Monday, September 22, 2014

Matthew 21:23-32 -The Authority of Jesus Questioned

Lesson Focus:
Proper belief in Jesus mandates that we are obedient, even when it goes against what we are accustomed to believing and doing.. 

Catch up on the story:
Since we last looked at Matthew’s narrative Jesus has predicted his death at the hands of the chief priests and scribes, fielded a question from James and John’s mother asking that they be in positions of power in Jesus’ coming kingdom, and healed two blind men.  He has also entered Jerusalem for the last time.  Crowds of people shouting “Hosanna to the Son of David” greet him!  While in Jerusalem he cleans out the Temple and curses a fig tree.  Even though Jesus’ death will soon take place, Jesus has much more to teach. 

Critical Questions: 
1.  How does this text reveal to us the nature and character of God/What is God doing in this text?
  1. What does holiness/salvation look like in this text? 
  2. How does an encounter with this story shape who we are and who we should become?

The Text:
The location for the next couple of passages remains the same.  Jesus is in Jerusalem and will spend a good deal of his time in the Temple.  This will provide an opportunity for the Jewish religious leaders to engage Jesus in serious conversation.  The nature of the following conversations between Jesus and the religious leaders is rather antagonistic.  This will be plain to see as we move into this week's text.  

Our text begins with Jesus entering the Temple.  It isn't long before the chief priests and elders of the people lay a trap for Jesus.  They approach Jesus and put a question to him.  Unlike the questions that others have put to Jesus over the last few chapters, this question, "By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?" is meant to trap Jesus.  The religious leaders hope that his answer would allow them to publicly discredit him (i.e., to get him to say he is not the messiah) or that would allow the religious leaders to bring charges of sedition against Jesus (Jesus claims to be the messiah which has huge political implications.  Rome did not like anyone who claimed to be King.  This is, ultimately, what happened.)

The question itself is interesting.  The religious leaders want to know who gave Jesus this authority to teach and preach.  It is important to keep in mind that Israel's religious teachers were officially sanctioned teachers.  John Wesley says this, "Which also they supposed he had no authority to do, being neither priest, nor Levite, nor scribe. Some of the priests (though not as priests) and all the scribes were authorized teachers."[1]

So, if Jesus is not teaching with authority that was officially sanctioned by the Jewish religious establishment, someone or something else must be giving him authority to teach with great authority.   Douglas Hare, a commentator on Matthew suggests that the "Question assumes that there are different kinds of authority and that Jesus is exercising authority of some kind (this is implied by the second question, 'Who gave you this authority?').  It asks, 'What is the nature of the authority you exercise?"[2]  For the religious leaders there are, most likely, three sources of authority, God, Satan or Jesus himself.  The religious leaders question seems to imply that they do not believe that the authority that Jesus is exercising comes from God. 

Jesus, rather than answering the question directly, offers his own question and issues a challenge.  Jesus will ask a question, and if the leaders are able to answer it, Jesus will answer their question.     The religious leaders accept the challenge.  The question that Jesus puts to the religious leaders is every bit as much a trap as the question that the religious leaders asked.  Jesus wants to know what they think of John's baptism.  Is if from heaven (of divine origin), or is it of human origin?

The religious leaders put their heads together and begin to work on an answer.  The way the text reads makes us feel that they know what they want to answer but cannot answer it.  Matthew tells us that they are caught in between a rock and a hard place.  If they say that John, who was loved by the crowds, baptized people with power from heaven, then Jesus would question them as to why they did not believe.  Additionally, John proclaims that Jesus is the messiah, the one for whom they all have been waiting.  If they affirm that John's baptism was from God then they would highlight, before everyone, their own unbelief.  On the other hand, if they deny that John's baptism is from divine origin the crowds would turn on them.  Either way the religious leaders lose credibility. 

Finally, the religious leaders answer Jesus' question.  They take the safest route and declare that they do not know from where John's baptism came.  Since they will not answer the question, neither will Jesus answer their question.  Bruner, and others, believe that Jesus' non-response hides yet mysteriously announces Jesus' true authority.  It also highlights the incompetence of and illegitimacy of Israel's first-century leadership.[3]

Jesus is not yet done asking questions.  He immediately asks these religious leaders what they think about this next story he will tell.  There was a father who had two sons.  He approaches the first son and tells him to go work in the vineyard.  The first son responds that he will not go, but later on he changes his mind and goes out to work in the vineyard.  So, the father goes to the second son and tells him to go to the vineyard and work.  Immediately, the second son says that he will go, but then never does.  Jesus wants to know who the religious leaders believe actually did the will of the father, the one who said he wouldn't go but then did, or the one who said he would but then did not go?

The religious leaders actually answer this time!  They believe that the first son, the one who eventually went into the field is the one who did his father's will.  Many of the church fathers have read this story and decided that the first son represents the gentiles while the second son represents the Jewish people. After all, Gentiles existed long before Israel became God’s chosen people.  The gentiles rejected God at the first, but now that Jesus has shown them they way, they are responding.[4]  If Israel is the second son, then the story is fairly condemning of the religious leaders.  They have said they believe and follow God, yet their actions show otherwise.   

It is also likely that the first son represents the "tax collectors and prostitutes" Jesus will speak about in just a moment, while the second son represents the religious leaders themselves.  Either way, the news is not good for the religious leaders who seem to have missed something very important about who John and Jesus are and what they are doing. 

I'm not so certain it matters who exactly these two sons represent for this story to speak to us. For us, our belief that Jesus actually does exercise authority to teach and direct our lives morally and ethically will be proved true when we actually do what Jesus commands us to do.  If we truly believe that Jesus has authority, then we will do what Jesus wants.  For Matthew, discipleship always entails a significant level of obedience. 

After the religious leaders answer the question correctly, Jesus brings some rather harsh judgment down on the religious leaders.  Even the extortionist tax collectors and prostitutes will enter the kingdom of heaven before them!  It was people like them who have responded to John's message and now Jesus' message.  Not only have they believed and repented, but they have begun to be obedient as well.  Meanwhile, the religious leaders think they have belief all figured out, they think they have ethics all figured out too, but in the end they have rejected John and Jesus.  Not even the turning of the most undesirable people in society to God was enough for the religious leaders to consider that God might be working in new ways through John and Jesus. 

It is important to note here that Jesus is not making a blanket statement about all Jews.  After all, the tax collectors and prostitutes that Jesus referenced were part of Israel.  Jesus is making a very specific argument about those who fail to believe even after seeing the work that God was doing through John and Jesus.  This is not the end of the road for those in Israel who refuse to believe.  

So What?
What does this mean for us?  The Jewish religious leaders where caught in the trap of religious correctness.  They held their beliefs very closely.  But their determination to believe correctly caused them to be blind to the new way that God was working through John and then Jesus.  They had become so focused on one way of seeing the world and one way of seeing God and how God relates to them and the world around them, that when God began to move in unexpected ways they were blind to see it.  So, they perceived Jesus as a threat. 

Often times, I believe that this is the temptation for us, to become so focused on religious orthopraxis, or right practices that we fail to see how it is that God is working in our world here and now. What put the religious leaders at odds with Jesus was that they had an alternative vision of what it meant to be the people of God: rigid conformity to purity codes over compassionate embrace of the outsider. Perhaps the problem is that we become so locked into certain traditional ways of being the people of God that we do not see the new thing God is doing.  Perhaps we don't often recognize that there are "tax collectors and prostitutes" who are entering into the kingdom of heaven before us because they have recognized the authority of Jesus when we have not.  What I'm not saying is that we abandon orthodox Christian belief or traditional practices.  No, rather what I am saying, is that we become more open to different ways that God might be calling us to go to work in his vineyard. 

Critical Questions: 
1.     How does this text reveal to us the nature and character of God/What is God doing in this text?
a.     God desires that we keep a sufficiently open mind so that we can see where it is that God is working in our world so that we might respond with faithful obedience.  God is far more gracious than we often imagine, allowing those who for so long have refused to do his will to enter into the kingdom. 

  1. What does salvation look like in this text? 
a.     Salvation demands that we not only believe with our minds and confess with our mouths that Jesus is Lord, but that we faithfully answer the call to go to the vineyard and do the work God is calling us to.

  1. How does an encounter with this story shape who we are and who we should become?
a.     This passage should cause us to pause and ask ourselves if we are too wrapped up in maintaining in maintaining the status quo, or certain church customs, or a hyper-concern with our own personal salvation that we miss out on the new ways God is working   Our stance should always be one of looking for the work of God in unexpected ways and through unexpected people.   

Specific Discussion Questions:
Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly.  Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.
1.     Why do you think the religious leaders want to know by whose and what authority Jesus is operating?  Under whose authority could Jesus possibly be operating?
2.     Why doesn't Jesus just come out and say that his authority comes from God in heaven?
3.     Why does Jesus respond to the religious leaders question with a question of his own?  Why does Jesus want to know from where John got his authority?
4.     Who and what were the religious leaders afraid of?  Why?
5.     How are we like the first son?  How are we like the second son?
6.     Jesus declares that the "tax collectors and prostitutes" will enter the kingdom before the religious leaders.  If the story were set today, who are our "tax collectors and prostitutes?"
7.     Where is God working in unexpected ways and in unexpected people in our own community? Are we (the people of God) involved with his work there?  

[1] John Wesley, Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament, Fourth American Edition (New York: J. Soule and T. Mason, 1818), 72.
[2] Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993), 245.
[3] Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary: The Churchbook, Matthew 13-28, Revised & enlarged edition (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004), 372.  See also: Donald A Hagner, Matthew. 14-28, (Dallas, Tex.: Word Books, 1995), 610. 
[4] Thomas Aquinas, Catena Aurea: Commentary on the Four Gospels, Collected Out of the Works of the Fathers: St. Matthew, ed. John Henry Newman, vol. 1 (Oxford: John Henry Parker, 1841), 725.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Matthew 20:1-16 – The Parable of the Benevolent Master

Lesson Focus:
God’s grace is his to give to whomever he wishes, whenever he wishes. 

Catch up on the story:
Once again, the parable under consideration is a result of a question, or questions that have been put to Jesus.  The first question that is put to Jesus is the question of the rich young man in verse 16 of chapter 19.  The man asks Jesus what he must do to have eternal life.  Jesus tells him to keep the commandments.  The man has done this diligently.  Finally, Jesus urges the man to go and sell all that he has and give his money to the poor.  That way he will have treasure in heaven.  A call to follow Jesus is also issued.  The rich man goes away sad because he was very rich.  

Jesus then turns to his disciples and declares that it is very hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven.  In fact, it will be easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle!  The disciples are astounded by this declaration (Remember, riches were often seen as a sign of God’s favor).  This leads us to the second question.  Peter, who has indeed left everything to follow Jesus, wants to know what he will receive for his sacrifice and faithfulness.  Indeed, the disciples, and those who are faithful in sacrifice will receive much in the way of eternal reward.  But, Jesus ends the chapter with a warning as well, “But many who are first will be last, and the lasts will be first.”  The meaning of this warning will become clear as we examine the parable.    

Critical Questions: 
1.     How does this text reveal to us the nature and character of God/What is God doing in this text?
2.     What does holiness/salvation look like in this text? 
3.     How does an encounter with this story shape who we are and who we should become?

The Text:
The parable begins, once again, with the iconic words “For the kingdom of heaven is like…”  As we have said before, Jesus is comparing a known world and rule to living in the reign of God.  In other words, Jesus is painting a picture of life as it should and will be when Jesus’ kingdom is fully established.  Jesus is now in the process of bringing the kingdom of heaven here on earth, a process that involves inviting his followers to become good citizens of that kingdom.  There is a steep learning curve, so Jesus sets about teaching via parables. 

What is the kingdom of heaven like?  The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who has a vineyard that needs to be harvested.  So, the master himself sets out early in the morning to hire workers for the day.  Day laborers (see Important Terms) would congregate in the market place in hopes that they might be hired for the day.  It may not be common in our fair city, but there are places in our country where day laborers, usually immigrants or migrant workers, gather at local business in hopes that they might get hired for the day.  This happens at places like Lowes and Home Depot.  Usually those who are being hired, both then and now, were from the poorer segments of the community.

As the parable begins we are immediately struck by the idea that the landowning master himself goes out to hire the laborers.  Later on in the parable we will meet the master’s manager who is tasked with the job of paying the workers.  Why would the master go out himself when he could send his manager instead?  And, he does not go out just once, but multiple times!  Perhaps this points to the nature of the King at the center of the kingdom of heaven.  What we confess about who God is in Jesus Christ is that he is the God who goes, the God who leaves his position of comfort so that he might mingle and personally call us to work along side him.  The King at the center of the kingdom of heaven is a King who issues his call to participation in the kingdom not just once, but early and often. 

The master enters the marketplace and hires the first workers he sees.  He agrees to pay them the usual daily wage.  What is translated “usual daily wage” is really “a denarius.”  Then, a little later in the morning, the master goes out again to hire workers.  This time he agrees to pay the workers, “whatever is right.”  No amount is settled upon, the workers will have to trust that the master will not take advantage of them.  It may also be that the workers had no other hope of being hired for the day, so any amount of pay would be better than nothing.  Again the master goes out at noon, three o’clock and toward the end of the day at five o’clock.  Each time he agrees to pay the workers whatever is right. 

The end of the day arrives and the master instructs his manager to pay the workers, beginning with the ones who arrived the latest.  Each worker will receive the normal daily wage.  When the late arriving workers received their own pay, the workers who had worked the entire day began to get excited because they believed that they might receive more than what had been promised them. 

They quickly learn that this is not the case.  The workers who were hired first only receive the normal daily wage, the same amount as those who had been hired at the very end of the day.  As you can imagine, they begin to grumble.  I imagine if we all were put in this similar situation that our reaction would be much the same.  “I worked all day along!  And it was hot!  How can he give more to the guy who only worked an hour?  It’s not fair!”  The master’s treatment of workers who were hired later in the day goes against everything we are taught is fair and right.  “You get what you work for.  If you want a lot, then you have to work hard for it” and “Those who don’t work very hard or long shouldn’t get the same as those who work hard.” 

The master of the vineyard turns those notions on their head.  In fact, the master points out that he has dealt fairly with the workers who are now grumbling.  The master has paid the promised wage.  Besides, can’t the master do with what he has in the way that he wants to?  Of course he can. 

Jesus then closes the parable with the same warning he began with, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”  What do we make of this parable and its warning?  We might spend some time discussing who the workers are, or whom they represent.  Many have speculated about the identities of the workers.  Some of the early church fathers believe that the workers represented different time periods of human history from Adam to Christ. Others have speculated that the workers represent people who receive Christ at various ages of their life.  The workers who were hired at the end of the day represent the elderly.  Some have speculated that the later workers were the Christians while the ones hired early in they day were the Jews. 

The identity of the workers, I do not believe, is the main point of the parable.  It is, rather, the identity of the master that matters most in this parable.  As we have already said, the master is a missionary master; he goes out, personally, to recruit workers.  He calls early and often.  Not only that, he is an extravagantly benevolent master.  He promised that what he would pay the workers would be fair and right.  With the first workers he gives them the normal daily wage.  But with the later workers he becomes extravagant!  One commentator wonders if “Jesus is hinting at the goodness of grace, at a judgment that will be more generous than our conscience usually allows us to believe?”[1]  After all, is it not up to God to do with what belongs to him in the way that he chooses?  God’s generosity is far beyond our usual ability to comprehend.     

The warning that Jesus gives about first becoming lasts and lasts becoming firsts speaks deep to our hearts.  How often do we pride ourselves on being workers who have shown up early to work in the Christian faith?  Many of us have been Christians since an early age.  We have heard the call of the master and have responded.  But do we get envious when those, perhaps who have not worked as hard or as long, receive or will receive the same blessings we have?  Do we think of ourselves more highly than we ought because we have worked so long?  If so, we are in danger of becoming lasts.  The unthinkable grace and love of God is God’s to give to whomever he wishes, whenever he wishes.  May we rest in the knowledge that God has given that great grace to us, not because we have deserved it, but because he desired to give it. 

So What?
The kingdom of heaven is like great and unmerited grace.  The King of that kingdom, Jesus Christ, calls us to come and participate in his kingdom, to join the work, and promises to reward us fairly.  Only, the King doesn’t cease calling.  All those who listen and respond get to participate in the kingdom and receive its rewards, even those who respond very late in the day. The King is more than just fair, the king is extravagant, giving disproportionate payment to those who, often times, we believe shouldn’t get very much.  God’s grace is his to give. 

We are warned, though.  We will become lasts, not from a failure to work, but from an over-sized vision of what we think we deserve in comparison with others.  Rather, we should rejoice in the great gift of grace that God has given us.  We should rejoice and find comfort in the fact that the master we serve is extravagant in his blessing to all.  And then, we must exercise the same great grace.    

Important Terms:
Day Laborer:
“Day laborers fall into a class of people in advanced agrarian societies known as ‘the expendables’…  For them, as Thomas Hobbes noted, life was ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.’  Owing to the specters of ‘malnutrition, disease and deprivation’ that haunted them, they were unable to maintain marriages, or reproduce themselves, but the ranks of the expendables were continually replenished by ‘the steady stream of new recruits forced into is ranks form the classes immediately above it,’ the unclean and degraded, the peasantry, and the artisans.  The expendables were largely composed of the excess children of peasant households who could afford to pass on their inheritance to only one child, usually the eldest son; the holdings of these peasants were to small to support more children.  ‘The best that most of them [the expendable] could hope for was occasional work at planting and harvest time and charity in between…’ Between 5 and 10 percent of the population ‘found itself in this depressed class…’”[2]   

Critical Questions: 
1.     How does this text reveal to us the nature and character of God/What is God doing in this text?
a.     God in Jesus is an active God who goes out early and often to call workers to participate in his kingdom work.  God is gracious with what is his own, giving regardless of merit. 

2.     What does holiness look like in this text? 
a.     Holiness looks like our becoming like the master who goes out early and often to call and invite others to work alongside of us.  As we grow in grace, as we become more like the master, we learn to become extravagantly generous with what God has given us.  

3.     How does an encounter with this story shape who we are and who we should become?
a.     We are called to participate in the extravagant nature of the kingdom of heaven.  We should become like the master who goes out, early and often, into the public square and call others to join in and begin as workers in the kingdom of heaven.  We should become like the master by being extravagantly generous with the grace and love that we have received from the master.  

Specific Discussion Questions:
Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly.  Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.
1.     Refresh your understanding of the context.  As a group, go back and read Matthew 19:16-30. 
2.     Why do you think that the master himself goes out to hire workers?  Why do you think he continues to go out throughout the day?
3.     Why does the master not settle on a given wage for the workers he hires later in the day?
4.     The master instructs his manager to pay the workers beginning with the ones hired last.  Why do you think this is? 
5.     Why does the master give the workers who were hired at the end of the day the same amount as the first workers hired?  Do you think your reaction would have been the same as the reaction of the first workers hired?
6.     If we are the workers in the story, what does this say about us?  How might we become like the master in the story?
7.     What does Jesus mean when he says, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last?”

[1] Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary: The Churchbook, Matthew 13-28, Revised & enlarged edition (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004), 320.
[2] William R. Herzog II, Parables as Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed, 1st edition (Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), 88-89.

Matthew 18:21-35 -The Merciful King, The Unmerciful Servant

Lesson Focus:
Receiving great and immeasurable grace requires the giving of great and immeasurable grace.

Catch up on the story: 
Jesus has just been speaking about the importance of the unity of the community of faith by way of a parable concerned with going after those who have strayed from the church. He punctuated the segment with a small teaching on the way to go about reconciliation. It is the will of God that none, specifically those belonging to the church at one time or another, be lost. Additionally, those who belong to the community of the faith would do well to remember that they are constantly accountable to the community. Now the narrative moves from unity through reconciliation and the unrelenting chasing after our brothers and sisters to forgiveness.

Critical Questions: 

  1. How does this text reveal to us the nature and character of God/What is God doing in this text?
  2. What does holiness/salvation look like in this text? 
  3. How does an encounter with this story shape who we are and who we should become?

The Text:
Our passage begins with a question that Peter puts to Jesus. If we are honest with ourselves, we have probably asked the same question of others or ourselves at times when we have faced people or groups of people who have repeatedly hurt us. So, it seems that the question may be a natural one, “How often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”

At the heart of the question is the notion that there is a limit to forgiveness. Peter is trying to discover what that limit is. Peter offers up the number seven. In the Bible, the number seven is the number of completeness, and perhaps Peter thought that if he had reached that number his responsibility in regards to forgiveness had been met. I don’t think we should be too hard on Peter. How many of us want to forgive after the second or third infraction let alone the seventh? I believe Peter is trying to be generous.

Jesus, however, blows Peter out of the water by suggesting that forgiveness should extend to the seventy-seventh time. John Chrysostom remarks that Jesus’ response is “not setting a number here, but what is infinite and perpetual and forever.”[1] In other words, forgiveness should be unlimited. Jesus could leave this saying here and move on to another subject. A command from Christ should be enough to stir us on toward offering an unlimited forgiveness.

Jesus, however, offers a story that helps us see just why it is that we should be so extravagant in our offering of forgiveness. The story begins with the familiar phrase, “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to…” Jesus here, as he has and will do in other places, is comparing a known world and rule to living in the reign of God. In other words, Jesus is painting a picture of life as it should and will be when Jesus’ kingdom is fully established. In other places, in Mark and Luke’s Gospel, Jesus will use the phrase “the kingdom of God.” The two phrases are mostly interchangeable.

What is the kingdom of heaven like? It is like a king or ruler who wished to go through the books to determine the state of his kingdom. This audit reveals that one of the king’s servants owes him a very large amount of money. It’s to be noted here that the word “servant” does not always denote someone of very lowly status. Rather, it points to a worker in the administration of the king. Judging by the size of his debt, he is rather high up in the governmental organization.

The amount of money the servant owes is ten thousand talents. This was an exceedingly large sum. One talent was equal to six thousand denarii. If we do the math, ten thousand talents were equal to 60 million denarri.[2] To put this into perspective, the normal wage for a day laborer was around one denarri. Translating the amount into terms we can get our mind around, after all we hear of transactions in our business world that are in the billions, diminishes from the force of the amount Jesus is specifying. The idea that Jesus is trying to convey is that the amount that the servant owes is infinitely large, it is well beyond his or anyone else’s ability to pay back. Blomburg states that, “The ‘talent’ was the highest known denomination of currency in the ancient Roman Empire, and ten thousand was the highest number for which the Greek language had a particular word (myrias; cf. our myriad).[3]” Greek speaking persons could not conceive of a number larger than ten thousand talents.

The king brings the servant into his chamber to discuss with him his debt. The servant finds himself in a rough spot; he and his entire family will be sold into slavery until the debt could be paid. At this point, both the servant and the hearers of this story realize that neither the man nor his family will ever be free again. There is just no way they will ever pay back the debt. So, the servant begins to call on the mercy of the king. He offers to pay back everything, if only the king would have some patience.

Here’s where we get a picture of the kingdom of heaven, as God would have it. The king is moved to pity. The Greek word translated “pity” (splagchnizomai) here is more intense. The word itself has to do with the “inward parts” of the person or animal, namely the stomach and intestines as well as the heart, kidneys and liver. Matthew uses splagchnizomai in three of his parables to talk about the divine compassion that God has toward creation.[4] So, the NRSV’s pity could be conveyed as such, “And out of bowel shaking feelings of compassion and mercy for the servant, the lord of that slave released him and forgave his debt.”

The first act of the parable is now complete. The servant, who had a great, immeasurable, incomprehensible debt, was forgiven his debt because of the unfathomable grace and mercy of the king. Now, we could stop right there and go on for days about the nature of the “kingdom of heaven.” The kingdom that Jesus has brought and is bringing is one characterized by immense and outlandish levels of love and forgiveness. Peter’s question seems silly when we compare it to the response of the king toward great debt. The temptation to stop here and soak in this great grace is profound, but this is not where Jesus ends the story.

Act two begins with the newly pardoned servant roaming the streets of his city. Keep in mind that he is a person of standing in the community and kingdom and has persons that are under him. He sees a man who owes him a debt. It is not an insignificant amount, 100 denarri, but it would take some time to repay. The servant seizes the man by the throat and demands that the man pay what is owed.

Obviously the grace that the servant has been shown has had little or no affect on him. The words of the second debtor are almost word for word the same as the servant’s when he spoke to the king. The second man pleads for patience and mercy. The servant refuses and throws the man into prison until he could pay back the debt. A group of the servant’s coworkers witness the whole incident and report back to the king. The NRSV says the servants were “greatly distressed” while the NIV records that the servants were “outraged.” Both translations miss the point a bit. The Greek word translated as “distressed” and “outraged” carries with it more of a feeling of “sorrow” and “grief”. The servants, who perhaps have heard about the king’s great mercy toward the servant, are saddened and brought to great sorrow and grief because of the servant’s actions. This too, should be our response when we see a brother or sister who has received great saving grace from God but refuses to pass on that grace and mercy to others.

The king responds by summoning the servant. The king’s response is one of unbelief, calling the servant wicked for his actions. The payoff line comes in verses 32-33, “I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?” In anger the king hands over the servant to be tortured until he pays his entire un-payable debt. Jesus ends the parable with a warning. This is what will happen to you if you do not forgive your brother or sister.

So What?
What are we to make of this story? What is the kingdom of heaven like? You and I are obviously in great debt to the God of the universe. That’s why we pray the Lord’s Prayer and seek for forgiveness of our debts. Indeed, we are the servant in the parable who has been forgiven an immeasurable debt because we have sought the mercy of Christ our King. The God of the Universe has been moved to provide for us grace, mercy and forgiveness through the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. Our debt has been paid. We have been forgiven.

As I said earlier, it would be a mistake to merely settle in and enjoy our own freedom and forgiveness. Those who have been forgiven much must extend forgiveness as well. This forgiveness should be extended, not out of some moral obligation, or even out of fear that we might be handed over to be tortured until we pay the last penny! No, this forgiveness should be extended because we have allowed the grace and forgiveness we have received to transform our lives. How do we allow this grace to transform us? By routinely acknowledging and recalling our own great debt of sin. If we forget that we are sinners saved by grace, we will have little compassion on those who sin against us. A warning is in order. It does no good to dwell on our sins both past and present. Doing so will only drag us down, but to healthfully consider that we have been forgiven a great debt, that in many cases we are still in need of great forgiveness, causes us to be more indulgent of the sins of others. For the sins of others are our [humanity’s] same sins coming from different faces and names.

Saint John Chrysostom begins to bring his homily on this passage to a close with these words, “Two things therefore doth He here require, both to condemn ourselves for our sins, and to forgive others; and the former for the sake of the latter, that this may become more easy (for he who considers his own sins is more indulgent to his fellow-servant); and not merely to forgive with the lips, but from the heart.”[5] This is the heart of the matter; we forgive because we have been forgiven. How much do we forgive? The same amount we have been forgiven, which happens to be an insurmountable amount.

Critical Questions: 
 How does this text reveal to us the nature and character of God/What is God doing in this text?
  • God is forgiving. That is both what God is doing and the nature and character of God. God’s forgiveness is brought about by the gut wrenching feelings of compassion and pity God has for us, who have racked up such a great debt. At the same time, God brings judgment on those who refuse to pass on the great forgiveness and grace they have received. God is as just and righteous as he is graceful and forgiving.

What does salvation/holiness look like in this text?
  • Our salvation is in the hands of a great and gracious God. We grow in grace and holiness when we allow the Holy Spirit to work in us so that we might extend great grace and forgiveness to others.

How does an encounter with this story shape who we are and who we should become?
  • We are obliged, in light of the forgiveness we have received, to go and offer forgiveness. It is the proper response to the grace of God.

Specific Discussion Questions:
Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly. Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.
  1. Why do you think Peter asks his question in the way that he asks it? Do you think Peter is being generous with his plan to forgive seven times? Or do you think he is trying to go the easy route? Why?
  2. Why do you think Jesus recommends forgiving seventy-seven times?
  3. As a group, determine who each character is in Jesus’ parable. What is each character doing? What might their motivations be? How could they have acted differently?
  4. The king in the story is physically moved to compassion toward the servant. Has there ever been a time where you have been physically moved to compassion for another person? What did that feel like? What was the situation that resulted in your being moved toward compassion?
  5. Why do you think the servant didn’t pass on the forgiveness he had received?
  6. The king in the parable is full of mercy and grace. Why do you think, at the end of the story, he did not give the servant a second chance but punished him?

Ways to Forgive as God has Forgiven Us…
  1.  As you begin each day this week, spend some time gratefully reflecting on the sins for which you have been forgiven.  Express your thankfulness to God for the forgiveness you have received. 
  2. Spend some time each day reflecting on the hurt and pain you have received from others.  How have you hurt or inflicted pain on others in similar ways?  Seek forgiveness from God and others for those sins. 

[1] John Chrysostom, “Homilies of St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople on the Gospel According to St. Matthew,” in Saint Chrysostom: Homilies on the Gospel of Saint Matthew, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. George Prevost and M. B. Riddle, vol. 10, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1888), 375.

[2] Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary: The Churchbook, Matthew 13-28, Revised & enlarged edition (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004), 237.

[3] Craig Blomberg, Matthew, vol. 22, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1992), 283.

[4] Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and Gerhard Friedrich, eds., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964–), 553–554.

[5] Chrysostom, 380.