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Sermon XVIII: The Wicked Servant

ST. MATTHEW xviii. 23.

The kingdom of heaven is likened to a certain king, which would take account of his servants.

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This parable, which you heard in the Gospel for this day, you all know. And I doubt not that all you who know it, understand it well enough. It is so human and so humane; it is told with such simplicity, and yet with such force and brilliancy that--if one dare praise our Lord's words as we praise the words of men--all must see its meaning at once, though it speaks of a state of society different from anything which we have ever seen, or, thank God, ever shall see.

The Eastern despotic king who has no law but his own will; who puts his servant--literally his slave--into a post of such trust and honour, that the slave can misappropriate and make away with the enormous sum of ten thousand talents; who commands, not only him, but his wife and children to be sold to pay the debt; who then forgives him all out of a sudden burst of pity, and again, when the wretched man has shown himself base and cruel, unworthy of that pity, revokes his pardon, and delivers him to the tormentors till he shall pay all- -all this is a state of things impossible in a free country, though it is possible enough still in many countries of the East, which are governed in this very despotic fashion; and justice, and very often injustice likewise, is done in this rough, uncertain way, by the will of the king alone.

But, however different the circumstances, yet there is a lesson in this story which is universal and eternal, true for all men, and true for ever. The same human nature, for good and for evil, is in us, as was in that Eastern king and his slave. The same kingdom of heaven is over us as was over them, its laws punishing sinners by their own sins; the same Spirit of God which strove with their hearts is striving with ours. If it was not so, the parable would mean nothing to us. It would be a story of men who belonged to another moral world, and were under another moral law, not to be judged by our rules of right and wrong; and therefore a story of men whom we need not copy.

But it is not so. If the parable be--as I take for granted it is--a true story; then it was Christ, the Light who lights every man who cometh into the world, who put into that king's heart the divine feeling of mercy, and inspired him to forgive, freely and utterly, the wretched slave who worshipped him, kneeling with his forehead to the ground, and promising, in his terror, what he probably knew he could not perform--'Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay thee all.'

And it was Christ, the Light of men, who inspired that king with the feeling, not of mere revenge, but of just retribution; who taught him that, when the slave was unworthy of his mercy, he had a right, in a noble and divine indignation, to withdraw his mercy; and not to waste his favours on a bad man, who would only turn them to fresh bad account, but to keep them for those who had justice and honour enough in their hearts to forgive others, when their Lord had forgiven them.

We must bear in mind, that the king must have been right, and acting (whether he knew it or not) by the Spirit of God; else his conduct would never have been likened to the kingdom of heaven: that is, to the laws by which God governs both this world and the world to come.

The kingdom of heaven. The kingdom of God--Would that men would believe in them a little more! It seems, at times, as if all belief in them was dying out; as if men, throughout all civilized and Christian countries, had made up their minds to say--There is no kingdom of God or of heaven. There will be one hereafter, in the next world. This world is the kingdom of men, and of what they can do for themselves without God's help, and without God's laws.

My friends, the Jewish rulers of old said so, and cried, 'We have no king but Caesar.' And they remain an example to all time, of what happens to those who deny the kingdom of God. Christ came to tell them that the kingdom of heaven was at hand, and the kingdom of God was among them. But they would have none of it. And what said our Lord of them and their notion? 'The prince of this world,' said He, 'cometh, and hath nothing in me. This is your hour and the power of darkness.' Yes; the hour in which men had determined to manage the world in their way, and not in Christ's, was also the hour of the power of darkness. That was what they had gained by having their own way; by saying--The kingdom is ours, and not God's. They had fallen under the power of darkness, not of light. The very light within them was darkness. They utterly mistook their road on earth. At the very moment that they were trying to make peace with the Roman governor, by denying that Christ was their King, and demanding that He should be crucified,--at that very moment the things which belonged to their peace were hid from their eyes. Never men made so fatal a mistake, when they thought themselves most politic and prudent. They said among themselves--'Unless we put down this man, the Romans will come and take away our place,' i.e. our privileges, and power, and our nation. And what followed? That the Romans did come and take away their place and nation, with horrible massacre and ruin: and so they lost both the kingdom of this world, and the kingdom of God likewise. Never, I say, did men make a more fatal mistake in the things of this world than those Jews to whom the kingdom of God came, and they rejected it.

And so shall we, my friends, if we forget that, whether we like it or not, the kingdom of God is within us, and we within it likewise.

1. The kingdom of God is within us. Every gracious motive, every noble, just, and merciful instinct within us, is a sign to us that the kingdom of God is come to us; that we are not as the brutes which perish; not as the heathen who are too often past feeling, being alienated from the life of God by reason of the ignorance which is in them: but, that we are God's children, inheritors of the kingdom of heaven; and that God's Spirit is teaching us the laws of that kingdom; so that in every child who is baptized, educated, and civilized, is fulfilled the promise, 'I will write my laws upon their hearts, and I will be to them a Father.'

God's Spirit is teaching our hearts as He taught the heart of that old Eastern king. It may be, it ought to be, that He is teaching us far deeper lessons than He ever taught that king.

2. We are in the kingdom of God. It is worth our while to remember that steadfastly just now. Many people are ready to agree that the kingdom of God is within them. They will readily confess that religion is a spiritual matter, and a matter of the heart: but their fancy is that therefore religion, and all just and noble and beautiful instincts and aspirations, are very good things for those who have them: but that, if any one has them not, it does not much matter.

They do not see that there are not only such things as feelings about God; but that there are also such things as laws of God; and that God can enforce those laws, and does enforce them, sometimes in a very terrible manner. They do not believe enough in a living God, an acting God, a God who will not merely write His laws in our hearts, if we will let Him, but may also destroy us off the face of the earth, if we would not let Him. They fancy that God either cannot, or will not, enforce His own laws, but leaves a man free to accept them, or reject as he will. There is no greater mistake. Be not deceived; God is not mocked. As a man sows, so shall he reap. God says to us, to all men,--Copy Me. Do as I do, and be My children, and be blest. But if we will not; if, after all God's care and love, the tree brings forth no fruit, then, soon or late, the sentence goes forth against it in God's kingdom, 'Cut it down; why cumbereth it the ground?'

There is a saying now-a-days, that nations and tribes who will not live reasonable lives, and behave as men should to their fellow-men, must be civilized off the face of the earth. The words are false, if they mean that we, or any other men, have a right to exterminate their fellow-creatures. But they are true, and more true than the people who use them fancy, if they are spoken not of man, but of God. For if men will not obey the laws of God's kingdom, God does actually civilize them off the face of the earth. Great nations, learned churches, powerful aristocracies, ancient institutions, has God civilized off the face of the earth before now. Because they would not acknowledge God for their King, and obey the laws of His kingdom, in which alone are life, and wealth, and health, God has taken His kingdom away from them, and given it to others who would bring forth the fruits thereof. The Jews are the most awful and famous example of that terrible judgment of God, but they are not the only ones. It has happened again and again. It may happen to you or me, as well as to this whole nation of England, if we forget that we are in God's kingdom, and that only by living according to God's laws can we keep our place therein.

And this is what the parable teaches us. The king tries to teach the servant one of the laws of his kingdom--that he rules according to boundless mercy and generosity. God wishes to teach us the same. The king does so, not by word, but by deed, by actually forgiving the man his debt. So does God forgive us freely in Jesus Christ our Lord.

But more than this, he wishes the servant to understand that he is to copy his king; that if his king has behaved to him like a father to his child, he must behave as a brother to his fellow-servants. So does God wish to teach us.

But he does not tell the man so, in so many words. He does not say to him, I command thee to forgive thy debtors as I have forgiven thee. He leaves the man to his own sense of honour and good feeling. It is a question not of the law, but of the heart. So does God with us. He educates us, not as children or slaves, but as free men, as moral agents. He leaves us to our own reason and conscience, to reap the fruit which we ourselves have sown. Therefore, about a thousand matters in life He lays on us no special command. He leaves us to act according to our good feeling, to our own sense of honour. It is a matter, I say, of the heart. If God's law be written in our hearts, our hearts will lead us to do the right thing. If God's law be not in our hearts, then mere outward commands will not make us do right, for what we do will not be really right and good, because it will not be done heartily and of our own will.

But the servant does not follow his lord's example.

Fresh from his lord's presence, he takes his fellow-servant by the throat, saying--Pay me that thou owest. His heart has not been touched. His lord's example has not softened him. He does not see how beautiful, how noble, how divine, generosity and mercy are. He is a hard-hearted, worldly man. The heavenly kingdom, which is justice and love, is not within him. Then, if the kingdom of heaven is not in him, he shall find out that he is in it; and that in a very terrible way:- 'Thou wicked servant, unworthy of my pity, because there is no goodness in thine own heart. Thou wilt not take into thy heart my law, which tells thee, Be merciful as I am merciful. Then thou shalt feel another and an equally universal law of mine. As thou doest so shalt thou be done by. If thou art merciful, thou shalt find mercy. If thou wilt have nothing but retribution, then nothing but retribution thou shalt have. If thou must needs do justice thyself, I will do justice likewise. Because I am merciful, dost thou think me careless? Because I sit still, that I am patient? Dost thou think me such a one as thyself?' And his lord delivered him to the tormentors till he should pay all that was due unto him.

My dear friends, this is an awful story. Let us lay it to heart. And to do that, let us pray God to lay it to our hearts; to write His laws in our hearts, that we may not only fear them, but love them; not only see their profitableness, but their fitness; that we may obey them, not grudgingly or of necessity, but obey them because they look to us just, and true, and beautiful, and as they are--Godlike. Let us pray, I say, that God would make us love what He commands, lest we should neglect and despise what He commands, and find it some day unexpectedly alive and terrible after all. Let us pray to God to keep alive His kingdom of grace within us, lest His kingdom of retribution outside us should fall upon us, and grind us to powder.

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Charles Kingsley