Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 41. The Unforgiving Debtor
Mt 18:23 Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants.
Context, you may have gathered through my many comments throughout these studies, we consider highly important, especially when the current verses start with a ‘Therefore’. That presupposes a logical flow, so what has gone before? Since our last study where Jesus sought to show that we are each very precious to God, he then taught how to resolve differences (v.15-17) to eventually re-establish unity so ultimately we do all we can to ensure none of our brothers or sisters are lost, and then a little on spoke about authority (v.18-20). These teachings led Peter to wonder about those who do offend, those who do threaten unity and harmony in the body: “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?” (v.21) to which Jesus then replied, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” (v.22)
It is in the light of this that Jesus then tells this parable that is often referred to as the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant. The account has three parts: first, how a master dealt with a debtor-servant (v.23-27), second, how that same servant then went and dealt with another debtor-servant (v.28-30) and third, the consequences of his behaviour (v.31-34). So let’s consider it part by part.
First Part: “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. “The servant fell on his knees before him. `Be patient with me,’ he begged, `and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.”
The basic facts: a king holds an accounting. One particular servant owes him a lot but was unable to pay it off. As punishment and a means of settling it, the king ordered that he and his family be sold as slaves. The man begs for more time to pay and so the king, in pity, cancelled the debt completely and let him go.
Second Part: “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him and began to choke him. `Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded. His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, `Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’ But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt.”
The basic facts: The first servant was owed some money, a small amount by comparison, by another servant who, when he failed to pay off his debt, and despite his pleas for patience, he had thrown into prison.
Third Part: “When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened. “Then the master called the servant in. `You wicked servant,’ he said, `I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
The basic facts: The King (or master) is told what had happened and calls the first servant in and confronts him with his actions and casts him into prison. His logic is very clear: he had forgiven the first servant so shouldn’t he have had mercy on his fellow servant.
Following this Jesus declares, “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.” (v.35) The inference is obvious: God has forgiven us, so shouldn’t we forgive others? Now the theology of forgiveness is slightly more complicated than this simple parable, for remember Jesus is making the point that when forgiveness is sought, it MUST be given. That is the crucial lesson here.
Now the overall teaching of the New Testament, which I have implied into this parable is, “Forgive as the Lord forgave you,” (Col 3:13) but the question arises, which many Christians never consider, “How did God forgive us?” and the answer in Scripture is always – when we repent. Jesus has died so that justice might be seen to be done and the punishment for your sin and mine has been taken. Thus when we repent and turn to God, what he has done on the Cross then applies – but it doesn’t apply if there is no repentance. The whole of Scripture – and especially the End – makes this very clear; there is an accounting and either Jesus died for you or you have no option but to take the punishment – death. Perhaps we just take for granted this teaching, so consider, “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times (and if he – implied) comes back to you and says, `I repent,’ forgive him.” (Lk 17:3,4) Forgiveness is always conditional.
But there is also another major aspect to all this. How are we to feel about our offender while we are waiting for him to repent and come and ask for our forgiveness? We are to have his/her wellbeing at heart and desire and do all we can to help them come to repentance, and to be in a place of blessing with God – because that is what God does to us while He waits for us to repent. (A help in this is to realise that almost certainly when we were offended, we contributed to the situation, we contributed to their wrong doing. Joseph in the Old Testament is often cited as one who forgave his brothers but the truth was that he had contributed to provoking them to act against him by his pride and arrogance. Be careful; how we might look down on our offender; we may not be in such a strong position as we thought).
So two things: first, how do you feel about the person who has offended you (and it may be in a really bad way)? Is your desire for them to repent, and perhaps be saved, or at the very least their offence be put right before God and before you and then be reconciled to you and you to them? Second, when they do come and ask your forgiveness, are you ready to give it, for this is what this parable is all about?
Do you see something here? This requires much more grace than that ‘cheap forgiveness’ that sometimes appears in the media that simply says, “It’s all right. I forgive him/her/them.” No it’s not all right, it diminishes the awfulness of the sin and denies justice. Forgiveness in the Bible is a legal declaration of what has already been declared in heaven once the words of repentance have been spoken. God does not forgive blatant sin when there is no repentance. If someone sins, they have an issue with God. Yes, as Christians, our salvation is not at risk for a single (or few) sin, but we do have issues before God if we have not repented and we will have to face them one day, whether on this earth or in the time to follow.
When we repent God WILL forgive: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and WILL forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” (1 Jn 1:9) So if our brother or sister comes to us and confesses their sin and seeks our forgiveness, we MUST make sure we give it. Amen? Amen!