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Down the Up Staircase

As we accept and understand God’s grace, we will forgive others.

Retelling the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant

The man 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 abode, went across the territory 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 did not mention the stairs. That was an inadvertent omission. He meant to say it.

There had to be a flight of stairs. You never go to the seat of power without climbing a flight of stairs. I was raised in western Kansas where there are no hills. Back in the old days when they built a county courthouse, they'd bring in the bulldozers and create a hill so they could build a flight of stairs. Today they'd be more sensitive. They'd put in a ramp. It's still uphill all the way.

This man climbed a flight of stairs, went through double doors, 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 an aide 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 10,000 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 10,000 talents."

The king turns to the aides who brought in the book, and they begin a discussion about selling this man, his wife, and children into slavery, and disposing of their 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 the viscera of that servant? Such utter ecstasy! I think the tears just dried up, and when he got up, he never touched the carpet again. He must have floated in 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—$20. (That's three month's wages for the average man in the days of Jesus—$80 a year.) What's $20 in contrast to 10,000 talents, which turns out to be $10 million in U.S. currency?

This man who has just been forgiven a debt of $10 million is grabbing a man by the throat for $20. He says, "Pay what you owe."

Notice that Jesus has the fellow servant get on his knees, pleading with him, as the first man had done before the king. He's saying, "Give me a little time. Have mercy, and I'll pay it all back." That turkey refused. He didn't give him more time. He didn't give him anything. He summoned a police officer and said, "This man owes me money. He's not paying me back. Take him to 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, "Well, the two of us need another conversation."

The king summons the servant back into his presence away from his abode across the territory, 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 to the page on which your name appears, and the bottom line of that page said that you owed me $10 million. Is that right?"

"Yes, sir."

"Well, if I remember correctly, I told you I wanted the money 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 $20, after I'd forgiven you $10 million. Did you seize someone for $20 and then throw him in jail? Is that right?"

"Ummmm, that is correct, sir."

"Well," said the king, "I have news for you. You know that jail cell where your buddy sits?"

"Yes, sir."

"Well, that happens to be a suite for two. Now, you go join your buddy in that cell. You stay there until you pay me $10 million." As far as we know, he's still there.

I'm glad you get the humor to that. He got what he had coming to him. That's what I would want to have happen. But the truth is, in terms of its humor, we've only touched the tip of the iceberg because we really haven't had the punch line yet. I told you it was $10 million, and I presume $10 million is a significant sum for most of us here. But what I didn't say was the sheer fact that nobody could owe $10 million in the days of Jesus. Jesus is telling a joke here.

I'm told that the entire annual revenue into the Roman coffers all over the globe was approximately $850,000. With $850,000 you could pay all the judges, all the road builders, all the armies of the Roman Empire, all the dancers, all the teachers, all the everybodies and still have plenty left over for rubies and emeralds and the nicer things of life. Even Herod the Great could not owe $10 million.

Why would Jesus say that somebody owed that much? Let's just figure it out. Herod the Great couldn't owe that so when Jesus collects this crowd of people around him and starts telling this tale and says, "There was this servant who owed $10 million. … " Do you get it? This servant owed $10 million. They choked with laughter; they got the joke.

In the middle of the tale, Jesus has the servant on his knees begging for a little time. Do you know how much time he needs? At $80 a year average annual wage without interest (if you had to pay interest, you'd really be in difficulty) to pay back $10 million would take 125,000 years. The way Jesus put it was he owed $10 million. He was in over his head.

Forgiveness and gratitude are linked.

Even with the humor of this story, I've always been troubled by it because the hero to the tale is the king. The king forgives the servant and ten minutes later takes it back. That's not what I've been told about forgiveness. I've been told that if you forgive somebody, that's it. You can't say to me this morning, "I forgive you," and this afternoon catch me in the hallway of the Hyatt and say, "I've changed my mind." What's this deal about a king who forgave $10 million and then took the forgiveness back?

Now this isn't a story about a king who forgave and then took it back. This is a parable, not an allegory. Give Jesus a little poetic license. This is really the story about a servant who was offered the forgiveness of $10 million and did not receive it. He didn't let himself off the hook. I'll tell you why I know that. I know that because what happened at the bottom of the stairs simply could not have happened had he really received the forgiveness. It would have been utterly impossible had he really been forgiven and received it. He wouldn't even notice if the guy presented himself and said, "Hey, I owe you 20 bucks." He'd say, "What 20 bucks?"

Imagine that you've filled out the super duper sweepstakes a couple months ago, not expecting to hear anything in return, and now it's Sunday, and you're at church. In Sunday school they have a special offering, and somebody nudges you, and says, "I forgot my money. Would you lend me a couple of bucks? I'll drop by later today and pay it back." You give him a couple of bucks.

Now it's Monday morning, and he didn't bring the two bucks back. About 8 o'clock on Monday morning you get a phone call from New York City, and at the other end of the line is this exuberant voice saying, "Congratulations. I'm pleased to announce that you've just won the super duper sweepstakes. You have just won $1 million." Imagine what you're feeling. Think how your eyes are just circling in both directions. You're so ecstatic that the only thing that keeps you tied to earth is the phone cord. Now, is it possible for you to remember as you hang up the phone, This person who borrowed two bucks from me yesterday failed to bring it by? Are you going to call him on the phone and say, "Don't forget you owe me two bucks"? No! It's impossible.

The man in the parable never let himself off the hook. Why wouldn't he receive the gracious forgiveness that was offered? I'll tell you why. Because he went to the same Sunday school class I went to. Do you remember the text and the lesson? It says, "Never take anything from anybody. Everyone's got to pull his own weight."

Do you remember the lesson that said anybody can become anything they're inclined to if they work hard enough at it? Just go out there and go for it. It's the American way. I was taught in Sunday school that it's wrong to take candy from a stranger and even worse to take it from a friend. Right? Because then you're in debt to a friend. Never be in debt to a friend. Oh, we learned that lesson very well, and so did he. He couldn't take a gift like that. We've learned the lesson so well we can't even take a compliment any more. If I say to someone "What a lovely dress you have on this morning." What does she say back? "These old rags?" Isn't that what we say?

Imagine it's your birthday. The doorbell rings. You go to the door and look through the screen. There's your dearest friend with a package in hand. What is it you do not do? You do not look at the package. It's embarrassing—particularly on your birthday.

Pretty soon your friend holds the package so high you can't see him without seeing the package, and you say a dumb thing. You say "Oh, is that for me?"

"No, I was just carrying it through the neighborhood. Of course it's for you. It's your birthday."

With great reluctance and embarrassment, you receive the package and stare at it for a while. Pretty soon you look up and say, "Should I open it?"

"No, just put it on the mantle and stare at it for all I care."

Of course you open it. You take out the present and say, "Oh, it is so lovely." Then you say the first decent thing you've said throughout the conversation when you say, "Thank you." But what else do you say at the same time? "You shouldn't have done it." Of course, they shouldn't have done it. If they should do it, it would not be a gift. It would be a payment for services rendered. That's the meaning of gifts.

You know the servant who was summoned across the territory and up the flight of stairs? That could have been you or me. In fact, perhaps it is. Let's just try it out. Let's head across the territory and up that flight of stairs and see. Having been summoned, we go up the flight of stairs and through the double doors, ushered into the inner chamber of the king by an aide. We wait there for the king to arrive. The king comes out with this huge ledger book, plops it on the table, opens it up to find the page where your name or mine is at the top right hand corner.

The king looks at the bottom line and says to you, "It says here you owe me a whole lot of money. In fact, is the figure right? It says a million/zillion that you're indebted. Is that correct?"

And every last one of us in this room this morning must answer, "That is correct, sir. Indeed, I am heavily in debt. Even 125.000 years of effort would not suffice to repay the debt."

Do you know what that king does? He takes that sheet (your name or mine) and rips it out of the book. He rips it to shreds, looks down at us, and says, "I forgive you the debt. You are now free and clear. Go in peace."

Do you know what that means to those of us who can receive the forgiveness? For those of us who can let ourselves off the hook, do you know what that means? It means a lot of things, but I'll tell you the first thing it means. It means nobody's going to have to remind us how to behave. Nobody's going to have to tell us how to act. Nobody's going to have to tell us what to do when we get to the bottom of the stairs.

Preaching Today Issue #97

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Sermon Outline:


I. Retelling the parable of the unmerciful servant

II. Forgiveness and gratitude are linked