Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Matthew 18:21–35

Matthew 18:21–35 (ESV): The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant


In the last passage Jesus talked about how to handle the situation when a fellow believer sins against you. In this passage, and I assume in response to Jesus’ words, Peter asks him: “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” (verse 21 (ESV)). Jesus’ response? Not seven times, but seventy times seven. (The footnote indicates that this could also be translated “seventy seven times,” but the actual number isn’t important, since it’s clear that Jesus is not being literal; he’s essentially saying that when we’re forgiving someone who is sinning against us we shouldn’t be counting the number of times we forgive them.)

He then tells a parable to make the point. He says that “the kingdom of heaven may be compared to” a king who is settling his accounts, and comes across a servant who owes him “ten thousand talents,” which, according to the footnote, would equate to about 200,000 days’ wages for a labourer. (For those who aren’t good at math, assuming that a labourer were working every single day of his life, that would equate to over 500 years’ worth of wages—not including leap years and that type of thing.) The person is not able to pay, so the king orders him to be sold—along with his wife, children, and possessions—to repay the debt. But the servant falls on his knees and begs the king for patience, saying that he’ll repay the debt. The king has pity on him, releases him, and even cancels the debt altogether.

Then, when the servant leaves the king’s presence, he comes across a fellow servant, who owes him a hundred denarii (which is about a hundred days’ wages). The first servant seizes the second servant by the throat and demands payment, and the second servant begs for patience so that he can repay the debt, but the first servant refuses and has the second servant thrown into jail until he is able to pay the debt.

This makes it back to the king:

“Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt.” (verses 32–34 (ESV), Jesus speaking)
Jesus sums up by saying:

“So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” (verse 35 (ESV))


As usual I’m relying on the ESV Study Bible for background material, and they mention that according to Jewish traditions at the time forgiving someone three times was sufficient to show a forgiving spirit. They further mention that these traditions would have been based on passages such as these from the Old Testament:

“Behold, God does all these things,
  twice, three times, with a man,
to bring back his soul from the pit,
  that he may be lighted with the light of life.”

(Job 33:29–30 (ESV), Elihu speaking)


Thus says the LORD:

  “For three transgressions of Damascus,
    and for four, I will not revoke the punishment,
  because they have threshed Gilead
    with threshing sledges of iron. …”

Amos 1:3 (ESV)


Thus says the LORD:

  “For three transgressions of Israel,
    and for four, I will not revoke the punishment,
  because they sell the righteous for silver,
    and the needy for a pair of sandals …”

Amos 2:6 (ESV)

Therefore, the ESV Study Bible points out, when Peter suggested forgiving his brother seven times, he probably thought this was very forgiving indeed—more than double what would have been considered at the time to be very Godly and forgiving!

However, what Jesus wants us to see in this passage is how much we ourselves have been forgiven by God, and use that as the basis for how forgiving we should be to others. Notice the types of numbers that are being used here; the first servant had a debt to the king that could never possibly be repaid. Over 500 years’ worth of wages required to pay it back? The number is astronomical; there’s no way that a servant would ever be able to pay it back. So the king, out of the goodness of his own heart, forgives the debt. The second servant still owes a large amount, it’s not negligible, but it’s nothing compared to the number that was forgiven of the first servant.

The parallel to the gospel is obvious. We are sinners and God is holy—it would be impossible to ever pay for our sins to His satisfaction, to allow us into His presence. So He “forgave” that “debt”—except that He isn’t just holy, He is also just, so that sin had to be paid for somehow. So His Son, Jesus, takes the punishment that we deserve, our “debt” is paid, and we are allowed into his presence. Something we could never have accomplished on our own, just like the first servant would never have been able to pay back his debt of ten thousand talents to the king.

The application is equally obvious. When we consider all that God has forgiven from us, through no deservedness of our own, forgiving others shouldn’t seem like a big deal. Considering the amounts of money involved, it seems so over-the-top petty for the first servant to be forgiven over 500 years’ worth of wages and not forgive 100 days’ worth of wages, and similarly it should seem petty to us to have been forgiven an entire lifetime’s worth of sin by God, and then not forgive a fellow Christian who sins against us. In fact, verse 35 says that the Heavenly Father will not forgive us if we don’t forgive others from the heart—forgiveness is such an essential aspect of a changed heart that if we are not forgiving it is a sign that we’re not saved at all. If someone claims to be a Christian, yet refuses to forgive, then that person needs to examine their heart and determine if they really are saved or just fooling themselves. Serious stuff!

Does this mean that any time a Christian fails to forgive another Christian it’s proof that they’re going to Hell? No, I don’t think so. We’re still fallen sinners, and we still fail to live up to our calling on a regular basis. But if someone consistently fails to forgive others, it’s not a good sign. It may be that the person hasn’t actually come to grips with how much has been forgiven of them by God—and it may be that the person hasn’t come to grips with that because they haven’t been forgiven at all.

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