The parable of the unmerciful servant (Mt 18:21-35)

Let’s just briefly go over this parable again:

The man in the parable owed a whole lot of money. Surely he wasn’t surprised when he was summoned to the inner chambers of the king. He left his home, travelled across the country until he reached the palace, climbed the flight of stairs and went through the double-doors. If you were listening closely, you noticed that Jesus didn’t mention the stairs, that was an inadvertent omission. He meant to say it.

There had to be a flight of stairs. You never go the seat of power without climbing the stairs. Of course, nowadays there would be a lift, but the power is always on the top floor.

The man climbed the stairs, went through the double doors, and was ushered into the inner chamber of the king, and stood there waiting until the king made his appearance. The man bowed dutifully. Just then a secretary carries out a huge ledger and opens it to the page where this man’s name appears on the upper right hand corner.

The king looks at the bottom line on the ledger sheet, and says, “Servant, it says here you owe me a lot of money.” “Yes, sir” “You owe me ten thousand talents.” “Yes, sir” “I want my money.” “Yes, sir.” “I want my money now.” “Oh, yes sir. Uh, no sir. I mean, I don’t have ten thousand talents.”

The king turns to the secretary who brought in the book and they begin a discussion about selling this man, his wife and children into slavery, and disposing of his personal property to recoup what little they can of the huge debt. When the king turns around, he finds the servant down on the carpet on his knees.

The servant looks up at the king and says, “Sir, have mercy on me. Have mercy, and I will pay you everything. Give me a little time.” You know what the king did. He did better than just give him a little time. He reached into that ledger book, took hold of the page, and ripped it out. He ripped it into shreds, turned to the servant on his knees, and said, “I forgive you the debt. You are now free and clear. Go in peace.”

Can you imagine how that servant felt? Such ecstasy! I think the tears dried up and that when he got up his feet never touched the carpet again. He must have floated through the air. He didn’t have to open the double doors. He simply slipped through, and didn’t touch a single step on the way down. The man is off to freedom.

We might hope so, but that’s not the way the story goes. He apparently touched every step on the way down, and when he gets to the bottom, he finds another servant who owes him a hundred denarii - £5. What’s £5 compared to ten thousand talents which is about £2.5 million in today’s terms?

The man who had just been forgiven a debt of £2.5 million is grabbing a man by the throat for £5. He says, “Pay what you owe me”

Notice that Jesus has the fellow servant get on his knees just as the first man had done, and he pleads for forgiveness using exactly the same words. “Give me a little time, I’ll pay it all back.” The ….. refused. He didn’t give him more time. He didn’t give him anything. He summoned the police and had the man put in jail. The crowd gathered at the bottom of the stairs didn’t like what they saw and heard. They went to the king and said, “You wouldn’t believe what happened at the bottom of the stairs.” The king said, “Looks like I need to have another conversation.”

The king summons the servant back into his presence, up the flight of stairs, through the double-doors, into the inner chamber.

The king comes in. The servant bows dutifully, and the king asks, “Weren’t you here just a little while ago?” “Yes, Sir.” “If I remember correctly I had the ledger book open on which your name appears, and the bottom line of that page said you owed me ten million dollars. Is that right?” “Yes, Sir.”

Well, if I remember correctly, I told you I wanted my now.” “Yes. Sir.”

“You got down on your knees and begged for mercy. Do you remember what I did? I ripped the ledger sheet out of the book and told you to go in peace. Now, what’s this I hear about what you did when you left this place? By the time you got to the bottom of the stairs, you seized a man who owed you £5, after I’d forgiven you £2.5 million. Did you seize someone for £5 and have him thrown in jail?” “Ummmm, that is correct, Sir”

“Well,” said the king, “I have news for you. You know that prison cell where your friend is?” “Yes, Sir.” “Well, it happens to have bunk beds. You stay there until you have paid me the £2.5 million.

There’s humour in this story and we’re pleased the man got what he deserved. But the truth is, in terms of humour, we’ve only scraped the surface, because we haven’t really had the punchline yet. I told you it was £2.5 million, and I presume that is a significant sum for most of us here. But what I didn’t say was the sheer fact that nobody in the time of Jesus could owe that much money. Jesus is telling a joke here.

The entire annual revenue of the Roman taxes all over the mediterranean world would be about ½ million. With ½ million you could pay all the judges, all the road builders, all the armies of the empire, all the dancers, all the teachers, all the administrators, and still have plenty left. Even Herod the Great could not owe £2.5 million.

Why would Jesus say that somebody owed that much? Let’s figure it out. Herod the Great couldn’t owe that so when Jesus collects a group of people around him and starts telling this story, “There was a man who owed £2.5 million….” There would have been laughter, they would have got the joke. And then in the middle of the story Jesus has the man on his knees asking for a little more time and he will pay everything back. A little more time – Do you know how much time he needs? At an average annual wage of £40, it would take over a hundred thousand years. It’s hilarious because it is so ludicrous!

There is humour here then, but there is also a painful twist. The hero of the story is the king. The king forgives the servant but then changes his mind. This is not what we have been taught about forgiveness. You can’t  say in the morning, ‘I forgive you’ and then in the afternoon say ‘I’ve changed my mind’. So what is going on with this king who forgives a huge debt but then changes his mind?

Now the thing is that is not what this story is about. That is not the way parables work, where every point in the story has a correlation in reality. This is really about a servant who was offered the forgiveness of £2.5M and did not receive it. He didn’t let himself off the hook. Let me explain. This is the case because what happened at the bottom of the stairs simply could not have happened if he really had received the forgiveness. It would have been utterly impossible had he really been forgiven and received it. He wouldn’t even have noticed if the guy presented himself and said, “Hey, I owe you £5” He’d say “What £5?”.

Imagine that without you knowing someone had bought a lottery ticket for you, the following Sunday you’re in church and the collection plate comes round, your neighbour says to you – “can you lend me a fiver I’ve left my money at home, I’ll pay you back this afternoon.” So you give him the fiver. Now it’s Monday morning, the neighbour hadn’t called round, but you suddenly get a phone call – you’ve won £3M on the lottery. Imagine what you’re feeling. You’re bowled over, you have to sit down. Now, do you really think that in that position the next thing you would do is ring up that neighbour and say, “You know you didn’t bring round that fiver yesterday”. No, you would never do that. It’s impossible.

The man in the parable never let himself off the hook. Why didn’t he receive the forgiveness that was offered. Because he had swallowed the viewpoint that our society conditions us to so well: “Never take anything from anybody. Everyone’s got to pull their own weight” “Never take sweets from a stranger and never borrow from a friend” Never be in debt to a friend. We learn that lesson so well and so did he. He couldn’t take a gift like that. We have learned the lesson so well we can’t even take a compliment or are embarrassed at the gift of a friend. You know the scene. 

Imagine it’s your birthday. The doorbell rings. You go the door and there’s a friend with a package in their hand. What is it you never do? You never look at the package, it’s embarrassing, especially on your birthday.

Then your friend hands it to you, “Oh” you say, “Is that for me?” “No, I was just carrying it for fun – of course, it’s for you” Then you say, “Thank you” But what else do you so often say, “You shouldn’t have done it.” Of course they shouldn’t have done it. If they had to do it, it wouldn’t have been a gift, it would have been a payment. That’s the meaning of gifts.

You know the servant who was summoned across the country to meet the king and go up the stairs. That could have been you or me. In fact, perhaps it is. Let’s just try it out. The king (God) has summoned us, he wants us to give account. What have we done with the life he has given us. We cross the country, we go up the stairs, we are ushered into the inner chamber, we are waiting for the king. What is going through your mind? How do you feel? The king comes and asks for the ledger, he turns to the page on you, how you have lived your life, what does your life show as your debt to God. Do we realise how much we owe him? How do we feel about how we have treated him, and treated others made in his image, treated his wonderful creation. Are we fearful? There is a sense in which we should be. Can we ever pay the king back? Can we ever make amends? Never, we are in serious trouble. And then the king takes the page from the ledger of all that we owe him and rips it to shreds, “I forgive you the debt. You are free, go in peace.”

Do you know what that means to those of us who can receive the forgiveness? It means a lot of things, but I’ll tell you the first thing it means. It means no-one is going to remind us how to behave. No-one’s going to have to tell us how to act. No-one’s going to have to tell us what to do when we get to the bottom of the stairs.

© St Bartholomew's PCC 2011