On the first Tuesday of every month many Australians nervously await the announcement from the Reserve Bank regarding what they are doing about interest rates. Our nation’s debt is so high that even a small rise of .25% will send many mortgages into default and households with huge credit card debts into arrears. The latest figures reveal that our average debt to income is 212%. This means that for every dollar we earn we spend more than double. With house prices increasing at record rates it means people are going to go further and further into debt to purchase that valuable asset. Our housing debt is around 1.7 trillion dollars Credit card debt is around 47 billion dollars – so you can understand why so many people are nervous.
So many factors can cause a collapse – a crash in house prices – a sickness – a job loss – an unexpected pregnancy – could cause a massive change in circumstances because of our reliance on debt. Jesus talks about an impossible debt today as an example of the huge debt that humanity owes to God because of our sin. He talks about a servant whose debt was ten thousand talents. A talent was a weight used to determine gold and it was estimated that 1 talent was worth around 16 year’s salary. The servant owed 10,000 talents – 10,000 times an average year’s wage which in Australia is $80,000, times 16 would be around 13 billion dollars that he owed. The king demands he repay it and until it is repaid he ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions. The servant begged for mercy and the king granted it to him. What amazing generosity as there is no way that debt could ever have been repaid. But unfortunately the servant didn’t quite grasp the generosity or soon forgot about it. And that’s where we too fall down. We very quickly forget just how much God has sacrificed for us to clear our debt. The forgiven servant came upon one of his own servants who owed him a miniscule amount compared to what he owed the king. He owed him a hundred denarii.
A denarii was a day’s wage – so 100 denarii was roughly $35,000. Still a lot of money but nothing compared to the 13 billion dollars he had just been forgiven. And so he demands repayment. The 2nd servant pleads for mercy, just as the first servant had to the king, but he refused and he threw him into prison.
Jesus told this story as an explanation of where things are at with us and God. It’s a difficult thing for us to understand and a difficult thing to explain to people that we owe a debt to God. But that is how the sin is defined. St Paul uses that terminology too when he says – the wages of sin is death. As Christians we know that Jesus Christ has fully paid for our debt by his own death which paid the wages of our sin – as St Paul so beautifully puts it – God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. Jesus’ death paid the wage of death for sin, but since he himself had no sin he was able to pay our debt in full.
So the impossible debt has been paid. We have been freed from the debt to sin. But it’s that 2nd part of the story that is the difficult teaching. After having been forgiven of his impossible debt he went back to his daily living and forgot about what had happened. He saw one of his own servants indebted to him but refused to show him the same mercy.
As a result of his refusal to show mercy, the King reversed his decision to forgive the first servant’s debt and imprisoned him until the impossible debt was repaid. Basically if follows the principal of Jesus’ teaching: For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. (Matthew 7:2)
Jesus follows up the action by the king with a warning: In anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” Wow – that is one massive warning by Jesus. But rather than focusing on the punishment, I believe that Jesus is wanting us to see, firstly the severity of our sin to God in that it is an unpayable debt. And secondly he wants us to understand the enormity of grace that God has bestowed upon us by the cross of Christ.
Jesus is not trying to frighten us into forgiving – that would not be true forgiveness. It would be like God forcing us to love him. He gives us free will to love him or reject him. But what he is trying to remind us is about God’s unlimited forgiveness that should prevent us from limiting or forgiveness. Peter had tried to limit forgiveness. He asks Jesus – how often should I forgive someone who sins against me? Seven times? A somewhat generous offer by Peter considering Jewish law only required 2 times and on the 3rd time you were not obliged to forgive. Now that’s going to be an important distinction later on for Peter who denies Jesus 3 times. Will Jesus forgive him for the 3rd denial? Peter has doubled it and added one for good luck – a bit like a “bakers’s dozen”. But Jesus is warning Peter that if that is what he thinks about forgiving others – what does he think about God forgiving him? If he limits how much he forgives others, will he be in danger of wondering whether God has forgiven him. What if Peter sins against God 8 times – will God still forgive him? Does he want that uncertainty? Especially with what is about to happen to Peter and his denial of Jesus when he is arrested – Jesus wants Peter to know that God will forgive him Otherwise he will be in danger of thinking like Judas who could not take the guilt of having betrayed Jesus and took his own life. Judas tried to pay back his debt of sin but it would never be enough.
Jesus wants Peter to know that God is not going to forgive him only 7 times – but he is going to keep forgiving him without number. For God there is no number because when God forgives he forgets our sin – as the writer to the Hebrews says: Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more.” (Hebrews 10:17). If there were a limit then we could never be sure if we’ve gone over. And if we limit how much we forgive then we have not understood what forgiveness is and what it means that God has forgiven us. And that’s Jesus point. Not that God WON’T forgive us but that we have not really understood our own forgiveness and that’s what Jesus is wanting to avoid for us.
Debt enslaves and obligates us to the creditor. Interest paid on the debt keeps us in debt. There is no escape unless the debt is paid in full and in Jesus parable he clearly states that our debt of sin is too much for us to pay – but Jesus has paid it in full. And now Jesus wants us to forgive so we can be freed from the consequences of unforgiveness which includes: Human relationships are broken between friends, in the home, in marriages; a person who does not forgive harbors bitterness, hatred, and resentment in the heart. This keeps God’s forgiveness out and the person is too full of negative feelings to experience the love and peace of God’s forgiveness. A person who does not forgive is usually an unhappy and experiences loneliness. Sadly forgiveness is often seen as a sign of weakness – giving in. But it is the most powerful thing to do. It is easy to fight back, to hold a grudge – but it takes real power to forgive.
Satan uses our hurt to keep us hating and holding a grudge. He reminds us of our sins so we don’t experience God’s freeing forgiveness and he reminds us of other people’s sin against us so we withhold our forgiveness of them. God wants us to forgive, not because he withholds his forgiveness unless we forgive – no, otherwise it’s not grace. God wants us to forgive so we can open our hearts to know and experience his forgiveness of us. There is no better feeling of having the weight of hate and bitterness released and living in harmony with our brothers and sisters in Christ. So may God give you the strength to forgive others as God has forgiven you.