PAY WHAT YOU OWE Matthew 18: 21-3

A sermon with St. Mark's Congregation, Barriefield, Ontario, September 16, 1990

by Robert Brow (

In our Gospel Jesus' parable about forgiving is introduced by Peter's question. "Lord, if another member of the church (literally "my brother") sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?" But Jesus' answer meant that Peter had got the idea of forgiveness completely back to front. "Not seven times, but I tell you, seventy times seven" (Matthew 18:21-22- the NRSV translates "77 times" but 70 x 7 is more likely because it is powerfully emphatic). The point is not that we should count how often we should forgive, but that forgiveness is not counted at all.

To illustrate this, Jesus told the story of a man who owed a King 10,000 talents of gold.. Obviously he was a steward who had embezzled the money he was entrusted with. A talent was the equivalent of 15 years of a laborers' wages, lets's say $20,000 x 15, which makes $300,000 in our day. That means that 10,000 talents was the equivalent of 3 billion dollars. There was no way then, and no way now, such an amount could ever be repaid.

But that is the amount Jesus suggests we would owe if he hadn't forgiven us. You may think you are not that bad. But try adding up all the people you have hurt without knowing it; how much pride you have expressed by despising others; how much you have left undone that you ought to have done; how many people you failed to pray for, how much lack of love in your life. All that and much more is forgiven.

In the parable there comes the day of reckoning. And the King said that the debt could be repaid by selling the steward, and his wife, and all his children as slaves, and all the property he had stashed away.

Then the steward did what we all try to do. "Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything." We imagine we could turn over a new leaf, try a bit harder, regain a bit of merit, and make it to heaven with a bit of effort. But imagine paying off 3 billion dollar debts on your credit cards! And the King said, "Don't be ridiculous. I know you couldn't pay even if you tried hard for a million years. I will just clear the books, absorb the loss myself, and you are as free as a bird from a cage. You don't owe me a cent.

Now comes the punch line that answers Peter's question about how often we should forgive others. Having been forgiven that huge amount, the servant walks out of the King's palace and grabs a friend by the throat. "You owe me $20. Pay what you owe." The friend pleaded for time, but the forgiven steward had him thrown into prison. Less than three hundred years ago they had debtor's prisons where people were fed bread and water till their relatives came and bailed them out.

When this happened the steward's fellow servants "were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place" (Matthew 18:31). The result was that the King said "I forgave you all that debt . . . should you not have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you." Then "he handed him over to be tortured until he would pay the entire debt he had been forgiven." And that would obviously have been for ever.

Together with Dante, and thousands of preachers, that is often interpreted as meaning that God plans to torture those who don't shape up in the fires of hell. Not only unforgiveness but a host of other sins are sufficient to send us to eternal damnation. The idea is to scare the hearers into accepting the offer of salvation.

But that isn't the point at all. God does not plan on eternal torture for most of humanity. Parables are extended metaphors. And torture is a very good illustration of what the refusal to forgive others does to us. It is very bad for our health. When we say "Pay me what you owe," and try to sleep on it that night, our blood pressure goes up. In time we may develop a stomach ulcer. It often leads to alcoholism. It is one of the causes of cancer. It affects our skin and bones, and fouls up the immune system. It upsets others, and makes us useless for Christian service. It also shows up on our face. It makes us more and more ugly, and people want to avoid such a mean unforgiving person.

Jesus made it absolutely clear that God forgives us totally, and without question. All we need to do is accept it, and say thank you. But having been forgiven, if we refuse to forgive others, God makes it very tough for us. God's wrath assigns consequences. Unforgiveness tortures us by eating into our soul. Of course we are still forgiven, but it makes life pretty miserable till we come to our senses.

If God is so keen to have us forgive others, that is because that is the way he forgives us. But "pay me what you owe" is not part of God's language, or ours if we love the way he does.

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