The man God delivered to the jailers

This Sunday, the lectionary invites us to ponder Jesus’ “Parable of the unforgiving servant.”[1] The passage is in verses 21-35 of chapter 18 of the Gospel according to Matthew. Click here to read it.

Chapter 18 could be titled “Community prescription.”[2] It contains five pericopes.[3] Our passage is the last of them. I title it “The man God delivered to the jailers.”[4]

Jesus had just taught the disciples a procedure for how church members should handle conflicts.[5] Peter was perplexed. Why? Because the procedure wasn’t complete. It didn’t set a limit on the number of times to forgive. It didn’t answer the question “When to stop using the procedure?”

Peter felt Jesus was expecting a prompt, a question, which he could “answer,” and by that means, complete his teaching. So, Peter asked, “How many times to forgive?” He even suggested an answer: seven times.

Peter probably picked seven because for Jews it’s “the perfect number.” And because it was more than the limit of three times set by most Jewish teachers in those days.

But Jesus gave a shocking answer. Jesus’ answer reminds me of what happened when a newly appointed factory manager discovered toilet paper wasn’t provided in the factory’s toilets.

He called the supervisors and asked them why. They said employees kept taking home the rolls of toilet paper, so they stopped providing them. The manager said “That’s the wrong way to solve the problem. Resume supplying the rolls. Those who steal them will soon tire of stealing them.”

Was the answer shocking? Yes. Did the solution work? Yes![6]

Jesus’ answer was shocking. He gave as answer an absurdly large number. In effect, he said, “You never stop forgiving.” He knew this didn’t make sense to them. So, he expanded on it with a parable, a story. I’ll tell it my way, in three parts.

Part 1. Jesus said a high official promised to pay his king several billion dollars[7] on a certain date. The date came. The payment wasn’t made. The king ordered his staff to punish the official. The official pleaded for mercy. The king wrote off the debt and let him go free.

Part 2. The official went off. The official found a man who owed him the price of a cheap motorbike. The official demanded payment. The man couldn’t pay. The man pleaded for mercy. The official put the man in prison.

Part 3. The man’s friends went to the king and told him what the official had done. The king was enraged. The king summoned the official and reversed his decision. He put the official in prison. Why? Because the official had received mercy but didn’t show mercy. End of story.

Did Peter get an answer to his question?

It seems more like Jesus told Peter he was asking the wrong question. It seems like Jesus’ message made no sense to Peter – and the others – at the time. It seems like they only “got” Jesus after he was crucified and returned from the dead.

What makes God more angry? An unpaid debt or an unforgiving heart?

Of course, God expects us to keep our promises, and unpaid debts are unacceptable to him. But he’s more concerned about unforgiving hearts.

Why? Because the Golden Rule Jesus’ taught should course through our veins and our thoughts:

“So, whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”[8]

How much debt of sin have we incurred, whether individually or through complicity in systems of oppression? The answer is “too much to settle.”

But in Christ, as we remember over-and-over-again in the Eucharist (The Lord’s Supper), we have received mercy. We have been forgiven.

What’s the proof that we’ve received mercy, that we’ve been forgiven? The proof is that we’re ever conscious of the depth and breadth of our sin and therefore the depth and breadth of our need of forgiveness.[9] The proof of our consciousness is that we’re merciful. And forgiving. Without end.

Let’s not be like the man God delivered to the jailers.

Peace be with you.

Note 1: This passage doesn’t mean we refuse to punish anyone. Why? Because (1) this teaching is intended for life together at the foot of the Cross, and (2) Jesus and the apostles didn’t challenge the role of the courts in keeping the peace in our fallen world. The prophet Amos’ videographic command, “Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream,”[10] proclaims a rule of behaviour which runs through the Bible and still continues.

Note 2: You can read here, a sermon by Martin Luther on this passage.[11]

[1] The title adopted by the English Standard Version translation.

[2] Michael J Wilkins.

[3] A pericope is a section of text which can stand alone and still make sense.

[4] The Greek word translated “jailer” can also be translated “torturer.”

[5] I wrote about this last week in “How to handle sin within the church.”

[6] The solution was to source massive rolls of toilet paper (generally unavailable in Malaysia in the 1980’s and put them not in the booths, but by the washbasins.

[7] A talent was a quantity of silver worth about twenty years’ wages for a labourer.

[8] Matthew 7:12.

[9] This is well enshrined in Jesus’ encounter with “the sinful woman” who anointed his feet with ointment. Responding to the shock of the audience, Jesus used a parable to explain: A moneylender pardons two debtors. The one forgiven the larger debt is more grateful (Luke 7:36-50).

[10] Amos 5:24. Another well-known summary is Micah 6:8 “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

[11] In which Luther says “… the Gospel or kingdom of God is nothing else than a state or government, in which there is nothing but forgiveness of sins. And wherever there is a state or government in which sins are not forgiven, no Gospel or kingdom of God is found there.”

2 thoughts on “The man God delivered to the jailers”

  1. Thank you Rama for yout perspectivre. I learnt a lot From the simple toilet roll pilferage habit to Jesus unconditional forgiveness for our own well being.

    This is so much needed in the family who have neurodivergence children and teenager.

  2. Pingback: Is your eye bad because I’m good? – Bangsar Lutheran Church

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