First Mennonite Church
October 24, 2021
The Parable About Forgiveness
Text: Matthew 18:21-35
In Matthew chapter 18, we find whole section of Jesus’ teachings on the topic of forgiveness and restoration.
Forgiveness, what is it? Jesus reminds us that our identity as his followers lies on the fact of being a forgiven people. Thus, we are the embodiment of God’s gracious gift of forgiveness. You are the face of forgiveness and I am too. We draw our identity on nothing less than the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus who grants us forgiveness of sins, and by which alone, makes us acceptable in the eyes of the Holy God.
In that regard, forgiveness should be to us more than a tool we need on certain occasions. Forgiveness is not like the Philips screwdriver we have handy in the drawer of kitchen counter. Forgiveness is ingrained in who we are and is involved in all we do. At the heart of the Lord’s Prayer, where we pray, “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us,” (Luke 11:14) we are reminded of that fact. Every time we pray this prayer, we make a very solemn promise to God, that we will forgive as we have been forgiven. The parable of the unforgiving servants casts a bright like on what it looks when forgiveness is withheld, instead of it to freely flow along.
First, we cannot consider this passage independently from its context. In verses 15 to 20, Jesus gives a step-by-step instruction on how the church is supposed to work when one of its own has faltered and refuses to be restored. Jesus indicates that when every resource has been exhausted and if the member continues recalcitrant, to consider him or her like a pagan or tax collector. On various occasions Christians have misinterpreted this command. They have taken Jesus’ command of considering the unrepentant member as a tax collector to mean, cast him or her out of the community—shun the member. However, if we are to take Jesus’ example on how he treated the tax collectors and sinners, we will see that he befriended them. He sought to bring them to God. And that might have been what Jesus had in mind in that part of his instruction. Christians must double their effort at seeking the unrepentant member’s restoration.
I guess Peter understood the challenge extending extravagant grace, thus he asked the Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Peter must have thought that forgiving an offending member seven times was extraordinarily generous. Maybe he though Jesus would be impressed and say to him, “That’s extravagantly generous, Peter. You nailed it!” However, to Peter’s surpriseJesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seventimes.”
Although, the Greek number ebdomekontakis epta can mean seventy-seven or seventy times seven (490), either way greatly exceeded the number Peter suggested. By this Jesus wanted to show Peter that whoever keeps count on forgiveness has not comprehended the nature of forgiveness. According to Jesus, forgiveness is not a matter of mathematics or linguistics, but about the generous nature of the heart. Forgiveness is the natural response of being forgiven.
It was Peter’s query that led Jesus to tell the parable of the unforgiving servant. It is a very familiar story to us. The king, Jesus had in mind, was clearly a Gentile king dealing with his servants. The servant was likely one in charge of collecting taxed for the king. It was a case of utter mismanagement, where the money collected did not reach the king’s treasury.
Jesus says the servant owed the king ten thousand talents, myrias talanta, which is the largest possible number in Greek. Just to put it in perspective, the taxes Herod the Great collected from his entire kingdom amounted to only 900 talents per year. Ten thousand talents would have exceeded the taxes of all Syria, Phoenicia, Judea and Samaria. So here, once again, Jesus uses a number that is beyond all calculations for a single individual to owe and much less to pay. Therefore, in light of such hopelessness of paying the debt, the servant pleads for mercy, which is his only option as he appears before the king. The servant realizes that he does not have the slightest chance of ever paying such huge amount of debt, which the king is also aware of. And, yet, to the surprise of the servant, the Gentile king responds with compassion and wipes away the whole debt.
But as the forgiven servant leaves the presence of the king, he meets one of his fellow servants who owes him money, a hundred denarii (three months’ pay checks). That was a payable amount. And just as the first servant did, this one also does. He pleads for patience and to be given the time to pay the full amount. However, the forgiven servant refuses to listen and to show compassion as he had been shown. The forgiven servant throws into prison his fellow servant for being unable to pay his debt.
Jesus says that once the news reached the king’s ears, the kings calls back the servant and takes back his forgiveness. He throws the wicked servant into prison to be tortured until he pays back his debt, which he never would be able to.
There is vast difference between how the Gentile king handled the unforgiving servant and how God deals with us. The king withdraws his forgiveness. Jesus says, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14, 15). God will not recant on his forgiveness. However, if we fail to forgive, we invalidate our own forgiveness. It is not that God takes back his forgiveness, but our refusal to allow his grace to flow from us to others also deprives us from the freedom God’s forgiveness is intended to give us.
In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus teaches us to pray, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us” (Luke 11:14). Asking for forgiveness is an act of humility. When we ask for forgiveness, we admit fault and wrongdoing. As you and I know, that is a difficult thing to do. But granting forgiveness is also a very difficult task. When we forgive, we let go of the offence, we take in the injury, and we turn the page in a relationship. When we forgive, we refuse to allow bitterness to set a foothold in our heart even when it is bleeding. When we forgive, we reset the relationship that has been injured. When we forgive, we release, not only the one who needs our forgiveness, but also we ourselves are set free from the bondage of sin.
We are a people who know what it is to be forgiven. If we were honest with ourselves, we would admit that we need forgiveness more that the times we eat in a day. It is true that we might not be caught embezzling money for our employer or be complaining about our neighbor, or cheating our spouse, but there might be other ways we sin. Only God knows how many times we have had to confess having feelings of envy, or wish being able to take revenge, or having lustful thoughts, or being angry at someone, although having a forced smile on our face, or something of those sorts. Every sin is against God and in the end, all forgiveness comes from God. If we were to keep count of our sins, they might indeed be countless as the number Jesus used in this parable. Yet, the times someone might have offend us can be counted or it might only be once. And yet, we might still be struggling to grant forgiveness.
The parable of the unforgiving servant is poignant reminder about the danger of not allowing God’s grace of forgiveness to flow from us to others. Whom could it be we are withholding forgiveness from? Who could it be we still need to ask forgiveness from?
Let us open our heart to God in prayer. And may the Lord heal and cleanse us from any desire of withholding forgiveness to others. Amen!
 Matthew. The New Interpreter’s Bible Vol. VIII. (Abington Press, Nashville 1995.) p 382