The Unmerciful Debtor


Matthew 18:23-35 - Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost


In the name of the Father and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.  Today is of the 11th Sunday after Pentecost.[1]  The Christian life is really not all that complicated.  It is really quite simple.  Our Lord teaches us, and we live according to what He teaches.  In it’s perfect form, the way the saints practiced the Christian life, the conscience guides perfectly in all things.  A man does not need to have a book, or someone telling him what to do in any situation.  His conscience guides him.  He knows if something is right or wrong, because the Holy Spirit speaks within his heart.  This is what we should aspire to. 


Unfortunately, we need constant reminding, because we are fooled by our passions, and also those temptations that are without.  We need to constantly have the gospel reiterated to us, and to understand again.  This is indeed what our services do, and the reading of the scriptures and the preaching of them do.  They remind us, over and over again, of things we already know. 


A Christian, a man with a heart for God, listens to something he already knows, with MORE care than to some obscure point which he does not know.  With MORE care, I tell you, because when he is told to be merciful, to love, to pray without ceasing, all these things that he already knows because he has heard them a thousand times – he questions within himself: “Am I lacking in some way?  Is there something in me that is not whole or is not complete?”  He doesn’t say, “I’ve heard that before.  I’ve heard that story before, I already know how it ends.” 


Indeed, as we listen to the scriptures over and over again, they become sweeter to us, and sharper to us, and cut deeper and deeper and deeper.  I tell you; the cancer that we have within us is very large. It can only be taken out a little bit at a time, because it is wrapped around vital organs, so it must be taken out carefully, and over a period of many years.  So we must listen over and over, and listen with care.


I ask you; why are we here?  We are here to worship God of course, right?  But also, we are here to learn how to live, to learn Who God is, to learn what He has promised for us, to learn the purpose of our life, and how to live.  The scriptures are an instruction manual.  They teach us exactly how to live, and not only how to do things in an outward sense, but also concerning the inward man, how to change.  It’s all laid out for us, and the power to change is revealed as well.  Perhaps there is some way you are lacking in mercy and forgiveness.  It is much more that these things that today’s story tells about.  There is a much deeper meaning to it, and the church certainly understands it.  So, let us look into what indeed this story has to teach us today.


Here before us is a simple story.  A man owes an incredible amount of money.  In terms of our modern coinage, he owes millions and millions of dollars.  His Lord is reckoning.  Who is this?  Of course, his Lord is Christ.  He brings the servant before him, and the man has no way to pay.  Do you know what these ten thousand talents that he owes are?  They are sins.  We have no way to pay for our sins, none whatsoever.  The sum is so high that we can never ever repay it.


So what does the Lord do?  He does something that appears harsh to the spiritually undiscerning, but is actually quite merciful.  He says, sell him and his wife and his children, and pay the debt.[2]  The debt cannot really be paid, but make some small dent in it, and sell him, estrange him from me, because of his sins.  This is a truth – your sins will estrange you from God. 


Do you know what the wife represents?  The wife represents the flesh; marriage is here used as a metaphor for the flesh.[3]  The children are the deeds of the flesh and soul that arise out of our way of life and thinking.  Our wife and children, that is, our body and soul, all of our essence and being, are going to be sold with us into slavery if we do not live as Christians. 


When you are sold, you are under another master.  Who is this master?  Diabolos, Satan.  You can either have as your master the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, or be mastered by Satan.  This man is going to be sold, and the reason our Lord says it to him to wake him up, and to say there is something wrong with his life.  Change!  And the man repents, and that moment, it is real repentance, and he only asked “Lord give me TIME, and I will pay thee all.”  He does not realize that he cannot pay all, but he begs for more time.  He can not even dream to ask, “Forgive the debt,” because it is too big, too high.  He just begs for time, and the Lord forgives it all.  “You owe me nothing, go in peace.” 


This is what God does for us.  We consider things in our life, and they seem so high, and the Lord will give us more than we desire.  He will give us so much that we cannot even imagine it!  But I tell you, that we must do our part, and we must be worthy, not by giving Him ten thousand talents, because we cannot even give him ONE.  We can be thankful, though, and remember.


So remember, the Lord said that he would sell the servant and his wife and his children, all that he has, all that he is and he had done – into slavery.  This slavery is estrangement from God, but the servant is saved from this estrangement by God’s mercy.  Now there is actually a tacit command there, and it is, “Do likewise.  Be merciful, as I am merciful.  Be perfect, as I am perfect.  I am forgiving you so that you may change.  I am not forgiving you so that you can pile more sins up, even higher then the ten thousand talents.” 


The servant goes out[4], and this “going out” that is spoken of in the scriptures has a terrible double meaning.  Of course, he had the leave the physical presence of His Lord.  He had to leave the chamber where he was having his audience, and he had to “go out,” but he also, as he left, went out from fellowship from God.  He estranged himself from God.  The very same thing that he was in fear of having happen to him, he did to himself.  He is like the man, who looks in the mirror, and upon walking away, does not know what he looks like any more, as the Apostle says.  He does not realize, he does not think.  He is free now, and he estranges himself from God, and he does not even realize it. 


This is what we do many times, brothers and sisters, when we are not thankful for what has been given to us, and what God will do for us, if we only persevere. 


So he meets a fellow servant, who owes him a pittance, a few dollars!  And the fellow servant says exactly, word for word the same thing that this servant who owed ten thousand talents had said to his Lord.  “Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all.”[5] There were exact same words, and there should have been exactly the same result.  The servant was even reminded, by having his debtor say exactly the same thing he had said when he had only just recently trembled before his Lord.  But what did he do?  He takes him by the throat, and acts like a merciless wild beast, and devours him, and puts him into prison. 


His fellow servants are the angels[6].  The angels saw this rapacious act, because God gives them providence over the world, to help direct according to His will.  They see this, and come with tears to their master, and our master, and tell him of these things.  The Lord brings the servant before him, and reminds him of what He had done for him.  This stupid man, who has such poor memory, is reminded now.  And He tells the wicked servant, “I forgave you everything.  You should have done the same.”  I tell you, he should not have needed to hear that. 


This is what the conscience is for.  It tells us these things.  We do not need to be told.  The Holy Spirit has already said it to us.  We have been given do much, and forgiven so much that it only makes sense that we would act in a merciful way to others.  This man did not understand, so the Lord delivered him to the tormentors, and it says, “till he should pay all that was due unto him.”[7] The fathers understand that this phrase means eternal damnation[8].  He cannot pay that debt.  It is too high.  He can never pay it, and he is damned eternally, and he has done it to himself, with his own lack of mercy.


Now how do we learn from this story?  We don’t have debtors’ prisons anymore, and perhaps we are not so miserly with money, but is there someone else that we have not forgiven?  This is where the Christian must think, must consider, and must look inside himself.  He must be like the Apostles, who, when they were at the table, and Jesus said that there is someone here who is going to betray me, said “Lord is it I?”  Even though none of them save Judas, had betrayal in mind, they were so humble, and terrified at the possibility of betraying the Lord, and what the implications of this terrible sin were, that each begged Him, “Is it I?  Somehow take this away from me if it is.” 


So now, look inside your heart.  Who don’t you forgive?  Husband and wife?  Brother and sister?  Brother and brother?  Sister and brother?  Friend?  Friend and enemy?  You have no forgiveness if you do not forgive EVERYONE.  There is a terrible promise in this parable.  If you do not forgive unequivocally, you will NOT be forgiven, and you owe ten thousand talents.  You cannot pay that debt, so you must forgive.  It is a necessity for your life.


So now, search within yourself.  Let the scripture cut.  See if there is something in you that does not forgive, that is hateful.  Unforgiveness has many aspects to it, you know.  It comes from forgetfulness, because if you would remember all that God has done for you, you would forgive everyone everything, since their faults against you are nothing compared to yours before God.  It also comes from a lack of love, from self-centeredness, from not being humble, from not watching and praying.  All those things contribute to a man becoming merciless. 


Don’t become like this.  Listen to the church speaking to you, both today, and tomorrow.  Become like Christ.  Remember what he has done for you.  Root out of you anything that is unmerciful.  Forgiveness and mercy are when a man is the most close to God.  God will save a man who is merciful and does not judge, even if he has many sins. 


There is a story, from our tradition, about a woman, who was a prostitute, who had just finished transacting business, and was returning home.  She saw on her way, a boy who had dies, and his mother weeping over him, and it was clear that this was her only child.  And she prayed to god, and said, “Lord, not for my sake, because I am not even worthy to ask anything of you, but because of the woman, have mercy on this boy, and his mother.”  And the boy was raised from the dead, not because of the woman’s worthiness but because of her compassion. 


May God help you.  Search out in your heart now, don’t let these words just bounce off the walls and dissipate.  Instead, let the scripture cut into you, and see, is there someone you do not forgive.  And if there is, then you must forgive.  And if you can make amends, you must make amends, both now and from this day forward.  May God help you in this task, for the salvation of your souls.  Amen.



Priest Seraphim Holland 2009.     St Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, McKinney, Texas


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[1] This homily was transcribed from one given On  August 18th, 1997 according to the church calendar, being the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost. The Gospel appointed for this day is Matthew 18:23-35. There are some stylistic changes and minor corrections made and several footnotes have been added, but otherwise, it is essentially in a colloquial, “spoken” style.  It is hoped that something in these words will help and edify the reader, but a sermon read from a page cannot enlighten a soul as much as attendance and reverent worship at the Vigil service, which prepares the soul for the Holy Liturgy, and the hearing of the scriptures and the preaching of them in the context of the Holy Divine Liturgy. In such circumstances the soul is enlightened much more than when words are read on a page.


[2] Matthew 18:24-25

[3] The Explanation by Blessed Theophylact of the Holy Gospel According to St. Matthew, commentary on  Matthew 18:24-25

[4] Cf. Matthew 18:28

[5] Matthew 18:29

[6] The Explanation by Blessed Theophylact, commentary on  Matthew 18:31

[7] Matthew 18:34, partial

[8] The Explanation by Blessed Theophylact, commentary on  Matthew 18:32-34