Leviticus 19:18, Matthew 18: 21-35
Sermon by Pastor Josh Van Leeuwen
Introduction by Phyllis Yearick
Of all the parables Jesus told to illustrate the kingdom of heaven and show how we are supposed to treat our fellow human beings, this seems to be one of the most straightforward. A wealthy king, symbolizing God, forgives a huge debt, symbolizing our debt of sin against him, so we should forgive our fellow humans’ comparably small debt of sin against us. It’s brilliant, really, in its directness and conciseness. Jesus used terms everyone could relate to: money and power! It’s supremely elegant in its simplicity. Nobody could mistake the message: be like the generous king, not like the unmerciful servant. The end.
And yet, what if there’s more to the parable? What if we miss a deeper lesson because we stop at the obvious one? Let’s ponder the details of this story a bit and see what we discover.
Let’s start with the literal: first, there’s a king. Obviously the king is wealthy because he can afford to forgive a debt that is the equivalent of millions of modern-day dollars. Wealth and power go with royalty. But stop right there. How many times did Jesus warn people about wealth? How many times did he caution people that money and other material things could be a serious impediment to our relationship with God if we valued them more than we value him? But this king is different. This king clearly has the proper relationship with his wealth, holding it loosely. Also with his power. He could insist that the man, let’s call him Servant A, pay back what he owes in installments, which would take his entire lifetime, or he could throw the man in prison, ensuring that the servant’s family would also pay the price for the man’s poor money management skills.
But clearly the king values the servant as a human being more than he values the wealth he has lost. Even for a rich king, millions of dollars had to be a pretty big hit to the treasury, but to him a human life is more valuable than material wealth. That’s why the king is so angry when Servant A refuses to forgive the much smaller debt of his fellow servant, call him Servant B. Unlike the merciful king, Servant A is saying, in effect, that money is more important to him than Servant B’s life. To be clear, Servant B’s debt to Servant A was small, but it wasn’t nothing. Forgiving even the comparably small debt would have been a personal loss, a sacrifice, for Servant A, but it’s a loss Servant A could have borne if he had chosen to, if relationship had been his priority instead of money. But the cost is more than he is willing to bear, and it turns out that the price for his merciless selfishness is his own freedom, because the king who forgives is a harsh judge of those who do not.
It’s worth remembering as we approach the Advent season that God freed us from our debt of sin at great cost to himself. He did this because he loves us and wants a relationship with us. And while it’s true that our neighbor’s debt to us, whatever it might be, is minuscule compared to our debt to God, it isn’t nothing. To pretend that forgiving someone who has wronged us requires no sacrifice cheapens the debt. Of course there is a cost. But the kingdom cannot grow unless we value our neighbor as a human being, worthy of relationship. Will we treat our neighbor with love and mercy, even if it requires sacrifice? Even if it costs us our time, our money, our ego, our need to be right, or even our desire for vengeance? Jesus knew the price he would pay to ensure that we would not spend eternity imprisoned by our sins, and he paid it anyway. If we would call ourselves his followers, how can we do otherwise?
You are welcome at Westview Church! Join us this Sunday morning at 9:30 for worship (Children’s Worship and nursery care available), then stay afterward for Discovery Hour (ages preschool through high school).