Scripture Text: Matthew 18:21-35
You and I save things. Favorite photos, interesting articles — we all save things. Homer and Langley Collyer hoarded things. Everything. Newspapers, letters, clothing — you name it, they kept it.
Born in the late 1800s to an affluent Manhattan couple, the brothers lived in a luxurious three-story mansion at the intersection of Fifth Avenue and 128th Street. Homer earned a degree in engineering; Langley became a lawyer. All seemed good in the Collyer family.
But then mom and dad divorced in 1909. The boys, now in their 20s, remained in the home with their mother. Crime escalated. The neighborhood deteriorated. Homer and Langley retaliated by escaping the world. For reasons that therapists discuss at dinner parties, the duo retreated into their inherited mansion, closed and locked the doors.
They were all but unheard of for nearly 40 years. Then in 1947 someone reported the suspicion of a dead body at their address. It took seven policemen to break down the door because the entrance was blocked by a wall of newspapers, folding beds, half a sewing machine, old chairs, part of a winepress and other pieces of junk. After several hours of digging, policemen found the body of Homer, seated on the floor, head between his knees, his long and matted gray hair reaching his shoulders.
But where was Langley? That question triggered one of the strangest searches in Manhattan history. Fifteen days of quarrying produced 103 tons of junk — gas chandeliers, a sawhorse, the chassis of an old car, a Steinway piano, a horse's jawbone and, finally, one missing brother. The stuff he'd kept had collapsed on and killed him.
Bizarre! Who wants to live with yesterday's rubble? Who wants to hoard the trash of the past? You don't, do you? Or do you?
Not in your house, mind you, but in your heart? Not the junk of papers and boxes, but the remnants of anger and hurt. Do you pack-rat pain? Amass offenses? Record slights?
A tour of your heart might be telling. A pile of rejections stockpiled in one corner. Accumulated insults filling another. Images of unkind people lining the wall, littering the floor.
No one can blame you. Innocence takers, promise breakers, wound makers — you've had your share. Yet doesn't it make sense to get rid of their trash? Want to give every day a chance? Jesus says: Give the grace you've been given.
Take a long look at his reply to Peter's question: "‘Lord, how often should I forgive someone who sins against me? Seven times?'‘No,not seven times,'Jesus replied, ‘but seventy times seven!'" (Matthew 18:21-22).
That noise you hear is the sound of clicking calculators. Seventy times seven equals 490, we discover. My, I can legally get rid of my husband. He blew past this number on our honeymoon.
But then Jesus curtails our calibrated grace by relating a two-act play:
Act 1: God forgives the unforgivable.
Therefore, the Kingdom of Heaven can be compared to a king who decided to bring his accounts up to date with servants who had borrowed money from him. In the process, one of his debtors was brought in who owed him millions of dollars. He couldn't pay, so his master ordered that he be sold — along with his wife, his children and everything he owned — to pay the debt (Matthew 18:23-25).
Such an immense debt. More literal translations say the servant owed 10,000 talents. One talent equaled 6,000 denarii. One denarius equaled one day's wage (Matthew 20:2). One talent, then, would equate to 6,000 days' worth of work. Ten thousand talents would represent 60 million days or 240,000 years of labor. A person earning $100 a day would owe $6 billion.
Whoa! What an astronomical sum. Jesus employs hyperbole, right? He's exaggerating to make a point. Or is He? One person would never owe such an amount to another. But might Jesus be referring to the debt we owe to God?
Let's calculate our indebtedness to him. How often do you sin, hmm, in an hour? To sin is to "fall short" (Romans 3:23).
Worry is falling short on faith. Impatience is falling short on kindness. The critical spirit falls short on love. How often do you come up short with God? For the sake of discussion, let's say 10 times an hour and tally the results. Ten sins an hour, times 16 waking hours (assuming we don't sin in our sleep), times 365 days a year, times the average male life span of 74 years. I'm rounding the total off at 4,300,000 sins per person.
Tell me, how do you plan to pay God for your 4.3 million sin increments? Your payout is unachievable. Unreachable. You're swimming in a Pacific Ocean of debt. Jesus' point precisely. The debtor in the story? You and me. The king? God. Look at what God does.
He [the servant] couldn't pay, so his master ordered that he be sold — along with his wife, his children, and everything he owned — to pay the debt. But the man fell down before his master and begged him, "Please be patient with me, and I will pay it all." Then his master was filled with pity for him, and he released him and forgave his debt (Matthew 18:25-27). God pardons the zillion sins of selfish humanity. Forgives 60 million sin-filled days. "Out of sheer generosity he put us in right standing with himself. A pure gift. He got us out of the mess we're in and restored us to where he always wanted us to be. And he did it by means of Jesus Christ" (Romans 3:24).
God forgives the unforgivable. Were this the only point of the story, we'd have ample points to ponder. But this is only Act 1 of the two-act play. The punch line is yet to come.
Act 2: We do the unthinkable.
The forgiven refuse to forgive. But when the man left the king, he went to a fellow servant who owed him a few thousand dollars. He grabbed him by the throat and demanded instant payment. His fellow servant fell down before him and begged for a little more time. "Be patient with me, and I will pay it," he pleaded. But his creditor wouldn't wait. He had the man arrested and put in prison until the debt could be paid in full (Matthew 18:28-30). Incomprehensible behavior. Multimillion-dollar forgiveness should produce a multimillion-dollar forgiver, shouldn't it? The forgiven servant can forgive a petty debt, can't he? This one doesn't. Note, he won't wait (Matthew 18:30). He refuses to forgive. He could have. He should have. The forgiven should forgive. Which makes us wonder, did this servant truly accept the king's forgiveness?
Something is missing from this story. Gratitude. Notably absent from the parable is the joy of the forgiven servant. Like the nine ungrateful lepers we read about in the last chapter, this man never tells the king "thank you." He offers no words of appreciation, sings no song of celebration. His life has been spared, family liberated, sentence lifted, Titanic debt forgiven — and he says nothing. He should be hosting a Thanksgiving Day parade. He begs for mercy like a student on the brink of flunking out of college. But once he receives it, he acts as if he never scored less than a B.
Could his silence make the loudest point of the parable? "He who is forgiven little, loves little" (Luke 7:47). This man loves little apparently because he had received little grace.
You know who I think this guy is? A grace rejecter. He never accepts the grace of the king. He leaves the throne room with a sly smirk, as one who dodged a bullet, found a loophole, worked the system, pulled a fast one. He talked his way out of a jam. He bears the mark of the unforgiven — he refuses to forgive.
When the king hears about the servant's stingy heart, he blows his crown. He goes cyclonic: "You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?" And his master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him. So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses (Matthew 18:32-35).
The curtain falls on Act 2, and we are left to ponder the principles of the story. The big one comes quickly. The grace-given give grace. Forgiven people forgive people. The mercy-marinated drip mercy. "God is kind to you so you will change your hearts and lives" (Romans 2:4).
We are not like the unchanged wife. Before her conversion to Christ, she endlessly nagged, picked on and berated her husband. When she became a Christian, nothing changed. She kept nagging. Finally he told her, "I don't mind that you were born again. I just wish you hadn't been born again as yourself."
One questions if the wife was born again to start with. Apple trees bear apples, wheat stalks produce wheat and forgiven people forgive people. Grace is the natural outgrowth of grace.
The forgiven who won't forgive can expect a sad fate — a life full of many bad and bitter days. The "master...delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him" (Matthew 18:34).
Hoard hurts in your heart and expects the joy level of a Siberian death camp. A friend shared with me the fate of a hoarding grandmother. Like the Collyer brothers, she refused to part with anything. Her family witnessed two terrible consequences: she lost sleep and treasures. She couldn't rest because junk covered her bed. She lost treasures because they were obscured by mountains of trash. Jewelry, photographs, favorite books — all were hidden.
No rest. No treasures. Squirrel away your hurts and expect the same.
Or clean your house and give the day a fresh chance! "But, Max, the hurt is so deep."
I know. They took much. Your innocence, your youth, your retirement. But why let them keep taking from you? Haven't they stolen enough? Refusing to forgive keeps them loitering, taking still.
You bet it was. Forgiveness does not mean approval. You aren't endorsing misbehavior. You are entrusting your offender to Him who judges righteously (1 Peter 2:23).
"But, Max, I've been so angry for so long."
And forgiveness won't come overnight. But you can take baby steps in the direction of grace. Forgive in phases. Quit cursing the perpetrator's name. Start praying for him. Try to understand her situation.
Let Antwone Fisher inspire you. He had ample reason to live with a cluttered heart. For the first 33 years of his life, he knew neither of his parents. His father had died before Antwone was born. And his mother, for reasons that he longed to know, abandoned him as a boy. He grew up as a foster child in Cleveland, abused, neglected and desperate to find a single member of his family.
Equipped with the name of his father and a Cleveland phone book, he began calling people of the same last name. His life changed the day an aunt answered the phone. He told her his date of birth and his father's identity. He described the difficult turns his life had taken: being kicked out by his foster mom, serving a stint in the Navy, now holding his own as a security guard in Los Angeles.
Her voice was warm. "You have a big family." Before long another aunt invited him to Cleveland for a Thanksgiving reunion and filled the week with a lifetime of belated love.
And then, after days of calls and attempts, his family found his mother's brother. He offered to take Antwone to the housing project where she lived. On the drive Antwone rehearsed the questions he'd longed to ask for the last three decades:
Why didn't you come for me? Didn't you ever wonder about me? Didn't you miss me at all?
But the questions were never uttered. The door opened, and Antwone walked into a dimly lit apartment with shabby furniture. Turning, he saw a frail woman who looked too old to be his mother. Her hair was uncombed. She wore her night-clothes.
Antwone's uncle said to her, "This is Antwone Quenton Fisher." Antwone's mother made the connection and started to moan, losing her footing, holding on to a chair. "Oh, God, please...Oh, God." She turned her face away in shame and hurried out of the room, crying.
Antwone learned that his mother had tried to get a man to marry her so she could raise her son, but couldn't. She had gone on to bear four other children, also raised as wards of the state. Over the years she'd been hospitalized, incarcerated and put on probation. And when he realized how painful her years had been, he chose to forgive.
He writes, "Though my road had been long and hard, I finally understood that my mother's had been longer and harder... Where the hurt of abandonment had lived inside me, now there was only compassion."2
In the end, we all choose what lives inside us. May you choose forgiveness.
1. Tripod, "Useless Information: Stuff You Never Needed to Know but Your Life Would Be Incomplete Without: The Collyer Brothers" earthdude1.tripod.com/collyer/collyer.html.
2. Antwone Quenton Fisher, "I Once Was Lost," Reader's Digest, July 2001, 81-86.
Max Lucado is Senior Minister at Oak Hills Church in San Antonio, TX.
Excerpted with permission from Every Day Deserves A Chance: Wake Up to the Gift of 24 Little Hours by Max Lucado, Thomas Nelson Publishers, copyright 2007.