Christian Characteristics: Mercy

Matthew 18:23-35
Christian Characteristics: “Mercy”
A Message on Matthew 18:23-25
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
Jan. 21, 2018
By Doug Wintermute

Matthew 18:23-35 (NRSV)
23 “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25 and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26 So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 31 When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32 Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35 So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

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Today we are continuing our sermon series on “Christian Characteristics” by exploring the topic of mercy. One of the things I want you to keep in mind as we look into mercy today is this question: Can you be a Christian if you don’t show mercy?

In reading the gospels we find that Jesus, when he wants to make a point, tells a story. We call them parables and they aren’t just stories, but stories that have moral or spiritual points.
The scripture we just read from the Gospel of Matthew is one such example. Known as the parable of the unforgiving servant, Jesus uses this parable to teach on the subject of forgiveness and, more specifically mercy.

Mercy doesn’t get a lot of press in our society, which is sad. We hear quite a bit about compassion, which comes from the Latin words that meaning “to suffer with.” We hear a lot about forgiveness, too. And those are good qualities. But mercy comes from the Latin word merces which means “price” or “wages.” There is an equality associated with compassion and forgiveness, but disparity in mercy. In mercy one person has more power than another. Mercy really is about power.

Here’s a weird example. I probably shouldn’t admit it, but all this week I have had the same song going over and over in my head. (I looked up what that is called, by the way. Here’s what I found out at the ever helpful Wikipedia: “An earworm, sometimes known as a brainworm, sticky music, stuck song syndrome, or Involuntary Musical Imagery (INMI) is a catchy piece of music that continually repeats through a person’s mind after it is no longer playing.”)

The song that I have had an “earworm” with this past week is a recording done years ago by the country group The Judds. I have been hearing Wynonna and Naomi Judd singing their song, “Have Mercy.”

Now it’s not a religiously significant song, but a song about a woman who discovers her man is being unfaithful to her and seeing other women. The words to the chorus are:

Have mercy on me
You treat me so bad I’m in misery
It’s breaking my heart, can’t you see
Baby, baby have mercy on me

The song does, however, represent one the key components of mercy: power.

Mercy is about someone in power extending grace to someone who has less power.

In the case of the Judd’s song, the singer is asking the man, who has the power of free will and being faithful or unfaithful not, (an we know which one he is choosing), to use that power he has to extend grace to the singer by stopping the infidelity and being loyal to her.

A more recent example of how power can be abused is with the scandals happening in Hollywood where directors and actors have used their power to take advantage sexually of others. There is a big power disparity in these cases. The stars and directors and producers have power over who they choose for roles in the movies and shows, and the victims are those who are wanting to get into the business and want to get those great roles to benefit not only their pocketbooks but their careers. As a result those in power abuse it when they abuse the women and men who don’t have as much power. It’s sad and inexcusable.

We see a different disparity of power in Jesus’ parable of the unforgiving servant. The power in Jesus’ parable is about wealth and the power it brings.
The King calls in the people that owe him money. One servant that comes before him owes the huge amount of 10,000 talents.

It’s hard for us to wrap our minds around how much value 10,000 talents was. If we place a value of one dollar per talent, making it $10,000, then we think that yes, that’s a lot of money that the servant owes. It’s not chump change.

But here’s what is even more shocking: at the time one talent was worth about 15 years of a day laborers wages. So 10,000 talents comes out to 150,000 years of labor.

Let’s try to put it in terms of today’s dollars. A talent was actually a measurement of weight, and scholars don’t agree but the weight was probably somewhere between 75 and 110 pounds per talent.

It’s value as money was based on the weight of gold or silver and also the value of that gold or silver at the time. When I checked on Friday the value of gold was $1,336.30 per ounce.
So just for grins let’s take the low end of the weight of a talent at 75 pounds. There are 16 ounces in a pound, right, so if we multiply 75 pounds by 16 ounces we get 1,200 ounces per one talent.

So at the current price of gold that would make a talent of gold worth $1,603,560.

Get the picture? That’s for one talent. And the servant owed the king 10,000 talents!

At the current price of gold it comes out to more than $16 billion! That’s a lot of money. I think the point Jesus is trying to make is that it was an amount of money the servant would never be able to pay.

In the parable Jesus doesn’t tell us how the servant ended up with that kind of debt. We don’t know if he had a gambling problem, if it was given to him for purchases and he stole it, or if he racked it up in credit card debt. (Okay, probably not that last one.) We just don’t know.

What we do know is that he was in debt to the king big time. Deep debt. Deep, deep, deep, debt. I don’t know what the minimum payments on a credit card with a balance of $16 billion is but I think it’s safe to say he would have trouble making them.

So the servant comes before the king, and the king finds out that the man can’t pay what he owes, so the king orders the man, his wife, and his children, and everything he owns, to be sold as slaves and for the money to go against the debt the man owes.

When the servant hears this news he pleads with the king. He asks for mercy, for the king to give him time to pay back what he owes. (Which is interesting because, as we just discussed, it was going to be impossible for him to do so.)

Surprisingly, the king, who has the power, does show mercy on the servant, who is pretty much powerless in the situation. The king uses his power to extend grace to the man. He shows him mercy. He and his family and possessions won’t be sold to pay against the debt.

And then, even more surprisingly, the king cancelled the debt. Not only is the man and his family not sold as slaves, but the $16 billion debt is forgiven! Wow! That is huge! What a gracious king, right? What an act of mercy!

So the servant, who has to be so happy, leaves. On the way out he runs across another servant who owes the forgiven servant some money. The amount is 100 denarii.
Now at the time a denarius was the usually day wage for a laborer. I did some research and found out that last year the average wage for an agricultural worker was $16.88 per hour. Multiply that by eight hours a day and that comes to $135.04 per day.

So the modern equivalent of a denarius is $135.04. The second servant owed one hundred of these to the forgiven servant, so that comes to $13,504.
That’s a figure that can be paid over time. Hopefully no one here has $13,504 in credit card debt, but even if they do it can be paid over time (paying more than the minimum payments, of course) and be paid off.

But the first servant, who had just had $16 billion of his own debt forgiven by the king, refuses to show compassion to the second servant, who only owed him a measly $13,504. Not only that, he gets physical with him, grabbing him by the throat.

The second servant pleads with the first to give him some time and he will pay back what he owes, but the first servant, the recently-forgiven servant, tells him he wants his money right now. When the man can’t pay it, he has him thrown in prison until he could pay the debt.
Debtors prisons, as they became to be known, were prisons were people were incarcerated until they could pay their debts. Often the prisoners were forced to work in the prison not only to pay their debt but also the costs of their incarceration.

We don’t know the specifics of debtors prisons in the first century in the Holy Land, but it’s pretty safe to say it wasn’t a place a person wanted to be.
In Jesus’ parable the second servant was thrown in prison for not being able to pay his debt to the first servant. Well then as now word gets around, and other servants didn’t think it was fair for the first servant, who had such a great debt forgiven the by the king, to lock up his fellow servant. So they go and tell the king.
Well the king gets rightly upset and calls the first servant in before him. He then enforces his kingly powers to not only publicly scold the servant for not forgiving his fellow servant for his small debt when he had just been forgiven of such a huge debt, but also to sentence him not only to prison but also torture until his original debt could be paid, which we have already established would be impossible. The person who received mercy failed to show mercy to others, and therefore ended up being tortured for life.

Jesus concludes the parable with these words “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”


Now I hope you pick up the symbolism in this parable. God gives us a gift beyond monetary value through his son Jesus Christ. Jesus came to earth, walked and taught among humans, and then was executed on the cross–even though he was innocent–in order for us to not only have our sins forgiven, but to have eternal life.

That, folks, is mercy. Ever since Adam and Eve blew it and ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, sin has separated humans from God. In the Old Testament the animal sacrifice system was used where the blood of a innocent animal was used to atone for the sins of humans.

But the trouble with that kind of sacrificial system is that you have to keep doing it. You sin, then sacrifice an animal, then sin again, sacrifice another animal. But with Jesus Christ, the ultimate sacrifice, the son of God who was sinless was executed like a criminal. But because he was the son of God and willingly went to the cross, the perfect one atoned for all for humanity’s sins.

Jesus’ actions showed mercy. Jesus, being God, has power that we do not. Jesus has power, we do not. And yet Jesus died for the powerless, for sinful humans, and in doing so, in that expression of mercy, empowers us as children of God. Not because we deserve it. Not because we earn it. Simply because he loves us.

And Jesus tells us to do show mercy like he did. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” Matthew 5:7

Mercy is ultimately an expression of love. The king expressed love when he forgave the servant of all that the servant owed him. The servant, in turn, failed to show love when he insisted that the second servant pay him what was owed.

God shows us mercy–and love–by sending his only son to earth and allowing him to die on a cross. What a wonderful gift, worth much more than $16 billion! There is no monetary price tag on spending eternity in heaven.

And because God is so merciful to us, we should be merciful to each other. We, who have received mercy, are called to show mercy. We should not exploit the power we have over others for our own benefit. Instead, we are to show them mercy, just as God our Father shows mercy to us.

At the beginning of this message I asked the question: Can you be a Christian if you don’t show mercy. I don’t believe you can. It is that integral to the Christian faith.
So my challenge to you this week is to get mercy stuck in your head like an ear worm. Let us be grateful and recognize God for the mercy he has shown us, and let our response be to show mercy to others. Let us not be like the unforgiving servant, which I think should be called the unmerciful servant. Let us show mercy to others.

What if instead of a Judds’ song stuck in our head we got mercy stuck in our heads? What if our actions outside of the church buildings showed mercy upon all we come into contact with throughout our week, those we work with, fellow students, even strangers at the grocery store or in restaurants?

We could change the world, one person at a time. Are you up to the challenge? Are you ready to show mercy?

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen

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