray, using the same words that He uses in this parable. “Forgive us what we owe, as we forgive others what they owe us.” Sin, yes, but everything else as well. Love covers over a multitude of sins: small things and large things, more debt or less. When Peter asks this question of Jesus—how many times shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him?—he says, seven times? The number seems small, but if you consider someone sinning against you seven times, it doesn’t seem so small. For us, we can maybe go two or three times before our patience starts to run thin and we are less inclined to let people pay us back. We start to want them to prove their repentance and sorrow.

But Peter, at least to us our way of thinking, is actually being pretty generous then—seven times. But Jesus says, I say to you, not seven times, but seventy times seven—or seventy-seven times—the number doesn’t really matter, because, as the parable makes clear, Jesus means us to have as much forgiveness for our fellow servants as our heavenly Father has for us. Are there limits on God’s mercy for you or me? Then there can be no limits on our forgiveness for each other. It is all gift already! What can we possibly be owed, then?

When I was in college, I had a friend—well, I still have this friend—and when we would go somewhere, to a restaurant, or the store, or the cafeteria, and when he would pay for whatever I had, I always was quick to say that I would get the next one, or pay him back next time. Because I don’t like owing people anything. But he would say, No. We have an understanding. We have an understanding that sometimes I need something from him and sometimes he would need something from me. We have an understanding.

Christians have an understanding. We have an understanding that we are all fellow servants of the same King. Everything we have is given to us from Him, and there’s nothing we have that we have gotten for ourselves apart from Him. We owe Him everything, and there is no sense in which we can pay Him back. But there is something we can give, and that’s to one another. Forgive us what we owe, dear Father in heaven, as we forgive others what they owe to us. Here we are, in the presence of the gracious and compassionate King, who gives us all His forgiveness, all His mercy, all His life of resurrection freedom, released from the entire burden of whatever we might owe. We might be tempted to say to God, “I’ll pay you back.” He says, No, you don’t pay back gifts. And it’s all gift.

And as we go out, we pray, “We can only give thanks for this salutary gift. Strengthen us through that same gift in faith toward You—that we might know and believe and rejoice in the compassion of God in Jesus Christ—and as we go out from the presence of the King, that we might be strengthened in fervent love for one another.” We have an understanding. We’re still practicing. We’re still failing. We’re still praying the prayer that Jesus gave us. But we have an understanding, that this mercy we have received and always receive is the same mercy that the King has for every other person.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.

– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 9/11/20

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