The Parable of the Unforgiving Slave
The parable is told as an answer to a question by Peter about forgiveness:
Matthew 18:21-35(HCSB)21 Then Peter came to Him and said, “Lord, how many times could my brother sin against me and I forgive him? As many as seven times?”
22 “I tell you, not as many as seven,” Jesus said to him, “but 70 times seven.” 23 For this reason, the kingdom of heaven can be compared to a king who wanted to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 When he began to settle accounts, one who owed 10,000 talents was brought before him. 25 Since he had no way to pay it back, his master commanded that he, his wife, his children, and everything he had be sold to pay the debt.
26 “At this, the slave fell facedown before him and said, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you everything!’ 27 Then the master of that slave had compassion, released him, and forgave him the loan.
28 “But that slave went out and found one of his fellow slaves who owed him 100 denarii. He grabbed him, started choking him, and said, ‘Pay what you owe!’
29 “At this, his fellow slave fell down and began begging him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’ 30 But he wasn’t willing. On the contrary, he went and threw him into prison until he could pay what was owed. 31 When the other slaves saw what had taken place, they were deeply distressed and went and reported to their master everything that had happened.
32 “Then, after he had summoned him, his master said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. 33 Shouldn’t you also have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And his master got angry and handed him over to the jailers to be tortured until he could pay everything that was owed. 35 So My heavenly Father will also do to you if each of you does not forgive his brother from his heart.”Payback is planted in the bottom of our hearts — every one of us is a born retaliator. If we’re to answer wrongdoing with any other response than wrongdoing, we need a change at the core of our being.
But before we examine the Parable we need to remember three things.
- Forgiveness is not the same as forgetting. We may forget, but your forgiving can be sincere even if you remember. When God “forgets” our sins, they do not slip out of his memory. He simply does not hold them against us.
- Forgiveness is not justifying, excusing or understanding why the person acted toward you the way he or she did.
- Forgiveness is our emotional response to the offender. Pardon deals with the consequences of the offense. Unless we have the authority we may not be able to pardon the offense, but we can always forgive.
Payback is planted in the bottom of our hearts — every one of us is a born retaliator. If we’re to answer wrongdoing with any other response than wrongdoing, we need a change at the core of our being.
This parable is unique to Matthew’s Gospel. The lines before the parable itself are similar to Luke 17:3-4(HCSB)
3 Be on your guard. If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. 4 And if he sins against you seven times in a day, and comes back to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.”
The talent in this parable was worth about 6,000 denarii, so that one debt is 600,000 times as large as the other. More significantly, 10,000 (a myriad) was the highest Greek numeral, and a talent the largest unit of currency, so that 10,000 talents was the largest easily described debt (for comparison, the combined annual tribute of Judea, Samaria, and Idumea around this time was only 600 talents, and one denarius was a day’s wages, so that 10,000 talents would be about 200,000 years’ wages). The setting is the court of some king in another country, where the “servants” could rank as highly as provincial governors. Therefore, compared to what the first servant was forgiven, this was a very small amount. The principle here is, “the one forgiven much should forgive much.” In other words, the principle of forgiveness is that grace or forgiveness to another is without limit. The disciples are not to count the number of times they forgive. Rather, as the parable teaches, they are to forgive much because God has forgiven much.
Peter makes two mistakes that are apparent to us. First, he assumes that his brother will sin against him and not he against his brother. And secondly, Peter wanted to set some kind of limit on forgiveness. In all fairness to Peter he was generous in his limit. He asked if forgiving seven times would be sufficient. The Rabbi’s of the time taught that one must forgive three times, this is drawn from a misunderstanding of the book of Amos, which says that God would revoke punishment against them for three transgressions but not for four. The phrase “for three sins . . . even for four” is a common phrase in Amos (1:3, 6, 9, 11, 13; 2:1, 4, 6). Used a total of eight times in the book, these words play a special role in the way Amos communicates sin and judgment. “Three sins” represents fullness or completeness; “four” represents an overflow or a sin that is the tipping point for God’s judgment. The word sins or transgressions in Hebrew specifically refers to “rebellions.” Interestingly, “for three sins . . . even for four” is not followed by four specific sins. In fact, the typical pattern is to list one or two sins and move on. Therefore, the expression is not meant to imply a specific number of sins but to communicate that there is an excess of sins that have led to God’s judgment. Thus they taught that God himself never forgave more than three times. To Peter’s credit he is more than doubling what the Rabbi’s taught.
Jesus is presenting a new principle that is similar to the basis of the forgiveness command for believers found in Ephesians 4:32(HCSB)32 And be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving one another, just as God also forgave you in Christ. The term “seventy times seven” is literally “seventy seven” and is a little ambiguous it can mean either “seventy plus seven” or “seventy times seven” but the meaning is the same it is a call for unlimited forgiveness. By the time you have forgiven someone that many times, you are in the habit of forgiving and will not need to set limits.
Jesus is teaching His disciples pre-cross, and therefore in the pre-church age, but the basis for forgiveness is the same. Because God has forgiven us, we are to forgive each other. Romans 5:8(HCSB)8 But God proves His own love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us! Therefore, because we have received much grace, we are commanded to give that same grace to others. In the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, the first servant’s debt was forgiven, and he was not required to repay until his unforgiving nature was discovered. In contrast, our sin debt was paid in full by Christ and is the only basis for God’s forgiveness. We cannot repay our debt to God or earn our salvation. It is a gift of grace. Ephesians 2:8-9(HCSB)8 For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift— 9 not from works, so that no one can boast.
But why is forgiveness so hard? First, forgiveness is difficult because it is not natural. The natural human impulse is to get even, to exact revenge. Forgiveness goes against the grain of human existence. Secondly, forgiveness is hard because it is not fair. To forgive without just repayment offends our sense of justice. We want to be vindicated.
Matthew 5:21-24(HCSB)21 “You have heard that it was said to our ancestors, Do not murder, and whoever murders will be subject to judgment. 22 But I tell you, everyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. And whoever says to his brother, ‘Fool!’ will be subject to the Sanhedrin. But whoever says, ‘You moron!’ will be subject to hellfire. 23 So if you are offering your gift on the altar, and there you remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift.
As Christians, all hope for that change is found in Christ. Nowhere else can we find a man who,as 1 Peter 2:23(HCSB)when He was reviled,He did not revile in return; when He was suffering, He did not threaten but entrusted Himself to the One who judges justly.
1 Peter 2:21(HCSB)21 For you were called to this, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in His steps, Through the redemption and example of his death, Christians are called to imitate their Lord when confronted with evil: 1 Peter 3:9(HCSB)8 Now finally, all of you should be like-minded and sympathetic, should love believers, and be compassionate and humble, 9 not paying back evil for evil or insult for insult but, on the contrary, giving a blessing, since you were called for this, so that you can inherit a blessing. This blessing — sincere words of good from a changed heart — is a unique witness to a world that does not yet share our hope in a new world to come.
This enormous degree of forgiveness should be the model for the way that Christians forgive others. An unforgiving nature is offensive to God. Forgiveness must be genuine.
It is like the C.S. Lewis quote: “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.” ― C.S. Lewis
Jesus is teaching His disciples, and us by extension, that forgiveness should be in like proportion to the amount forgiven. The first servant had been forgiven all, and he then should have forgiven all. In like manner, a child of God by faith through Christ has had all sins forgiven. Therefore, when someone offends or sins against us we should be willing to forgive him from a heart of gratitude for the grace to which we ourselves are debtors.
Almost always when we think about forgiveness the Holy Spirit flashes names and faces across our minds; people who either need to ask for forgiveness from or extend forgiveness to.
Do you need to ask for forgiveness from someone? Can you think of a person right now that you have wronged and you have not yet owned up to it?
Do you need to extend forgiveness to someone who has wronged you? Is there someone who wronged you, and you have never been able to let go of it? Are you ready to forgive the debt?
Do you need to admit you’re a sinner and ask for the forgiveness of God the Father? If you have never done so, now is the right time. He stands ready to forgive if you will but ask Him?