Parable of the Unforgiving Servant
Lesson and Read: Matthew 18.21-35
Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’
Matthew 18.33 (NRSV)
There is a huge amount of popular commentary on the subject of forgiveness. Mark Twain wrote, “Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.” Indira Gandhi said, “Forgiveness is a virtue of the brave.” Alan Paton counseled, “When a deep injury is done us, we never recover until we forgive.” And Corrie Ten Boon confessed, “Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart.” Human beings seem to know what forgiveness is, yet still are challenged to be forgiving.
The word for “forgive in Matthew 18.21 is aphiemi; its root meaning is “to send away; to release.” Peter asked Jesus if forgiveness had a limit (seven times). When Jesus responded with “seventy seven” (v. 22) he was not setting an upper limit, he was exploding all limits. Then he demonstrated the absolute necessity of humans forgiving one another by telling a parable. A king cancelled (forgave) the debt of one of his servants. It was an extraordinary amount (10,000 talents might currently equate to as much as five million dollars!). That same servant, soon after, refused to show any mercy to a slave who owed him a paltry sum (100 denarii might be about two thousand dollars). When the king was informed of this unsympathetic action, he recalled his servant, reinstated the debt and submitted him to punishment. There is pointless to debate the details of this story. When Jesus crafts a parable it is to drive home a point. The simple lesson here is—if we do not forgive, how can we expect to be forgiven?
Jesus tells us we must forgive from the heart (Matthew 18.35). We cannot resort to verbal tricks—“I’ll forgive but I won’t forget.” Forgiveness is the first step, not the last one, in a movement toward reconciliation. Forgiving acknowledges there is work to be done and gives the space to do it. God is merciful to us every day. That gives us countless opportunities to confess our wrongdoing. How can we not do the same for each other? Jesus says, we can and we must.
Reverend Steven B. Lawrence