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"Millions was the Debt...."

I recently saw a theological comment that has been sticking with me: Dr. Craig Koester was explaining about Jesus being the “Word” of God as described in John, Chapter 1. A “word,” Dr. Koester said, is for communication.

Now, I’ve often associated the Word of God with power, will, and accomplishment (e.g. Genesis 1:3, Isaiah 55:10-11, Ezekiel 37:4), so this was a resetting reminder that Jesus communicates to us about God’s nature, in what he taught and through how he lived (John 14:8-10).

Two parables from Jesus that tell us about God are summarized in my hymn/song “Millions was the Debt.” In both of these parables, as in many others, God is the authority figure. In Verse One of the song—from the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant, Matthew 18:23-34—the king is representative of God. In Verse Two—from the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, Matthew 20:1-16—the owner of the vineyard speaks for God.

Think about other parables you recall. God might be represented by a king, landowner, master of servants, owner of sheep, or even a father being owed certain duties and respect. So this is one important generalization we can take from Jesus’ teachings about God: God is the powerful figure in charge.

A second overall teaching is that God is merciful and seeks us. This comes out in our two parables, but also others. Two favorite ones are the Parable of the Lost Sheep (Luke 15:1-7) and the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). The image of rejoicing in heaven over a sinner who repents—which is repeated in Luke 15—is amazingly beautiful, and relates to my own experience of God.

It’s almost a refrain in the Bible how God is described as being “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” In the book of Ezekiel, we are told that God “takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked” (Ezekiel 18:30-32 and again in 33:11). In fact, God almost pleads with people to repent and be saved. This reminds us of Jesus, too, mourning over Jerusalem, even though the people there would soon call for his crucifixion (e.g. Matthew 23:37).

God seeks us. With that established, however, we are also shown that God does get angry, and occasionally, Jesus did, too: You might recall Jesus upsetting the tables of the moneylenders in the courts of the temple (e.g. Mark 11:15-17), but we should understand that temple courts were meant for welcoming various groups of people. We might think, too, of Jesus’ pronouncements of “woe” upon religious leaders (e.g. Matthew 23:1-39). In these, we notice that many of the poor religious practices that Jesus decried involved preventing others from coming to God (e.g. Matthew 23:13-15).

In the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (Matthew 18:23-34), we find both mercy and anger. A man, a servant of a king, owes the king “10,000 talents,” which would be millions of dollars to us in the modern USA. There would be no way he could repay such a sum, even after selling all his belongings plus his family members! Still, he pleads…, and the king decides to forgive the whole amount!!!

As the man leaves, though, he runs into a fellow servant who owes him a much more modest debt. Instead of passing along the incredible blessing he just received, he grabs his fellow servant by the throat and, resisting all the pleas, arranges for him to go to prison until he repays!

I think most of us would be disturbed by this, so it doesn’t surprise that the other servants report it to the king. Then the king calls the first servant back to stand before him, and sends him to prison to repay his own, basically unpayable, debt.

We understand the principle of this, in a general “reap what you sow” way, which applies to many kinds of things. When Jesus told this parable, though, he was specifically answering a question from disciple Peter, who wondered how often we have to forgive someone who sins against us (Matthew 18:21-35). The parable elaborates on Jesus’ answer of “seventy-seven” (or “seventy times seven”) times. (The actual number or translation isn’t as important as realizing that 1) it’s an effectively unlimited number of times, and 2) it’s a holy thing. Seven, as a symbolic number in Scripture, implies perfection or completeness.)

Looking at the second parable in our song (Matthew 20:1-16), we find it isn’t so specifically about forgiveness; it’s more about generosity. Still, both parables in the song apply to a wider “generosity of spirit” that Jesus himself described when he talked about how the same measuring cups we use to deal with others will also be used when God deals with us (Luke 6:36-38). Besides including forgiveness, that spirit is described as merciful, giving, nonjudgmental and uncondemning.

The second parable, again, starts out with God’s mercy, as the vineyard owner decides to generously pay the last-hired, least-tired, workers the usual wage for a full day’s work! Like the forgiveness of the unpayable debt, this is a pure gift, beyond anyone’s deserving. God’s generosity, going way beyond earthly expectations or standards, is a basic belief of most Christians.

The harder part in the parable comes as the earliest workers watch the last-hired workers being overpaid, and begin to expect more for themselves. As they, too, receive the going rate—which they had agreed to!—they grumble at the owner.

The parable seems to say that this is how the Kingdom of Heaven works. Even late-comers get full pay! We remember how Jesus, on the cross, declared to the penitent, believing thief next to him, “Today, you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).

And that is mercy. It is God’s will to seek us and welcome us home.

But, even believers have been shown to get a little put out when other people get a gift of mercy from God. The prophet Jonah comes to mind. After Jonah—at great length—finally goes to the city of Ninevah to call the people to repent or face calamity, they do repent, and God decides to spare them. We might think that Jonah would be happy about it—they believed his message, after all—but he’s kind of sour. Read Jonah 4:1-11. It’s interesting how God tries to move his heart.

A similar tightness of spirit shows in Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) in the character of the older brother. When the older brother finds the father throwing a party over the return of his wayward sibling, he won’t come celebrate. See especially verses 28-32. Again, the God character (the father) tries to gently explain his way of love and mercy. We aren’t told if either Jonah or the older brother ever soften their attitudes.

We do know, however, that God wants us to value mercy and extend it to each other. In the Old Testament, we have the famous Micah 6:8, which you might have heard (NIV): "He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God." (See also Zechariah 7:9). Plus, we have an Old Testament passage that Jesus quotes about how God desires mercy, not sacrifice (Hosea 6:6, Matthew 9:13, Matthew 12:7).

There are plenty of other familiar New Testament passages where Jesus promotes our being merciful to others. Consider Matthew 5:7 from the Beatitudes, as well as those measuring cups that Jesus described (Luke 6:36-38). Consider also Jesus’ teachings of “forgive us, as we forgive” from the Lord’s prayer (Matthew 6:12, Luke 11:4). And, while on the cross, Jesus prays about those killing him, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)

Getting back to our parable of the vineyard owner, God also tries to answer the resentment of the miffed early workers, but they don’t seem to accept God’s value on mercy. The owner finally tells them to take their pay and go, and I hear in that—at least—God's disappointment in those workers.

What God’s response will be to our varying hardnesses of heart, we don’t know. I think that’s part of “The first will be last, and many who are last, first” statements that Matthew bookends the parable with (Matthew 19:30 and Matthew 20:16). It's sad that even Christians fall short in extending God’s mercy. For myself, I’ve felt humbled and convicted.

I have to include a lighter admission, too, though. For decades, the second parable has always brought to mind the chorus of a 1960s pop song by Lesley Gore: “It’s my party, and I’ll cry if I want to.” Because basically, God says to those disgruntled early workers, “It’s my vineyard and I’ll be gracious if I want to.” God’s commitment to mercy vastly transcends our little jealousies or our failures. That's a reassurance!

I’ve also always thought that this parable means that we will be joyously surprised by the extent of God’s grace when we enter the final Kingdom. I believe that our redeemed selves will be so overwhelmed by fulfillment in the Kingdom, that we won’t care who else, by grace, is also enjoying it! The more the merrier! We will have been washed free of any remaining “older brother” traits, and we will join the father’s party in celebration!

So, in the end, overall, it goes back to what Jesus showed us: God’s sovereignty, and God’s mercy.  Alleluia!

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written by Constance Morgenstern
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