The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18:21-35)
“Then Peter approaching asked Jesus, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus answered, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times. That is why the kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who decided to settle accounts with his servants. When he began the accounting, a debtor was brought before him who owed him a huge amount. Since he had no way of paying it back, his master ordered him to be sold, along with his wife, his children, and all his property, in payment of the debt. At that, the servant fell down, did him homage, and said, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back in full.’ Moved with compassion the master of that servant let him go and forgave him the loan. When that servant had left, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a much smaller amount. He seized him and started to choke him, demanding, ‘Pay back what you owe.’ Falling to his knees, his fellow servant begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’ But he refused. Instead, he had him put in prison until he paid back the debt. Now when his fellow servants saw what had happened, they were deeply disturbed, and went to their master and reported the whole affair. His master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to. Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant, as I had pity on you?’ Then in anger, his master handed him over to the jailers until he should pay back the whole debt. So will God do to you, unless each of you forgives from the heart.”
I’d like to thank Rev. Julia Jarvis for inviting me to reflect on today’s Parable of the Unforgiving Servant.
I’d like to begin by connecting our parable our reading from the book of the Jewish prophet Micah:
“What does the Lord require of you: Only to do justice and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”
And sometimes “kindness” is translated as “mercy.” Justice, mercy, humility: Today’s parable addresses all three of these things
That’s not too surprising considering that I checked what the Jesus Seminar had to say about this parable and their consensus was there’s a pretty good chance this parable is the teaching of the historical Jesus.
There are, of course, many opinions about that sort of thing. All I know is I see in this parable that what Micah teaches is required of us is what Jesus teaches is required of us.
And as a matter of fact, in many of the parables it seems as if Jesus is trying to illustrate: This is what justice looks like (the Parable of the Sheep and Goats); this is what mercy looks like (the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son); this is what humility looks like (the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican).
Or, in the case of this particular parable, this is what these things don’t look like.
These are common priorities in which Judaism and Christianity are rooted.
And you’ve got to love how Jesus responds to Peter’s question: “How many times must I forgive my brother?”
Because Jesus could have said that you must always forgive, no matter how many times.
But instead, Jesus answers like a Jewish teacher from the First Century. He gives a number, 77, knowing full well, of course, that it is very unlikely that Peter will have more than 77 occasions to forgive his brother. And he would probably lose count anyway.
Some of us will recognize this technique from Judaism. Instead of ruling out the withholding of forgiveness as a matter of principle, it is ruled out as a practical matter.
I think that’s appropriate, because, as Jesus says at the end of the parable: “Forgive from the heart.” I don’t think the heart cares much about abstract principles. But, forgiving someone 77 times: Now, that’s something the human heart can grasp and understand.
And I also think Jesus’s answer is appropriate because we don’t tend to have trouble with the idea of forgiveness in principle. It’s in practice that we tend to have trouble: “I believe in forgiveness but what he did to me, or what she did to me, is unforgivable.” That’s what we do, right?
In fairness, I think sometimes we have trouble with forgiveness because we misunderstand what forgiveness requires of us.
For example, I don’t think forgiveness should require us to deny that we were wronged, or to minimize it, or to allow people to take advantage of us (because some people expect forgiveness to come to them with strings attached).
Some people don’t want to be forgiven, and then there’s not much we can do.
I don’t think forgiveness necessarily requires grand dramatic gestures. It can be a simple signal that we’re okay, or that there are no hard feelings.
Sometimes the problem is we imagine that forgiveness has these kinds of strings attached, when the truth is it can be much simpler.
But even if we have a healthy understanding of forgiveness, what Jesus calls forgiving “from the heart,” I think there are still things that can hold us back from forgiveness.
And I think this parable helps us to understand what can hold us back.
In particular, I think this parable illustrates that our withholding of forgiveness can have a lot more to do with how we see ourselves than how we see the person to be forgiven.
After all, why does the king become so angry?
Granted, we have limited information here, and we have to fill in the gaps with our imagination, but that’s what makes parables fun.
I imagine that the king is simply appalled at the unforgiving servant’s complete lack of gratitude, at his lack of humility, at his lack of appreciation for the extent of his own debt (the financial debts here being symbolic of the spiritual debts we have when we hurt each other and which are canceled when we forgive each other).
But gratitude and humility require us to have the courage, the strength of character, to see ourselves as we are, debts and all.
And this is a strength of character that the unforgiving servant clearly lacks.
Mahatma Gandhi once said that the weak can never forgive, that forgiveness is the attribute of the strong. Lacking the strength of character to see himself as he is, the unforgiving servant chooses to be blind to the truth about himself.
And I think it is this blindness that makes him capable of withholding forgiveness and at the same time incapable of being forgiven. And the consequence is his loss of freedom.
And what’s more, he is cruel, unmerciful, and he is unjust. He is willing to oppress the poor.
I imagine the king saying to himself, “Just who does he think he is?”
And I think that question is at the heart of the Gospel: Who do you think you are to cast the first stone? Who do you think you are to notice the splinter in your brother’s eye when you have a plank in your own eye? Who do you think you are to withhold forgiveness?
And I think the Gospel challenges us to ask that question, in a kind way, of ourselves.
Am I grateful? Am I humble? Do I appreciate the extent to which I have wronged other people?
And I do kind things too. But can I look at myself without comparing, especially comparing myself with other people? Because when we compare, we judge.
And the next thing you know, we’re saying, “I’ve done things to hurt people but I would never do what he did to me. Or I would never hurt anyone as much as she hurt me.” That’s what we do, right?
But when we say these kinds of things, don’t we become like the unforgiving servant, focusing on the amount that is owed and not caring about the reason why the debt is unpaid?
In the parable, the debt is unpaid because the fellow servant is struggling financially.
And when we are wronged by others, it is often because they are struggling spiritually, just as we ourselves struggle in different ways. And people can be struggling in ways we cannot begin to understand.
When we pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” I think it ought to give us pause. We dare not even ask for forgiveness if we withhold forgiveness from others.
Some of us believe explicitly in a God who forgives us as we forgive others. Some of us believe in truth. Some of believe God is truth. Regardless of our beliefs, and regardless of whether we have beliefs, it seems to me that one thing we can all do is to love truth.
And if we love truth, I think we will seek, find, and accept the truth about ourselves, and I think it will lead ultimately not to guilt but to freedom.
The freedom to forgive others, and with it the freedom to forgive ourselves, and the freedom to be forgiven. “For it is in pardoning that we are pardoned.”
And so, the words of Jesus elsewhere in the Gospel will be fulfilled: “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”