A Sermon on Matthew 18:21-35

by Peter M. Berg 

With his brother’s blood still crying out to heaven Cain, who refused to be his brother’s keeper, let out a bitter whine, “My punishment is greater than I can bear!” This man condemned to be a wanderer on the earth feared that all who met him would seek his life. But God is merciful, though Cain was not, and he marked Cain with a sign, a baptism of sorts, and he gave him this promise, “Therefore, whoever kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.” So Cain went out from the face of the Lord and went his own way. And the Lord granted Adam and Eve another son in place of Abel who had been slain. His name was Seth, a substitute, as Eve declared, “For God has appointed another seed for me instead of Abel, whom Cain killed.” Now these two men became the forbearers of the only two people on the face of the earth: the Sethites and the Cainites, the believers and the unbelievers. The Sethites believed the promise of the Serpent Crusher given to Adam and Eve, and they knew they needed his uplifted heel. The Cainites needed no savior, for they would take care of themselves. Chapter four of Genesis records the achievements of the men of Cain. They were the movers and shakers of the world, the captains of industry, the pioneers of agriculture, and the patrons of the arts. Rising atop this heap of powerful men was a man named Lamech. He sings the second song ever recorded. Adam, his forbearer, sang the first; waking from his wedding bed he sings about his wife, “This is now bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh, she shall be called Woman for she was taken out of Man.” Lamech does not sing about his wives, but to them. He sings about a young man who had wounded him and who paid with his life. Perhaps the young fool had a dalliance with one of Lamech’s wives. Lamech crows, “If Cain shall be avenged sevenfold, then Lamech seventy-sevenfold.”


The millennia pass and a fledgling Sethite stands puzzled before the Serpent Crusher. He knows that this man’s kingdom is not one of raw power and might, but rather one of mercy. Yet he still has too much of Cain in him; he believes that there has to be a limit, and so he asks, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” The Master turns the boast of Lamech on its ear and replies, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but seventy-seven times.” Simon’s rationing of forgiveness wouldn’t do. Soon he himself would need all the forgiveness in the world. Simon and his mates were not yet ready to be bishops and pastors in the church. They had much to learn, and the Master would teach them: and so a parable.


A certain king was settling accounts with his servants and one was brought before him who owed him ten thousand talents. This is beyond bad book keeping. This is even beyond highway robbery, which it was. This man showed utter disrespect and contempt for his master. With this in mind the king threatens to sell his wife and children and all he owned to pay the debt. Would the king really do this? Yes, but not this time. He seeks to sober this man, to bring him to his senses. He seeks to drive from him the absurd notion that given enough time he could repay the debt. He doesn’t dignify the servant’s lying proposal with an answer. He seeks to move him to ask for the only thing he could ask for: mercy. He cannot repay the debt; only mercy would do. The man asked for time. Instead, in an instant, his problem was solved. He promised to repay the debt. Instead his debt was entirely cancelled. He proposed a plan. Instead he received mercy. Thus forgiven he went out from the face of his master, but like Cain he was not a changed man.


He found a fellow servant who owed him one hundred denarii: a large yet repayable debt. The forgiven servant demanded payment. His fellow servant promised to repay. The same promise, which meant nothing coming from his mouth, comes from the mouth of his fellow servant, though this time the promise can be kept. But he is not interested in repayment. He orders that the man be thrown into prison until he repays the debt, which meant the man would never get out. The unmerciful servant, you see, was not interested in the money. He showed no mercy because he had been humiliated by mercy. This proud man, who was not permitted to repay an impossible debt, would recall the debt owed him. He used raw power because he had seen his king inexplicably use no power. He is a Cainite through and through. For him only power would do.


His fellow servants witness this display and are distressed. They report to the king. The king has him pegged: He is a wicked servant. Now he would get to keep his absurd promise. He would be given time with the torturers to repay the debt, but that would take an eternity.


The angels of the Lord behold you, as the servants of the king beheld their evil co-worker. Do you understand how grieved these servants of the Lord are at your lack of mercy? What of that grudge which you have held for years, nursing it until it rears its ugly head from its sick bed? What of those snap judgments which you habitually make? What of those cutting words? How sharp-eyed you are when it comes to the sins of others; how blind when it comes to your own. How quick you are to recall debts; how neglectful in paying what you owe. And all of this painted over with a hypocritical smile. Ten thousand were the talents the wicked servant owed. Ten is the number of God’s commandments and thousands are our sins against them. We cannot repay the debt; we desperately need help. May God give us a helper, may he give us a Seth, a substitute, a serpent crusher to help us in our great need. He has: Jesus his Son, who is the perfect sacrifice; whose self-oblation for our sin was accepted by the Father, as the Father accepted the sacrifice of Abel. He it is who silenced the accusations of the old Serpent by crushing his head, as his holy heel was wounded by the rejection of his own, by the miscarriage of justice, by the bloody cross, by the abandonment of his Father, by the burden of our sins.


When we see the faults of others, may the Holy Spirit bring to our remembrance our many trespasses. May the grudges we have all too often nursed finally die. May our tongues, too prone to criticism, be moved to speak mercifully. May we die and Christ live in and through us.


May God also give us the spirit of another true Sethite: Joseph of old, son of Jacob, who stands in stark contrast to the wicked servant. Do you realize how much Joseph is like Jesus? Not a surprise, for he is a type or foreshadowing of Jesus. Like Jesus Joseph was the beloved son of his father. Like Jesus he was sent to his brothers, who rejected him, as Jesus was rejected. Joseph was tempted severely in the household of Potiphar. Jesus was tempted severely in the wilderness. Neither succumbed. Joseph, like Christ, was falsely accused. Joseph was sold for silver, and so was Christ. Joseph suffered with two criminals, Pharaoh’s baker and cupbearer. Jesus was crucified with two thieves. Just as the baker was executed, so the thief who blasphemed Christ was condemned. And just as the cupbearer was restored to his master’s side, so the repentant thief was carried to the bosom of Abraham. Joseph suffered so that thousands, maybe millions could live. Jesus suffered to ransom the whole world and to give everlasting life to all the faithful. Joseph stored much grain for the making of bread to keep people alive. Jesus is the Eucharistic Bread of Life who gives eternal life. Joseph ascended to the right hand of Pharaoh. Christ to the right hand of God the Father. Joseph took an Egyptian bride. We are the Gentile bride of Jesus. Joseph’s occupied tomb stood as a silent sentinel to the Hebrews that they had no lasting city in Egypt, but that they were going to the Promised Land, carrying his bones with them. Jesus’ empty tomb reminds us that we will not remain here as slaves to sin and death, but that we will cross the Jordan, our baptism, into the real Promised Land.


Finally the old man died. Upon Jacob’s death Joseph’s brothers were greatly troubled, for now he had the power and opportunity to seek revenge for the mistreatment he suffered at their hands. However, unlike the foolish servant of the parable, they made no absurd promises, but simply sued for mercy. Joseph, like Jesus, wept. Still he pulled no punches. They had sinned against him. Yet God allowed all that to happen in order to keep many alive. It would be a denial of that great truth for Joseph to seek revenge. Vengeance is the Lord’s. Showing mercy belonged to Joseph and to us.


To be sure you have suffered injustices. You have been wronged by others. Yet you know who permitted this to happen. You know who ordered his heavenly angels to stand aside. His purpose in all this is unknown. Yet Holy Absolution assures you that his purpose is sure and for your good. To nurse the grudge, to seek revenge, to get your pound of flesh would be playing God, a part none of us plays well. To be anxiously concerned about the sins of others means you have forgotten the bloody pardon you received. To lash out is to deny that God is in control, something you do not want to do.


“Lord, how many times must I forgive my brother when he sins against me?” The faithful know not to ask that question, they already know the answer, and they all agree that the answer is very good indeed, for they have tasted that Mercy themselves.


In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen. §

The Reverend Peter M. Berg is a rostered pastor of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod and resides in Chicago, Illinois.