St Mike’s 6.30 pm 22 June 2008
The context of the parable of the unforgiving servant is the whole of Matthew’s gospel.
The Gospel was written initially for the Jews.
It is structured in five main parts:
Birth and Preparation (ch. 1-4)
1. Sermon on the Mount (ch. 5-7)
Narrative Section: Deed Ministry: Miracles (ch. 8-9)
2. Mission of the Disciples (ch. 10)
Narrative Section: Teaching and Preaching in Galilee (ch. 11-12).
3. Kingdom Parables (ch. 13)
Narrative Section: Healing in Galilee (ch. 14-17)
4. Church Discipline or Communal Rule (ch. 18) – this is the section we are looking at now
Narrative Section: Membership in the kingdom (ch. 19-23)
5 Eschatology (ch. 24-25)
Narrative Section: Passion and Resurrection (ch. 26-28)
It was aimed at Jewish readers hence Matthew avoids using the phrase the ‘kingdom of G-d’ and uses instead the ‘kingdom of heaven’ though the terms are interchangeable.
There are just over 340 mentions of the word ‘kingdom’ in the scriptures, 190 in the OT, and 54 in Mt, 19 in Mark and 43 in Luke. The kingdom is obviously important to Matt and he constantly uses parables to explain something of the kingdom. Which brings us to Mt 18: 21 ff and the parable of the unforgiving servant’. What I want to do first is to look at the background to this parable before looking at what it might mean to us.
The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant
21 Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?”
Peter no doubt thought that he was being generous – the Rabbinic consensus was that the brother could be forgiven a repeated sin three times; on the fourth there is no forgiveness.
Peter thought that he was being large-hearted and generous! (Lev 26:21) But
22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.
Jesus ups the ante! Forgiveness is not limited by frequency or quantity. Forgiveness must be unlimited. He tells this parable to show the consequences.
23 “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants.
The king Jesus envisages here would almost certainly have been a Gentile king. Probably, a nearby Egyptian king, at a time before the Roman conquest. The servants were his upper-class slaves who acted as his tax collectors. They would be allowed to collect taxes for him but they could do it by making a little profit.
24 When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents.
This was about 20 years wages for a labourer between £400,000 - £1,000,000.
25 And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made.
This was perfectably acceptable! Excuses weren’t allowed!
26 So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’
This was a standard promise – but in the light of the extent of the debt it is unlikely he could pay it back. The kings at the time were renowned for their ruthlessness. You don’t mess with them!
27 And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.
This was almost uncertainly unheard of! Jesus was subverting the ideas and concepts that this first-century hearers would have of ANE kings. Why? The answer is Jubilee – this is the underlying message of this parable. Practice Jubilee. The jubilee was a time that occurred every 7 x 7 years – it was a Sabbath year of Sabbath years. Every one returned home, the land was restored to them, slaves were set free and debts were written off – it was good news indeed! AD 26 was a year of jubilee, the year that Jesus announced his kingdom manifesto in Lk 4 as the favourable year of the Lord – another term for jubilee. This writing off of the debts the hearers would have understood straight away as jubilee – here was a pagan king practicing something the Jews should have been doing but weren’t!
28 But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’
Denarii = a day’s wages for a labourer or foot soldier –many many times smaller than the debt of the first servant! Here is someone who has jubilee done to them and in turn doesn’t practice it himself. He has had grace, mercy, forgiveness and release shown to him in great measure and couldn’t bring himself to share it with others.
29 So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’
This second servants words also echo the first words, the first servant must have realised what he was doing. He had experienced incredible grace but wasn’t able to extend that to others. That is living dysfunctionally, that isn’t kingdom living.
30 He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt.
Great wisdom here – how could someone in prison earn to pay the debt back? This first servant really is messed up! Unforgiveness screws you up!
31 When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place.
They were distressed not only because of the unfair treatment, but because the actions of the first servant might mean it might reflect badly upon them.
32 Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me.
Understandably, the king is angry – not only has he lost the revenue from the second servant the first put into prison but also his inability to show mercy, again it reflects badly upon the king.
33 And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’
The difference between grace and mercy – mercy is not getting what we deserve and grace is getting what we don’t deserve.
34 And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt.
Basanistas = torturers, not merely jailers. Torture was forbidden under Jewish law but the Gentile kings did practice it.
The king acts with compassion and mercy and yet punishes with ruthlessness. Grace and justice embrace.
Here’s the rub!
35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
An echo of the Lord’s prayer: forgive us our sins as we have forgiven. Interestingly Mt uses debts and Luke debts and sins.
Jesus spoke in Aramaic probably used the term khaba which means both sins and debts.
It would be easy to spirtualise this away and just regard it as forgiveness of sins, but debts are also included – this is a theme of the sabbath year and jubilee, sins are forgiven, slaves are set free and debts are written off.
Jesuit theologian John Haughey:
"We read the gospel as if we had no money, and we spend our money as if we know nothing of the gospel."
God is concerned about what we do with our money – forgive us our debts. Don’t get into debt!
Why this emphasis on forgiveness? – forgiveness can bring release and restoration; two major jubilee themes.
Let’s look at this forgiveness.
First some things it is not:
1. Forgiveness is not ‘never mind’
– things need to be addressed and confronted, too many churches have piles of rubbish under the carpets! Let’s not be one of them. Being forgiving doesn’t mean that injustice and sin doesn’t have to be confronted – the verses immediately before this parable show us how to confront sin.
2. Forgiveness is not weakness
Forgiving doesn’t mean we tolerate wrongdoing. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t address injustice. You are forgiven – but don’t do it again.
3. Forgiveness is not easy – it may depend on your personality!
It can be difficult, painful and hard – but it does transform, it’s worth it!
4. Forgiveness is not forgetting
Who say you have to forget? Forgiveness is not forgetting. Nowhere in the scriptures does it tell us we have to forget – but we do have to live as if it never happened. In the parable the king forgave his servant, but when he showed unforgiveness to another, the king still remembered what he had done.
What is forgiveness?
Forgiveness is a letting go, a cancelling of a debt. The Greek word used is aphiemi, it literally means to ‘send off’, ‘to release’ good jubilee terms!
1. Forgiveness is a choice
Forgiveness is a choice not a feeling!
When we have been hurt or wronged – we need to recognise it.
Realise we can’t change it – we can’t reverse it.
But then we have a choice live with the pain or release it through forgiveness.
2. Forgiveness is giving up revenge
We don’t have a right to get even! Revenge can be sweet, but it is not right!
Rom 12: 19Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord."
Oscar Wilde: “Always forgive your enemies--nothing annoys them so much.”
3. Forgiveness brings freedom
The story has been told of a former inmate of a Nazi concentration camp who visited a friend who shared the ordeal with him. "Have you forgiven the Nazis?" he asked his friend. "Yes." "Well, I haven't. I'm still consumed with hatred for them," the other man declared. "In that case," said his friend gently, "they still have you in prison."
That story points out this reality: ultimately, forgiveness is a gift you give yourself. Bitterness and anger imprison you emotionally. Forgiveness sets you free. Lewis Smedes writes:
The first person who gets the benefit of forgiving is always the person who does the forgiving. When you forgive a person who wronged you, you set a prisoner free, and then you discover that the prisoner you set free is you. When you forgive, you walk hand in hand with the very God who forgives you everything for the sake of his Son. When you forgive, you heal the hurts you never should have felt in the first place.
4. Forgiveness is a process
Forgiveness may take time – it is a journey. We may have to keep on forgiving some. Lewis Smedes tells this story:
I once was in a rage at a police officer in the village where I live for abusing my youngest son for no good reason. I stomped about my house for several days in a fury of anger at the officer. I knew I would be miserable unless I forgave him. But I did. I did forgive him. I forgave him by going into my study and getting on my knees, and saying, "Officer Maloney, I forgive you. In the name of God, I forgive you."
About a year later I saw this same office drive by in a patrol car and I had to do it all over again. Only it was easier the second time. Then, a few years later, I heard that he had been fired from the force for abusive conduct. Hearing that tasted sweet as honey to me. I secretly smacked my lips with vengeful satisfaction. Then I realized I needed to forgive him one more time. Which I did. And, who knows, I may have to do it a few more times before I’m over it.
What happens if you feel you can’t forgive?
I need for justice ... It’s too hard .... I’ve been hurt too much ....
You have a choice forgive and set yourself free or don’t forgive and keep yourself imprisoned.
Father forgive …
God has forgiven us - we didn't say sorry, we didn't make the first move
Ask the Lord to help, take the first step - choose to forgive, don't wait for the feelings
Ask for a revelation of God love and forgiveness to you; the unforgiving servant didn’t realise how much he was forgiven so he couldn’t forgive others – ask God for that revelation.