Seward United Methodist Church
Saturday, January 22, 2022
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Grace for the Gracious September 13, 2020

Matthew 18:21-35

The writings of some rabbis who were contemporaries of Jesus show that the prevailing wisdom of the day was that forgiveness for the same offense should only be offered to the same person three times. The biblical basis for this was the Old Testament prophet Amos, who repeatedly used a formula, “For three sins of ___ and even for four.” The thinking is God forgave the first three sins, but judgment came with the fourth. And since you couldn’t expect a person to be more forgiving than God, there you go.

So Peter may have thought he was being gracious with his suggestion of seven times. The number 7 was also a significant number in Hebrew culture. Seven, 10, 12, 40, 70, and some other numbers, were viewed as “numbers of completeness or fullness.” So forgiving seven times would be a complete or full expression of mercy.

Jesus says, “No, 70 times seven.” That is to say, without any limits. Two numbers of completeness multiplied by each other would mean “more than complete.”

Jesus illustrates his point with a story. A king is looking to update his accounts with his servants. These servants would most likely be his slaves. We tend to associate slavery with those who were uneducated or unskilled, but many slaves in the ancient world were highly skilled. Many slaves served in the courts of kings, and these royal slaves would be much better off than most free people. These slaves may have been his “provincial managers,” in charge of collecting the taxes for the king from certain parts of his territory.

One owed him 10,000 talents. What’s a talent? Well, a talent was a measurement of weight, but one that was based off a certain number of silver coins. A talent was sixty minas, each mina was sixty shekels. How much that weighed varied somewhat from time to time and place to place. The Greek talent was 57 pounds. The Egyptian talent was 60. The Babylonian talent was 66.5. And the Roman one was 71.25. There was also a “royal talent,” that was about 130 pounds, but it was rarely used. Depending on the time and place, a talent was equal to about 6000 to 10,000 “daily wages.”

How would Jesus’ listeners have heard it? The Babylonian talent was the most commonly used, and the one used in Israel at the time. Given today’s value of silver, 10,000 Babylonian talents would be approximately 200 million dollars.

That was kind of a ridiculous amount. The Jewish historian Josephus recorded that Herod Antipas received 200 talents each year from his territories of Galilee and

Perea. His father, Herod the Great, who imposed heavy taxes for all of his building projects, only received 900 talents annually from his territories of Judea, Samaria, Galiliee, Idumea, Perea, and Trachonitis. So people may have laughed when Jesus used this number. It was ridiculous, ridiculous to think such an amount was possible or that anyone would let someone get so far in debt.

He couldn’t pay. Obviously. The king orders the servant and his family to be sold. Even the most valuable slave would not sell for a single talent, so not like he’s going to get his money back. The man begs for mercy, and the king forgives the debt. I’m sure Jesus’ listeners laughed at that one!

This is a picture of God’s graciousness to us. We have all sinned. Greatly. We’ve all fallen far short of the way people made in God’s image should live. And yet, God forgives us.

I’m afraid that there are some in the Church today who minimize sin, who brush it aside. Some who don’t like to talk about sin because it’s an unpopular idea. Who are you to say what I’ve done is wrong? And then they say, “Christ has forgiven you.” “Of what?” Unless we feel the weight of sin then we can’t really feel the freedom of grace. Unless we are burdened by the awareness of our failure to live in the image of God, then we can’t experience the joy of forgiveness.

Back in 1998, I went on the wilderness canoe trip to Ontario with the church program. It was the last year I went before I became a trip leader. At that time we only used aluminum Grumman canoes. They weigh about 75 pounds. But we didn’t have our own canoes at that time; we were using boats from Wesley Woods. That year they gave us two Grummans and the blasted Mohican. You have to say blasted Mohican every time you mention it. We never put it on a scale, but this boat must have weighed at least 95 pounds. It was awful. And on that trip, we only five people who would carry a canoe at all. We had a few women who just couldn’t do it. And we had a couple folks who could carry over a short distance, but not a mile. And it just so happens, that was the trip we did that has the most long portages of any route we’ve ever done. Twelve portages over a half mile, eight over a mile, four over a mile-and-a-half, and one over two miles. There were only three of us who could carry a canoe on those long portages, and there were three canoes. Somebody had to carry the blasted Mohican on every one of them. Putting that canoe down at the end of a 45 minute long carry, you felt like you instantly grew two inches. Putting it down felt like forgiveness. You felt a great weight come off of you, quite literally. That’s what happens when we are aware of the greatness of our sin and experience God’s greater mercy.

But when this servant left the king, he found another servant who owed him 100 denarii. The denarius was the daily minimum wage of the day, so about $6000 in our economy. Not an insignificant amount, but insignificant compared to what he has received forgiveness for. He demanded restitution. The servant begged, but he gave no mercy.

Think about that passage from Romans. We are not our own master. We are all servants of God. And it’s not in our power to condemn the servant of another master. When we refuse to forgive, we are condemning the servant of another master. That’s what we do when we refuse to forgive a fellow believer.

The first servant has the second thrown in jail. Typically, debtors would be jailed until their friends or family bailed them out by paying their debt.

The king is furious. His act of forgiveness has gained him favor. But the actions of his servant would hurt his reputation. When we are merciless, it hurts the reputation of our King. When a Christian refuses to forgive, the world will say, “I guess the God of those Christians isn’t so great and merciful after all.” He sends the servant to jail until he pays every penny, which of course will never happen.

“This is what my Heavenly Father will do to you if you refuse to forgive.” Grace and mercy must be internalized. To receive them, they must become part of our being. Only gracious people can receive grace. That is taught over and over again in the Scriptures: Matthew 6:15, “If you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins.” James 2:13, “There will be no mercy for those who have not shown mercy to others.” In short, there is no place in the Kingdom of God for those who lack mercy and grace.

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