Jesus compares the Kingdom of Heaven to a king twice. Today’s Gospel is the first, and the second we heard a few weeks ago when a king gave a wedding feast for his son. In both of these parables we see that the Lord is no ordinary king. He is not out to get what is His. He is not out to make things right, because making things right would put us in eternal debt that we could not pay. Instead we see that He is a King who wishes to be merciful, to give to those who in no way deserve it.
The occasion for this first parable about a king is St. Peter asking Jesus, “How often will my brother sin against me and I forgive him?” We all know that he wants to forgive “as many as seven times.” How often do we shake our head at Peter? How often do we condemn him for being stingy, refusing to extend the same kind of mercy that had been extended to him? In fact, it’s quite amazing and loving of Peter to offer full forgiveness seven times. Think of it this way. Let’s say your brother is addicted to heroin and borrows $10,000 from you so he can turn his life around and buy a car to get to work. But, he falls off the wagon and never pays it back. Would you loan him $10,000 again the next week? How many times would you do that? Seven like Peter suggests? 490 like Jesus? No! You probably wouldn’t even do it twice! So, Peter should get some credit here for his piety and love. He wants to be forgiving.
But he is a man like us, infected with original sin. So, he also wants to know when he can stop being nice, what the limits are, how much he has to give to make sure he doesn’t give too much. We all want to know that. We want to know when we can disobey the Law and not be punished. We love to focus on the exceptions, the extreme circumstances that might exist where it would be perfectly lawful to break the law. This is where we all like to spend our mental energy, rather than simply obeying what God has asked us to do. It’s because we don’t see ourselves as indebted by sin as we really are.
So, in order to open our eyes to the magnitude of our sin, Jesus tells a parable. The first man owes a ridiculous amount of money, millions and millions of dollars. In the ancient world, debt like this was settled with a bodily price. You lost limbs or you lost your life. But the King doesn’t want to do that, and the man simply doesn’t think he owes anywhere near that much. So, he asks for time. But not even perfect following of every single Baby Step of Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University program would let this man call in to the radio show and give a debt-free scream. This kind of debt would take several lifetimes to repay. So instead of patience, the King gives mercy. He forgave the debt and declared the servant innocent and paid the price for him. But we all know what happens next. As the bulletin cover this morning so gruesomely points out, the servant goes out and strangles a fellow servant over a debt that was pennies compared to what he owed to the king. So we set into our moral outrage. We get mad at that wicked servant. And then that anger becomes self-righteous anger, thinking of everyone else in our world who we feel has been just as damningly slow to forgive in the same way they have been forgiven. And then all we’ve done is end up in the shoes of that first, wicked servant. It shows that our real problem is that we don’t want to be forgiven. We want to be the King, the judge. We think that others are indebted to us, forgetting that we are beggars who wear the righteousness, who breathe the air, who live by the gracious generosity of another. We do not live, move, and have our being by our own volition, but by the gracious generosity of the Lord.
The wicked servant did not appreciate what had been given to him because he didn’t think he had real debt or real need. By refusing to be responsible for his sin, his debt, by pretending that all he needed was time, he rejected the good news of forgiveness. He did not rejoice in the indescribable gift given to him because he didn’t think he needed it. He would have said that the King was a nice guy, but he thought the freedom and righteousness was something he earned, something he could have done for himself. So, in his mind, he didn’t really need the King’s mercy because he could pay his own bills.
So the Parable’s lesson to us isn’t simply to be generous with the Lord’s gifts, to be quick to forgive one another, but more importantly to realize our place in His Kingdom: we are beggars. Each of us have an immense debt to the Lord, one that no amount of payments or time could repay, and because of our sinful nature we do not want to repay. We want mercy. And in Christ, mercy is what we have. We have been declared innocent, alive, set free. We were indebted, and now we are forgiven.
At the end of the Parable the King condemns the wicked servant for failing to recognize the mercy he had received. He didn’t see himself as guilty. That’s a warning for us as well. You can’t be forgiven for sins you didn’t commit. You can’t be relieved of debt you don’t owe. You can’t be declared righteous if you aren’t guilty. In other words—remember that you are a beggar. You are never any better than anyone else. Each of us are under the same condemnation. But each of us also receive the same lavish, incomprehensible forgiveness.
Because our King is a judge who has paid for our wasteful neglect and sinful actions. He has suffered our punishment, He has made our payment, He has become the atonement that won our salvation. Where we should have died to pay the price, He did. “We receive forgiveness of sin and become righteous before God out of grace for Christ’s sake through faith when we believe that Christ has suffered for us and that for His sake our sin is forgiven and righteousness and eternal life are given to us. God will regard and reckon this faith as righteousness in His sight.” (AC IV)
The King wishes to settle accounts with you, His servant. And He has not found you owing Him anything. He has not even found a balance of zero. He has found that He owes you, not a token refund, but the entire kingdom. And that He joyfully gives you for the sake of the suffering and death of Jesus Christ.
Why does the Pastor preach? Scripture explains that the role of preaching the Word of God is how saving faith is created: “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’ … So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ” (Romans 10:14-17). The Augsburg Confession, seeing this connection between the Preaching Office and saving faith, summarizes Scripture on the Office of the Holy Ministry in this way: “To obtain [saving, justifying] faith, God instituted the Office of Preaching, giving the Gospel and the Sacraments. Through these, as through means, He gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, where and when He wills, in those who hear the Gospel. It teaches that we have a gracious God, not through our merit but through Christ’s merit, when we so believe” (AC V 1-3). The whole reason the Pastor preaches is so saving faith can be created, so we know that “we have a gracious God” who loves us and has saved us from our sin by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.