Parables of Yeshua: Behold, the Bondslave of the Lord…

Would you agree that we are occupying what is a very brief, remarkable period of history? We live at the tail end of an amazing 244-year old experiment in human freedom and dignity. For us, the concept of being a servant or a slave is entirely academic. Yet, the New Covenant Scriptures were written at a time when indentured servanthood and slavery were common. Several of Yeshua’s parables employ the theme of slaves and their masters. While I am in no way suggesting slavery is a good thing, the fact is, that in order for us to understand, appreciate, and take to heart the lessons of these parables, we’ve got to realize that our way of life in the 21st century is exceptional, and make the effort to imagine ourselves living in First Century Israel.

I say this, because both the parables we’ll be considering this morning involve the theme of slaves and masters. I am hoping that we can set aside preconceptions long enough to learn about the role of and reasonable expectations of servants. Because, like it or not, when you embraced the Faith of Messiah Yeshua, and became His disciple, you became God’s slave. Through the death and resurrection of Messiah, you were freed from sin and the second death, but you were not made a free agent.

Behold, the Bondslave of the Lord…

Luke 17:7-10 and Matthew 18:21-35

The first of our two parables is found in Luke chapter 17, beginning at verse 7. For the sake of context, let me point out that these words weren’t directed to the crowd. The chapter opens with Yeshua speaking privately to His disciples. And He isn’t teaching about how a person can be saved. He is teaching about how those who are already saved should view their role as servants to Adonai.

Luke 17:7-10

“Suppose one of you has a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Will he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat’? Won’t he rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’? Will he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’”

The theme here concerns the role of masters and servants and reasonable versus unreasonable expectations. It isn’t complicated. What is Yeshua telling us? Simply, that God doesn’t owe us anything… not even a “thank you” for what we give and for the service we render to Him.

But let’s unpack the analogy a little bit. Plowing a field is hard, back-breaking work. It requires strength, and endurance. It also requires a modicum of wisdom, since plowing in a straight line necessitates some planning, and if you are wise, you use everything at your disposal, including the right equipment, and large animals to assist you.

But this is about serving God. It’s about ministry. Rather than breaking up hard ground, we are dealing with hard hearts, and the seeds we are seeking to plant are seeds of the Gospel. Ministry among people with hard hearts can be thankless. But we do it anyway, because not so long ago, that was us – the ones with hard hearts.

Let’s think about the other analogy: tending sheep. Talk about tedious, mind-numbing work! Sheep-herding requires patience. Sheep are helpless, hapless critters. They aren’t very bright. You have to lead them to water. You have to lead them to pasture. They are prone to fall over and you have to pick them up. You have to call out to them (they won’t just gather to you), and frequently you have to retrieve a stray. Did I mention it requires patience?

It also requires diligence. A good shepherd has to always be on the lookout for possible predators, and thieves. A good shepherd examines the waters before the sheep drink, to make sure it isn’t foul. A good shepherd has to watch out that none of the flock decide to start chewing on a poisonous plant. A good shepherd takes note of the time of day, and makes a wise decision about when to return the flock to its cave or pen.

Sheep-herding also requires courage. If a wolf or a bear or some other predatory animal has its eye on the flock, it is the shepherd who will need to ward it off.

But again, this is a parable, and it’s about serving God. It’s about ministry. People are, spiritually-speaking, very much like sheep. Human beings are prone to feed on poisonous teachings, drink from polluted spiritual waters, and to wander off from the true Flock, right into the hands of predators. People need to be beckoned to trust in the Lord, and to what is good water and pasture, meaning the truth of the Gospel. And, like sheep, we are prone to fall, and need restoration. So, serving the Lord can be thankless and repetitive work.

Having completed that hard or tedious work, we’re still servants when we return to the Master’s house. Our nature is such that we want to come home when we’re done at work, plop down on the easy chair and zone out in front of the television. But we remain Yeshua’s disciples and servants when we come home.

Men, you have more ministry to do: if you are a husband, your wife needs some of your affection and attention, as do your children, if you are a father. And for the sake of your own soul, you yourself need quiet time, spent in prayer and Scripture, to recharge your spiritual batteries.

US Postal workers don’t go home until their routes are completed. And they are not done working just because one day’s mail has been delivered. The next day there will be more mail to sort and deliver.

The Levites serving at the Tabernacle, and later at the Temple, served in a sacred way and in a sacred place. But it was the same work, day after day. Imagine how easy it would be for their service (Avodah) to become tedious.

Malachi 1:11-13

My name will be great among the nations, from where the sun rises to where it sets. In every place incense and pure offerings will be brought to Me, because My name will be great among the nations,” says the Lord Almighty. “But you profane it by saying, ‘The Lord’s table is defiled,’ and, ‘Its food is contemptible.’ And you say, ‘What a burden!’ and you sniff at it contemptuously,” says the LORD Almighty.

Familiarity, it is said, breeds contempt. It is a very real danger, and we dare not allow our service to God and to Messiah to become wearisome in our eyes. Nor do we stop serving Messiah just because we’ve accomplished one task. Nor should we expect to have praise heaped on us for doing what we’re simply supposed to do.

Now, having said all that, I would remind us that King Messiah Yeshua isn’t to be compared to any earthly master. This One washed the feet of His disciples. This One assures us that His yoke isn’t heavy, and beckons us learn from Him, because He is gentle and humble of heart, and in Him our souls will find true shalom. And, unlike any earthly master, if we’ll continue to do His will, this One will one day say to us, “Well done, good and faithful servant!”

Matthew 18:21-35

All of chapter 18 concerns confession of sin, repentance and restoration. This parable follows on the heels of Yeshua’s instructions for how to handle offenses between us and achieve reconciliation and restoration in the Body of Messiah.

Verses 21-22

Then Peter came to Yeshua and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Yeshua answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.

Now, I’m sure Peter was pleased with himself for coming up with such a lovely standard, since seven is the biblical number of fulfillment and perfection. The rabbis taught that we were to forgive someone three times, but not obligated to forgive them a fourth time (Yoma 5.13). Maybe Peter was trying to curry favor with Yeshua by showing that he was more forgiving than the others. But Yeshua’s reply must have stunned him.

Some translations of the Bible have Yeshua saying “70 x 7” (totaling 490) and others “77”. The Greek construction is ambiguous enough to allow for either. But I find it fascinating that, in a parable all about forgiveness, the number 77 comes up, since it hearkens back to Genesis 4, where Lamech boastfully and defiantly says, “If Cain is avenged seven-fold, then Lamech seventy-seven fold.”

But whether it’s 77 or 70 x 7, there are two ways you can take this. If you’re a legalist, and a minimalist – thinking only in terms of rules and what is the least you have to do to still get into heaven, you might say to yourself: “Okay, well that’s 77 times and that’s a lot, but it’s still a finite number. So if anyone wrongs me, when they get to 76, they’d better watch out!”

But if you’re a person of principle, your reaction will be, “Lord, I don’t think I can do this. I can forgive a little bit, but… wow!” And you would be right to doubt yourself; in our own strength, forgiveness doesn’t come naturally. And even though 77 or 490 is a finite number, you and I both know that what Yeshua really meant was ‘always’. He then puts it in perspective, by telling a profound and troubling parable.

Verses 23-24

Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him.

Strictly speaking, this isn’t to be understood as a slave serving in his master’s home or estate. The parable speaks of a king settling accounts, not merely a land-owner. Kings did not lend money to household slaves. This ‘servant’ of the king was most likely a person of importance himself – perhaps the governor of a province; akin to the relationship between Pontius Pilate and Caesar.

The amount of the debt is astonishing! The actual Greek word for bag of gold is the word talent. One talent was the equivalent of 6,000 denarii. A denarius was a silver coin paid for one day’s wage. Therefore, a talent had the value of 6,000 days of work, which works out to about 17 years. Imagine you’re the one with that debt. You work for 17 years, and the King says to you, “Great – you’ve paid off one talent. You now have 9,999 more to go.” Just another 169,983 years of labor. In today’s dollars, we’re talking about a debt of over $6 billion.

Verses 25-27

Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.

The king was never going to recoup that money, and I’m sure he knew it. Even selling the high-ranking servant and his entire family as slaves and seizing the servant’s estate would scarcely be a drop in the bucket. And the servant knew full well he could never repay that kind of debt. He was asking for time, but I’m sure he realized clearly that his situation was hopeless.

And what should happen? Mercy of an unimaginable magnitude. The king didn’t merely extend the man’s deadline for repayment (which would have just been prolonging the inevitable), nor did he merely reduce the amount owed. The king cancelled the servant’s debt altogether! He tore up the bill! He forgave $6 billion worth of debt – just like that!

Verses 28-30

But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded. His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’ But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt.

Now that he’s been forgiven – marvelously, lavishly forgiven, the servant promptly forgets what that feels like and, refusing to learn from the king’s example, goes and shakes down one of his peers for the money he himself is owed; one hundred denarii. In order to understand the depth of the hypocrisy here and the intent of the parable, let’s review what a denarius was worth.

A denarius was a silver coin paid out for one day’s wages. So the servant was owed roughly the equivalent of four months’ pay. If, for example, you made $36,000/year it would be $12,000. That’s not a trifling amount – but at least it’s possible. So, when his fellow servant pleaded with him to be patient and give him more time to repay it, it was a reasonable request. In fact, his plea was nearly word-for-word the plea the first servant had made to the king. He even fell on his knees as the first servant had done, begging for mercy.

But his plea fell on deaf ears. The first servant refused, and had the man thrown into ‘debtor’s prison’. And from what we know of debtor’s prison, without an advocate, he would be there a long time, most likely separated from his family.

How callous and ungrateful does someone have to be, to refuse to give any grace, or grant additional time for a $12,000 debt, when they themselves have been forgiven a debt of over $6,000,000,000? Now before we get righteously indignant and think, “How dare he?” and think we would never do such a thing – we are in danger of missing the intent of the parable. Do you remember how King David became indignant when Nathan the prophet told him about a rich man with many flocks and herds stealing and killing the one ewe lamb belonging to his neighbor, only to be told, “You are the man!” This parable hits closer to home than we’d like to imagine.

Such cold-heartedness and hypocrisy by the king’s servant surely wouldn’t go unnoticed, or unreported. And in the ensuing verses we see how it played out.

Verses 31-34

When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened. Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

Remember that Yeshua began the parable by describing the master as a king, which meant these servants were officials – regional governors who answered to him. They had access to the king. And they were so appalled at the cruelty shown by the one official that they came personally and reported it to their master.

The king was furious, and summoned his servant, confronting him, and calling him ‘wicked’ for having shown no mercy, despite receiving so much mercy himself. And in an act of judicial reversal, the master reinstated the servant’s debt and handed him over to the jailers, just as the servant had done to his fellow servant.

And then Messiah Yeshua spoke these breathtaking words:

Verse 35

This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

We are like the first servant, having been forgiven an unimaginable debt, but in our case a debt of sin – a debt impossible for us to repay – impossible even if we had a thousand lifetimes. And because of our sin, we deserve condemnation and to be eternally separated from God the King.

Consider, that Adonai hears us when we confess our sins to Him in the name of Yeshua, and doesn’t merely reduce the penalty of our sin, or extend the payback period (as if we could pay it), but cancels our debt altogether.

Rabbi Paul wrote in his letter to the Colossian believers, When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Messiah. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the record of debt against us, and taking it away, nailing it to the cross (Colossians 2:13-14).

Every one of us has wronged others. At times it may have been malicious and intentional. At other times it may have been unintentional, a thoughtless act. But if we’re going to be honest with ourselves, every one of us has truly wronged other people. We have caused real (not merely perceived) hurt and we have caused real (not merely perceived) offense. If shalom is to be restored, such sins (that is what they are) require us to seek forgiveness, and if we are the one offended, require us to grant forgiveness.

According to the Scriptures, whenever we wrong a fellow human being, we have also wronged God, because that person was made in God’s own image. So every sin is ultimately a sin against God. And here’s an important principle: the gravity of an offense is directly proportional to the stature of the one you offend, you can see how dire our situation really was.

Suppose, for instance, you showed up 20 minutes late to lunch with a friend. That isn’t right, but your friend would probably say it’s no big deal. If, however, you showed up 20 minutes late for a meeting with a senator, or the CEO of a large corporation, it would be regarded much more severely (which isn’t to say they have more intrinsic worth than your friend, but their stature – the demands on their time – make those 20 minutes all the more costly). The consequences would be even greater for failing to show up on time for a meeting with a president, a prime minister or a king. The greater the stature of the one you offend, the greater the gravity of your offense.

Thus, if every sin is ultimately a sin against an infinite and holy God, your sins, even the slightest of them, are multiplied by infinity. You owe a debt that, humanly speaking could never – not in a thousand lifetimes, be repaid. That’s what this parable conveys. Furthermore, God will not merely look the other way concerning your sin. That would be a violation of His infinite justice. Sin must be dealt with judiciously. Where would that leave you, if God were not gracious and forgiving?

Conclusion

Messiah Yeshua made it clear that God’s forgiveness is conditional. The condition is this: you yourself must forgive others. If you refuse to forgive the person that has wronged you, as Yeshua said, “from your heart” you will not be forgiven. It’s that simple. Whatever that person has done to offend you, it’s less than a drop in the bucket in comparison to the weight of your offenses against the holy, eternal God. The King of Heaven has canceled your ‘billions of dollars’ of sin debt. He has the right and the authority to reinstate it, if you refuse to show mercy to your fellow servants. Yeshua didn’t make any exceptions. You simply must forgive.

Seeking forgiveness and granting forgiveness is what the King demands, since He has forgiven you. The only thing standing in the way is pride.

And if you won’t forgive, you can kiss the Kingdom goodbye.