Covering Your Debt

Reading Time: 9 mins

This week, we are grateful to publish a series of sermons from our beloved late Chaplain, Ron Hodel. This is the fourth installment of that series.

God’s grace, mercy, and peace be multiplied among you, my dear friends and fellow Christians. After Jesus gives us the principles, if you will, about forgiveness, he gives us a practical story to hang our hats on because he knows that stories tend to fill in a lot of little blanks. There was a servant, Jesus tells us in Matthew 18, who owed 10,000 talents to his king. One talent comes to about 75 pounds, and in the case of money, that means 75 pounds of gold. One pound of gold today would cost you somewhere in the vicinity of $60,000. 75 pounds of gold or one talent comes to $4.5 million. 10,000 times 4.5 million comes to well, a whole lot of money. It would take me a long time to earn that much money, let alone to earn enough to pay back that kind of debt. Why, it would take me forever and a day.

That’s the point. It would take an impossible eternity. There came a time when the king decided that it was time to settle accounts with his servants. So, quite obviously, when called in, this servant didn’t even begin to think that he could pay his debt back, and notice this, the servant was brought to him. The servant didn’t come of his own accord. Why? Why didn’t he come of his own accord? You guessed it. Because he knew that the king would say to him, “Pay up,” and who wants to hear that especially when you can’t pay up? So, the servant had to be brought to the king, and there was another thing the servant was sure of. His king would be far more interested in justice than he would be interested in mercy. The servant, you see, had created the king in his own image.

Because the servant was a man who counted justice as the most important thing, he couldn’t even conceive of a king who would be any different. This, by the way, is what ends up biting him in the end. So, with bankruptcy laws much tougher then, than now, the king decided to have the servant sold along with his wife and children and everything he had, to pay as much of the debt as possible. Up to this point, the servant had been right about the king. The king was a man of justice who wanted all the I’s dotted and all the T’s crossed, and every single being accounted for. When you have a debt like this, there’s nothing you can do, but hope against all hope that the king might have a heart, and that a plea for mercy might be heard, and of course, say some stupid thing about justice, and that’s exactly what this servant does.

The king releases the servant. The king declares the servant to be no longer a servant, but a free man, a completely debt-free, free man.

On top of pleading for mercy, he makes a stupid promise that he can’t possibly keep. “Have patience with me,” he said, “and I will pay you everything.” Not on a servant’s salary he won’t. Yet, despite the absolute impossibility of that promise, the king takes pity on him, cancels his debt, and forgives the servant what he owes. That would be like having your house loan, your car loans, your credit card debt, all of your children’s student loans and whatever other debt you have accumulated, canceled millions of times over again. The king gave the servant a most incredible gift, a most incredible deserved gift, the gift of mercy. I left out the most unbelievable part of the whole thing. The king releases the servant. The king declares the servant to be no longer a servant, but a free man, a completely debt-free, free man.

You know the rest of the story. This servant whose life was literally spared by the king, left the king’s court and sought out one of his fellow servants who owed him 100 denarii. That comes to about a third of a year’s wage. That’s still a significant amount of money, not in comparison to what he owed the king, but it still amounts to some bucks, right? “Pay up,” he said. The other servant was in the same boat as the first. He was unable to pay back the loan, and so he did what the first servant did. He begged for mercy, using almost the same words as the first servant did when he approached the king. “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” That’s a promise that could be kept.

One would think that someone who had just been forgiven one hell of a debt (and I say it that way for a reason) wouldn’t care so much about 100 day’s wages. But instead, the first servant holds the second servant’s feet to the fire, and shows the man no mercy. When the king found out about this, he was enraged, and said to the first servant, “You wicked servant.” He demotes him from freeman to servant. “I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me, and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” Then the king handed him over to the jailers to be tortured until he paid back what he owed, and that torture would go on for, you guessed it, forever and a day, because he could never pay it all back.

The servant acted toward his brother as if nothing had changed, and so the king treated him as if nothing had changed. I’m fairly well acquainted with this first servant. Are you? Each one of us owes a debt to the king, a debt we’re in no position to pay. The debt, of course, is our sin. From our very conception, we’ve been rebels, maybe fairly decent rebels, generally honest, upright compared to others, kind of B average rebels, and an honest B average isn’t bad. But God has said that deep down, our rebellion has brought us death. How embarrassed we would be to see the tab, to have others see the tab we’ve run up against God?

What would it be like to have every one of your thoughts, all of your actions, all of your words, exposed for everyone to see. “If you, oh Lord, should mark iniquities, oh Lord, who could stand?” (Ps. 130:3). The answer of course, is no one. We have an eternity of debt that all of our good, all of our changed behaviors and all of our incredible effort, can’t even begin to start paying off, and offering up our wonderful wives and our dear children to pay the debt for us won’t do, because they’re sinners too, with a debt equal to ours.

When it comes to settling accounts with God, the very best we can do is confess the truth about ourselves, to fess up as much as it hurts our pride to say the same thing about us as God has been saying about us all along. We stand before God totally bankrupt, with debts of sin far beyond the debts of Freddie Mac or Fannie Mae. We stand before God completely vulnerable and utterly reliant on nothing but pure grace and mercy, on nothing but a gift. For someone in a debt this great can only be given to. God would be perfectly justified tossing us into the jails of hell forever, and if God was created in the image of man, this is what he would do. You’ve already spent the money you took out on your second loan. Your mortgage has reset to an interest rate far beyond your ability to pay.

In fact, you have no ability to pay at all. You’ve been riffed. You’ve lost your job, your IRA, your stock portfolio, all the savings you’ve squirreled away, all over the place, that extra house you own. Your pickup’s been impounded. You’ve already pulled the kids out of their private schools. Every time the doorbell rings, you fear that they’ve come to take your house away. Your medical bills are mounting as the stress has become unbearable. You can’t sleep at night, and finally you’re summoned to the bank. What’s the banker going to say? What would your banker say? Unlike your banker, God has taken pity on us. He knew that if he would simply give us more time to change or to pay off the debt ourselves, we’d never get one single step closer to making things right with him.

The only answer to our debt problem is mercy – his incredible mercy. By it, he cancels our debt, all of it, completely erased and let go forever. This isn’t just a story. This actually happened. In fact, all of it, late on a spring Friday afternoon in an outdoor courtroom on the top of a hill, somewhere outside of Jerusalem. There you went from owing an infinite debt to becoming debt-free. There you went from being a slave to sin, to a free man in Christ. There, the king offered up one greater even than your wife and your children to pay your debt. By that one man’s dying and rising again, your account is settled with the king forever. All this was done without any merit or worthiness in you, but simply because of the Father’s divine goodness and mercy, and the Son’s brotherly compassion for a son of Adam and for a daughter of Eve.

Not only did he do this and tell you, “Why don’t you give it a little bit of thought when you kind of get blue and down?” No, he delivers it to you because, like the servant, you won’t go to him of your own accord. No. He has you brought to him here in the waters of baptism so that he can bathe you in forgiving water. He has brought you here so that he can stick his words of forgiveness into your ears, ears that need to hear of a father’s mercy. He places it on your tongue, so that by it, you can taste and see that the King is very good. So it is that we depart from the King’s presence with a peace beyond any peace we’ve ever known. Our Lord’s benediction, his good words spoken over us, his face, and his favor turned our way.

Forgiven sons, forgiven daughters, let off the hook, now and forever. Now comes the most bizarre part of the parable. But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him 100 denarii. In seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, “Pay what you owe.” So, his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” He refused and put him in prison until he could pay the debt. Who, after having been forgiven a multi-trillion dollar debt and freed from slavery, would go off and try to beat less than half a year’s wage out of someone who’s still a slave? I mean, you can almost say, “Jesus, you’re just, you’re pushing this story. Nobody ever does that kind of thing. Who would be that greedy?” Except that we see it happen around us all the time don’t we?

The truth is, none of our debts, none of our sins, none of our trespasses, and none of our errors will ever be an obstacle to the grace of God in Christ Jesus, our Lord.

The King of grace and glory fully and freely forgives me my entire debt, but pardon my French; I’ll be damned if I’m going to forgive the debt of my debtor. It’s my legal right to imprison them in their unforgiveness until they pay what they owe. That’s not so bizarre, is it? Not so unheard of, is it? I’ll be damned, and that’s Jesus’s point. Unless we die to the accounts by which we have tried to justify ourselves, unless we die to the grudges, our old sinful nature’s love to hold, we’ll never enjoy the forgiveness that is in fact already ours. We’ll never find the peace we so desperately seek in this life, even though Jesus hands it to us on a silver platter. For where there is no forgiveness, to paraphrase Luther, life gets sucked out of you.

That’s what happens in the rest of the story. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and went and reported to their master all that had taken place. His master summoned him and said, “You wicked servant. I forgave you all your debt because you pleaded with me, and should you not have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” In anger, his master delivered him to the jailers until he should pay all his debt. The king runs through the entire scenario. The only difference in the two stories is that the king says to the first servant, “I died for you for Christ’s sake, but you were so busy keeping score. You were so busy counting up the debts of others, you were so busy making plans for this life of yours, that you never even noticed what I really did for you,” and the king pronounced his judgment.

“You want to count beans, servant? Okay, go ahead. Go to hell, and count your beans, and you can start by paying back every bean you owe me. If you won’t die to yourself, so that your fellow servant can live, if you want to hold grudges, if you want to keep score, and demand an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, then go live in the prison of all of that for the rest of your short little life. Go ahead, spend your whole life counting debts. Spend your whole life imprisoned yourself, in your own unforgiveness.” The truth is, none of our debts, none of our sins, none of our trespasses, and none of our errors will ever be an obstacle to the grace of God in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Nothing we do, not even an unforgiving spirit can keep God away from us, because Jesus has died for our debts and our trespasses and our errors and our by-nature sinful and cleanness.

He’s paid even for that. With his blood, his cross was big enough to shelter even you, and your redemption is safe in Christ. This parable is not about works. Jesus is talking to people who are already on the inside. He’s talking to his body, he’s talking to the church, but it’s like, Jesus is saying, “If this side of heaven, you want to have a taste, just a little taste of the joy that was set before me to forgive the sins of the world, if you want to carry your cross painful as it is to carry it, but be able to carry it all the same, still being at peace, then take the chance and freely forgive your undeserving brother or sister from your heart. Try it, because let me tell you what happens. If you have received all of the forgiveness in the world, and you don’t forgive your sister or your brother, I’m still forgiving you.”

“Nothing can take you out of the palm of my hand, but it is going to be hell for you until the day you die, and I take you to be with me, because you’re going to be so busy counting the beans of other people’s sins against you, that you will never know the joy of dying to yourself. You’ll never see dying to yourself the way I see dying to myself, as a gift to give away. You’ll only count dying to yourself as a debt that somebody has to repay you. This side of heaven, you’ll never know the joy of letting a brother’s debts go and forgiving your sister’s trespasses against you, and permitting your parents’ mistakes in parenting to pass away into the joy of forgiveness that’s already yours in me. You’ll never know the peace of God, and not knowing the peace of God, I think that’s right where hell begins.” So, now may the peace of God which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and your minds in Christ, Jesus.