Wednesday of Trinity 22: Why Does the King Answer a Prayer the Servant Didn’t Ask?

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“But as he was not able to pay, his master commanded that he be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and that payment be made. The servant therefore fell down before him, saying, ‘Master, have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ Then the master of that servant was moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt.”

The king was capable of forgiving massive debt. He was settling accounts with more than one servant. Presumably, he would have been prepared to forgive other servants’ debts as well. This reality, resting on the details of the parable as they do, raises a question. Why settle accounts if you’re just going to forgive everything anyways? We proposed this question last devotion.

Clearly something stands out with the way the “certain servant” triggered the massive forgiveness. Yes, the king might have forgiven other debts too – we don’t hear anything about whether he did or not – but it wasn’t just a carte blanche forgiveness of debt. The one servant did something “above and beyond” the others leading to his forgiveness. What was that?

Obviously it’s his prayer. “Master, have patience with me, and I will pay you all” which almost looks like a “Lord, have mercy,” a Kyrie. The Kyrie is a good posture to begin with. Going back to the deep contextual background for this Gospel in Matthew 18, this is the posture of a humble child, the posture of a lost sheep, the posture of a sinning brother, the posture of one whose angel always beholds the Father’s face. The one praying the Kyrie truly embraces the “face” of the king, embracing the possibility of his beneficence. He doesn’t turn away in terror but “faces” the king.

And it’s a posture leading to the servant’s forgiveness. To bring up a theme we’ve come to several times, stories beginning with “Lord, have mercy” always have good endings.

However, “Master, have patience with me, and I will pay you all” is not “Lord, have mercy.” The former asks for time with the expectation of paying off the debt. The latter has no such promise – the suppliant just needs mercy, period.

Perhaps this hints at a problem with the servant. He didn’t quite have the humble, little, childlike, lost posture Jesus had just laid down as the foundation. He still took an “I got this” attitude. Perhaps he wasn’t fully jarred out of a world where people pay off their debts, so when he ran into one who owed him debts, he thought, “You know, I was fully ready to pay off my debts, and so should you. Sure the king forgave all my debt even though I was willing to pay it off myself – oh well, what a dupe! But sorry for you, pay up!”

The king answers a prayer the servant didn’t ask. The servant asks for time; the king gives him forgiveness. The king hoped the servant would learn a lesson, and that the incredible gift he had been given would translate into a new world for the servant, where debts are forgiven. Instead, the servant remained in the world suggested by his prayer.

This has interesting implications. On one hand, we realize our Lord is the merciful King. He is prepared to forgive massive debt, for any and all who “call upon the name of the Lord” in mercy and prayer. Not everyone does that, so yes, the day of accounting is a real day of real accounting for those who don’t look to the king for mercy.

On the other hand, the nature of the faith and prayer leading to that mercy can be “off.” The servant fell down before the king, because he was about to lose his goods, children, and wife. Even though his prayer was, “Give me more time, and I’ll be sure to pay back everything I owe you,” the king in essence heard, “Have mercy on me, for I am lost!” The king heard not the adult words of the servant but his childlike heart.

Yet, as we observe, what the king heard did not play out in the behavior of the servant. Rather, exactly as the servant spoke, so did he act – he remained in that adult world where debts must be paid off. It appears the king had misplaced assumptions about what he wanted to hear from the servant. He wanted to hear someone childlike begging for a world in which debts are mercifully forgiven; the servant instead remained in his adult world where debts can be paid off.

So what’s the take away on the king’s misplaced assumptions, particularly if this king is God? Perhaps it’s this. It’s similar to a theme brought up in last week’s Gospel, the healing of the nobleman’s son.

There we noted how the faith arising throughout the Gospel was all over the map – the man first came to Jesus with a misguided “signs and wonders” faith; he first believed Jesus’ words but perhaps not his Person; the nature of his faith on the way home was different than it was after he met the people who reported the son was healed; the son was healed first and came to believe later, representing the possibility that one can believe on behalf of another; finally, his whole household came to faith later.

Meanwhile, the one thing not all over the map, but impacting like a crater, were the words, “Your son lives.” Those words coupled with the actual realtime miracle were the objective “new world,” or “new normal” truth, which faith had to figure out, grow into, react to, and process. Faith is like that. Faith takes time to contour itself to the “new world” gift given.

Perhaps that’s what’s going on with the servant, or what didn’t go on. The servant, like the nobleman, begins with a misguided prayer. The king, like Jesus, answers not the misguided prayer, but what the suppliant really asked for. However, the nobleman (and his family) afterwards contoured his faith to the “new world” created by Jesus’ word; meanwhile, the servant had no faith at all – his faith didn’t contour to the gift.

It would be as if, in the story of the nobleman, he remained in his original world where he sought signs and wonders. So, after his son was healed, he only saw that as a cool act of healing – perhaps how we view the doctor who did surgery on us ten years ago – and not the inauguration of the new creation brought about by one Jesus Christ, who becomes the focal point of our existence.

The king offered the servant an opportunity to grow out of the world of his prayer into the world he introduced to him, a world of mercy and grace centered on the king’s goodness. The king expected the servant to have this goodness be the focal point of his existence, a goodness that the king hoped would ripple throughout the kingdom.

One final note. It’s interesting that Jesus gives us the petition, “forgive us our debts.” Where the servant’s prayer was off, Jesus gives us the proper words to pray. We don’t pray for time to improve our lives or make things right with God. No time will be enough to pay off our debts – so thinks the child, the little ones, the lost sheep. No, children, little ones, and lost sheep, like the publican, just need mercy and help. We need debt relief, and because that’s exactly what Jesus gives us, He gives us the petition which most surely will be answered in that way.


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