Kingdom Economics 101: Payment
21 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?”
22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.
The Kingdom IS.
The King is vastly wealthy.
The man owed him 10,000 talents = 20 years’ wages for a laborer = an average laborer today is paid $28,000 a year + benefits if he is working full-time. On average, health insurance alone is about $14,000, bringing his “value” up to about $42,000. But to be conservative, let’s assume he makes just $30,000 a year. In 20 years of work, with no raises, he would have made $600,000. If you include a small benefits package, and price it out that way, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say the bondservant owed the king $1,000,000.
Vs 26 is an irrational statement. There is NO way a laborer in debtors’ prison could have made up the extra $600,000 to $1,000,000 over the course of a lifetime. So his promise is an empty one.
Vs 27 shows the mercy of the King. Because he is vastly wealthy, he was in a position to have loaned the man the $600,000 in the first place, and it didn’t put a dent in his resources. He had many such servants, so we can assume that these slaves were each deep in debt. The king’s desire is not to clean up his books. In fact, keeping bondservants around was good business – the reverse of keeping someone in prison today. They made money for the King by being his slaves. A man with a debt like this would have remained the King’s servant forever.
23 “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his bondservants.
24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him.
25 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.
26 “At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’
27 The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.
28 “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.
29 “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’
30 “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt.
31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.
32 “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to.
33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’
34 In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
With everyone going back to school this month it seemed fitting for us to go back to school for a few weeks as a church. So, on this fall kick-off Sunday we’re beginning our fall course. Just like any college course you may have taken, there are a few things you need to know. First of all, you’ll find the course syllabus printed on an insert sheet that I hope you’ll take home and post on your refrigerator so you can come prepared for class from week to week.
The course is part of our the University College of the Arts, and if you complete the course with us you’ll receive three credit hours. This is a 100s level, lecture based course, and the title of the course is “Kingdom Economics, 101.” If you are here for any other course, please go to the Registrar’s office right now and see where that course is meeting. There will be a final exam at the end of the course, and your grade will be wholly dependent on the essay you write at that time. In case you are wondering, attendance at class is mandatory. The University has very strict guidelines. In the event that the teacher has not arrived when you show up for class, you must wait for 5 minutes for a lecturer, 10 minutes for an assistant or adjunct professor, and 15 minutes for a full professor. If no professor shows up after 15 minutes, you are excused to our weekly convocation which takes place directly after class in the great Hall.
Now doesn’t that take you back to your college days? While I was just kidding about the final exam and mandatory attendance, we are starting a new series this week, and we’re mostly going to be looking at a collection of the parables of Jesus that are often called the “money” parables, because they all have to do with some aspect of finance.
You’ll want to have Matthew 18 open in front of you as we go, if it isn’t already. Jesus has just finished laying out what has, wrongly I think, been called the terms of Church Discipline. His instructions there seem to come completely out of left field and don’t really have much of a direct connection to what comes before in the text. They are a wholly new thought in the text, and so we need to pay careful attention to them. He says,
“If your brother or sister sins go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”
But it doesn’t come out of left field. Jesus has just connected two important things: the temptation to sin and money. “If your brother sins,” he says, and will not listen to correction from one, from two, or from the whole body, “treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” What does begin a pagan or a tax collector have to do with sinning? You say, “everyone sins.” And you’re right. Much of Jesus’ ministry was spent in the company of what the religious leaders of his day called “sinners and tax collectors.”
But Jesus said, “If your BROTHER sins… treat him as a tax-collector.”
To understand this you have to go back all the way to chapter 17, verse 24. Look at what he says there: When they came to Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma tax went up to Peter and said, “Does your teacher not pay the tax?” He said, “Yes.” And when he came into the house, Jesus spoke to him first, saying, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tax? From their sons or from others?” And when he said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the sons are free.
The sons and daughters of a king are brothers and sister to one another. They are exempt from paying taxes to the king because they are heirs, and everything the king collects from his subjects is going to end up in their pockets directly or indirectly anyway. The sons and daughters of a king also do not tax one another for the same reason. Their income comes completely from their father. So if you and I were children of the same king, and you came to me and asked me to pay a tax or a toll to you, I’d be pretty offended.
That’s why it is so ridiculous and often so painful when you’re out to dinner with members of your own family and you argue over who is going to pay the check. Often the brother or sister who is starts the argument isn’t so much trying to be generous as they are trying to make sure they don’t end up in a position where they might feel like they own another family member. But if they are your family, according to Jesus, everything they have is yours and everything you have is theirs. There is, perhaps, no greater way in which you can sin against a family member who is a child of your own Father, than to treat them like they owe you something. That is what tax collectors were so famous for doing. And that is what Jesus is after in verses 15-20 when he contrasts being a brother or sister with being a tax collector.
The greatest way in which your brother or sister can sin against you is to behave toward you in any way that denies that they are your sibling. When a brother or sister in the kingdom does THAT and refuses to listen to you when you come to them, and then refuses to listen to a couple of other brothers or sisters who have seen the same behavior in him, and THEN refuses to listen when the whole family comes and sits him down in what modern psychology has called a family intervention, then the only recourse you have is to treat them the way they are asking to be treated – as someone who believes that everything is based on an economy of payment. The sinning brother or sister may come to their senses when the rest of the family starts charging them by the hour for their time. But notice something Jesus does not say in Matthew 18:15-20. He doesn’t say, “let him be to you a sinner or tax-collector.” He says, “treat him as you would…” Jesus’ purpose is always restoration, as we’re about to see.
With that as background, Peter asks Jesus a question. “How often will my brother sin against me and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” In other words, “At what point do I need to shift from seeking restoration, and instead begin to expect restitution. When it comes to a brother or sister – someone who I know is also a child of our Father – when have I been sinned against enough and had enough taken from me that I stop seeking every way possible to help them to see the damage they are doing to our family and instead treat them as a complete outcast? That’s Peter’s question.
Jesus’ answer is startling. He says, “not seven times, but rather seventy-seven times.” In another version he says, “not seven times, but seven times seventy times.”
Jesus then goes on to tell the parable of the unforgiving servant. What is actually happening in this parable is so amazing that most of us blow right past it when we read it. Most of us today see the king deciding he’s going to settle accounts with his servants and we read, “An employer decided to settle up with his employees.” But these were not employees. These were bond-servants. These were indentured servants. These were people who owed so much money that the king now owned them: lock, stock, and barrel until they could pay off their debt to the king through work.
The man in question, it says, owed the king ten thousand talents. That was the equivalent of twenty years’ pay for an average laborer in that day. I looked up what an average laborer makes in a year in our society, and it was about $30,000, working full-time, and not including any benefits package. So if you do the math, this guy had somehow so spent himself and his family into oblivion that he now owed the king the equivalent of $600,000.
The king comes to him and says, “Pay what you owe.” The man pleads for leniency and says an absolutely ridiculous thing: “Give me time and I’ll pay you back everything I owe.” At $30,000 a year, after the expenses of keeping his family fed and clothed, there is no way that man would EVER pay back what he owed in his lifetime. The sum was so huge. And he knew it.
That’s when the king invoked the principle of Jubilee. According to the law, every 49th year was to be a year of Jubilee in Israel. That meant that all debts would be cancelled and all lands that had been taken in payment for a debt returned to their original owners. The king cancelled the man’s debt – 100%. He quite literally gave the man his life back.
The part we tend to really miss is the man’s response. He hasn’t understood Kingdom Economics yet. He doesn’t realize the king has treated him as he would one of his own children. His debt has been cancelled. He doesn’t owe anyONE any THING. And yet he goes out and finds a fellow servant and demands payment of HIS debt. It isn’t that he needed the money. He wants the money so he can begin to pay back the King. He is still living like a slave and not as a son.
How many times shall my BROTHER sin against me, and I forgive him? Is he your brother? Are you both children of the king? Has the King forgiven your own massive debt and invoked the spirit of Jubilee for YOU?
Church: how many times shall one of you sin against another and you forgive? Have people in this church sinned against you? Are there people not here today – brothers and sisters—who are staying away from fellowship because you have sinned against them? Whether the answer is 77 or whether the answer is 490, Jesus is telling Peter and telling us that now, today, September 11, 2011 is the Day of Jubilee and that today needs to be the first day of the year of Jubilee for this church. We need to seek out those we have sinned against and we need to seek out those who have sinned against us and cancel any debt we’re still holding onto.
Brothers and Sisters – Children of a King whose resources are so vast that out of the great storehouse of his mercy and grace he is not only able, but eager to cancel every debt you owe: This is the day of Jubilee! Whether the sins have been small or large, whether the reasons are petty or profound, whether the hurt was minor or malignant: I want to issue a charge to you today. Let us take it as our first priority as a church to make 2011/2012 a year of Jubilee among us. We need to make sure our house is in order and that the brothers and sisters all know that here they will be treated as children of the king. They need to know that here they enjoy the safety of knowing they’ll never be a debtor or a slave. They need to know their brothers and sisters have not forgotten them and will seek them out.
I want to end by teaching you the chorus to a really good song a dear friend of mine wrote many years ago. We’ll learn the rest of the song another day, but as we begin our year of Jubilee, I want to bless you and help you learn this truth:
Listen, and then we’ll learn it together:
Be ye glad, O! Be ye glad
Every debt that you ever had
Has been paid up in full by the grace of the Lord
Be ye glad. Be ye glad. Be ye glad.