The master said: “You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?”
“Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” That is the question Jesus poses to you today. It’s the same question asked of Peter, when the chief disciple wanted to know: “How often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him?” Jesus speaks about debts, but His comments are that they should not be collected. The parable that Jesus tells regarding forgiveness destroys the concepts of justice and equity that humans, especially Americans, hold dear. Christ’s teaching and the way of life established for His disciples emphasizes His own nature: “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”
Compassion, pity, forgiveness: this is the nature of Christ and His Christ’s work. It’s how the master in the parable is portrayed, a character that represents Him. When he hears the cries of the indebted servant—“Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything”—the master acts out of graciousness instead of justice, out of mercy instead of equity. The debt could never be repaid. “And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.”
Jesus’ parable shows you, His servants, how He considers you, how He treats you. He does not see you as debtors who will repay every last cent. He does not see you as objects for wrath or torture. Accounts are settled, but the ledgers are never balanced. Invoices are left unpaid, because the Lord Jesus pins them to His cross. Debts are forgiven, not collected. Christ’s actions are exactly what the Psalm for today said about the Lord God: “He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. . . . As far as the east is from the west, so far does He remove our transgressions from us”
That is how the Lord God has chosen to treat you. And on this day, as you come into His presence, the same has been done again. Your debts are forgiven, accounts are wiped clean. What you could never hope to repay will go uncollected. None of it is done begrudgingly our out of compulsion. Rather, it is voluntary, a deliberate act of compassion. And it involves your Master both forgiving your debt and settling your account by His loss.
How different that is from what you see going on around you. What the Master does in the parable is diametrically opposite to the creditors of our nation. They act according to justice and equity. If they could, they would “order [the debtor] to be sold, along with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made.” That is equitable. That is right. That is just. No bailouts or relief. Debts incurred, debts repaid.
But know that Jesus does not preach this parable against lending establishments. Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Citibank, JP Morgan: none of them are the targets of these words of Jesus. The parable is not meant for them; it is not meant for those who operate in the sphere of the law, under the principles of justice and equity. Other scripture can be used to speak out against usury, oppression of the poor, or squeezing the lifeblood out of borrowers. That’s for another day.
The words of Jesus are meant for you, for His servants. He has described how you and all you had were not sold until you should repay your debt. And He asks you: “Will you do the same for those who owe you?” Or in His exact words: “I forgave you all your debt because you pleaded with Me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?”
Think about those words of Jesus: “You pleaded with Me.” Put into your minds the imploring words and statements that you will speak or have already spoken during Divine Service this morning: “For the sake of Your Son, Jesus Christ, have mercy on us. Lord, have mercy. Hosanna: Save us now, Lord! Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lamb of God, You take away the sin of the world; have mercy on us.” There’s an awful lot of pleading going on here today, and rightly so.
And just like that indebted servant, you will go out of here after all the pleading. You will depart from this place with your debts forgiven, your sins absolved. And you will encounter “one of [your] fellow servants who owed [you].” But what will you do? How much seizing, choking, and demanding to be paid will go on in your lives from Sunday afternoon to Saturday evening, or heaven forbid, even next Sunday morning? Will your fellow servants see what takes place and be “greatly distressed” by your actions? Will it be necessary for you to be summoned by your Master and be dressed down and labeled “Wicked Servant”?
Those are heavy questions. And you heard heavy words from Jesus about that very topic. The Psalmist accurately depicted the Lord God and His character: “He will not always chide, nor will He keep His anger forever.” But Jesus did not lie when He said: “In his anger his master delivered [the wicked servant] to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So My heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” Both statements are correct, both are true: there are two groups of people, and each receives a proper response from the Lord God.
The heavy words of Jesus must be heard. And perhaps it is serendipity and providence that you hear them now, at this time, as the lectionary delivered them in rotation. Three years ago, these same words of Jesus were read from this pulpit, directly applicable to that time and place with all its troubles. The ledgers were full of red ink then and needed to be wiped clean. And this morning, you hear the same teaching from your Master Jesus. It is applicable to all time, but especially so for now, as the servants of Christ live together as His disciples.
Three years have passed, and in that time many debts have been incurred between servants and the Lord God and between fellow servants. But the action of the Master is the same for the servants who implore Him: “Out of pity for him, the master of the servant released him and forgave him the debt.” And the question the Master poses remains the same: “Should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?”
Now is the time to settle accounts in the way that Jesus desires. Like Joseph, you have also received a command. Joseph’s father said to him: “Please forgive the transgression of your brothers and their sin, because they did evil to you.” The same command to forgive comes to you. But the One who gives it is the Heavenly Father, and His orders don’t come with the word “Please.” Without doubt, there was evil meant against you and some themselves may have delivered evil against fellow servants, whether it was in the troubles of the parish or in other areas of life. But “the kingdom of heaven,” where Christ reigns as Lord over His people, has no place for either servant-on-servant crime or keeping a personal roster of debtors.
The call that goes out to you as part of Christian discipleship is to forgive the debts of your fellow servants. Your Lord has taught you both how to pray such a petition—“forgive us our debts, as we have also forgiven our debtors”—and how to practice it. He has given you a story to learn from, showing you what not to do. And the history of “the kingdom of heaven” has great examples of behavior like Joseph to emulate. But even more importantly, Jesus has shown what He Himself does: forgiving those who wronged Him, making reconciliation between the Eternal King and His indebted subjects, welcoming people into His fellowship and binding them together, and canceling the sins of those who implore Him.
What Christ does has taken place for your benefit: all has been forgiven you who believe in Him, who have been made His servants. The amount you owed which was impossible to repay has been forgiven. Your eternal debt is removed because Jesus was sold with all that He had and payment for you was made, “not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death.” There is no refusal to forgive seen in Jesus’ actions. And as you are His servants who “live under Him,” Christ expects no refusal from you.
The lesson is clear: Forgive as you have been forgiven. Show mercy as you have been shown mercy. That is the way of life Jesus lays out for His people. When that way of life is followed, then there won’t be “fellow servants who are greatly distressed” because one disciple of Jesus refuses to forgive the debts of another. Instead, there will be the loosing of sins both here on earth and in heaven above. The Master will say to you: “Well done, My good and faithful servant!” And Christ’s “heavenly Father”, will deliver you from the jailers instead of handing you over for all eternity.
That is what the Master Jesus wants you, His servants, to know. Forgiving fellow-servant’s sins is the behavior that Christ desires to see in this community of His: the people who implore Him for mercy and who receive His absolution. So may it be for you and your fellow servants, as you both receive Christ’s forgiveness and cancel the debts of sin among one another.
T In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.