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The Rev. Dr. John H. Pavelko


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24th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Matthew 18:21-35

The World's Worst Prison


The Isle of the Pelicans

The Spanish called it the Isle of the Pelicans, but few people know it by that name. Some nicknamed it "The Rock." From 1933-1963, it served as the site of a nearly inescapable federal penitentiary. The guards were armed with machine guns and could not be bribed. Double locked doors enclosed each corridor and the cold waters of the ocean surrounded the island. During those thirty years, thirty-four prisoners tried to escape in fourteen separate attempts; of those twenty-three were caught, six were shot and killed and five are missing and presumed drowned. Al Capone, "Machine Gun" Kelly, Robert "The Birdman" Stroud all served time on Alcatraz. Today, the island has become a tourist attraction but most people admit that it is not a very attractive place.

The world’s worst prison, however, may not be Alcatraz, for that place only confines the body. Jesus talked about a prison that could shackle the inner soul.

It is sad to say that we put ourselves into that prison every time we will not forgive a brother/sister. Our prison is the dungeon of an unforgiving spirit.

A Question on Forgiveness

Jesus was an astute observer of human behavior. He saw how people reacted to situations and events. He was also very clever at using everyday circumstances to teach about the righteousness and love of God. Those familiar situations became windows into the truth of his message. Today’s parable may have been based on an actual event. The people may have even known the characters. However, Jesus waited for just the right circumstances to exploit the story to its fullest. That moment finally came when Peter asked the question.

“Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Seven?”

Peter may have expected an affirming response from Jesus. After all, he was being rather generous. The custom of the day only required a person to forgive three times. It was based on Job 33:29 which reads:

God does all these things to a man twice, even three times, to turn back his soul from the pit.”

The rabbis concluded that if God only tried to save a person three times than God does not expect us to forgive more than three times. Peter's question and suggested answer reveal his narrow understanding of the nature of conflict and the essence of love.

Seldom, if ever, is there an innocent party in conflict, except when my wife and I have an argument. When two people move beyond the sharing of different opinions and engage in heated debate, words will be said that hurt and sting. We may not intend to be vicious or nasty. We may even presume our comments are simply objective observations, but the other person hears them as condemning, emotional laced accusations and criticism. Peter's question assumes an innocent party. He fails to understand that by the very nature of conflict there are seldom-innocent parties.

Peter's question not only reveals his misunderstanding of the nature of conflict but also his failure to grasp the depth of forgiveness that love demands. Peter attempted to quantify righteousness. He wanted to be able to measure his behavior based on an analytical scale, so that he would be assured of reaching the minimum. He was like the high school student who only does enough work to earn a passing grade. He is not interested in learning or maturing as a person. He only wants the certificate, the degree, and the legal document, to get by. Jesus’ response to Peter tells us that love requires the maximum not the minimum effort. To dramatize both points, Jesus told a parable. As my seminary professor would say, "let us unpack the parable to discover it’s teaching for us today.”[1]

One Person's Sin Effects Everyone

In the ancient world, a person of wealth would audit his books to ensure that his stewards were not cheating him. Imagine this ruler’s surprise when he discovered that one of his workers owed 10,000 talents. To understand the dollar equivalent of a talent, consider that one talent was over 15 years worth of wages. The tax bill for the entire region of Palestine was 800 talents annually. Jesus appears to be using hyperbole to dramatize the enormity of the man's debt. The servant owed more than he could possibly repay. So the ruler threatens to jail not only the man, but also his wife and children.

We would like to think that our sin only affects ourselves. However, the consequence of sin is never confined to just the person who commits the transgression. “Even those who have had no share in the guilt will be involved in the misery.” [2]

Remember the battle of Jericho. It was a military victory for Israel. They marched around the city for six days blowing their ram horns. On the seventh day when the priests blew the horns, the walls caved in and Israel conquered the city. Before the battle, God had warned Joshua to destroy everything in the city. The people were not to take possession of any of graven images from the city. However, during the ransacking of the city, one man, Achan, kept several valuable possessions for himself. No one knew about them.

Afterwards Joshua sent an army to conquer the neighboring city of Ai. Israel was defeated and 36 men died in battle. God revealed to Joshua that the defeat was due to Israel's transgression. The entire nation was blamed for the sin of one man. This is the first lesson of the parable—an entire family even an entire church can suffer because of the unforgiving spirit of a few members.

Spiritually Bankrupt

Knowing that his family would suffer severely and he would not be able to repay the debt from prison, the servant falls at his master's feet and pleads for an extension. His request reveals his delusion. The servant cannot bring himself to admit the severity of his debt. He believes that some how, some way he can repay the money. The second lesson of the parable is to admit that we like the servant live under a delusion. We cannot believe that we are spiritual bankrupt and cannot repay our debt to God. We are convinced that deep down, we are basically, good people. We do not do everything right. We make mistakes. We sometimes procrastinate on our good intentions but in most circumstances, we do the right things. With a little bit of extra effort, we can overcome these weaknesses and do better. The result is that we like the servant. We fail to appreciate the profound wonder of our cancelled debt. We either take it for granted that God forgives, or continue to strive on self-improvement projects. In either case, we take sin very lightly. We fail to grasp its pervasive and destructive power.

The servant demonstrates this when he leaves the presence of his master. You would expect to see him dancing in the streets, doing cartwheels down the sidewalk, kissing women, and blessing children. Instead, he seeks out someone who only owes him the equivalent of four months wages and demands immediate payment. When that servant is unable, to produce the funds the forgiven servant exercises his right of judgement and has the debtor thrown into prison.

I have watched people fight about important and unimportant matters. Each week the newspapers provide us with stories of city councils and mayors who are arguing about something. I struggled for a long time trying to understand why we become so hostile and mean spirited in a fight. I also could not understand why we have such a difficult time forgiving one another and putting the dispute aside. I finally concluded that it is due mostly to our self-righteous delusion. We just cannot believe that we are sinners who are in need of an unfathomable mercy. When we insist that we are right and have done nothing wrong, it becomes easy to demand our rights and hold a grudge against those who have infringed on our privileges. We will project an ungrateful and cantankerous spirit in discussions with people and be uncooperative in future projects.

Before we can readily forgive, we must come to appreciate that depth of our own spiritual poverty. Only then can we enjoy the beauty of the words offered after the Prayer of Confession:

"Friends, believe the Good News, in Jesus Christ you are forgiven."

The Imprisoned Soul

The other servants are shocked by the news that a friend was thrown into prison. They are frightened. If it happened to him maybe, it could happen to them. They report the news to their master. He is furious. His offer of mercy has been turned into an opportunity for judgement. He calls the previously forgiven servant before him and tells him the stark reality of his mistake.

‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’

The servant is thrown into prison until he is able to repay all of his debt.

The third lesson of the parable tells us that we will suffer an imprisoned soul for an unforgiving spirit. We may assume that we are hurting the other person, but in reality, we are only hurting ourselves. It takes energy to hold a grudge. Resentment, hatred, and anger consume a person. The heart becomes imprisoned. There are no armed guards, no double locked doors, and no cold, shark infested ocean water but that prison has no escape. We can only be released from that prison when we receive the mercy offered to us in Jesus Christ and freely share that mercy with others.

The Bells of Forgiveness

There is an old cathedral in England that was bombed during WW II by the German Luftwaffe. When you walk across the floor, you will see engraved in the stone an inscription.

          “Father forgive them.”

The words take on a new meaning when the visitor lifts their eyes and sees the new cathedral that was built by the hands of German Christians. Each Sunday the bells of the new cathedral ring a liberating message of forgiveness throughout the land. That message only became a reality when one group humbled themselves and asked forgiveness and another group humbled themselves and offered forgiveness. Through the asking and the offering, both were liberated from the world's worst prison.[3]



[1] James Bradley, “Spiritual Formation in History and Ministry,” Fuller Theological Seminary.

[2] A. Plummer, The Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to St. Matthew, (2nd ed.; London; Elliot Stock, 1910; repr. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1953), 256

[3] Warren Wiersbe, Meet Yourself in The Parables.

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