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Thanksgiving and Jubilee

A sermon on Matthew 18.21-35


by Tim Gallant

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, "Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?"

Jesus answered, "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.

"Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.

"The servant fell on his knees before him. 'Be patient with me,' he begged, 'and I will pay back everything.' The servant's master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.

"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.

"His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, 'Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.'

"But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened.

"Then the master called the servant in. 'You wicked servant,' he said, I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn't you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?' In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

"This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart."

- Matthew 18:21-35 NIV

[Supplemental reading: Leviticus 25:1-43]

Congregation of Christ,

We have been called to live in a land beyond possibility. Beyond our possibilities, beyond our imagination.

Peter's question to Jesus, at the outset of our passage, was one that he thought was generous. "Shall I forgive my brother as many as seven times when he sins against me and repents?"

After all, the rabbis of the day were saying, If a man sins against you once and repents, forgive him. If he sins against you twice and repents, forgive him. If he sins against you three times and repents, forgive him. But if he sins against you a fourth time, you need not forgive him. He clearly has reached his limit.

So Peter, knowing that the citizens of the kingdom must have righteousness which exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, says, "How about seven times?" That's a lot, by human standards, isn't it?

But Jesus' response indicates that Peter is still working with the wrong categories altogether. Something new has dawned; Jesus has come to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord, the year of Jubilee. And the liberation of Jubilee summons us to thankful liberation of our debtors.

Jesus illustrates this radical new kingdom in the parable that follows. Here is a Jubilee story. We find Jubilee bestowed, in verses 23-27; Jubilee betrayed in verses 28-30, and Jubilee revoked, in verses 31-35.

1. The liberation of Jubilee summons us to thankful liberation of our debtors. We see this liberating Jubilee bestowed in verses 23-27.

Jesus says in verse 23, "Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants." Literally translated, "the kingdom of heaven has become like" this. The language indicates that in Jesus' mind, there is something new about His presence on earth. It means that the kingdom of heaven is here with men. It means that the time which was so long hoped for and sought after has arrived.

What we learn from verse 23, then, is that the arrival of Christ in first-century Judea is God's time of reckoning with His people Israel. Jesus, as we all know, goes around doing good, healing people, and doing all sorts of wonderful things. But unless we see His ministry also as one of reckoning, of calling to account, of pronouncing judgment, we have not been reading the Gospels very carefully.

The servant in this parable is called to account. We read in verses 24-25, "As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt."

The numbers presented here are just astounding. In terms of our North American economy, 10,000 talents would be equivalent to several billion dollars.

How could anybody owe that much? Jesus doesn't explain how the debtor could owe so much. And in fact, the amount is so astronomical that it seems unlikely.

Except that this really is an accurate picture of our debt before God. Our sins are insurmountably large; our guilt is beyond our searching out, much less repaying.

We now see that as Christ has come to call His people to account, they are in serious trouble. Judgment is hanging over Israel, when the Lord of Hosts arrives to settle accounts. The people, as a whole and individually, are deeply in arrears for their unfaithfulness.

What can the servant do? He doesn't have several billion dollars laying around. We read in verse 26, "The servant fell on his knees before him. 'Be patient with me,' he begged, 'and I will pay back everything.'"

The servant is promising very desperately, of course. We know that such repayment as he promises is impossible. We notice that he doesn't even offer some sort of down payment, which surely indicates that he's absolutely broke. Not only is he unable to pay what is due, he is unable even to contribute some small symbolic amount. He is humbled, and begs for mercy. What else is there to do?

The plea for mercy is the right response. As verse 27 says, "The servant's master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go."

It doesn't say, he took pity on him, and gave him more time.

It doesn't say, he took pity on him, and said, "Just pay back half."

He canceled the debt and let him go.

You see, this is indeed the time of reckoning, but we discover that this involves something much bigger. While the debts which He has come to settle with are incredibly great, Jesus has come to proclaim Jubilee.

That's what Jesus says at the outset of His ministry. In Luke 4, He goes to the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth, and He steps up to read from the book of Isaiah. Here's what He reads [Luke 4:18-19]: "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."

The "year of the Lord's favor" refers back to the institution of Jubilee, back in Leviticus 25, which we already heard in our liturgy. Jesus is saying: "I am here to fulfill the Jubilee. In My presence, the ultimate release of debts, the ultimate proclamation of freedom has arrived. It can be found in Me. I am the presence of the kingdom of God."

Congregation, here is the basis for Thanksgiving. Here is a declaration of amnesty for us. We were debtors of an infinite debt, without means of payment. We were prisoners, without hope of parole, without hope of escape, without hope of a mitigation of punishment.

And Jesus has come to us, and for us, and proclaimed the year of release, the year of Jubilee. "Praise God," the slaves sang, "Praise God, I'm free at last!" Free from slavery, because Christ took upon Himself the form of a servant. Free from debt, because Christ rendered His own life in payment for our debt.

It is a tradition to be especially thankful when harvest has been completed: thanks be to God, the fruit of the earth has provided for us another year. Thanksgiving.

Or again, there was thanksgiving when the pilgrims arrived safe and sound in North America. A new land, a better country than the one from which they had come. Thanksgiving.

Hebrews 11 tells us that Abraham and the faithful all down through the Old Testament were looking forward, looking for a city that has foundations, seeking a better country.

A country of Jubilee.

In Christ, we have arrived at this country. Congregation, happy Thanksgiving!

Praise God, we're free at last!

2. This is so wonderful, that we ask for the story to end.

But it does not. The liberation of Jubilee summons us to thankful liberation of our debtors. And in verses 28-30, we find this Jubilee betrayed. "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. His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, 'Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.' But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt."

When we read this, we sometimes get a horrible misimpression. We read "a hundred denarii," and we don't know what this is. We assume it's ten bucks or something. The NIV footnote doesn't help us here. It says, "That is, a few dollars."

Well, a hundred denarii is not "a few dollars." If you were to look over at Matthew 20, you find that one denarius - that's the singular form of denarii - one denarius was a standard working wage for a day for an average labourer. One hundred denarii, as this fellow servant owed, was by no means an insignificant amount.

Now, it's important to point out the caricature, or we're going to misunderstand the point of the passage. Remember what Jesus said to Peter back in verse 22: Don't forgive merely "seven times, but seventy-seven times." Jesus is calling for radical forgiveness, and that call is expressed in this parable.

You see, the way this is sometimes read, we have no empathy with this servant at all. What a jerk! He grabs this guy around the throat and throws him in jail over ten or fifteen dollars!

And then, of course, it doesn't touch us, because we are above that. We aren't petty like that. This parable could never be about us.

But the truth is very different. When we remember that this servant is completely broke, that he didn't even have anything to offer his master as a down payment back in verse 26, and when we realize that his fellow servant owes him more than three months' wages, suddenly there is a lot different perspective. This debt that his fellow-servant owed him was hurting him.

Understand all this, and then you will see what is involved in the forgiveness which Jesus is mandating here. You will see that only the gospel can demand this. It is only because of the lavish Jubilee forgiveness that has been shown to this servant himself in verse 27 - it is only that which can make sense of the demand for radical Jubilee living which Jesus is calling for.

It doesn't take anything special to forgive somebody $10 or even $100. It doesn't take the gospel to make somebody do that.

But Jesus is saying: Jubilee means that you are laying down your rights to justify yourself with someone who has deprived you even of livelihood.

Only the gospel can ask that. Because it doesn't make sense otherwise. It looks like absurdity. It looks like you're from another planet.

But three months' wages don't look like much when you know what it is to owe six billion dollars.

Jesus says, "Forgive 77 times." Now, of course, He's not now saying: "So at 78, you can stop."

No, Jesus is picking up on something in Scripture, in Genesis 4:23-24: "Lamech said to his wives, 'Adah and Zillah, listen to me; wives of Lamech, hear my words. I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for injuring me. If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times.'"

The NIV is actually pretty generous to Lamech; in the original language it is not even entirely clear that the young man physically injured him. In any case, the point is that Lamech wants vengeance 77-fold. He wants 77 times more than strict justice.

That's the way of the world. Not only to defend our rights, but to vindicate ourselves in a way that completely annihilates and humiliates the other. That's what self-justification aims for.

And Jesus takes this 77-fold concept and absolutely turns it inside-out. Rather than exact 77-fold vengeance, He says, vindicate your brother. Lay down your claim to be justified over against your brother. Exercise 77-fold forgiveness.

That's what it means to be a citizen of the country of Jubilee, the kingdom of God. You can lay down your right to be justified, because God has justified you in Christ, from an infinitely larger debt than anyone will ever owe to you. You have been liberated from being like Lamech. That's part of the freedom of Jubilee too. Liberation from jealously protecting your turf, snatching and clawing to make sure you get everything that's coming to you. You need to do that in Lamech's world, but in the kingdom of heaven, you are liberated from that. You can justify and deliver your brother instead of yourself.

And that is what this unmerciful servant doesn't recognize. He still wants to live in Lamech's world. He is unprepared to be a citizen of the Jubilee country, where love conquers a multitude of sins.

Listen to how his fellow-servant responds in verse 29: "His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, 'Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.'"

Does that sound familiar? It should. It should have sounded familiar to this guy who had him by the throat too - because this is almost exactly word for word, action for action, the response which he had given to his master back in verse 26: "The servant fell on his knees before him. 'Be patient with me,' he begged, 'and I will pay back everything.'"

Oh yes, bells should be going off in his head. But you see, he is much more sensitive to the debt that is owed to him than the one that was forgiven him. And so verse 30 says, "But he refused" - the language there indicates persistent refusal, even though his fellow-servant went on pleading with him - "But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt."

The Jubilee has been betrayed. The kingdom of God has been transformed into the kingdom of man. The kingdom of Lamech.

3. The liberation of Jubilee summons us to thankful liberation of our debtors. That is the summons. That is the modus vivendi, the way of living, in the kingdom of God. And when that is betrayed, we see Jubilee revoked, in verses 31-35.

In verse 31, we have the response of the other servants: "When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened." You see, here are citizens who understand the magnitude of Jubilee. They recognize that what has just happened is a "betrayal of the revolution," if you will. A betrayal of the kingdom of God.

So what happens? Verses 32-33: "Then the master called the servant in. 'You wicked servant,' he said, 'I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn't you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?'"

You see: What sort of liberation is it, what sort of Jubilee is it, if the King liberates his subjects, but allows them to enslave one another? If His Jubilee doesn't extend into their own patterns of living, it is good for nothing. Jubilee, by the nature of the case, means that the citizens must live out of true thanksgiving that transforms the way they deal with one another.

Paul puts this very clearly for us in Ephesians 4:32-5:2:

Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us, and gave Himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

That's Jubilee. Christ's self-offering for us was a sacrifice of love to God. When we love one another and forgive one another, yes that's a sacrifice.

But it's not a waste.

It's a sacrifice to God; it's something He receives as a sweet-smelling aroma, because it smells like His Son. It's the shape of new life, a life that the world cannot deliver, a life that can only spring out of the soil of the gospel.

But some do not love the sacrifice of Christ. This servant was not a lover of Jubilee. So what's the outcome in verse 34? "In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed." Christ came to proclaim the release of the prisoner, but this servant has transformed it for himself into torture. His latter end, to borrow language from 2 Peter, is worse than the beginning. The gospel has become for him a savour of death unto death, rather than a life-giving aroma.

Jesus applies all this very succinctly in verse 35: "This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart."

We know that sort of language very well; it's found in the Lord's Prayer, isn't it? [Matthew 6:12:] "Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors." As Jesus adds after giving us that prayer [Matthew 6:14-15]: "For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins."

The new covenant brings in a new reality, a better country where Jubilee is fulfilled. When we refuse to grant Jubilee to others, we show that we do not seek this better country, that we prefer to live with Lamech and the rest of the line of Cain.

Jesus says, if that is the case, then the land of Jubilee, of forgiveness and liberation, will be barred to us too.

Congregation, Christ has proclaimed liberty to you. He has set you free and canceled your immeasurable debt, so that you may walk as free children of God.

That is the true cause for Thanksgiving. As we have been transformed from captives into free people, let us live in thankfulness, and transform our brothers and sisters through love and forgiveness.

This is the liberty of Jubilee. This is Thanksgiving.

Amen.

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