Reflections on Matthew 18:23-24
For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he had begun to settle them, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him.
Parables are the best. Real stories about real people but embellished with color, drama, and a surprise zinger at the end that leaves us closer to God.
I met a man like this once. Well, kind of.
He was in his late sixties. He called himself a developer. By the age of sixteen, he’d built his first home. At seventeen, he sold it for a profit. Before it sold, he’d already contracted friends to start a second home. And a third.
He never looked back.
Homes, apartment buildings, strip malls, corporate offices – he did it all. Some he built and sold. Others he kept and rented. But he could never settle. He had to build more, build bigger. To do that, he needed money. He needed investors. He needed loans from banks. He needed more, always more. He never had enough.
It made life hard. Contractors were always right in his face, hot and angry, demanding payment for their work. He fought back as hard as they fought him, paying some, not paying others, paying half with promises he knew – they knew – he’d never keep. He cried cash poor because he was cash poor. But no one believed him. He owned too much. He lived too wealthy – that never suffered.
Down the street from me lives a man who can’t pay his bills this month. Nor can he help the men on his team. They worked a job for two months and got paid for two weeks. The developer told him not to worry, “It will come in, I promise!” But it never did. It never will. He has to borrow money just to buy groceries for his family. The men on his team – his trusted friends – aren’t even speaking to him.
While the big bad developer puts his head on his pillow and sleeps like a baby.
He doesn’t care about the people he’s cheated for the past fifty years. He doesn’t even care he owes investors and banks more money than his actual net worth. All he cares about is signing the next multi-million dollar contract.
He’s got no clue it won’t happen.
Down at the tax office, somebody has finally figured out this man has built most of his empire by doing deals “under the table.” They’ve got proof. Solid evidence.
He owes taxes, owes big. Millions from last year. Millions more from the year before. Then back another year, and another. Then back ten, and twenty, and fifty years. But it’s infinitely more than all that combined as it’s multiplied exponentially by all the interest accrued from all the taxes he never paid.
It’s incalculable, it’s unimaginable.
When Jesus told the parable, He simply called it, “a million zillion.” 1
* * *
The funeral service went on for three long hours. It was a hot summer night in the city and the air conditioning system clearly couldn’t handle a full church. As hard as it was to believe, people stood, lining the walls, the entire time.
Up front, their well-loved pastor lay in an open casket.
The service was nothing less than a wild ride of emotion. After thirty years at the church, mid-sixties, robust and full of energy, he simply died in his sleep. “This is a Homegoing!” a young minister said, starting the service. “Though we grieve our pastor’s death, we are here to celebrate his entrance into glory! I want you to sing, I want you to praise God tonight!” Right on cue, the choir rose, the music roared, and the place filled with an almost ecstatic joy.
It started as the mayor gave his remarks. It increased incrementally as an endless line of dignitaries rose to the microphone to give their eulogies. As an outsider, it felt like some were intentionally stirring up the crowd’s emotions.
After the service, I stood in line to greet the family. The woman in front of me could see I was a visitor and kindly greeted me. “Most Homegoings at our church aren’t like this,” she offered, almost apologetically. “I don’t know if it’s a Baptist thing or an inner city thing, but tonight was different. Maybe it’s because we’re all in shock.” I nodded and told her I was sorry for their loss.
“I’m here to see Ricky,” I said, simply making conversation.
“Ricky?” she frowned, disapprovingly. I could tell she wanted to ask why but didn’t. Instead, she warned under her breath, “You be careful of that one.” I think I understood why. I volunteer at a men’s recovery program a couple of times a month. I saw Ricky only twice. He’d just gotten out of prison. He was there maybe two weeks before being transferred to a program upstate.
“Can I have your cell number?” he insisted one day after lunch.
I’d been sitting with him and a handful of guys in the cafeteria. We were just talking like we always do. He leaned toward me with a serious look on his face. “Do you mind if I call you once and a while? Maybe you could pray for me?”
“Tell me your name again,” I said, writing my number on a piece of paper.
“Richard,” he said, “but they call me ‘Ricky.’” In the few minutes we talked, I realized he was asking me to be on his team. “Will you pray for me every day, pastor?” I could see it in his eyes. He wanted me to remember him, to know his name, and go before God and fight for him to make it in this world. “Do you promise?” he said with a surprising urgency.
I didn’t hesitate. I promised him.
We talked maybe three or four times a year. He’d call, I’d call, and it was always the same thing. “I don’t want to take your time pastor. All I want is for you to pray for me on the phone. Will you do that?” I knew next to nothing about him and he didn’t seem to care. All he wanted from me was prayer, every day. The only time has asked for something more was a few days ago.
“My dad died last night,” he said. “I was wondering if you could come to his Homegoing service this Sunday night at our church.”
I told him I wouldn’t miss it.
When he saw me in line, he bolted for me and hugged me like a long lost friend. “I gotta meet with you,” he said. “Soon, real soon.” I tossed out a couple of dates and we landed on Friday lunch at a local diner. I told him I was sorry about his dad.
“Yeah, whatever,” he shrugged, his eyes looking back at the casket. “I’m just glad you came. It means a lot to me.”
In that one expression, as he looked back at his dad, I could tell there was a world of hurt inside him. I hoped then, when we met for lunch, he’d finally tell me his story. I couldn’t help but wonder how he ended up in prison, especially growing up as a pastor’s son. Something had happened to him, but what?
A few days later, I got a handwritten letter in the mail with no return address.
Gotta tell you some things before we meet Friday.
I grew up right, mostly because of my grandmother. She watched over me. She made sure I got to school and stayed in school. And I did well. I was smart. She always sat next to me in church and made sure I knew my Bible. She prayed for me. Not my dad. He couldn’t care. I think my mama was too scared of my dad to help any of us kids much. I’m pretty sure my grandmother knew that and did the best she could with us.
She died when I was about thirteen. I went bad after that. Did my first jail time a year later -- burglary and assault. Back when I was sixteen for drugging. Two more times before I hit twenty. I kept telling myself it was the drugs. But I knew better. I was angry. I hated my dad. I hated that the man I saw in church wasn’t the man I saw at home. I hated what he did to my mother. I left school. I hit the streets and never looked back.
Pastor, you need to know what kind of man I am.
When I turned twenty-one, couple of us did a hit on a liquor store. The man fought back and I hit him, hit him hard, and this rage took over. I couldn’t stop hitting him. By the time my buddies pulled me off him it was too late. The police were already there. I was handcuffed thrown into prison and charged with robbery, assault, and murder.
I killed the man.
You still want to meet with me? It’s ok if you don’t.
1 In R. T. France’s commentary, The Gospel of Matthew (William P. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2007, p. 706), he explains that one denarius equals a day’s labor (see Matthew 20:2). Six thousand denarii (roughly twenty years of labor if working 300 days a year) equals one talent. Ten thousand talents, therefore, equals 60 million denarii and, therefore, some 200,000 years of labor. The effect to the hearers is to put this man’s debt (and, therefore, ours) infinitely beyond comparison. In our modern day language, France says, it “is like our zillions.”
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