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TALK ON THE PARABLES

PARABLES OF THE UNFORGIVING SERVANT

AND THE UNJUST STEWARD  

2nd FEBRUARY 2012

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Last week we began with the middle group of Parables sometimes referred to as the behaviour Parables. Today we continue with our study of these Parables which put emphasis on our relationship with others.
How should we see other people? What is each person for us and what is the thing that regulates our relationship with another person? In our physical world, governed by the nature of the flesh, we remain unconcerned with others. We keep to ourselves being indifferent and insensible to whether the other person exists, if he is hungry, if he is suffering, if he is in need of our help. What regulates and controls our relationship with others is not their needs, but our own interest. A person is worth our attention if it helps our needs, if it serves our interests.
But that is the world of the flesh, in the place called the kingdom of God, the community we call the Church, what regulates our relationship with others is Christ. The Church foresees a community of persons bonded together in love. The next person is our brother and an image of God. The Fathers say that "we look upon another person, we look upon the Lord our God, because we are all created in his image." As God's children we are all related to the degree of brothers and sisters and our relationship of love with them must be the same as the relationship God has with each person. This is the main message of the behaviour Parables and especially so of the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant which we are about to hear.
The occasion for the Lord to say this Parable came when Peter asked him: "Lord, how many times may my brother sin against me, that I may forgive him? Is seven times enough?" The Scribes taught that one could forgive only three times. The Apostle Peter wished to exceed the righteousness of the Old Testament, so raised the number to seven thinking that it was a great achievement to be able to forgive someone seven times. Peter's question shows that he was still not spiritually enlightened and was still governed by the rules of the flesh. What would he do if his brother sinned against him eight times? Was he not allowed to forgive him even if he repented and asked for forgiveness? But, if Peter was reborn in the spirit, then not only would he have forgiven him uncountable times, but would have offered his very life for his brother. In answer to Peter's question Christ said to him: "Not seven times but seventy times seven," in other words without any limit at all and to make this clear to Peter, Christ told the Parable of the unforgiving servant. Let's then hear the Parable.
"Therefore is the kingdom of heaven likened unto a certain king, which would take account of his servants. And when he had begun to reckon, one was brought unto him, which owed him ten thousand talents. But forasmuch as he had not to pay, his lord commanded him to be sold, and his wife, and children, and all that he had, and payment to be made. The servant therefore fell down, and worshipped him, saying, Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay thee all. Then the lord of that servant was moved with compassion, and loosed him, and forgave him the debt. But the same servant went out, and found one of his fellow-servants, which owed him an hundred pence: and he laid hands on him, and took him by the throat, saying, Pay me that thou owest. And his fellow-servant fell down at his feet, and besought him, saying, Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all. And he would not: but went and cast him into prison, till he should pay the debt. So when his fellow-servants saw what was done, they were very sorry, and came and told unto their lord all that was done. Then his lord, after that he had called him, said unto him, O thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all that debt, because thou desiredst me: Shouldest not thou also have had compassion on thy fellow-servant, even as I had pity on thee? And his lord was wroth, and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due unto him. So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses." (Matthew 18:23-35)
In the Parable, Christ presents God the Father as an earthly king who wants to take account of his servants and administrators of his property and wealth. As in all the Parables the Lord begins with an earthly image to lead us to the spiritual meaning and transport us to the Kingdom of heaven. The king's servants are every person and the debts that we owe are our many sins which we cannot repay. Our sinfulness makes us unworthy of God's loving kindness, although the Lord, through the death of His Son on the Cross, has forgiven us our offences. As the king in the Parable, God has the right to require an accounting of all our actions, our words, our thoughts and desires, the secrets of our hearts and everything that we have done at any time. How we have put to use his property, in other words, the gifts he has given us whether they be of the body or the spirit. God of course knows everything. He has no need to take account and do a stock analysis as would an earthly king. Everything is clear and naked before his eyes. If the Parable mentions a reckoning and judgement it does so for our sakes that we may awaken and repent and not leave our sins to build up in our souls. A great mercy from God is for Him to let us settle our accounts, to pay our debts through repentance. It is most fearful to depart from this world with debts that we cannot pay or repent of in another world.
The Parable continues with one servant being brought before the king who owed him 10, 000 talents. As we saw in the Parable of the talents, one talent was equivalent to a person's wage for sixteen years, so 10.000 talents would be equivalent to something like a billion euros. Symbolically it represents the person weighed down with a great load of sins and transgressions, of criminal acts done willingly and unwillingly. It is the person who lives independently of God, who has cut himself off and distanced himself from God and from his protection. It is easy to think that the person represents anyone but ourselves, but in fact he represents human nature of which we all share without exception. Paul, speaking of sinners who Christ came to save, considered himself as first among sinners. (1Timothty 1:15) In the same way, the saints, when speaking of themselves, also considered themselves the worst of sinners, but they took courage in repentance.
The great debt of sin is the result of the life according to the flesh, which makes man a stranger to God and a slave to the laws of sin. He is naked of God even though when he was created he received the breath of God which should have brought him closer to God and like him. His sin is the abandonment of God, stripped of the grace he was given and clothed with the garment of shame.
The Parable doesn't mention if the debtor had anything good to his name. His departure from God and his slavery to the passions of sin lead to the debt of 10,000 talents to uncountable sins. But he didn't have anything to repay the debt or to give something as a first instalment. He didn't have a single good deed that would have been seen as an effort on his part to try and reduce the great debt that he owed.
What then should God do? Should he punish him? But God is not a tyrant and punisher. God intends that all men should be brought closer to him. Yet the Parable says that the king commanded that the debtor be sold and all members of his family and everything else that he had so that payment could be made. At first this might seem like an extreme and cruel act for God and it would have been if that was what God intended, for to be sold means the total alienation from God, the complete withdrawal of divine grace which is none other than extreme misery and hell.
But God doesn't want the death of a sinner neither does he delight in seeing him in pain. He didn't create us so that he could punish us, but so that we might become partakers of his goodness. He allows us to experience various trials for the salvation of our souls, so that these trials will lead us onto the narrow road that leads to life eternal. What God wants is the return of the creature to the creator so that he may partake and enjoy life. This is the intention of the threat of punishment. It is not an act of cruelty or inhumanity, but an act of love and mercy in order to stimulate and awaken the servant to repentance and humility. He had no intention of selling him, for, if he had had this in mind, then he would not have heeded his request and would not have shown him his loving-kindness. He only wanted to make the servant understand how many debts he was forgiving him, and through this means to compel him to be more lenient toward his fellow-debtor.
This seems to have worked because as soon as he realized the dire straits he and his family were in; he immediately fell to his knees and pleaded for an extension. He who was indifferent for God now begs and seeks for mercy and compassion. He beseeches the king not to act as a king with rightful justice, but as a father who loves and is longsuffering. The debtor appears, at least externally, that he wants to repent and return to God.
When God judges, he doesn't use his righteousness, but his loving-kindness or rather his righteousness is loving-kindness. He shows mercy to the man worthy of condemnation. God shows compassion and forgives because he loves and because he is love, God did something much more that what the sinner-debtor asked for. He asked for an extension and promises to repay the whole debt, but God completely loosed him from the debt, in other words he forgave him all his sins and acquitted him from eternal hell.
God offers love, compassion and mercy to the sinful man with the precondition that the man will do the same by living a life pleasing to God: loving and forgiving his fellowmen. The Servant in the Parable who received God's unbounded love with the forgiveness of his great debt of sins left the presence of the king and went and found one of his fellow-servants who owed him a small and insignificant amount a hundred pence. The hundred pence represents the daily small and meaningless squabbles and misunderstandings that occur in all human relationships and are not worth mentioning when compared to the sins we have done against God. Wherever love exists in these relationships there is also a mutual forgiveness. The forgiven servant did nothing of what the king did for him. He received so great a pardon, but refused to give even the slightest consideration to his fellow-servant. The same words that he used to plead his case before the king and received forgiveness are now echoed by his fellow-servant, but he shows no compassion. He refused to resemble the king in the slightest and be merciful. On the contrary, he grabbed his fellow-servant by the throat and had him cast into prison. He learnt nothing through his own predicament, he promised to repent, but as soon as he went out from the presence of the king, he showed that he wasn't willing to change his own selfish ways. What he didn't realise was that the Lord's forgiveness doesn't take effect if the person doesn't participate by showing signs of true repentance.
He claims his own judgment by one standard, but he uses another standard to judge his debtors. He enjoyed the King's love and mercy, but he himself shows no mercy toward others. The ungrateful servant demanded payment. This is something we often demand of others who have done us wrong. If someone has caused us material injury we demand that he reimburse us immediately, if he has offended us then we demand an apology. We want justice and take delight if something bad befalls him. How many times have we said of someone: "serves him right". We forget the Saviour's words: "With what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again" (Matthew 7:2). The Saviour said more than once, "Forgive, and ye shall be forgiven" (Luke 6:37; Mark 11:25-26), setting our forgiveness of our neighbours as the condition for our forgiveness by the Lord.
God does not accept prayer by a man unready to forgive his neighbour. The Lord said: "Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there remember that thy brother hath aught against thee; leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift." (Matthew 5:23-24).
The cruelty of the ungrateful servant does not go unnoticed; his fellow-servants saw what was done and were appalled by the inhumane behaviour: they were very sorry, and came and told unto their lord all that was done. The fathers of the Church say that here the fellow-servants are the angels who witness and keep an account of all our actions.
The Lord forgave him his great debt with the precondition that he would change and live his life with love and compassion for others as he had promised, but his promises were just lies and a means to escape punishment. In such a case the Lord recalls his love and the great pardon of the enormous debt of sins. He commands that the wicked servant to be brought before him once again and said: You beseeched me for mercy and I forgave you and loosed you from your enormous debt, shouldn't you also have shown a little compassion on your fellow-servant when he pleaded with you just as I had pity and compassion on you? And he gave the command for the wicked servant to be delivered to the tormentors.
Delivered to the tormentors is usually understood as meaning that God consigns the debtor to eternal torment by the demons, but as we have seen in other parables, God loves all people, even the sinner. But he respects our own choices and as the ungrateful servant chose to live without love he chose to live without God and his punishment is self afflicted. He is delivered to live as he has chosen without God and without love, tormented by his inhumanity, his cruelty, his selfishness and all the sinful passions. These become his prison; he cannot live in the kingdom of God which is a community of love. One must be in the image of Christ to share in his kingdom and only if we love and have compassion for those that do us wrong can be attain this image. Love is communion in the life of Christ which is Paradise. The person who has need of our forgiveness is in fact our benefactor and ambassador before God. This is how we should see those who offend us or do us harm, because the small forgiveness which we shall give becomes the reason which will safeguard our great forgiveness from God. God is not angered by our many sins, but by our refusal to show love and forgiveness to our fellowmen.
The next Parable we will hear today is the Parable of the Shrewd Steward. Let's hear the Parable.
"And he said also unto his disciples, There was a certain rich man, which had a steward; and the same was accused unto him that he had wasted his goods. And he called him, and said unto him, How is it that I hear this of thee? give an account of thy stewardship; for thou mayest be no longer steward. Then the steward said within himself, What shall I do? for my lord taketh away from me the stewardship: I cannot dig; to beg I am ashamed. I am resolved what to do, that, when I am put out of the stewardship, they may receive me into their houses. So he called every one of his lord's debtors unto him, and said unto the first, How much owest thou unto my lord? And he said, An hundred measures of oil. And he said unto him, Take thy bill, and sit down quickly, and write fifty. Then said he to another, And how much owest thou? And he said, An hundred measures of wheat. And he said unto him, Take thy bill, and write fourscore. And the lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely: for the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light. And I say unto you, Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when ye fail, they may receive you into everlasting habitations. He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much: and he that is unjust in the least is unjust also in much. If therefore ye have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches? And if ye have not been faithful in that which is another man's, who shall give you that which is your own? No servant can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon." (Luke 16:1-13)
This Parable is probably one of the most confusing and difficult to understand. Is Christ praising the unjust steward for swindling his master and gaining friends for himself at his expense? Is the Lord proposing that we his followers are to do the same and live dishonestly? Are those who follow the way of the Gospel stupid because he says the children of this world are wiser than the children of light? Are we to make friends with the mammon of unrighteousness, in other words money, when in other places he tells us to despise earthly wealth? Is this all possible? The answer of course is no. We should not read the parable this way because it does not agree with the overall teachings of Christ that we find in the Gospels.

To understand what Christ is saying we have to begin with understanding who his audience were. The chapter begins "And he said also unto his disciples". The chapter continues from the previous chapter where he was talking to the Scribes and Pharisees. They were the main audience and now with the new Parable that he is to say he also includes as part of the target audience the disciples: Not the twelve, but the disciples at large. The Parable has to do with money and the Pharisees not only had plenty of it, they loved money and wealth. The Parable is therefore not aimed at the disciples who left everything to follow Christ and had nothing, but at the Pharisees to tell them how they should use their money. This will become clearer as we analyse the Parable. Another thing we need to understand is who the Rich man is. In the majority of the Parables that involve a king, a lord or a master, the figure is representative of God, but in this Parable the Rich man is just a business man who's only interest in life is getting richer. He must not be associated as representing God even though there are some elements of the story that could be interpreted in this way. For example God can be the rich man and we his stewards who are entrusted with his wealth he has given us. Everything we have belongs to God and we are only administrators of his wealth which one day we will have to give an account of what we have done with it.
The Parable begins fairly straight forward with a rich man who has a steward or manager to take care of his business affairs. The manager is simply an employee who acts as the administrator of his master's wealth. Someone, probably out of spite, went to the master and accused the manager of wasting his goods in other words of stealing. The rich man calls his manager and tells him of the accusation and that he should get his books in order for inspection and that he has lost his comfortable position. The accusation must have been true because the steward did not deny it or try to justify himself.
The realization of losing his job jolts the steward to think of his future. Of course he should have thought about this beforehand, but as the saying goes better late than never. He begins to think shrewdly because as he says: "I cannot dig; to beg I am ashamed." He couldn't dig because he had always had it easy. He never had to do manual work for a living. The fact is he wasn't an invalid, and so could hold a shovel, but when he says I cannot dig what he is really saying is: there's no way I'm going to do hard manual labour for a living. After holding such a prized position to end up begging for a piece of bread would have been too shameful, his pride would not allow it. But his shame was not only that he would be begging for a living, but also because how could he show his face after it became known that he was guilty of embezzlement. What we can assume from his thoughts is that he hadn't accumulated a fortune from his dishonesty with which he could live comfortably. He was just a bad bookkeeper who cost his master a small fortune through negligence, overspending and taking advantage of his position by living luxuriously at the expense of his employer. Something that many people do working for large companies- business trips flying first class, top hotels, gifts and business lunches all charged to the company.
His dilemma prompted him to think and act quickly. He decided what to do so that he could make friends who would take him in when he finally had to leave his position. He called everyone who owed his master money and asked them how much they owed. These were not people who borrowed money. They were business people who bought large amounts of goods on credit. As such, credit notes were issued signed by both parties. The steward still had complete charge of his master's business dealings until the time he was to present his books for inspection. He had already been given notice of his dismissal for dishonesty so a little more dishonesty would make no difference. He was not concerned with how to repay his master, but on how he could guarantee a future for himself. He therefore forged new credit notes where he considerably reduced the amounts owed by each creditor. The question arises if the creditors were aware of the scam. Were they also guilty of the fraud or were they under the impression that it was the rich man himself who was being generous with them by lowering the amount they owed him? Whichever the case, they must have been delighted and this was what the shrewd steward was hoping for: that being the bearer of the good news they would see him favourably and would welcome him into their homes and give him hospitality when he lost his job and was in need.
In the meantime the Rich man had heard of the new embezzlement possibly by one of the creditors who didn't want to be involved in the fraud or again by one of the creditors who hearing that some had received a bigger deduction than himself went directly to the rich man to complain and bargain for the same reduction.
The parable doesn't mention at what time the rich man received the news of what had happened or if he was moved with anger. Possibly it came after the dismissal of the steward and the rich man simply accepted what had happened and wrote it off as a bad business deal. On reflection, the lord, that is the rich man, commended the unjust steward because he had done wisely. The rich man is not praising the unjust steward for swindling him, but for his shrewdness and quick thinking. He is not commending his methods, but rather his motives. Even as a wicked manager, he has the foresight and 'wisdom' to plan ahead and look out for his own future. He knows that his job is ending, so he prepares a path forward so he will be provided for and looked after by others. The rich man had to admire the dishonest rascal for being so shrewd. He did what he did to survive and secure for himself a future. The rich man would probably have done the same if he was in his shoes.
What comes next in the Parable is not from the rich man but from Christ. Commenting on the unjust steward that he had done wisely he adds: "for the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light." Is he saying that we should be like the unjust steward? No, the steward is unjust and what he did cannot be accounted as righteousness, but his shrewdness, cunningness and genius planning for his future is something to be admired and imitated by those planning an eternal future in heaven. Children of this world, in other words people who only live for the wealth and pleasures of this world are wiser in their actions to obtain their wealth that are the children of light, that is those who seek the eternal bright and good things from God, because they will do anything to fulfil their purpose in life. We on the other hand, who consider ourselves Children of light, unsure if our future in the kingdom of heaven is secure, pay no heed to all the warnings Christ has given us and live as if no misfortune whatsoever awaits us. Shrewdness is something that usually characterises people who only live for this world. They have their 5-year business plans, their schemes to reduce costs and their strategies to maximize output. They study, work, save, calculate, assess, and predict, in order to achieve their aims. They seize every opportunity that is available, and when none is available they create opportunities. They will often sacrifice not only their time and energy, but even their health and relationships, in order to achieve their ambitions. They are often very shrewd. And what about us, we who are called 'the people of the light': what enlightened plans, what carefully thought-out strategies, what concerted efforts, what noble sacrifices are we engaged in to secure our future in paradise?
If a crook can figure out that his own life is better when he gives away money to benefit others, then why can't the people of the light manage to get it right? Even dishonest managers know that you need to have some philanthropy in your financial dealings. Money is only a tool which should be used correctly to benefit our future. People of this world have got it wrong in putting their trust in money, but their zeal, persistence, wisdom, courage and untiring energy and activity which they show to obtain their purpose is something to be imitated.
Christ continues with another strange and bewildering saying: "Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when ye fail, they may receive you into everlasting habitations." What is the mammon of unrighteousness? Mammon is the name of an ancient Deity worshiped by the Sumerians. He is the god of wealth and his name translates as "property". In the New Testament it is used as a word meaning money and wealth especially when passion for money is involved which is like worshipping money as a god. Christ calls it unrighteous because it works unrighteously on those who work for it. Everyone who puts their trust for happiness on money will in the end be deceived, because earthly wealth and property decays and is lost and in the end disappoints those who put all their expectations and hopes on it. It is like a false god that deceives its followers with lies for a happy future, but that promised future comes to an end with death.
But here what does Christ mean by telling us to make friends of the mammon of unrighteousness? He means turn wealth, which people of this world worship like an idol, into a good acquisition by doing good to the poor, and obtain in them spiritual friends and intercessors for you. At first, the steward of the parable just squandered the money, but then after he was caught, he wised up and used it to make others happy. Granted he did it for his own benefit, but even in his twisted mind he could see that things would go better for him if he made it better for others.
The same applies for all of us. Earthly money remains on earth and cannot be taken with us to eternity so while we have it we should put it to good use by doing charitable works. Those who we help will consider us as friends and pray for us while in heaven the saints who have gone there before us will be ready to receive us into their eternal habitations. Our works will play a major role in our salvation. All our wealth is only worth something in this life, but when we reach the grave it becomes worthless. The transition from earth to heaven is like a journey from one country to another so as travellers change their money into the currency of the country to which they are travelling, by doing good deeds and helping the poor with our money, it is like changing our money into the currency of heaven. By parting with what we cannot keep, we obtain what we cannot lose: we gain friends who will accept us into their eternal dwellings.
Christ continues: "And I say unto you, He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much: and he that is unjust in the least is unjust also in much."
Faithful in that which is least refers to the riches of this world and faithful in much refers to the eternal riches of heaven. God tests his children while they are still in this world with the small things of this world, in other words, by entrusting them with earthly riches and calls us to show him if we are worthy to be entrusted with the great riches of eternity. This present life is a place of learning, a school of training. The small and unimportant things which the Lord gives us to use now are tools which if we use wisely can prepare us for the great and eternal good things of heaven.
The next verse continues on the same lines: "If therefore ye have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches? And if ye have not been faithful in that which is another man's, who shall give you that which is your own?" If we have not used earthly money wisely who will entrust us with the true and spiritual gifts of eternity. Neither I nor my Father with entrust these to you. The true wealth is given to us through God's mercy as a reward for our faithfulness as good stewards. If our actions are like the unjust steward of the Parable then we can only expect to be dismissed from our position as the unjust Steward was from his master's home. We are not owners of our earthly wealth and belongings, everything belongs to God and we are simply employed as his stewards to use his wealth wisely. We come into the world naked and depart from it naked. How can we call something ours when sooner or later it will not be in our possession? If everything belongs to God then what does Christ mean when he says: "who shall give you that which is your own?" What belongs to us is Paradise. It is our inheritance prepared for us from the foundation of the world. (Matt. 25:34) If we make Christ our own and his commandments our own, then we will have in our hands that which we can truly characterise as our own. God is like a wealthy Father who before giving over to his son the precious inheritance, which he will give him, first gives him a small fraction of the inheritance to test his competence. If he uses this small fortune wisely and pleases his father, if he passes the test, then his father will entrust him with the true amount of the inheritance.
"No servant can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon."
The two masters are God and money. If you are not faithful to God through the use of your worldly wealth this is because at the same time you are enslaved to the passion for wealth. Thus if you are enslaved by this passion you are not serving God as the same time. No one can serve two masters simultaneously. Money is a demanding master, because it is never satisfied. Ask any person - rich or poor - how much money they would need in order to make them happy, and the answer will always be the same: "just a little more".
In the parable, the unjust steward had two masters whom he served, the one his employer and the other money which he worshipped. His love for money inspired hate for his employer. Thus the meaning of these words is love is where the heart is. If we love God then our wealth should be seen only as a means to help others and secure a place for us in heaven. If on the other hand we love money with a passion, then we devote ourselves to it as to a god who takes the place of the True God. If our main aim in life is to secure for ourselves and our family financial stability, that is not totally wrong, but when our aim for more stability restricts us from helping others, when it restricts us from doing God's work, then our heart is not with God and we delude ourselves if we believe that we truly love him.