The Unforgiving Servant

servant 6A couple of weeks ago I preached a message on the unforgiving servant from Matthew 18. It had a huge impact on people; far more than I could imagine. It just goes to show that it doesn’t matter how long we’ve been a Christian or how many sermons we’ve heard on the subject, we need to go to traverse this territory again and again.

Jesus had just been talking to his disciples about what they are to do when someone sins against them (Matthew 18:15-17). They are to go to that person in private and confront him. If he listens they have won their brother. If he doesn’t listen, they are to take one or two others with them and confront him again. If he still doesn’t listen they are to take it to the whole church and get everybody going after him. In other words keep pressing the issue. You can’t have God’s people falling out with each other and not restoring. It presents a very bad witness to the world.

Well Peter is listening to all this and he’s thinking, ‘What about the serial sinner, the guy who keeps on sinning and then repenting over and over? How long do we put up with that kind of person?’ The hardest people to forgive are the repeat offenders aren’t they?

* The husband who keeps leaving his clothes on the floor
* The teenager who keeps leaving dirty dishes in his room
* The neighbour who is always turning his music up too loud
* The church member who is always complaining about something he (or she) doesn’t like

The rabbis taught you should forgive someone three times. The fourth time you take him to court. Well Peter had been with Jesus long enough to know that disciples of Christ ought to be far more patient and forgiving than that so he comes to Jesus and says,

“Lord, how many times could my brother sin against me and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” (Matthew 18:21)

Now Peter thinks he’s being pretty generous. And he probably imagines that Jesus would be really impressed with this. But instead Jesus responds with,

“I tell you, not as many as seven, but 70 times seven.” (18:22)

Peter is thinking in terms of Law. Jesus is thinking in terms of grace. The law sets limits; the law keeps count. Grace does not. By 70 x 7 Jesus does not means you must forgive the same offense 490 times and that’s it. He means an infinite number. You see a forgiving heart doesn’t keep count. It doesn’t have restrictions. It just keeps forgiving and forgiving and forgiving over and over and over.

Now the question at this point for you and for me is where are we going to get the resources to love someone to that level? Jesus answers that question and the answer comes in the form of a story.

The Parable

There are 3 main characters. First there is the king. This king had a number of officials who handled his money on his behalf. That was a big responsibility. They would be handling very large amounts of money. One day the king calls for an accountant to audit the accounts. The auditor finds some irregularities with one of the departments. So he starts digging. The more he digs the worse it gets.

That’s leads us to character number two. He’s the official who has been caught out. And now he owes the king a lot of money. And when I say a lot of money, I mean a lot of money. 10,000 was the highest number in daily use, and the talent was the highest unit of money. Let’s do the calculation: a talent was valued at about 6,000 drachmas, which is the equivalent of about 20 years wage for a labourer. In modern equivalents, if a labourer earns say – $18 per hour, doing a 40 hour week, he would earn $37,000 so a talent would equal $750,000. So 10,000 talents represents an enormously, hopeless debt – in today’s terms… about $7 billion.

The man’s debt was infinite, and he was absolutely incapable of paying it. So the king commands that the servant, his wife, his children, and all he owned be sold to cover the debt. The man falls down before the king and begs for mercy. He even promises to pay it all back, which we know is impossible, but this shows his desperation. The king is moved with compassion and releases the man and forgives him all his debt.

And then the unimaginable happens! The same official goes his way and comes across someone who owes him a measly 100 denarii (about $5000). He grabs him by the throat and starts choking him and says, “Pay what you owe!” And what does this servant do? He responds the very same way as the official when he was before the king. He falls down on the ground and begins begging the man, “Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.” Unlike the official in his position, this was actually possible. He could work hard to pay it back. But no – the official isn’t having any of that. He has the guy thrown into prison.

The other slaves, when they saw what had taken place, were deeply distressed and went and reported to their master everything that had happened. The king says, “Bring him in.” And then he says to him,

 “‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. Shouldn’t you also have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And his master got angry and handed him over to the jailers to be tortured until he could pay everything that was owed.”(18:32–34)

 The Interpretation

That’s the parable, now the interpretation. The king represents who? God. The official represents who? YOU and ME. We have been forgiven an enormous debt – a debt so great that it would be impossible to pay off even if we tried. And the second slave – the guy the official goes after, represents who? The individual we refuse to forgive. Everything appears to make sense until we get to the end of the parable – especially the stinger in v.35:

 “So My heavenly Father will also do to you if each of you does not forgive his brother from his heart.”

Now what are we going to do with this? This presents us with some difficulty. The guy gets tortured! He’s made to pay! What on earth does this mean for God’s people today? Well let me tell you what it does not mean. It does not mean that if you are a Jesus follower and you fail to forgive you are going to hell. The bible clearly teaches that God forgives us because of what Christ has done, not because of anything we do (or fail to do). Jesus lives the life we should have lived and God clothes us with His righteousness when we put our faith in Him. Jesus died the death we deserve, bearing the punishment for our sins on the cross so that God can pardon us. And Christ rose from the dead to prove that what He did for us is sufficient; we add nothing. We can’t earn salvation and we can’t keep ourselves saved. It all grace, all a gift of God. And anytime we try to add anything to the all-sufficient work of Christ, we minimize what He has done for us.

OK, so if this parable is not talking about eternal punishment, what is it talking about?

Answer: torment in this life.

Remember, the kingdom parables speak of the age in which we live. Jesus is warning about the consequences in this life for a believer who refuses to forgive. He is warning about the discipline that comes from our Father’s hand when he corrects his children. Hebrews 12:5-6 says,

“My son, do not take the Lord’s discipline lightly or faint when you are reproved by Him, for the Lord disciplines the one He loves and punishes every son He receives.” (Hebrews 12:5–6)

God fully forgives our sins on the basis of Christ’s work on the cross. But he still disciplines us for our disobedience in the same way a loving parent disciplines their child – not because he doesn’t love us because he does. And when we refuse to forgive another individual because of something that he or she has done (or hasn’t done), God makes us feel the consequences of that action. There will be suffering – internal suffering. There will be torment.

You know what I’m talking about don’t you? Someone does something to you to offend you. A close friend betrays you, some students at school start to spread gossip about you, or your husband turns up late from work and doesn’t bother calling you. A fellow employee lies about you, your boss verbally abuses you, or someone cheats you. You feel angry and hurt. So you hold it against them. And you want to make them pay.

But it brings no relief – none whatsoever. In fact, the opposite happens. You become more miserable. The feelings of anger and bitterness and resentment begin to poison your soul. You want those who hurt you to suffer, but instead you are the one who ends up suffering. This is your Heavenly Father’s discipline.

There’s a reason why the king was so angry with his official. In any other situation the guy had the right to be repaid the 100 denarii he loaned to a fellow slave. But once the king forgave him of his enormous debt, he expected him to forgive in return.

If we are forgiven by God, we are expected to forgive others
If we are shown mercy, we’re expected to show mercy

That’s the point of the parable. If God lavishes us with his grace, we must not hold that same grace from others. You see it is our realization of what God has forgiven us that enables us – even drives us to graciously forgive others. What does the Apostle Paul say in Ephesians 4:32?

“And be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving one another, just as God also forgave you in Christ.”

You see all God is asking of us is that we treat each other the way he treated us. If I’m unwilling to forgive someone, it’s because I’ve forgotten (or never really understood) how much God has forgiven me.

The reason I’m to forgive you has nothing to do with you; whether you deserve to be forgiven, or ask to be forgiven, or promise you’ll never hurt me again. Forgiving you is my response to God: to what He’s done for me and heeding his warning of the discipline for His children who refuse to forgive each other.

Remember the cross. The debt of our sin is so great that we could never repay it. But instead of prosecuting us, God sent his Son Jesus to pay that debt on our behalf. Because we’ve been forgiven so much, we’ll be able to forgive others the relatively small amounts that they owe us.

We can never forgive more extravagantly than God. When we realize how much we’ve been forgiven, when we consider what Jesus did at the cross for us, we’ll know what it means to forgive, and we’ll then be ready to forgive others – even for the 491st time.


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