Parable of the Unforgiving Servant
Topic: Default Passage: Matthew 18:21–35
Happy Palm Sunday. We’ve been walking through Matthew 18 where Jesus tells us how we are supposed to relate to each other in the Kingdom of God. Last week we looked at what we should do when someone sins against us and this week we are looking at our responsibility to forgive others. This will be the last sermon in Matthew for the Spring and we’ll pick back up next January.
In our house, if you do something bad, you get a bag of weeds. Well, we don’t give them to you, you go fill a walmart bag full of weeds. It’s sort of a win win. Well, one kid had racked up five bags of weeds in one day. I won’t say who. And in a miraculous turn around, some amazingly good behavior and maybe a bit of pleading, this kid was forgiven his punishment. Not ten minutes later, another kid wronged the kid who almost had five bags of weeds and the weeds forgiven kid is giving me an earful about why I don’t give that other kid a bag of weeds!
What’s off in this scenario? The same thing that is off in Peter’s heart and the same thing that is off in ours as well. Remember the context. In the previous passage, Jesus taught about the responsibility of someone who sins against another person to repent and for the offended party to forgive. Then after teaching this, Peter asks how many times he would have to take someone back. He asks if he would have to forgive them as many as seven times. Peter is probably thinking he’s pretty generous at this point by being willing to do it seven times, but Jesus says seventy seven times. And while I’m sure there is some weird cult out there that keeps track of wrongs and establishes the limit of 77 sins and that’s it, that’s not what Jesus is saying. He’s saying that there is no limit to how many times we should forgive.
So, this passage is a response to Peter’s question. But, it’s not just academic for Peter because he’s struggling to forgive the other disciples. Remember that in the beginning of this chapter, the disciples ask Jesus who is the greatest in the kingdom. This question comes right after the tax collectors come with a question and ask Peter as a sort of leader of the disciples and the disciples seem to be irked that Peter is seen as the leader of the group and not them.
So Peter isn’t asking an academic question, he’s asking a question that has real life implications and the answer has real life implications for all of us. Specifically, this passage tells us 1) The cost of unforgiveness, 2) The sign of forgiveness and 3) The path to forgiveness.
- The cost of unforgiveness
Jesus, by way of a parable, says that the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king wanting to settle his accounts and one servant is brought to him who owes him ten thousand talents. Now, we don’t know if this is silver or gold and the guess about how much money this is ranges widely from $10 million to billions of dollars. Whatever the amount, we know that this man owed the king a lot of money. Which is odd because when you think of a servant, you don’t think of someone who could have spent this much money. Most likey, this person was what’s called a satrap which was a regional governor. Like a regional king that serves an emperor. That was how it worked in the Roman Empire.
Back then, Caesar paid for everything out of his own funds. He paid for the construction of roads and aqueducts and he paid the salaries for the people who served him and the soldiers who served him. So, money that came from taxes and conquests came to Caesar and then he gave that money to regional governors to use as Caesar told them to. This particular governor either mismanaged this money or embezzled this money and the sum is so large that it affects the king’s ability to govern. So, the king now has the right in the Roman Empire to sell not only him into slavery, but his entire family and to take all that he has.
And just to put this in perspective a bit more, an average day laborer (which this man was about to be) would have made maybe 10 talents in his lifetime. There is absolutely no way this man could ever repay the debt he owed through slavery so that would be his permanent state. Jesus is making the point that this man’s debt is so high that there is absolutely no possibility of it being repaid. But, in the king’s mercy he decides to let the man go and absolve him of his debt. The man, after being released, found one of his fellow servants, that is, likely another satrap, who owed him 100 denarii, which is less than 2% of one talent, and demanded he pay up as he choked the man. When he couldn’t pay, the first servant had him put in prison.
When the king heard about this, he said to the servant in verse 33, 33 iAnd should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 jAnd in anger his master delivered him to the jailers,11 kuntil he should pay all his debt. 35 lSo also my heavenly Father will do to everyone of you, if you do not forgive your brother mfrom your heart.” - Matt 18:33-35
Ok, that was a long recap, but we need it to make sure we understand what’s going on. This man’s lack of forgiveness cost him everything. This man should have been ecstatic about his debt being repaid and he should have been the first to give forgiveness to others. Unforgiveness will cost us much in this life and everything in the next life. Let’s take those two separately.
In this life, we expect forgiveness to be extended to us, but we struggle to extend it to others. That’s exactly what this servant was doing. But there is a great cost to us when we do this. Refusing to forgive only fuels our own sense of self righteousness. And self righteousness is going to produce anger, self-pity, and self-centeredness. To hold onto a grudge makes you less like Jesus and more like Satan.
When we hold onto a grudge, we allow the object of our anger to control us. You’ve probably heard the phrase ‘living rent free in your head.’ If you hold a grudge against someone, you’re going to think about them, you’re going to reenact the argument, or relive it, maybe in a different way where this time you nail their butt to the wall. Do you see how that puts you under the control of the person you’re holding the grudge against? You are not free. You are a prisoner to the person who offended you. Holding onto a grudge is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.
I read a sermon on this passage this week and the pastor quoted Fredrick Buechner, a Christian writer, who says, “Of the seven deadly sins, anger is the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor the last toothsome morsel of the pain you’re giving back to them, in many ways, is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down at this feast is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.”
Often we hear people saying that instead of offering forgiveness, they want to see justice done. And there's a place for justice, but not without a forgiving heart. When we pursue justice without offering forgiveness, we think we are doing it for someone else or for God or for that person, but, really, it’s all about you. You’re not trying to help them, you’re trying to hurt them. When we seek justice without offering forgiveness, we’re not seeking justice, we’re seeking vengeance. You’re making that person pay the debt and they will never listen to you.
There is a cost to forgiveness. There is a cost to canceling a debt. It hurts. When we forgive, we die to our own self-righteousness. We die to our desires. But there is a greater cost to not forgiving. And that cost isn’t just in this life. Jesus says that the lack of forgiveness could have an eternal cost. You could be on your way to eternal punishment yourself.
Now, some of you who know your Bible well might be thinking, “But I thought it was about faith in Jesus and now it seems like you’re saying that I’m saved by what I do.” That’s a good question and my second point clarifies it.
- The sign of forgiveness
Jesus is not saying that forgiveness toward others is the way we earn God’s forgiveness. He’s saying that forgiveness toward others is a sign that we have received God’s forgiveness. The unpayable debt this man owed the king is a metaphor for the unpayable debt we owe to our heavenly Father. We have rebelled and there is no way to pay that back. On our own, we are all on a path toward eternal punishment. But, the gospel says that we have been forgiven an infinite, unpayable debt. And like the king in the parable, this debt came at a great cost. Our heavenly king paid the price of our debt on the cross.
We can think that it costs God nothing to look the other way when it comes to our sin. But, if he were to look the other way, he would cease to be just and actually become corrupt himself which is not something a perfect God can do. Instead, he doesn’t just look the other way, he pays the debt through the incarnation, that is, by the second person of the Trinity taking on flesh to accomplish the Father’s plan of forgiveness toward us. That is Jesus living the perfect life we cannot and on the cross taking on the full wrath of God that we deserve in our place. The cost for our debt is extravagant.
In both the case of the king in the story and God in reality, a cost is being absorbed. I made some bonehead decisions when I was young and some of them got me on the wrong side of the law. And in each case, I was guilty, but I got off the hook because my dad absorbed the cost. The cost of lawyers, the cost of embarrassment, and the cost of emotional strain. There is always a cost, but my dad did this because he is my father and he loves me. And the cost for our heavenly father to save his children is higher than we can imagine, but our heavenly father pays it because he loves us. Not because we are more spiritual than others, not because we have more potential than others, not because our motives in sinning against him are more understandable than others. But just because he loves us. And if we don’t understand this, we either don’t understand what we really deserve or we don’t understand how much God loves us…or both.
The servant in this story did not understand what he deserved. He deserved to be sold into slavery. He deserved the most extreme punishment. A punishment that would not only affect him, but his entire family. Yet, he was extended mercy. But he could not extend that mercy to others.
Likewise for us, when compared to the cost of our own forgiveness and the love from which that flows, the cost of forgiving others who sin against us is miniscule and the amount of love it requires is embarrassingly small. So, Peter, how often are you to forgive? Well, how much debt have you accrued against God? How much justice do you deserve? How much grace are you given? Is it more than seven times? Is it as great as all the time? Then there’s your answer.
So, you can see how our forgiveness toward others isn’t a prerequisite for our own forgiveness from God, but a sign of it. It’s like the fruit on a tree. The fruit doesn’t give the tree life, it reveals that the tree has life. And forgiveness isn’t a fruit we easily can fake. When Ivey was in kindergarten, I taught a Bible lesson at her school and I tied apples to a small tree in winter. Now, for you true Floridians, in winter in most of the country, trees have no leaves and look dead. So, I tied apples to it and made the case to the class that they have apple trees outside. They argued with me and one smart kid said, “I can see that those apples aren’t really connected to the tree. You just tied them on.” In the same way, you can say Christiany things when you are offended and speak of justice and protecting others, but it is just as easy to see a heart that lacks forgiveness as it is for a kindergartener to see that that is not a real apple tree.
Now, here is where I do need to add a very important clarification. Forgiveness does not always include reconciliation and restoration. John Calvin in his commentary on this passage suggests that there are two kinds of forgiveness. There is the willingness to forgive and there is that forgiveness of a repentant person that helps restore the relationship and they are two very different things. Remember, forgiveness is first a gift to yourself. You can choose to forgive someone, but a lack of repentance on their part will prevent restoration and reconciliation. Forgiveness allows you to move on. To not let them live rent free in your head. To soften your heart the way God wants and to conform you more into the image of Jesus. If there is repentance on their part, then there can also be reconciliation and restoration. In Jesus’ words, in that case you have won your brother back.
I have one more clarification. I had a man sin against me in a fairly significant way once and he did repent, but he followed up his apology with, “Are we good now?” As in, are things back to the way they used to be? To which I answered, “Well, I definitely forgive you and we are reconciled, but it’s going to take a long time for you to restore the trust that you once had with me.” Things are not the way they used to be. That is going to take time. Often, the greater the offense, the longer the path to true restoration. So restoration depends both on the gravity of the sin and on the response of the offending person.
Our forgiveness toward others is a sign of the forgiveness we have received from God. And you might be sitting here today and have a heart that desires to forgive and just be wondering what exactly this looks like. And if that’s you, I’m glad you asked. Last part…
- The path of forgiveness
The path is fourfold. First, you choose to. Many people sit around and wait to feel like they are ready to forgive, but often that feeling won’t come. It’s often a choice before it’s a feeling. It's a choice based on the knowledge of what God has done for you.
Then, the rest of the path we see in verse 27 outlined by the king's initial response to the servant: 27 And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and dforgave him the debt. - Matt 18:27 The second part of the path is we take pity on the person. By taking pity on a person, this means that the king’s heart went out to the man. He saw his plight and his desire was to bless this man.
Often, when we hold a grudge, we are looking at the offense, but missing so much else about the person and when we do this we create a sort of caricature of them. When we were in Italy two weeks ago working with the church plant there, we flew in and out of Rome so the day before our morning flight back, we went to Rome and I took my son to our favorite part of Rome. It’s called Piazza Navona. It’s an old stadium that has turned into a piazza, but it still has the shape of the arena where they would do chariot races Ben Hurr style. Now, they sell art and other things there and one of the things they do is paint a caricature of you. This is something I never want to do because what a caricature does is it takes one small noticeable feature of your face and makes it huge. If your chin is a little large, they will make it look like Jay Leno. If your ears stick out a bit, they will make you look like Dumbo the elephant. They’d probably make my hair look like a lion’s mane or something. When we take pity on someone, when our heart goes out to them, we see the person in proper proportion which helps to bring the feeling of forgiveness.
Then, third, we cancel the debt. This is the question of who is going to pay for their offense. Are you going to make them pay or are you going to pay? Again, it costs us to forgive. Canceling the debt is the decision that you will pay for their offense. And that sounds unfair, but you’re blessing yourself as much as the other person. Canceling the debt cuts off the oxygen supply to our anger, self-righteousness, and self-pity.
Then, fourth, we let them go. We choose not to bring it up to them again, we choose not to bring it up to others again, and we choose not to bring it up to ourselves again. That’s the path. It’s not always easy, but it’s healing. And when there is great repentance on the part of the other person, it’s even restoring.
And I do want to say that God has given us many gifts to aid us in this process. The greatest gift is his Spirit inside of us giving us the desire to choose to forgive and walk down this path. But, an often overlooked gift that he has given us is each other. The community of believers. I say it’s often overlooked because we live in such an individualistic society, but it’s what God has chosen to give his people in all societies. God has given us people in our lives in this church who have been through this. People we can talk to who can encourage us, who can hold us accountable, and who pray with us.
I read a story this week studying for this passage about Corrie ten Boom. I’ve actually visited her house in Holland. She lived in the Netherlands during World War II. During the Holocaust, her family hid Jews in their house from the Nazi’s, but they got caught and they were sent to a concentration camp where her sister Betsie died. Corrie lived and became a world renowned Bible teacher and speaker. At one of these speaking engagements in Germany, she saw a man who was a former S.S. guard in her concentration camp. He guarded the room that was supposed to be the shower, but it was really a gas chamber.
He was a horrible man who would do inappropriate things to these naked people as they entered the gas chambers and would respond very harshly when asked for any kind of help. This was the first actual jailer she had seen since the war. And she says of that moment, “And suddenly it was all there again…the heaps of clothing, Betsie’s pain-blanched face. When he came up to me as the church was emptying, he said, “How grateful I am for your message, Fraulein. To think that, as you say, he has washed away my sins!” His hand was thrust out to shake mine, but my hand stayed at my side. Angry, vengeful thoughts boiled through me. I tried to smile. I struggled to raise my hand. I could not, and I silently prayed, “Jesus, I cannot forgive him. Give me your forgiveness.” As I took his hand, the most incredible thing happened. From my shoulder, along my arm, and through my hand a current seemed to pass, while into my heart sprong a love for this stranger that almost overwhelmed me.”
She was walking that same path. She chose to forgive him before she had the feeling and asked Jesus for help. She had pity on him, she canceled the debt, and she let him go. And the main beneficiary of that forgiveness was her.
There was a risk for her, there was a cost to her, but on the cross, Jesus forgave us not just at the risk of his kingdom or the cost of his kingdom, but at the cost of himself. The only way we will ever find the power to walk this path of forgiveness is to be fueled by a forgiveness that has no end. To be a servant of the King who became our servant. To see our debt canceled by the king who took it in our place. The king who pitied us and now is able to bring true justice to the world. We can walk that path because Jesus has already walked it for us. When we see that, we will be able to walk it with others.