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Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost – Sept. 13, 2020

Matthew 18:21-35

Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.

The basic meaning of the parable this morning might be obvious to most of us, but with its ancient setting amongst kings and slaves and its dealing in the obscure currency of talents and denarii, I think is easy for us to keep this parable at arm’s length. We might understand the meaning well enough, but it doesn’t quite go to work on us in the way it would have gone to work on Jesus’ original listeners. So what I’d like to do this morning is recast the parable in a contemporary setting. What follows is fiction, but any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, or to actual events, is entirely intentional.

Once upon a time, a man knelt before his King. He was at the altar at Christ the King Lutheran Church, about to receive Holy Communion. Earlier in the service, when they sang the Kyrie Eleison, although it had been awhile since he had been in church, he didn’t even need to look at the bulletin to know what to sing. He had sung it thousands of times: “Lord, have mercy.” He sang it with conviction. He knew his great need for Christ’s mercy. It had been a rough few months, and most of it was his fault. He had been unfair with a colleague, and things had been tense at work ever since. He had been impatient with his kids. He even gave the finger to a motorist who cut him off, which felt good in the moment, but had him feeling embarrassed and ashamed in the days following. He was painfully aware of his need for Christ’s mercy that morning. It was what got him out of bed and into church that day.

Now he knelt at the altar at Christ the King Lutheran church. The pastor put the bread in his hand and said, “This is the body of Christ, given for you.” The assisting minister came next. He took the little cup of wine as she said, “The blood of Christ, shed for you.” He felt the warmth of the wine go down his throat and spread into his heart. He felt a weight lift off his shoulders, brought on by the wonder and joy of knowing he was entirely, completely forgiven. He was surprised by the sudden pooling he felt in eyes as he was overcome with emotion at the thought of what Jesus did for him in order to cancel his debt. It had come at a great cost, an incalculable cost: the cost of Christ’s precious body and blood, given for him.

As he left the sanctuary, he noticed a Boy Scout selling popcorn. He remembered how last year his order was shorted. The kid messed up the order and never did get him his white cheddar popcorn, which was his favorite. He wouldn’t let that happen again. He ignored the boy and glared at the mother and made a mental note to email the pastor to complain about things being sold in the fellowship hall.

When he got home, he saw his wife’s crafting supplies strewn all over the coffee table, right where he wanted to prop up his feet while he watched the game. He barked at her about it. He thought to himself, “I must have asked her at least a hundred times to pick this stuff up.” Right above him on the living room wall was an art print with St. Paul’s words from First Corinthians which read, in part, “love keeps no record of wrongs.” It had been a wedding gift.

He decided he’d relax a bit by surfing the internet. He came across a political post he didn’t agree with. It wasn’t the first from this Facebook friend of his. But rather than trying to understand where he was coming from, or simply scrolling past it, even quietly unfollowing him, he clicked the angry face emoji and left a snide, self-righteous comment.

By the time he went to bed that night, all the peace and joy he’d received at the altar at Christ the King Lutheran Church was gone. He felt like he was back at square one. He had a hard time falling asleep. To calm his mind, he prayed the Lord’s Prayer. When he got to the part that says, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,” the words caught him. He didn’t even finish the prayer. He just let those words sit on his heart.

Then he heard a voice speaking to him. It was the voice of his King. The voice said: “Is this really how you want to live? In unforgiveness, in ungraciousness, so lacking in mercy? How is that working out for you? If you insist on living that way – as a bean counter, holding the sins of others over their heads – I’ll let you, but know that if you live that way you’ll always be right back at square one. You’re always going to be lying there, tortured by your own sins. You’re going to be stuck in your debt.”

The King continued, “I knew you would struggle with this – with forgiving as I have forgiven you, with being a gracious, merciful person. That’s why I included it in the prayer I taught you. So keep on praying it. Then come back to my altar next Sunday and let’s try this again.”

The end.

The parable we hear this morning provides us with both a warning and a promise. The warning is that if we insist on living in unforgiveness, in ungraciousness, lacking in mercy, Christ will let us. If we insist on keeping score, he’ll let us play that game – but we need to know that it won’t end well for us. This does not mean we never hold people accountable. It doesn’t mean turning a blind eye to grievous sin that harms others. It doesn’t mean abolishing the law. But it does mean loving others with the kind of love we ourselves have received from our King. It does mean extending the mercy and the forgiveness we ourselves have received at such a great cost. Our Lord Jesus warns us that the burdens we lay on others by our lack of mercy will always end up back on our shoulders.

But there is a promise here too. The most striking thing about this parable is just how merciful the king is! Some scholars have calculated that ten thousand talents is the equivalent of about three billion dollars today. This is how much was forgiven! This is how merciful our King is! He cancels our enormous debt at an enormous cost to himself.

This King of ours abounds in grace. And so whenever you say or sing, “Lord, have mercy,” you can be sure that he has mercy. Whenever you turn to him and confess your indebtedness, he has pity on you, he forgives your enormous debt at the enormous cost of his own body and blood.

This is precisely what this King has done for you today through Word and Sacrament. He has had mercy on you.

Don’t leave that mercy on the altar. Don’t lose sight of it when you leave the church building or when the service is over.

Share it. Live it. Embody it. And then rest in it.


Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church