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02.19.12 Fruit of the Spirit—Patience, Matthew 18:21-35, Sermon Summary

by on February 21, 2012

Most Bibles give this parable the title, “The Unforgiving Servant.” I think a better title is, “The Patient King.”

Summary Points

  • Finding meaning in the parables
  • Patience as a fruit of the Spirit
  • What it means that God is patient
  • How our attitudes about time make patience difficult
  • What the parable tells us about God and us

Most of Jesus’ parables have several layers of meanings. Some of the Gospels include interpretations of some of the parables. Others place them in contexts that give us clues to their meanings. When you discuss the parables in small groups, many different interpretations come out based on the circumstances of the people in the group.

This parable in Matthew can go in several different directions, many of which are useful. I want to look at it for its help in understanding the fruit of the Spirit which is patience.

Intuitively, we know something about patience. When someone is impatient, we say they are short-tempered. Instead of saying someone is long-tempered, we say they are patient. In some translations of Galatians 5:22-26 where the fruit of the Spirit is listed, “patience” is rendered “long-suffering.”

The list of fruit of the Spirit begins with love, and the items on the list that follow love actually give us examples of what love looks like in experience and action. Thus, that the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, and patience means that when we practice love, we will experience joy, peace, and patience. (Please search this blog for sermons on each of the fruit of the Spirit.) And since God is love when these fruit comment on the nature of love, they also reveal something about the nature of God.

What does it mean to say that God is patient? One of the most common refrains in the Older Testament is that, “God is slow to anger” (see Psalm 103.8, among others). Why is God slow to anger? The answer is most fully revealed in the Newer Testament, in such places as 2 Peter 3:9, Romans 2:4, and 1 Timothy 1:16. There the authors point out that God is patient with us in order to give us all time to change our point of view and our direction in life.

So we, too, are called to be patient, for Galatians 5:25 enjoins us to be “led by the Spirit” in bearing the fruit of the Spirit, or in other words, to be like God. James 1:19-20 instructs us to be “slow to anger, slow to speak, and quick to listen” in order that the “righteousness of God” (that is, the fruit of the Spirit) might be manifest in us.

Being patient, of course, is related to time, and more specifically it is related to our attitudes about time. In societies past, we measured time by natural cycles. We followed the seasons on the annual scale, the shape of the moon on the monthly scale, and the rising and setting of the sun on the daily scale.

Christians, like Muslims today, used to mark time by intervals of prayer. It was the Benedictines who actually invented the mechanical clock to help ensure that they stopped work at regular intervals to pray. (Since the liturgical renewal movement of the 1960s, more and more Western Christians from mainline denominations are returning to regular prayer throughout the day.)

More recently in America, we have begun to think about time in financial terms. Whereas church bells marked the time since medieval centuries, digital clock displays at banks took over at least since the 1980s. We want to know when the markets open and close, and we monitor our investments over time to ensure we’ll have enough upon retirement. The phrase “time is money” comes to mind.

Now one of the primary ways we think of time is in terms of productivity, which is a measure of how many tasks we can accomplish in a given amount of time. The more productive we are, the more job security we have, the more money we’ll likely make, and the greater sense of satisfaction we’re supposed to have.

The notion of a second didn’t enter our thinking until the early 1700s, about the same time that Benjamin Franklin warned us that if we, “love life, then do not squander time, for that is the stuff life is made of.” Just pause and reflect upon how we talk about time: we spend, buy, waste, save, manage, loose, find, and invest time.

All of these attitudes about time have squeezed out the only true thing about time, which is that time is a gift. When I sit by someone’s bedside, or stand at their graveside, or baptize a recently born infant, I am acutely aware that time is a gift. Time is not money, time is not a something to be lost and found, it is not a commodity to be traded. It is a gift. And if we are to grow in the fruit of the Spirit which is patience, we have to embrace again this perspective about time.

In the parable Jesus tells, the servants don’t ask to be forgiven, they don’t ask to have their debts cancelled. What they as for is patience; they ask for time. And in the case of the first servant pleading before the king, he gets more than what he asked for. The king gives him his whole life back—the entire time of his life—when he cancels the servant’s debt.

But that servant then does not give what he received; he does not give time to his fellow Servant who also asks for patience with his debt. Instead, he declares that time is up, and has his fellow servant thrown into prison.

What follows is an example of the stewardship principle in scripture. If you are faithful with what God has given you, you will get more. If you are unfaithful with what God has given you, you will end up with less. And so the king hears that the servant who was given infinite patience withheld it from his fellow servant, and he reprimands the first servant and has him thrown into prison until his debt can be repaid.

And I ask, what is the nature of that debt? Consider these things. It is impossible for the servant to pay back the king from prison. The amount of the debt was exorbitant to begin with. In fact, the king originally cancelled the debt probably because he realized that the servant could never pay it off anyway. So what is the nature of the debt for which the servant is thrown into prison?

I suggest the nature of that debt is not the debt the servant owes to the king, but rather the debt the first servant owes to the second servant. It is what he should have given but did not. It is what he received but did not then give. It is the ultimate expression of patience, the infinite gift of time, it is forgiveness of his debt.

This is why Jesus says that God will treat us the same way unless we forgive others from our heart. In answer to Peter’s question about how often we must forgive others, Jesus is saying to us that God has cancelled our debt, and has given us time to do the same for others.

It’s better if we do it now, but the Patient King is so patient as to give us as much time as we need, in prison, in order to learn the lesson of grace: freely receive, freely give. Time is a gift. Receive it gratefully. Give it generously. May we be like the Patient King. May we bear the fruit of the Spirit which is patience. Amen.

Questions for Reflection or Discussion

  • Think about how you talk about time. What if you replaced your financially based language about time (“spend, waste, save, invest”) with the word “devote”? Instead of “spending time with someone,” “devote time to someone.” This recognizes the sacred nature of time as a gift, and gives spiritual value to the time you share with others.
  • Become a clone of God’s patience: pray to receive God’s forgiveness, receive it, then offer it to others.
  • Perhaps the first person you need to be patient with is yourself? God is patient with us, and before we can be patient with others we need to be patient with ourselves.

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