Interesting how God's ways are not our ways. That's an obvious statement, but how quickly we forget this truth.
The disciples come up to Jesus with a question in Matthew 18: "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" Not who is the most blessed, not who is the least, not who is the most qualified...just who is the "greatest." Their question is implicitly full of worldly values:
Who will reign over all the sheep that You, Jesus, are constantly ministering to? We follow You every day...that should count for something in this new kingdom You are creating. May we humbly suggest that we, Your disciples, are truly the best qualified to run the show. We have sat at Your feet, we have managed the crowds, we have distributed food and we have been able to answer questions and do wonders in Your name. We think this is enough for us to get to the head of the line. Besides, who knows Your teachings better than us?
Jesus understands all too well what the disciples are really asking. They want to be the leaders in this new Kingdom. Jesus wants the children of God running things. People who see themselves as family members who serve each other, not as dispassionate leaders who lord it over others. Jesus is saying:
Look around, boys. The kind of leadership you are asking about is what we have already have here: just look at the religious leaders. Look how unloving they are. Look how much attention they want simply for being leaders. They show no real compassion. They want praise from men. They dishearten My Father, for they have the Scriptures and should know better. Do they even see the children running about? Are the little ones ignored because they can't do anything in the eyes of the leaders?
So, what does Jesus do to illustrate His point? He places a small child in front of Him and His disciples. He then launches into a long teaching about how the Kingdom is built upon a child-like trust of God and how its members are family. He wants the disciples to have no illusions of greatness; He wants them to have a revelation of who will occupy and lead His Father's Kingdom: People who are children of the King.
He concludes His teaching by saying that just as a shepherd will seek high and low for a sheep who has wandered off and rejoices in finding it, and so too does His Father not want any of these little ones to be lost.
In other words:
You are looking to be leaders, boys. What kind of leaders is My Father looking for?
Here they are: These little ones who dash about our feet and smile when I enter the town.
These little ones trust that they are loved by a Father they cannot see.
These little ones rejoice in the butterflies, flowers and the stars that come out every night.
These little ones understand Who I am. They come with no ulterior motives, just a love that reaches out and embraces Me without reservation.
These little ones demand nothing but to be loved. They sense the operating principle of My Kingdom: Love, and love alone is what this Kingdom is built upon.
My Father's love is as unreserved as their smiles.
He then talks of how to restore a fallen brother. The Kingdom is built on restoration of its family members.
He then talks of binding and loosening. The Kingdom is built on discerning where disobedience has led to a shackling; how those shackles need to be loosened, and how forgiveness, not condemnation, will set others free.
He then talks of asking His Father as family members: two or three gathered together in His name, making requests and trusting the Father for the results.
Jesus has just sketched out, in clear and uncompromising terms, the contours of the Kingdom.
Peter then pops up with a legitimate question in light of all that Jesus has been teaching:
OK, Lord...we are beginning to understand. Love is the foundation. A child-like acceptance is the attitude. We approach this Kingdom as a member of a family. But, wait! Every family has its obnoxious members: the uncouth brother-in-law who can't shut up; the nagging mother-in-law and of course, the cousin who sits and does nothing while everyone else is working. What about those family members in this Kingdom?
Peter, to his credit, at least got it right: "How many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me?" Jesus responds with a parable in Matthew 18:23-35:
“Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.
But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded. His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’
But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened. Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’
In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
Servants were part of the master's family. So, the family theme is maintained here.
Look at how much the servant owed his master: 10,000 bags of gold. Whoa. That is a lot to loan a servant, but obviously, the master trusted the servant to give out such a generous loan. In fact, you get the impression that he might have been at the top of the list because this servant is called up a the beginning of the accounts to be settled.
He owes a lot, so a lot is demanded from him to pay the debt. His family will be sold into slavery and all that the man owns will be sold as well. Whoa. But, the servant knowing the heart of this master, begs for mercy. "Be patient with me..." he begs. If the servant thought his master wouldn't negotiate at all, he would have accepted his fate, knowing that the master was cold-hearted and wouldn't budge.
But he didn't! He appealed to the master's heart, knowing the compassion that lingered there. He begged for patience from the master. The master took "pity" on his servant, knowing how great the debt was. So, instead of just a reprieve, he received a cancellation altogether of the debt. Whoa.
The mercy and compassion in the master's heart exceeded all expectations that the servant held. The master's heart was far bigger than the servant could even imagine.
The master "let him go." The servant was free of debt; free to start afresh; free to hug his wife and children, knowing they were safe for now on. He could walk down the street not just debt-free, but loved. Loved by a master whose mercy was great because the love for his servant was even greater.
But did this love remain permanently lodged in the servant's heart? No, like fog wafting through the trees under a warming sun, it left. Why? The servant now focuses on the debt he is owed, not the love he just received. He is focused on what is missing, not what he possesses.
It's not like he needs the money--his debt is cancelled. So, why does he look up his fellow servant? On principle:
I am owed this money. He borrowed it from me, promising me he'd pay it back. Has he? Nope. I am within my rights to demand it of him; that's what I am going to do. Promptly. What a whiner! He wants me to be patient with him! I HAVE BEEN! He's taken too long to pay. He shouldn't have borrowed it unless he planned to pay it back in good time. Maybe this choke-hold will show him I AM SERIOUS! What a baby! You're going to prison, you loser. You can rot in there for all I care. No one makes a fool out of me. What if everyone finds out I am not serious about collecting what is rightfully owed me? Everyone will then want a piece of me! Stop your begging. You lose.
Whoa. The other servants, appalled by this servant's actions, go back to the one who has the real power. This servant is pridefully waving his "power" around, acting as if he in charge. Acting as if the other servants are subservient to him. He's somehow gained the notion he's above all the other servants. Why? Because he's debt free? Because he received his master's favor? Because he is free to start again?
Whatever is going through that servant's head, it is not love.
Debt free: yes, because a great love cancelled his debt. Favored: yes, by a master who saw his need, and released him with mercy. Start again: yes, with a heart no longer burdened by fear.
The Kingdom of God is built on love, mercy and freedom from fear.
But, this servant is not using Kingdom materials to build his house. He fiercely reminds the other servant what he owes him; he shows no favor nor mercy, just violence; he puts fear into the soul of that other servant, burdening him with an even greater debt.
The master calls back the servant. He is furious with him. He reminds him, in no uncertain terms, that the mercy he received needed to be extended without reservation to this other servant. His mercy cup runneth over, and needed to fall into the cup of the other servant.
Instead, he is now visited with the same measure that he measured out: he is thrown into prison, and will now have to pay the debt.
How can he pay the debt if he's in prison? Exactly: The Kingdom of God operates on impossible principles from a human point of view:
We are forgiven much; we are to forgive much. (But he owes me!)
We are given mercy; we are to give mercy. (But he's been so mean to me!)
We have been given love in abundance, not because of what we have done or not done, but because of who are are: children of the King. (He's a child of God? You've got to be kidding!)
Impossible with us. But God is the Master of the Impossible.
Only He can change our hearts.
Only He can open our eyes.
You and me and all who call on His name are His family. Yes, we are to see all humanity as God's children. But when we enter into the Kingdom and live under the wise rule of our Heavenly Father, love, mercy and forgiveness are the order of the day. Every day. How we treat one another, especially with forgiveness, will be a hallmark of our membership in this Kingdom.
The Kingdom needs children to lead it: forgiven and free members who cherish what the Father has bestowed on them, and a willingness to bestow it on others.