A Practical look at the parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18:23-35):
Matthew 18:23-35 - "Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, 'Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.' And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.
But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, 'Pay what you owe.' So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, 'Have patience with me, and I will pay you.' He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. Then his master summoned him and said to him, 'You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?' And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart."
First we should explain the parable. A servant, (doulos – bond-servant. Indebted to a master that works because of that debt) under authority of the master, has a LARGE DEBT. 10,000 Talents. One Talent is worth about 20 years labor. Thus, 10,000 Talents would take 200,000 years to pay off. Let's assume even a modest American salary ($40,000 a year). If Jesus told the story today, he could have just said $8 billion. It doesn't matter, the point is he can't pay it back. The forgiveness is not on the basis of ability to repay, it is shear mercy not to lock him up.
Then the servant, under the authority of the master, finds a fellow servant, also under the authority of the master, who owes him 100 denarii. This would be 100 days wages. Let's just assume it is a fourth of a year. This is not a small amount of money. Sometimes we say, this was absurd for person to hold a grudge over such a small amount. If someone owed you $10,000, you would not think it is a small thing. It is real, and the lack of it is felt by the servant. But the forgiven servant does not forgive, and has the other servant thrown in prison. The Master then is angered at the forgiven servant and gives him to the “jailor” which is actually better translated the “torturer,” to punish him “until he should pay back all the debt.” He cannot pay it back, so the punishment is life long.
Q: What is the purpose of parables?
Instruction or judgment. Perhaps both. Remember David and Nathan. Nathan tells a story, David judges the man in the story, and Nathan says, “you are the man!”
Q: Who is the Master? [God]
Q: Who is the forgiven servant? [Peter; or to apply it now: us]
Peter's question was “how many times do I forgive?” The answer: Forgive to the degree that you believe you have been forgiven.
The degree to which you forgive is the degree to which you believe you have been forgiven. If you believe you have been forgiven little you will forgive little. If you think your debt is small, you forgive small.
If you think that is hard, I think this is mild compared to the extent to which you are to forgive:
Have you ever forgiven someone but thought, “Yeah, I'll forgive you, but I hope you get hit by a bus.” or at least “I hope you fail at everything you do.” It's not only forgiveness, its asking that they may be blessed:
Luke 6:28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.
It is even harder than forgiveness. Those that wrong you: you are to pray for, not just that God would make them see how wrong they are, but that God would bless them, make them successful, and show favor to them. That's a very hard next step. To those we harbor painful memories and thoughts towards, can we ask for blessings for them?
I heard a pastor once say that he gave this advice to a woman that was deeply wronged by her husband. The pastor's advice? Pray for his well being. Pray that God will bless them. That's hard. And if we are just told to do this we should say “Why should we?!”
Think of what these actions have done in history: Stephen, in the midst of being stoned to death, asks God to forgive the people that are not just calling him names, not stealing money from him, not saying things behind his back, but in the middle of killing him: “God, forgive them.” Think of what that prayer did. It saved Paul. If Paul heard the prayer, I'm sure he was offended at it, but God heard it. Why did God choose Paul to be an Apostle, I think maybe it was because Stephen prayed for him.
Who else modeled this but Christ on the cross?: “Father forgive them.” What did that prayer do? It interceded for us.
The objection may be leveled that forgiving and asking blessing on those who are debtors to us, that have wronged us in painful ways, seems to be “but you don't know what they did, it was so bad that it is beyond forgiving.” But even before they asked for forgiveness, Jesus and Stephen forgave people who were tearing open their skin, and asked the Father to bless them.
This is the real question, if we think it is hard for us to forgive, let's ask: Do we believe that we have offended God less than that person has offended us? Do we believe that the full culmination of our sins as committed before God continually on a daily basis: sins of arrogant pride, of self-indulgence, of self-ish behavior, or ingratitude and of unbelief, (as every act of sin is in some degree an act of unbelief): do we believe these are less than what one person has done to us?
If we believe this, we have done one of two things: We have either elevated the sin of that one person out of proportion, which is less likely than the second: We have too low a view of our sin and too high a view of our merits.
The comparison is between two servants, two bond-servants indebted to a Master. One owing another servant functions under the canopy of a greater debt to the Master.
Who is your debtor? Who if justice was done for you would really get it? Who has wronged you so deeply you want them thrown in prison? It is not a small debt. Sin is not trivial. Your pain is not inconsequential.
But how great a debt have you been forgiven? If one is not willing to forgive someone else, I would suggest focusing on the first part of the story. The debt someone owes you does not compare to the one you owe God. How great a debt has been forgiven you? If you think it light, if you think it is a sin or two a day or a dozen or so a year, read through the Sermon on the Mount again (that's Matthew 5-7). Put your sin before you. That is the reason David said he was asking forgiveness is:
Psalm 51:3 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.
Is your sin before you? Is your sin in front of you, do you know it or is it under the carpet? If you put it before you, then you can say:
Only when we know the greatness of our sin do we know the greatness of our salvation, and then we mourn over our sin:
Psalm 51:4 Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment.
Zech 12:10 - when they look on me, on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn
We look to Christ's suffering on the cross, not out of pity, but out of the realization that our problem of sin is so great that it took the death of the Son of God to atone for. The sins of others make us mourn but do our own sins make us mourn? They ought, for we know Whom we have offended and wronged.
Ultimately, this parable is a motivation behind instruction in the Sermon on the Mount: "be reconciled to your brother." This is a post-gospel law. If one has been forgiven one will forgive. If one does not forgive, it is either because they have not reflected on the greatness of their sin and pardon, or perhaps they truly are not a child of God. If we wish to forgive, we must do this by
1.Seeing the graveness of our debt to God
2.Seeing the greatness of our forgiveness in Christ, who has paid that debt on our behalf at great cost to Him, at the cost of separation from the Love of the Father, at being the receipient of the wrath of God owed to us, but paid to Christ.
3.Seeing the debts of others to you in light of our great debt and great payment made to God.
4.Thus to act Christ-like. As Christ-like in our willingness to forgive AT GREAT PAIN. This does not make forgiveness less painful. It remains painful. And in giving forgiveness, and suffering the pain of forgiveness, we understand better, experientially, the greatness of the gospel. We fill in the sufferings of Christ. We experience a small amount of the great salvation gained for us. The salvation won for us was not cheap, but expensive, not easy, but difficult, not painless, but painful.
Go and do likewise.