The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (How many times should we forgive?)


AUDIO VERSION: YouTube  Podbean

Jesus is one of the most misquoted speakers in the Bible. It isn’t His technical words that we usually mangle, but rather His intended meaning. And once you think that God is saying something that He never said, you end up in a mess.

So how do we avoid misunderstanding Jesus? Well, step one is to bring Him into the conversation. Jesus isn’t just some dead guy whose soul has been transferred on to an eternal dimension which you have no way of accessing. Jesus is God Almighty, and He’s everywhere you are. So if you want to know what He meant, you need to ask Him. “God, help me to understand what You meant when You said these things.” That’s step one.

Step two is to keep backing up in the passage you’re reading until you find a note about who Jesus is speaking to. Is He talking to hardhearted rebels like the Pharisees or is He talking to His own disciples? Identifying Jesus’ target audience is critical, because our Gods always respond to heart attitude. If you sincerely care about pleasing God in your heart today, then you shouldn’t be telling yourself that Jesus is speaking to you when He is really reaming out a bunch of spiritual rebels. Whenever you find Jesus sounding irritated, impatient, and sarcastic, that tells you that the folks He’s talking to are not responding well to Him on a soul level.

Now the passage we want to cover in this post is a parable that Jesus tells about an unforgiving servant. The parable is found in Matthew 18:23-35. But before we get into the parable, we need to identify who Jesus is talking to and what prompted Him to start this parable. In other words, we need some context.

Now whenever we’re in one of the Gospel books, we need to remember that there are three other books which cover the same period of time. So first we check to see if the parable we want to study shows up in any of the other books. It doesn’t. This particular parable is only found in Matthew. This isn’t ideal, because Matthew tends to leave out a lot of important contextual details. Matthew is the kind of guy who tells you the punchline without telling you the first part of the joke, and this makes it hard not to misunderstand what Jesus is saying. But we can only work with what we have.

Now although Matthew is the only Gospel writer to include the specific parable we’re going to look at, that parable is part of a longer conversation that Jesus had with His disciples. Happily for us, Mark and Luke also cover portions of this conversation and when we compare all of their notes, we get a clear picture of what’s happening. Jesus and His boys have just arrived at the city of Capernaum and they’re now kicking back in a house that is in that city. Along the way, the disciples got into a heated debate about which one of them was the greatest. But they were apparently trying to argue in low voices so that Jesus wouldn’t hear. But of course being God, Jesus knows what they were talking about and He now wants to confront their arrogance head on. Mark (who probably got his material from Peter) describes the scene like this:

When He was in the house, He asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But the disciples kept silent, because on the way they had been arguing with one another about who was the greatest. (Mk. 9:33-34)

Matthew remembers things a bit differently. He describes the disciples as making the first move:

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and said, “Who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Matt. 18:1)

Now should we find it upsetting that Mark and Matthew have two opposing accounts? Not unless we’ve bought into this guff about the Bible being inerrant. Anytime you ask a group of humans to describe the same event, you’ll hear variations in their stories. Obviously Mark and Matthew can’t both be right, because their stories conflict with each other. But we get the general gist of what is happening: the disciples are wallowing in carnality at the moment and Jesus is less than pleased. It’s humility that our Gods want from us, not self-exaltation and glory hogging.

Now that we understand the context, we can properly interpret the rest of what Jesus says in this long speech. First He tells the disciples that it is the truly humble who will be exalted in eternity, not the arrogant. Then He gets into a discussion about how He wants His followers to respond to those who are choosing to embrace and flaunt rebellious attitudes towards God within a church community. First they ought to pull the offender aside and privately talk to him. The point here is that we shouldn’t rush to condemn others in public. But if the rebel doesn’t listen, then we are to get a couple of fellow believers to be witnesses and confront him again. If there’s still no repentance, then it’s time to oust the rebel from the church community so that his bad example won’t drag others down. It’s after hearing Jesus say that there is a time and a place to publicly disassociate oneself from a spiritual rebel that Peter pipes up and asks:

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

Now the problem with Peter’s question is that he’s already twisting what Jesus has said. When Jesus said that His followers shouldn’t socialize with spiritual rebels, He didn’t say anything about it being okay for believers to hate each other. Peter is taking a discussion of community management and trying to turn it into a license to hold endless grudges towards others. Peter is really asking Jesus to give him permission to hate other believers. He wants Jesus to name a specific number of offenses—he’s looking for something similar to the old “three strikes and you’re out” rule. How about seven offenses? That sounds very generous in Peter’s mind. He figures that after a brother sins against him seven times, he would be more than justified to hate that fellow forevermore.

Both Jesus and Yahweh command us to treat others as we’d want to be treated. How many times do you want to be forgiven? At what point do you want to be slapped with the “unforgivable scum” label? Never, of course. You want endless chances. You want endless grace and mercy. Well, if this is how you want to be treated, where do you get off being so stingy and spiteful towards your brother? Peter’s motivation for asking this question directly violates the heart of Yahweh’s Laws, and as an Old Covenant believer, Peter should understand this. So it is with more than a little impatience that Jesus fires back:

“No, not seven times, but seventy times seven!” (Matt. 18:22)

Now to understand what a little punk Peter is being, you need to forget about these fools that teach that “the God of the Old Testament was a meanie” and realize that Yahweh’s Old Covenant was abounding in grace. Today Christians like to look down their noses at the old sacrificial system, but consider how gracious it was for Yahweh to let you off the hook for defying Him just because you slaughtered some innocent animal. Why should God ever forgive you for any of your sins? And let’s not pretend that sinning intentionally is some rare event in our lives, because we all know it’s not. We intentionally violate God’s moral laws all the time, and then we have the gall to try and justify our actions by saying dumb things like, “I just wanted to have a little fun” or “But everyone else was doing it.” This is reality: we all sin, and none of us deserve one drop of grace. Yet in Peter’s time, Yahweh was showering grace and mercy down onto the heads of Peter and a boatload of other defiant little punks. After he has personally benefited so much from Yahweh’s abundant grace and mercy, Peter is totally out of line to suggest it is reasonable for him to be a misery of mercy with others. Jesus is very displeased with Peter’s rotten attitude, and when Jesus is displeased, He often launches into a parable with some very hostile language in it.

“No, not seven times, but seventy times seven!” Jesus replied. “Therefore, the Kingdom of Heaven can be compared to a king who decided to bring his accounts up to date with servants who had borrowed money from him. In the process, one of his debtors was brought in who owed him millions of dollars. He couldn’t pay, so his master ordered that he be sold—along with his wife, his children, and everything he owned—to pay the debt.” (Matt. 18:22-25)

This was standard procedure in these times: if you couldn’t pay your debts, you were turned into property. Now notice this is a not just an ordinary rich man who is balancing the accounts, but a king. That king represents the magnificent Yahweh. The servant represents Peter. This parable is extremely pointed, but Jesus is wording it so that it can apply to any Old Covenant believer.

“But the man fell down before his master and begged him, ‘Please, be patient with me, and I will pay it all.’ Then his master was filled with pity for him, and he released him and forgave his debt.” (Matt. 18:26-27)

The debt in this story represents sin—Peter’s sin to be exact. Notice how King Yahweh graciously decides not to give Peter the punishment he deserves. Yahweh doesn’t even demand full payment for the sins. Instead, He very graciously forgives Peter of his debt. This is what Peter’s real life situation with Yahweh is at the time Jesus is talking: Yahweh has let Peter off the hook for countless sins by now. How is Peter responding to such incredible grace?

“But when the man left the king, he went to a fellow servant who owed him a few thousand dollars. He grabbed him by the throat and demanded instant payment.” (Matt. 18:28)

Here’s nasty Peter, hunting down and assaulting some guy who has done far less wrong to him than Peter has done to Yahweh. Peter demands total payback. Jesus is intentionally creating a situation that fits Peter’s previous question of “When am I justified to be merciless towards someone who sins against me?”

“His fellow servant fell down before him and begged for a little more time. ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it,’ he pleaded. But his creditor wouldn’t wait. He had the man arrested and put in prison until the debt could be paid in full.” (Matt. 18:29-30)

Look at what a creep Peter is being! He refuses to forgive and be gracious. Instead, he is cruel and merciless.

“When some of the other servants saw this, they were very upset. They went to the king and told him everything that had happened. Then the king called in the man he had forgiven and said, ‘You evil servant! I forgave you that tremendous debt because you pleaded with me. Shouldn’t you have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?’ Then the angry king sent the man to prison to be tortured until he had paid his entire debt. (Matt. 18:31-33)

When Yahweh’s character in this parable finds out what the evil Peter has done, how does He respond? He responds with wrath and demands that Peter be hauled off and tortured. Now if a man owes you money, how is torturing him going to help you get your money back? It isn’t. The king in this story has switched over a to a different agenda—that of revenge. Whenever we find Jesus telling a story in which the God character orders someone to be tortured, He’s talking about Hell. The terrifying picture being painted here is of Yahweh throwing Peter into Hell due to Peter’s rebellious attitude. And in case Peter or any of the other disciples are trying to pretend that this parable doesn’t apply to them, Jesus concludes with this vicious zinger:

“That’s what My heavenly Father will do to you if you refuse to forgive your brothers and sisters from your heart!” (Matt. 18:35)

Yikes! If you don’t find this parable alarming, then you’re not paying attention. This is a very terrifying little story, and it isn’t the first time Jesus has said that insufficient forgiveness is going to result in God throwing people into Hell. Ever pray “The Lord’s Prayer”? If so, realize that you are asking Yahweh to please throw you into Hell if you fall short one iota in the forgiveness department. Don’t believe it? That’s because you’ve been taught to ignore the original context of that prayer in which Jesus tells you what the important point is. Let’s jump back to that famous Sermon on the Mount for a moment. There we find this chilling passage:

“Therefore, you should pray like this:

Our Father in heaven, may Your Name be honored as holy. Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven. Give us today our daily bread, and forgive us our sins, as we have forgiven those who sin against us. And do not bring us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.” (Matt. 6:9-13)

Notice that you’re asking Yahweh for conditional forgiveness when you pray this prayer. You’re asking Him to forgive you only to the degree that you forgive others. This is why Jesus then concludes this little lesson on prayer by saying:

“For if you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins.” (Matt. 6:9-14)

Now if you think you’re doing a perfect job at forgiving people, you’re utterly delusional. When we humans don’t want to face what misers of mercy we are, we just carefully avoid thinking about the people who really tick us off. We think that not thinking about something makes it go away. There are names for these kinds of mind games: denial, compartmentalizing, and stuffing to name a few. But the point is that you really don’t feel good will towards every person on the planet. In fact, you hate people who you don’t even know. What kinds of feelings come to mind when you hear the terms molesters, murderers, pimps, and drug lords. How about Nazis, genocide, and terrorists? Can you honestly say that there’s no hardness of heart happening when you read over the daily news and learn about man’s cruelty to man? We humans are constantly passing judgement on each other and condemning each other. We’re constantly defining ourselves as better than someone else. The guy who cuts you off on the freeway and nearly causes an accident—did you forgive him to the degree that you want God to forgive you? Or did you just flash him a hostile hand signal and eventually forget about him?

Ignoring someone does not constitute forgiving them. Forgiveness is when we fully acknowledge the scope of the violation, take an honest assessment of the damage that has been done, and say “I’m choosing to be merciful about this and have justice withheld from me for your sake.” True forgiveness is very difficult for us humans to pull off. That’s why we’d all end up in Hell if Yahweh took us seriously when we prayed The Lord’s Prayer at Him. As serious Christians, we need to stop rattling off these religious mantras and start being a lot more thoughtful about what we say to our Gods.

Okay, so back when Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount and here again with this parable aimed at Peter, Jesus is saying that if we don’t forgive perfectly and completely, Yahweh is going to throw us into Hell. Does this upset you? It should terrify you. And if you’re not completely lost in arrogance, you should swiftly realize that you are incapable of meeting Yahweh’s demands for forgiveness. When it comes to those two great commands of loving God with all that we are and loving others as ourselves, we are all miserable failures.

So now that Jesus has us all feeling hopeless, what is His point? His point is that no one is going to go waltzing into Heaven on their own merit. Salvation has always been a gracious gift on the part of our Gods.

You’re not supposed to find reading through the Gospels to be an upbeat experience. If you’re paying attention to what Jesus is actually saying, reading over those famous red letters is going to grind your pride down into a pulp and make you realize what a depraved sinner you really are. We need to remember that Jesus showed up on earth to introduce Yahweh’s New Covenant to Old Covenant believers. After 1,450 years of mangling the meaning of Scriptures, the Jews had convinced themselves that salvation was entirely a matter of works, not grace.  Guys like the Pharisees claimed to be obeying Yahweh’s Laws to the letter, and they taught everyone else to strive to imitate their glorious example. Imagine how arrogant you’d have to be to think that you are perfect in God’s sight and such a glorious example that people should follow you instead of looking to God Himself. This is where the arrogance of the Pharisees took them, and by the way, the apostle Paul used to be a Pharisee, which is why we find him saying asinine things like:

And you should imitate me, just as I imitate Christ. (1 Cor. 11:1)

Once you think you are the icon of righteousness, you find impressionable young minds who you can brainwash into worshiping you, and then you dispatch those folks to go out and promote you among other Christians. Notice the reason Paul gives for sending his loyal fan Timothy to the Corinthian church:

So I urge you to imitate me. That’s why I have sent Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord. He will remind you of how I follow Christ Jesus, just as I teach in all the churches wherever I go. (1 Cor. 4:17)

Pride is an ugly thing, and until it becomes severely crippled, we will never acquire salvation under either Covenant. At the time Jesus told the parable of the unforgiving servant, His disciples were beefing about which of them was the greatest. This is arrogance. Yahweh says it is only the humble who will be saved.

The parable Jesus throws out was intended to give all of His pompous followers a much needed whack across the face. There’s no room for sitting around trying to measure our own magnificence. According to our Gods, we don’t have any magnificence at all. It is only the humble who will reverentially bow down before their Creators and ask for a salvation that they know they do not begin to deserve. It is only when we take an honest look at the extent of our own depravity and acknowledge our desperate need for mercy that we’ll be accepted. Yahweh doesn’t save arrogant fools who scoff at the idea of needing His forgiveness. Jesus doesn’t save everyone who rattles off the sinner’s prayer. We must come to our Gods on our knees and wait for Them to raise us up again. We don’t go grabbing at rewards and crowns and high ranks in Heaven. In the Gospels, Jesus does a fabulous job of smashing the arrogant delusions of Old Covenant believers, and driving us all back to truths that we try so hard not to face. Salvation is through grace alone. No one deserves it. This is the way it has always been. And after we have received grace beyond measure from our Gods, at what point are we justified in withholding grace from each other? Never: that is the point of Jesus’ parable.