“Foolishness in the Kingdom” on Matthew 18:23-35 by Joe Ellis — July 3, 2022
There is a saying that goes — ‘a fool and his money are soon parted.’ I can’t help but wonder if that saying might apply to the king in this story. If you’ve heard this story preached on before, this may seem like an odd way to start out — for the king is supposed to represent God. But, after sitting with this story a little while, I’ve begun to wonder if this king played the fool. A fool and his money are soon parted. This certainly seems to be the story of this king, but you can easily miss it. After all, if you’re reading this story in the Bible, you’ll see it’s called something like, ‘The Story of the Unforgiving Servant’ and not ‘The Story of the Foolish King.’
Because we don’t use the same type of money in this story, the finer details can be lost on us. It’s actually quite ridiculous. Jesus sets it up quite casually. The king is trying to balance his books so he goes through his accounts to see who owes him money. The king thinks, “Oh yes, there is that servant who owes me 10,000 talents.” That is roughly three hundred tons of silver. That’s like saying, “Oh yes, there is that slave who owes me several trillion dollars, I should see if he can pay me back.” Back then, you could only get that kind of money through taxation — yet in one year, one of the major regions of the area only brought in eight talents from taxes. This slave owes his master 10,000 talents — that’s the price of the Kingdom! Perhaps it’s more. The king would never recuperate that amount even by raising taxes 1000 percent. The king had given his kingdom to the slave, and the slave had totally squandered it. This seems absurd, and it’s supposed to be, but it’s not absurdly absurd.
In the first book of the Bible, we have a story about another slave, Joseph, who presented to Pharaoh a plan on how to manage his resources. The Pharaoh was so impressed he said to Joseph in Genesis 41, “You shall be over my house, and all my people shall order themselves as you command. Only as regards the throne will I be greater than you. See, I have set you over all the land of Egypt.” Pharaoh gave Joseph responsibility for his kingdom, and Pharaoh’s wealth grew exponentially. Imagine if this Jesus’ story from Matthew 18 happened between Pharaoh and Joseph. Imagine that famine has hit Egypt, and so Pharaoh is wondering if they will be able to survive the famine as a nation. He approaches his chief slave and asks, “Are we going to get by?” In this version, Joseph answers, “No, I’ve lost all your money. I don’t know how, but I depleted your treasury. We are totally bankrupt.” That’s a very different story. It’s a story about how foolish Pharaoh was to trust in that worthless slave. That’s the position of the king in this story we read today. How foolish he was to entrust the wealth of his entire kingdom to this foolish slave. The kingdom is bankrupt. Perhaps it serves the king right, after all, a fool and his money are soon parted.
Jesus’ story underscores how much has God given his people. God has given us this entire world as a beautiful and good gift. It’s a beautiful gift from our creator. When we read in the Bible about God creating this world and the words he spoke to those first humans, it’s both humbling and makes your heart sing. We hear God speak words of unfathomable generosity: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”(Genesis 1:28) Like Pharaoh to Joseph, God hands over to humans responsibility to rule over the entire Earth. He entrusts us to see that creation is cared for well, to see that humans treat one another with justice, and to fill the land with knowledge of the goodness of the Creator God. He gives us no less — He gave us all and desires to see the Kingdom of the earth flourish under our care. To see humans treat each other with dignity and justice, to see all facets of creation thrive, and to see His wonderful name exalted throughout the earth. I’m not going to belabour the point of how, umm..., well that humankind has done at this project, but there’s a reason why reading the news is so perpetually discouraging. We have a knack at bankrupting the kingdom — Utterly bankrupting the kingdom. Justice often does not flourish. Creation is groaning painfully under our care. The land is without knowledge of the goodness of the Lord.
As in this Jesus’ story in Matthew, the King comes to us humans to settle the account, he asks us what we have to show him. And collectively, the best we can do is stand with that slave and say, “We’ve depleted your treasury. We are bankrupt. The King’s Kingdom has gone bankrupt.” Perhaps we want to say defensively, “A fool and his money are soon parted, you never should have entrusted us with so much.”
Mindful of our condition, we watch the king in Jesus’ story. What will he do now? His slave just bankrupt his kingdom. Now the kingdom is broke. The king is entirely within his rights to throw the slave and his family into debtors prison, or worse. We watch as the slave falls on his knees and begs the King to have patience. The slave begs the king to “suffer me a little longer and I will pay you everything.” The slave promises to make everything better, a fool’s promise. How could this slave make everything better? He’s already bankrupted the kingdom. There is nothing more to invest. The only question is will this king continue to be so foolish as to ever trust this worthless slave again? Or will this be the point in the story where the king stops being so foolish and shows some sense?
Yet, it seems the king’s foolishness has only just begun. In Jesus’ next line, we learn about the king’s total abandonment to foolishness. Jesus tells us in v. 27 that “The king had compassion on that slave and released him, and forgave him the debt.” The king’s heart went out to this slave. The king forgave everything. The slave lost the entire kingdom, yet the king had compassion. This forgiveness cost the king everything he had. It cost him his entire kingdom. After all, the slave depleted the entire treasury. There was nothing left. Bankrupt. This forgiveness means that the king is no longer king. He’s nothing left to rule over. He now is simply just another slave.
This, of course, is the story of Jesus. Paul tells us in Philippians 2:7-8 that for us, Jesus “gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross.” In perhaps the greatest act of foolishness ever known, Christ our King left His exalted position and became like a slave, a criminal. All to forgive our debts. We bankrupted the Kingdom, and it cost the God-King His life. What a foolish story — both that a King would give his entire kingdom to a slave, and that a King would take our debt away after we’ve bankrupted His Kingdom. It’s a foolish story. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 1:18, 24-25 that “The message of the cross is foolish to those who are headed for destruction! But we who are being saved know it is the very power of God… Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. This foolish plan of God is wiser than the wisest of human plans, and God’s weakness is stronger than the greatest of human strengths.” Yes, in this story, God has played the fool — but in His foolishness we see the most magnificent display of wisdom ever beheld on earth.
So what happens to our bankrupt King after he humbles himself to a criminal’s death on a cross? Resurrection. Paul tells us that “God elevated Jesus to the place of highest honour and gave him the name above all other names, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth and every tongue declare that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:9-11)
The slave is forgiven but it cost the life of the King. Yet through the power of resurrection, God restores both the King and His Kingdom. The Kingdom is no longer bankrupt. In Christ, the treasury of the Kingdom has been fully restored and the King has returned and is ruling with both power and glory.
Yet, what about the slave? What about us slaves? The slave is still in this story. The slave is still a slave, but is now an altogether different kind of slave. Or at least he should be. He is no longer a slave to profit. He is no longer a slave to paying back his enormous debt. He’s no longer a slave to trying to grow the kingdom like Joseph. The slave is now a slave to foolishness. After all, the slave has a new kind of debt. He wasn’t bought with money, but with blood. He now has a debt to foolishness. That means he can’t live like a slave to profit. He can’t be concerned with profit anymore because he is now a slave to foolishness. He is now obligated to show others the same foolishness that he himself has enjoyed from the King. If “a fool and his money are soon parted,” it’s the slaves turn now to pay the fool.
He soon finds the opportunity. He happens upon a fellow-slave who happens to be in his debt — this other slave owes him a couple of months salary. Yet he is confused. He thinks he is still a slave to profit. He’s a greater fool than we initially supposed. Perhaps he thinks that he can still pay back his original debt, and sets out by demanding that his fellow slave repay him that paltry sum of money. Maybe this slave still has some illusion of repaying the debt and removing his disgrace. Maybe this slave has some hopeless idea that he still has some chance of playing the hero like Joseph and growing the kingdom exponentially. So, he pursues that goal with zeal. He chokes his fellow slave saying, “pay me what you owe.” His friend begs for patience, “be long suffering with me.” The slave refuses and throws him into prison until the debt can be repaid. Of course, this would be understandable if he were still a slave to profit, growing the kingdom no matter the cost — yet he is no longer a slave to profit. Because this slave was bought with foolishness, he is now a slave to foolishness. Because this slave serves a foolish king, he must also be a foolish slave.
The only way to serve in a foolish kingdom is foolishly, like freely forgiving the debts of others. As we see, the only way to get punished in a foolish kingdom is when we refuse to live foolishly. In a kingdom of profit, you’re punished for not being profitable. In a foolish kingdom, we are punished for not being foolish — for not forgiving one another from our heart when they are in debt to us. We have been forgiven so much, should we not then forgive one another?
And so we are called to die foolishly, like our King. We are called to be long-suffering like our King. We are called to put up with fools, like our King. For knowing that we are fools, and that we have been totally forgiven all our debts by our foolish King. Yet too often we forget to live as fools. We still live as slaves to profit, to see the scales balanced in our life. As followers of Jesus, we can’t live a life dedicated to balancing the scales at all costs. We are going to find others in our debt. Others will harm you. They’ll insult you, trample your rights, presume upon your hospitality. They won’t live up to your standard of righteousness, they might even offend your idea of God. Perhaps others will offend your idea of how to do church or what it looks like to be holy. Perhaps others will steal from you, and you’ll do so to others. When we live as slaves to profit, it’s a miserable Kingdom, the only response is to choke your fellow-slave and demand that they pay you back. Sadly, we see much of that in the church. We are to be slaves to foolishness, to long suffering. We are to be fools for Christ — to take the loss, to bear the pain, to suffer the indignity of an undeserving death. We are to be fools for Christ, freely offer our brother and sister the gift of forgiveness — Offering forgiveness whenever we believe someone to be in our debt. This is the only way to live in the foolish Kingdom of God.