January 17, 2011 David Balzer

Matthew 18:15-35: Forgive us our debts…

There’s a whole lot of pretty exceptional MATHEMATICAL GENIUSES out there. With INCREDIBLE MEMORIES.


You may not have thought of yourself like that. But when it comes to keeping SCORE. Keeping COUNT of how many times someone’s hurt you. Let you down. Or offended you. You’re EXPERTS! With photographic memories!


And I’m no different. We’re specialists at remembering how many times someone’s left the bathmat on the floor. Or not taken out the garbage. When someone hasn’t measured up to what WE think is an acceptable standard. We can even give you a perfect count of how often we’ve forgiven someone.


We’re great at remembering every little slip and mistake. Of adding them up. And storing them away for future use. And reminding our friends and families and enemies about them every chance we get.


We’re EXPERTS at holding grudges. Bearing resentments. Nursing feelings of self-righteous indignation. Of refusing to forgive. Refusing to show GRACE.


It’s so easy to hold on. And so difficult to let go.


We’re EXPERTS at pointing out the splinter in someone ELSE’S eye, while missing the LOG that’s in OUR OWN.


And that’s what makes me pretty NERVOUS when I read the end of this parable. It’s a SCARY finish. Let’s be honest. Because the reality is I don’t want God to treat me the way I treat others.


And yet there it is. V34 and 35.

34 In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be TORTURED, until he should pay back all he owed. 35 “THIS is how my heavenly Father will treat EACH OF YOU …. unless you forgive your brother … from your heart.”


Does that SCARE you? Even just a LITTLE bit?


It ranks right up there in the scary stakes with that phrase from the Lord’s Prayer that, every time I’m actually THINKING about it, nearly sticks in my throat as I try to say the words. “Forgive us our sins, as….. we forgive those who sin against us”.


One writer said “No word carries A GREATER POSSIBILITY OF TERROR than the little word ‘as’”. (Yancey 87) “Forgive us our sins, AS….. we forgive those who sin against us”.


What’s so scary is that Jesus links OUR OWN FORGIVENESS so closely with how well we forgive OTHERS. In fact, straight after he taught the Lord’s Prayer to his disciples, Jesus said THIS

14 For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 BUT IF YOU DO NOT FORGIVE MEN THEIR SINS, YOUR FATHER WILL NOT FORGIVE YOUR SINS.


That’s as plain as the nose on your face. If you do not forgive men their sins, your father will not forgive YOUR sins. Which is INCREDIBLY scary. And UNSETTLING. And CHALLENGING.


I can trust GOD’S forgiveness. But I’m not so sure about my own.


In this passage, it’s a truth that comes at the end of A STORY. A story that helps us to see things the way GOD sees them. That helps us see SIN AND FORGIVENESS AND GRACE the way God sees them. And how it can be that God can only forgive US if we forgive OTHERS.


You owe a debt you cannot possibly repay

It’s a story about A KING. A king who decides it’s time to settle accounts with his servants. First cab off the rank they drag in a guy who owes ten thousand talents (v24). Perhaps he’s at the top of the list because he owes the most.


It’s A HUGE sum. Maybe 1500 years wages. Hard to wrap our heads around. But the basic point is that he’s got NO WAY OF REPAYING IT. He’s got MORE chance of building a card house that reaches the moon, or swimming across the Pacific Ocean. He owes a debt he can’t possibly repay. Which is the FIRST lesson we can learn from this story. WE ALL owe a debt to God we can’t possibly repay.


But, when it comes to this servant, notice that doesn’t stop him MAKING THE OFFER. When the king orders him sold as a slave, Look at his response there in v26.

26 “The servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back EVERYTHING.’


Not just PART of the debt. 5 or 10%. He’s got the GALL to promise to THE WHOLE LOT. Who does he think he’s trying to fool? He’s living in dreamland!


It’s a common-enough attitude. We see it all the time from PEOPLE when it comes to GOD. Who the king REPRESENTS in this story. When it comes TO GOD, people think they’re not REALLY that bad. Not compared to OTHER PEOPLE. That God doesn’t hold THAT MUCH against them. Their debt isn’t THAT bad. And won’t be that hard to pay off.


I was talking to an older lady a while ago who was telling about the problems in her family. About her daughter, I’ll call her Anne, who’d refused to go to the Christening for her cousin’s new baby. Because it was in a church. Not that Anne had anything against church. Just that she objected to HER COUSIN, who never WENT to church, having a christening in a church. She thought it was HYPOCRITICAL to go to a church when you had nothing to with God the REST of the time.


In some twisted sort of logic, Anne thought it was much better that she’d had a NAMING SERVICE in the BACK YARD for her OWN baby instead. She seemed to think that God would be more impressed with her. Because at least she wasn’t HYPOCRITICAL about ignoring him.


Neither Anne, nor her cousin, wanted anything to do with God. But, somehow, Anne thought her debt wasn’t that bad.


She was completely underestimating the extent of the debt she owed God. Her whole life lived not caring in the slightest what God thought. Which is the REAL insult to God. And thinking her cousin was much worse than her because she’d had THE GALL to have her baby christened in a church.


She thought God would be impressed with her HONESTY. Which somehow made her debt a lot less. As if God was going to be IMPRESSED with that!


Who was she kidding?


People make all sorts of half-baked attempts. With twisted logic to help themselves sleep at night. Thinking they can RESTORE their heavenly bank balance. They think being NICE to people will do it. Or by sponsoring a World Vision child. Or by GOOD DEEDS that outweigh the BAD DEEDS. For other people it’s burning incense. Or by visiting Mecca.


But anyone who TRIES is just FOOLING THEMSELF. They’re not fooling God. Because there’s no repayment plan you can come up with to cancel your debt.


The reality is WE ALL owe God a debt we can’t possibly repay. We think “MURDER” against the guy who cuts us off at the lights. We think “ADULTERY” as we watch that good looking girl walk past us on the street. We COVET the things we see around us. We greedily accumulate goods. We proudly seek approval and esteem and influence by the things we do and say.


Our lives revolve around pleasing the most important person in our lives – ourselves.


All the while IGNORING and THUMBING OUR NOSE at our Creator, our Sustainer, our Saviour. Which is the ULTIMATE sin. The root of all the rest.


We MIGHT be doing good deeds. But all the while, we’re spending up from the ATM of God’s patience. Building a debt, painting the town red with a splurge of rebellion and “I know best” in thoughts and words, attitudes and actions. Bankrupting ourselves as we hurtle down a path… that’s headed for a RECKONING. A heavenly AUDIT. When the King of the whole Universe will call us to settle accounts.


The problem with holding grudges. And keeping score. And refusing to forgive. Is the SELF-RIGHTEOUSNESS of the attitude. Because it forgets that WE ALL owe a debt we can’t possibly repay.


Your debt has been extravagantly cancelled

But the incredible thing about this story is that despite the gall of the servant. The audacity to think he could come up with his OWN repayment plan. Even though slavery was a perfectly just response… the king showed MERCY. V27.

27 The servant’s master TOOK PITY on him, CANCELED the debt and LET HIM GO.


One minute this man owed MILLIONS. The next, he had a CLEAN SLATE. Transferred from hopelessly drowning in debt, to owing NOTHING. Free as a bird.


It’s grace that’s EXTRAORDINARY! And shocking and UNFAIR! The servant didn’t DESERVE it. It doesn’t seem FAIR – certainly not for those who owed LESS, and probably still had to pay.




Which is the second thing Christians learn from this parable. Your debt has been EXTRAVAGANTLY CANCELLED.


God promises us FORGIVENESS in place of JUDGMENT. GRACE in place of JUSTICE. INNOCENCE instead of GUILT. FREEDOM in place of SLAVERY. And FRIENDSHIP in place of HOSTILITY.


And you deserve NONE OF IT. It’s NOT because you work harder. Or have understood it better. Or are a nicer person. It’s not because you’re better educated, or a better parent. Or have a more important job or position in society. It’s not because you’ve read the right books, or even that you were in the right place at the right time.


God showed you GRACE when you DIDN’T DESERVE IT. You owed a debt you couldn’t possibly repay. But your debt has been EXTRAVAGENTLY CANCELLED.


It’s why Christians SING! We really DO have something to sing ABOUT! We sing words like these.

1. Amazing GRACE! How sweet the sound

That saved a wretch like me;

I once was lost, but now am found,

Was blind, but now I see.

Or we sing

2. Long my imprisoned spirit lay fast bound in sin and nature’s night;

Thine eye diffused a quickening ray – I woke the dungeon flamed with light;



Or what about?

3. How deep the Father’s love for us,

How vast beyond all measure,

That He should give His only Son


How great the pain of searing loss,

The Father turns His face away,

As wounds which mar the Chosen One

Bring many sons to glory.

I will not boast in anything,

No gifts, no power, no wisdom;

But I will boast in Jesus Christ,

His death and resurrection.

Why should I gain from His rewards?

I cannot give an answer,

But this I know with all my heart,


Wonderful words of praise. That express the incredible, unbelievable, SHOCKING truth that in a world full of guilty people, people who owe a debt they can’t possibly repay, who justly deserve punishment, there are SOME whose debt has been EXTRAVAGANTLY CANCELLED.


They’re words you can ONLY sing truthfully if you’re a Christian.


But perhaps that’s NOT you. Perhaps you look at your own life and you know truth number two DOESN’T describe you. You know your debt HASN’T been extravagantly cancelled.


Perhaps you know truth number one all too well. That you owe God a debt you can’t repay. And perhaps that repayment plan’s been worrying you for years.


Then accept the wonderful offer of truth number two. God is offering to cancel your debt. To forgive your sin. And all you need to do is ASK HIM. And then you can know the wonderful truth of lesson number two. And can sing those words with GUSTO.


I can guarantee it will change your life.


You show that you understand such grace by reflecting that extravagance towards others.

BUT, look at what happened with the servant. V28. No changed life. No thanks. No songs of praise. Just this.

28 “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.


Perhaps the equivalent of a few thousand dollars. Not insignificant. But certainly something that you COULD repay. Which the poor guy suggests.

29 “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’


Almost identical words to the FIRST servant. But the response is the complete opposite.

30 “But he REFUSED. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt.


The servant was SHOWN mercy, but refused to show MERCY HIMSELF. He’d been forgiven, but failed to forgive. As we hear the story, we’re SHOCKED. It seems so UN-NATURAL to respond to grace the way this guy did.


And his fellow-servants are shocked too. Probably what each of US would do too. And when they tell the king the news of what’s gone on, the miserable servant’s done for. V32.

32 “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled ALL THAT DEBT OF YOURS because you BEGGED me to. 33 Shouldn’t YOU have had MERCY on your FELLOW SERVANT JUST AS I HAD ON YOU?’


It seems so obvious. So NATURAL. That when you recognise the size of the debt that YOU’VE been forgiven. That any debt someone has to YOU just pales into insignificance. And it’s just OBVIOUS to show mercy similarly.


You see, Jesus is calling US to see things the way GOD sees them. To see BOTH acts to the story. Not just the SECOND.


That’s the point Jesus is making. If we only heard THE SECOND HALF of the story. Where the servant found the man who owed him money, and threw him in jail. It wouldn’t seem so wrong. It’d be JUST. TOUGH, but FAIR. The sort of thing lots of people do every day. In their dealings with each other.


But it’s the FIRST PART of the story. That highlights the hypocrisy. And that makes his behaviour so unforgivable.


Jesus’ point is that NON-Christians only know the SECOND half of the story. And so, it seems NATURAL for them to hold grudges, to not forgive, to demand revenge.


But if you’re a Christian, then you have a FIRST PART of this story. You have an impossible debt that’s been extravagantly cancelled. So, it’s UNNATURAL not to reflect that extravagance to OTHERS.


And that’s the THIRD truth we learn from this story. YOU SHOW THAT YOU UNDERSTAND SUCH GRACE BY REFLECTING THAT EXTRAVAGANCE TOWARDS OTHERS. It’s the NATURAL RESPONSE for people who’ve been SHOWN great mercy, to SHOW mercy.


So, whatever sin’s been committed against you. Whatever hurt you feel. Whatever bitterness you hold. No matter how long ago. No matter how HUGE it seems. How frequent the slip-up. How unrepentant the sinner. Jesus calls you to forgive heartily. To show grace without limit.


Because it can never measure up to the debt YOU’VE been forgiven.


Because, ultimately, to hold a grudge, is to DOUBT GOD. And to FORGIVE  is an act of FAITH in a just God who’s better at being fair than me. Romans 12:19-20 puts it like this

19 Do NOT TAKE REVENGE, my friends, but LEAVE ROOM FOR GOD’S WRATH, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.


Leave the justice up to GOD. That’s what he’s GOOD AT. If someone’s harmed you, LET IT GO. It’ll be good for your blood pressure, and your mental and spiritual health. God will make sure justice is done. But as for YOU, Jesus calls you to forgive heartily. To show grace without limit.


The World is hungry for grace like that

He’s calling us to be people of GRACE. Of forgiveness. Calling for a RADICAL REFORMATION of the way we treat people.


He wants to see his church as A HAVEN OF GRACE. A SECURE LITTLE ISLAND OF FORGIVENESS. Where we show patience to people. We cut them some slack. Where we GENUINELY WISH THEM WELL.


Too often, churches AREN’T places like that. But they SHOULD be. More than any other place.


One of our Core Values. Core Value Number ONE. Is “we value God’s grace to sinful people.” We VALUE it. But how do we SHOW we value it? By showing that grace to OTHERS. By REFLECTING it. ANOTHER of our Core Values is this. “We value God’s people LOVING AND ENCOURAGING ONE ANOTHER”. We SHOW we value God’s grace by FORGIVING each other.


Jesus calls us to be an island of grace in a stormy ocean of UN-grace. Because the reality is that’s the way the world is. In the world it’s UN-grace that’s the natural response. Resentment, bitterness, judgmentalism, and unforgiveness is our FIRST reaction. The way of the world. The way of people who haven’t know a debt extravagantly cancelled.


We live in a world of UN-grace. The early bird gets the worm. No pain, no gain. There’s no such thing as a free lunch. Demand your rights. You get what you pay for.


But what separates Christianity from all the world religions. Is GRACE. We are in THE UNIQUE POSITION of offering GRACE to people. We are the only ones who have an ACT ONE to our story. Whose debt has been extravagantly cancelled. Rather than just an “Act two”.


And the FOURTH truth that flows out of this story is that THE WORLD IS HUNGRY FOR GRACE. They long to know forgiveness and acceptance, reconciliation and restoration.


The world is full of bitter, twisted, angry, hardened, frightened people. People who have been consumed by unforgiveness. Who have been HURT, but who refuse to forgive. Who have DONE wrong, but never been able to so SORRY. People who have never known someone who’s shown grace to THEM.


The world is full of people waiting for THE OTHER PERSON to make the first move. Refusing to admit our fault. Because that’s weakness. Refusing to apologise or forgive. Husbands waiting for wives. Fathers waiting for sons. Mothers for daughters. Brothers for brothers. Ex-best friends who know longer speak.


And it CRIPPLES people. DESTROYS them.


The world is full of people like this because to forgive is ACHINGLY difficult. To forgive is UN-NATURAL. It’s UNFAIR. It’s unfair to be expected to simply overlook hurt, to forgive, to do NOTHING in response to being hurt. To wish WELL someone who’s wished you HARM. Someone who’s HURT you SHOULD be punished. Not forgiven.


Christianity has something unique to offer the world. Because Only grace can break the cycle of ungrace. Of justice and vengeance.


And only Christians who understand grace. Who’ve RECEIVED grace. Can dispense it. For them, it’s NATURAL.


Forgiveness is like AIR YOU BREATHE. If you hold onto a lungful and refuse to breathe it out to others, you can’t breath in God’s forgiveness.


Breathe in God’s forgiveness deeply. Remind each other in speech and song and prayer of those first two truths. We owe a debt we can’t possibly repay. We’ve had our debt extravagantly paid for.


And when we breathe that truth in deeply. We can breathe out the fresh breath of forgiveness to those around us. We can show that we understand such grace by reflecting that extravagance towards others. Towards a world that’s HUNGRY for grace.

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