Jean’s Gospel: Law and Gospel
“Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made.” (Matt 18:23-25)
In the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, Jesus describes a servant who owed his master 10,000 Talents. One Talent was equal in value to about 6,000 Denarii or 20 years’ wages for a laborer. Therefore, this servant owed his master approximately 200,000 years’ wages. One commentator described 10,000 Talents as representing more than the total sum of money then in circulation in the whole of Palestine.
When it came time to settle the account, the servant couldn’t possibly repay this astonishing debt. So his master ordered that the servant, his family and all his property be sold to repay the master. Under a civil government, the master’s remedy was just and honorable. No one listening to Jesus would have blinked an eye. I can imagine some people sneering under their breath that this servant got exactly what he deserved. People understand that civil laws must be enacted and enforced to maintain the peace and punish evil. Without civil laws, in this case regarding commerce, people wouldn’t extend credit or loan money. Therefore, the master was in the right to mete out justice to the servant in this manner.
The astronomical debt illustrates the gravity of our sin in the eyes of God.
Like a master who settles his accounts with his servants, God also keeps and settles His accounts with all of us. When we sin we amass a debt to God, a debt which this parable teaches is astronomical and impossible to repay.
But God desires to settle our accounts by sending forth the preaching of His Law, by which we learn to know what we owe, for example: “You shall have no other gods”, but esteem only me as God and love me with all your heart, mind, soul and strength. Through the preaching of His Law, God shows us our obligations, where we fall short, and the enormity of our debt. But there’s one more shoe to drop.
“And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made.” (Matt 18:25)
The last shoe to drop is the sentence. Punishment follows sin. God has not given his Law to allow those who disobey it to escape punishment (temporal and eternal). His Law is holy and just, not sweet or friendly. “[H]e has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness.” The wages of sin is death (Rom 6:23). God is in the right to mete out justice to all of us for our sin against Him.
“So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’” (Matt 18:26)
The settling of his account brings the servant to his knees. He is convicted, humiliated and fears the sentence. But he reasons like the world reasons. Somehow, he must propose a repayment plan; nothing is free. Of course the servant can’t repay the debt. However, no matter how large or impossible the repayment, it is in our nature to try something, anything to work it off, help our self, to demonstrate at least a small measure of good work that might impress the master. (Recall in the Parable of the Prodigal Son that when the younger brother was returning he had the idea that he would ask his father to treat him as a hired servant, presumably to repay his debt.)
But this marks the point in the parable where Jesus shows us for the first time the kingdom of heaven. The kingdoms of the world march on ruled by the Law, but where the Gospel is preached, a door is opened to another kingdom, which is ruled by grace. God knows we know nothing of grace and are captive and bound in our sin, so he must set us free.
“And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.” (Matt 18:27)
At this point in the parable, Jesus introduces us to the kingdom of heaven. It is not your banker or any branch of federal or state government, and we must never conflate the two. The kingdom of heaven is brought near by the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to a conscience that has been convicted and sentenced for his sin. The Gospel says to us: stop working for what you can never repay; My Son Jesus has ransomed you; I grant you a full pardon for your sins; go in peace friend.
Jesus atoned for our debts to God, and His pardon is pure mercy and grace. To this no works can be added; the two, works and grace, cannot be tolerated together. In the kingdom of heaven, only grace and mercy reign. So the master released his servant and forgave the debt.
“But when that same servant went out…” (Matt 18:28-35)
Please read the remainder of the parable at Matt 18:28-35. The master’s servant was pardoned and entered the kingdom of heaven by faith. Afterward, he was expected to go out into the world within his vocation(s) with the same message of Law and Gospel. Why? Because it is through His kingdom people (the master’s servant, you and me) that Jesus goes out into the world today in search of, finds, and saves His lost sheep. The master’s servant was to deliver the Word of Law and Gospel to his fellow servant.
But, the first servant didn’t get it. God forgave his debt, 200,000 years of wages, which shows not only the depth of our sinfulness before God, but the enormous ransom that Christ paid to win our freedom. Yet, the first servant was unwilling to forgive the trifling by comparison offense committed against him by his fellow servant (depicted as 100 days wages). The first servant’s conduct could be considered just and honorable from a purely civil government perspective. But, citizens of the kingdom of heaven are called to reflect the forgiving character of Christ to His lost sheep. One cannot proclaim the forgiveness of sins in Christ’s name and in the next breath withhold one’s own forgiveness.
When a Christian forgives his neighbor’s sin against him, faith becomes visible to all. Forgiveness is not a work which sets us right with God. The parable shows clearly the order of salvation. But the visible sign of forgiveness has been given to us as a great confirmation and comfort that we may see that our faith is real. “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers.” (1 John 3:14) Conversely, if we are not willing to forgive sins committed against us, then our faith is dead. In that case, our sins against God will not be forgiven.
“We love because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:19) God knows we are weak and often unforgiving. In our weakness Christ does not forsake or abandon us. Christ is the Shepherd who goes in search of the lost sheep. He is the One who offers unlimited forgiveness. He is the One who loved his own “to the end.” Therefore, if we struggle with an unforgiving spirit, remember that Christ is for you in his Word of Gospel. “Repent and believe the Gospel.” Amen!