Shouldn’t you have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?” (Matt. 18.33)
This statement comes from a character in one of Jesus’ parables, the one about the servant who owed a huge debt to his master and was owed a smaller debt from a fellow servant. The first servant receives mercy but refuses to give it and in the end things don’t go well for him. I think this question stands alone quite well as a short verse to meditate on, especially for all of us who are deeply involved in the life of the church, where mercy is much needed and too often hard to come by. Think this week about how much mercy God has shown you. Without driving yourself to depression, think back self-critically about some things you have done that God in his mercy has forgiven, and ask yourself what debt someone could owe you that would compare and warrant no mercy on your part.
Speaking of comparing, I wrote my very first blog post about this parable. I am copying that here if you want to read on for more perspective on how those smaller debts are often still significant and will require you to show a great deal of mercy at times. I know first hand how hard that can be. If you are struggling with that, read this, and then pray (and fast if you are able), asking the Lord to heal your hurts and enable you to have mercy on others. That’s the kind of prayer that usually gets a ‘yes’ from God.
Jesus tells this parable in Matt. 18.23-35 about two servants and a master to make a point about forgiveness, or actually two points, the second point being the point of this post. The first servant owes his master 10,000 talents, the second servant owes the first servant 100 denarii. The first point Jesus makes comes when the master very graciously forgives his servant of his massive debt; the second comes when that servant refuses to forgive what his fellow servant owes him.
I have heard sermons through the years that focus all the attention on Jesus’ first point: that the first servant being forgiven such an enormous debt is a metaphor for how much God has forgiven us, through the death and resurrection of Jesus. This much is certainly true, but too often the second point, the one more germane to the discussion going on in Matt. 18, gets missed altogether. This happens when the other debt, what the second servant owed the first, is trivialized or disregarded in light of the larger debt. We seem inclined to think of 10,000 talents as a near infinite sum of money (as Jesus intended), but we wrongly assume that 100 denarii is some small pittance, say $5 or $20 or something like that.
It is useful to pay closer attention to what Jesus does here, because as it turns out, He is a rather clever fellow. Paying closer attention, though, can be difficult, especially when the biblical scholars you depend on let you down. The footnotes in the NIV for this passage tell us that 10,000 talents equates to “millions of dollars,” while 100 denarii only amounts to “a few dollars.” Other (more careful) translations will tell you that a talent was worth about 20 years’ wages and a denarius was worth a day’s wages.
We can translate this into terms that make sense to us. The U.S. Census Bureau tells us that the median U.S. income in 2008 was $50,233. A bit of straightforward math later and we have the master forgiving the first servant from a debt of just over $10 billion. So the first servant was like the Bernie Madoff of his day, I guess. But take special note of how much the second servant owed the first: $19,320 (which is what a person at the median income level would earn for 100 days of work).
Okay, the smaller amount still pales in comparison to the first amount, so it is by no means wrong to teach that we must forgive others for the hurts they cause us, since we all stand forgiven of a whole lot more by the Father. But, the smaller amount is still a significant amount of money. Jesus’ second point is that we really have the ability to hurt each other and forgiving that sort of hurt is sometimes not very easy. (I don’t know about you, but I would want to be paid back if someone owed me nearly 20 grand!)
This makes even more sense when we look at the context for this parable. Ch. 18 begins with the disciples having their favorite argument: which of them was the best. Can you imagine such an argument going very far without some pretty hurtful stuff flying around? I know people who have been hurt (by church stuff, by fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, by family members, etc.), and that hurt gets compounded when it is trivialized and passages like this misused to basically teach the one who has been hurt to just “get over it.”
That’s not what Jesus is teaching here. He knows how hurtful we can be to each other. He knows only too well how much pain people can inflict on each other. It does help to think about the $10 billion debt we each had that He wrote off for us. He will also help you find the courage and grace to forgive the $20,000 debts owed to you. And He also knows how to do that without making you or your pain seem insignificant. Because you’re not and it’s not. He died for that pain. He rose again for you.