Sermon audio here.
Debt plays a major role in the parable from today’s Holy Gospel. Credit cards may be small and light as a feather, but the crushing burden of the debt they represent is even bigger than a politician’s ego.
The unjust steward in today’s parable had gotten himself into trouble with his boss. Soon to be out of a job, he came up with a brilliant plan. He found two people who drowning in debt. Between them, they owed their master, the former employer of the unjust steward, nearly half a million dollars.[i]
Now you may not owe that kind of money to anybody, but most of us know what it’s like to be slave to the lender. In 2015, the average US household owed $131,000 of debt, spread out over credit cards, mortgages, and student and car loans.[ii]
It’s no wonder one of the most listened-to radio programs in the country is The Dave Ramsey Show. This is where listeners call in after paying off their debt to talk about how they did it and to scream “we’re debt free.” They always talk about how it was difficult, and that it meant living on nothing but rice and beans. But they always say in the end it was worth it, and you can hear the relief in their voices now that they’re debt-free.
Imagine, then, the relief the debtors in today’s parable must have experienced when the unjust steward told them he was cutting their debt in half. Each servant would have a little over $100,000 forgiven—no strings attached. No question this was some of the best news they’d ever received in their lives. It may have even seemed too good to be true.
But you know how that goes: when something seems too good to be true, it usually is. And sure enough, this amazing offer had been made by a disgruntled former employee. No doubt the boss would receive word about this fraudulent activity and the debt would come back with a vengeance.
We, too, are debtors, but the debt Christ is concerned with has nothing to do with Visa or MasterCard. It’s a debt that’s far worse than any financial mess you could get yourself into. It’s a debt that not even the slickest lawyer could get you out of and not even the most devoted Dave Ramsey disciple could even begin to repay.
An older translation of the 5th Petition goes, “Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors.” This is a debt that has nothing to do with money. It’s the debt of sin, and it affects everything you think, everything you say, and everything you do. No part of your life is immune from the taint of sin. It’s the evil in your heart from which flow thoughts of murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, and slander.
Living with financial debt can make you miserable, but the debt of sin can be paralyzing. It shatters your fellowship with Christ and numbs you to goodness and beauty. Sin will distract you with fleeting pleasure so you don’t notice as it’s robbing you of joy.
It’s possible to have a confident and joyful heart, but this springs from nothing else than the certain knowledge of the forgiveness of sin.[iii] A peaceful disposition and a good conscience are only possible where sin is forgiven. You can live in denial of this debt; many do. But it will rob you of peace just the same.
The peace of Christ has nothing to do with how rich or poor you are. Misery doesn’t discriminate; it afflicts the rich and the poor alike. Sin robs you of joy because it robs you of Christ. A peaceful conscience is found only in the forgiveness of sin.
Which brings us back to our parable. There are the debtors, having been on this emotional rollercoaster. When we met them, they were buried alive under a mountain of debt. But along came the unjust steward and cut their debt in half. Just when things were starting to look up, they find out their “savior” was actually a crook, and they knew they’d have to pay back every last penny.
That’s the way it works in the world. Let’s say your credit card company accidentally cut your debt in half. So they call you up and tell you they’ve made a terrible mistake, but they’ve caught their error and they’re making things right. They didn’t mean to cut your debt in half; they meant to forgive it all. And don’t worry; they fired the guy who messed up because he wasn’t nearly generous enough.
That would never happen at JP Morgan, but that’s exactly what happens with Jesus Christ. Remember how the guy in the parable was fired for wasting his master’s possessions? If anything, he was fired for not being generous enough. Remember, it was his reckless forgiving of debt that finally earned him his master’s praise.
Above all, this parable teaches us about the nature of God. We’re not the master, nor can we pay our debt to Him off. We’re the master’s debtors, passive recipients of undeserved forgiveness. We’re those who suffer from the folly of our own bad decisions.
But along comes Christ, not some corrupt Savior who makes false promises or forgives debt He has no business forgiving. He forgives, but it’s not like the debt just vanishes. When debt’s forgiven, someone always ends up paying for it. In the parable, the master ate the cost himself.
Your debt has been paid for by the blood of Christ. He doesn’t cut the bill in half and expect you to make up the difference; He pays the whole thing in full. And He does it for the same reason the master commended the unjust steward: it is His greatest delight to forgive.
So repent. Sin isn’t a debt to take lightly. The forgiveness of this debt, this sin, cost Jesus His life and is at the heart of the Christian faith. The Gospel is that penitent, believing sinners are forgiven because of the price Jesus paid—not gold or silver, but His holy, precious blood and His innocent suffering and death.
What Jesus does for you would be sort of like if you robbed a lawyer, got caught, and then when you went to trial, you hired the lawyer you ripped off to defend you. The prosecution and defense are never on the same team—not in our courts, at least. But when you appear before the throne of God, your Judge is also Your Savior.
And His verdict is not guilty. Your sin is forgiven you. Holy Absolution is a debt-free proclamation that clears the conscience and restores unto you the joy of your salvation, and you don’t even have to live on rice and beans to get it.
Instead, Jesus invites you to feast on a meal that’s richer in grace than a deep fried hot dog wrapped in bacon’s rich in calories. Jesus hasn’t merely done the heavy lifting. He’s done all the lifting. He was delivered for your debts and raised for your justification.
Soli Deo Gloria
[i] According to Just, the amount forgiven each servant was about 500 denarii, which would mean both owed around 1,000 denarii (since each was forgiven half; see Just, Luke 9:51–24:53; 611). According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, the average daily wage in the US in June, 2016 was $25.61. On average, a day’s wage in America would be $204.88 ($25.61 x 8). 2,000 days wages would then be equal to $409,760 (2,000 x 204.88).
[iii] Large Catechism, The First Petition, 92.