Found only in the Gospel of Matthew, the Parable of the unmerciful servant, was Jesus teaching His disciples on how to deal with each other’s transgressions with patience, and above all being able to forgive each other just like the Father forgave their sins. The disciples were worried about who would be the greatest in heaven and a sort of competitive environment was beginning to fester within their group. When Jesus was teaching them about forgiving each other it was Peter who once again asked the question that no one dared ask Jesus. He wanted to know how many times must he forgive the brother or sister who had sinned against him. Often times we also ask God for a quantifiable level of tolerance that we must practice when dealing with each other. The response from Jesus on the other hand was not something that Peter or any other human could practice on their own.
Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.Matthew 18:21-22 (NIV)
Perhaps this was a callback from the book of Genesis where Lamech boasted how God would have to avenge his death seventy-seven times in comparison to Cain’s sevenfold vengeance. This answer was not something the disciples expected as he asked them to forgive each other not for seven times nor seventy-seven but in essence, Christ was reversing Lamech’s statement of finite vengeance with infinite forgiveness.
The Two Servants
So, elaborating on His statement, Jesus presented them with the example of a king who wanted to settle his account with his servants. As the king went down the list of his ledger book entries, he found a man who owed ten thousand bags of gold. When the king called the servant, he soon realized that he was in no position to pay back that amount. The king ordered that he and his wife and his children and everything that he owned should be sold off in order to recover at least part of the money, that he owed.
“At this 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.Matthew 18:26-27 (NIV)
But as soon as he was released, the ungrateful servant found one of his colleagues who owed him only a hundred silver coins in comparison. He took hold of him and choking him, demanded back his money. When his fellow servant pleaded for the same compassion that the man had just asked from the king, he refused and instead put his debtor in prison. When the king found out about this, he was angered and called his servant into his presence.
“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 handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.Matthew 18:32-34 (NIV)
The man owed the king a considerable amount (ten thousand bags of gold would be worth 200,000 years of wages during the early first century) and there is no way he could have ever repaid the debt he owed to the king. So, you can imagine the pickle he would have been in when the king asked for repayment. In comparison, his fellow servant owed him only a hundred silver coins, which is still a large amount but could have easily been paid back in a year’s time. He does not see the irony of his unforgiving nature but it surely was noticed by the other servants.
I think we often forget our own struggles and judge others for the same mistakes that we make. Remember our first day on the job, how it was uncharted territory for us or perhaps our first year in college, the fear we had after coming out of the protected environment of our high schools. Maybe someone was there to help us get through those early days. But when we ourselves were in a position to help someone we either ignored them or add pressure on them. We justify it in our minds by thinking that why should someone get an easy pass and that they too need to struggle like we did, forgetting that there was someone to help us. In the name of hazing or making them stronger, we actually become a stumbling block in their journey rather than extending them the same help that we might have received.
This competitive attitude of the world has crossed over in our Christian circles as well. Not realizing what God has done for them, people hold on to grudges and don’t want to support the struggling brother or sister in Christ. These grudges are based on petty differences that waste our time, time that we could have spent with God. If we have genuinely experienced the salvation of God, we know that we did not do anything to earn it but it was simply His grace. If we have that realization, then definitely we would extend the same grace to others. If the man whose family members and possessions were about to be sold by the king was genuinely crying for forgiveness then how does he not have the same pity on his fellow servant.
“This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”Matthew 18:35
What Jesus is saying seems puzzling as it implies that our salvation is dependent on our compassion towards our fellow believers and forgiving their wrongs against us. There is nothing we can do to be worthy of our salvation. It is given to us simply by the Grace of God. But Jesus is simply stating that a person who cannot let go of the wrongs of his fellow believers and forgive the ones who truly repent, will never understand the giant leap that God has taken to forgive all of us for the sins we commit against Him on a regular basis. We can only truly repent if we realize the punishment that our sins deserved and only then can we appreciate the gravity of God’s sacrifice when He sent His own Son to die in place of us sinners.
At the house of Simon the Pharisee, when Jesus was anointed by a prostitute, everyone questioned His legitimacy as He was allowing a woman of low moral standards to touch Him. Jesus replied to Simon by using an example of two debtors, one who owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty (Luke 7:41). When they both could not repay the amount, the moneylender forgave both their debts. On hearing this parable, even Simon the Pharisee acknowledged that logically it would seem the person who owed the larger sum would be more grateful to the moneylender. We have been forgiven a debt much greater than five hundred denarii or ten thousand bags of gold. We have been spared from spending our eternity in condemnation away from the Lord’s presence.
The gift of God can only be realized by people who know that they have been forgiven and then the sins of others against us will seem inconsequential to us. Those who think that they are righteous, will not be able to truly appreciate what Christ has offered us by His death on the cross. The Pharisees believed that it was their deeds and obedience to Moses’ law that gave them access to God’s kingdom and not some ‘prophet’ dying on a wooden cross. Our self-righteous attitude will prevent us from truly relishing the gift that Jesus has given us. We must let go of our pride and acknowledge that Christ died for all of us, only then will we be able to work together for the extension of His kingdom.
- Can we relate with this Parable in our own lives? Do we put the transgressions of other under a microscope while overlooking our own?
- Is Jesus saying that our salvation is conditional and that it is dependent on whether we forgive others?
- What can we learn from this parable about the kingdom of God?