Down the Up Staircase
September 17, 2017 – Pastor Doug Stratton
Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who 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 bags of gold 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.
“At this 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 silver coins. 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 it 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 outraged 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 handed 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 or sister from your heart.”
This is one of my favorite parables. I love it because Jesus identifies the true nature of forgiveness and at the same time displays his sense of humor and deep compassion. The parable grows out of the question, “How often should I forgive my brother? Seven times?” And Jesus proceeds to tell the parable we just read.
Many years ago I subscribed to a monthly resource called Preaching Today. Each month they would send me two sermons and a workshop on preaching on a 60 minute cassette tape. It was a very helpful resource. Now I have never done this before, but this morning I want to share one of those sermons with you, it was first preached by Eugene Lowry and while I will add some of my own thoughts, but much of the sermon comes through Dr. Lowry.
As we encounter the parable Jesus is telling we meet a man. The man was deeply in debt, he 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 home, went across the territory until he reached the palace, he wearily climbed the flight of stairs, and went through the double doors to await his audience with the king. If you were listening closely when we read text, 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. Even in western Kansas where there are no hills you have to climb stairs to get to the place of power. 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 might put in a ramp. But still, when you approach the seat of power, it is 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 wait made the weight of his debt ever heavier. Then the king arrives. The man bows dutifully. An aide arrives carrying a huge ledger. He opens it to the page where the 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.”
“Do I read this right? You owe me 10,000 talents.”
“Ahh, Yes, sir.”
“I want my money.”
“I am calling the debt, 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. Tore 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 what that servant experienced? Such utter ecstasy! I think the tears just dried up, and then we’re replaced with uncontrollable joyful weeping. 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 was free! He no longer had a care in the world. His life was starting fresh.
We might hope that is what happened, but that’s not the way the story goes. He apparently he trudged his way out of the King’s presence plodded down every step, 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 grabs the 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 man refused. He didn’t give him more time. He did not show him mercy. He didn’t give him anything. Instead, he summoned a police officer and said, “This man owes me money. He’s not paying me back. Take him to jail.”
The man, now satisfied that he had taught his fellow servant a lesson, returned to his home.
The crowd who had gathered at the bottom of the stairs however, didn’t like what they saw and heard, they were not satisfied, in face, they went to the king and said, “You wouldn’t believe what happened at the bottom of the stairs.”
After hearing the story, the king said, “Well, the two of us need to have 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?”
“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?”
“Well, if I remember correctly, I told you I wanted the money now.”
“You got down on your knees and begged for mercy. Right?
Do you remember what I did? I ripped the ledger sheet out of the book and told you to go in peace.
“Oh, yes sir!”
“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 grab someone by the throat 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?”
“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. But the truth is, we’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg because we really haven’t caught the punch line yet. The debt was $10 million, and I presume $10 million is a significant chunk o’ change for most of us here. But inflation has softened the debt. The fact is that nobody could owe $10 million in the days of Jesus. Jesus is making a joke out of the debt. You see, 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.
So why would Jesus make such a ridiculous statement? 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.
And then, 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.
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 back the forgiveness. 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?
I want to suggest this isn’t a story about a king who forgave and then took it back. This is a parable. Give Jesus a little poetic license. This is really the story about a servant who was offered the forgiveness for a debt beyond imagination and he refused accept it. He never let himself off the hook.
Here is how I know that. I know that because what happened at the bottom of the stairs simply could not have happened had he really accepted the forgiveness. It would have been utterly impossible. If the guy presented himself and said, “Hey, I owe you 20 bucks.” He’d say, “What 20 bucks?”
Imagine this. You bought a MegaMillions ticket, the first one ever because the jackpot had reached $900,000,000 (it would have been irresponsible to not buy one). 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 wallet, would you lend me a couple of bucks? I’ll drop by later today and pay it back.”
You give him $10 bucks.
The passes, now it’s Monday morning, and he didn’t bring the 10 bucks back.
About 8 o’clock you see a story on CNN. There was one winning ticket in the drawing last night. Then they say, it was sold in Pennsylvania, you are slightly interested. Then you discover that it was sold at the Wawa in Hatboro. You start to get excited, you start comparing numbers, 1, 2, 3 numbers match, 4, 5. You have all 5 of the draws, then you look at the jackpot number and it matches as well! You have won $900,000,000 before taxes!
Imagine what you’re feeling. Think how your eyes are just circling in both directions. You can’t breathe, you are speechless! And the first thing you do is call your buddy from church yesterday to ask when he will be bringing your 10 bucks by.
Is that what happens? No! It’s impossible. The last thing on your mind would be the debt owed to you. You have just received a gift that dwarfs any debt you could be owed. The 10 bucks would never cross your mind, UNLESS you did not believe the state would pay off.
That is what happened to the the man in the parable. He never let himself off the hook for the debt because he did not believe he had been forgiven. Even if he believed it, he refused to accept it. 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 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. And you never can 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. He did not deserve it.
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 awhile. 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? “Oh, you shouldn’t have.” 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 $100 Trillion 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.
When Jesus sent out the disciples he said, “As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Freely you have received; freely give.