The Unforgiving Servant
Days after Jesus died on the cross, Peter said to few other disciples, “I am going fishing.” They said, “We will go with you.” So, they boarded a boat, like they had many times before, and picked up the job they left years before. Their Lord had died, so they might as well go back to fishing. They set out to the Sea of Tiberias and caught nothing all night.
In the morning, a voice came from the shore. “Children, do you have any fish?” “No,” they replied. “Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some,” the voice said. So, they did, and their net grew full. John recognized the voice. “It is the Lord!” Peter threw himself into the sea and headed for shore. Could it be?
As Peter arrived winded from his swim, he found Jesus there with a charcoal fire. Fish and bread were spread out. Breakfast was ready. He looked at Peter and said, “Come and have breakfast.” They sat down and dined with the risen Christ.
The Apostle John’s record of these events near the end of his gospel account shows us the depth of God’s forgiveness. For Peter, something more was going on than a simple meal. A story of redemption was playing itself out. There was one other time that John mentions a charcoal fire. It's when Jesus is in the court of the High Priest before his crucifixion (John 18). The servants and officers make a charcoal fire to warm themselves in the cold night. It is there before that distinctive smell where Peter denies his Lord.
Luke tells us that after the third denial, the Lord looked at Peter, and Peter went out and wept bitterly (Luke 22:61). And here is Jesus again before Peter with the smell of charcoal in the air. But, this time, there are no tears. There is no denial. There is no impending death. It is only Jesus bidding Peter, and the rest, to come and have breakfast.
Jesus and Peter had a hard conversation after that. But Jesus granted Peter forgiveness because he paid for his sins. He was now free to love him. No matter how hard the night was, Jesus was there in the morning inviting him into his presence.
Peter’s life is a testimony to the mercy of God. He’s a bold sinner. Of all the apostles, he’s the one in whom we see the dirtiest side. It is he who denies the Lord. It is he who Paul confronts in Antioch. It is he who speaks on Satan’s behalf, rebuking the Lord when he should have walked with him. And here, in Matthew 18, we have Peter asking Jesus a question. “How often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Peter is trying to see how far forgiveness must go, and in so doing shows us that even in our most generous thoughts, we cannot grasp the depth and breadth of God’s call to forgiveness. We need the Lord himself to show us.
To explain forgiveness, Jesus doesn’t just tell us a story. He tells us our story. He shows us his redemption for our sin. He breaks into our experience and does something in our heart. Then, in grace, he sends us out to show mercy to others. He forgives us, and in so doing, gives us the power to forgive others. When we do, we follow him into the hard things of the world and bring redemption. When we don’t, we prove how little of his forgiveness we understand.
The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant - Matthew 18:21-35
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?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.
23 “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. 24 When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. 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. 26 So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. 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.’ 29 So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. 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. 32 Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. 35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
The Problem of Forgiveness
In Matthew 18, Jesus is teaching his disciples what life is like in the family of faith. He’s showing us how gospel doctrine creates a gospel culture. It includes some hard things because all life-giving things are hard. Among them is this act of forgiveness.
Jesus’s answer to Peter’s question is extreme. How many times should we forgive our brother who sins against us? Not seven times, but seventy-seven times. This is one of the many extreme things Jesus says in Matthew 18. He tells us to cut off our hand and gouge out our eye if it causes us to sin. We must become like children to enter the Kingdom of God. He says we will temptation will come, but those who lead others into temptation would be better off drowning in the sea. So, when he answers Peter’s question, his reply is as radical as the rest of his teaching. Apparently, we are to be radical with forgiveness toward others because God is radical with it toward us. Just as there are no limits to the actions we should take in avoiding sin, so also there should be no limits to the extent of our forgiveness of a brother.
Theoretically, forgiveness is wonderful. Realistically, it’s nearly impossible. When sin comes charging at us, harming us in ways we could have never imagined, and the sinner is there before us, unable to undo the damage, how can we grant forgiveness? Even more, how can we do it again and again and again. This parable isn’t about one-time forgiveness. It’s about life-long forgiveness. And that’s where the trouble really comes.
Peter’s question comes after Jesus instructs us how to handle those who sin against us. In other words, how to conduct church discipline. First, we are to go alone and tell him his fault. If he repents, great, you’ve gained a brother. If he doesn’t repent, take someone else, so others witness his unrepentance. If he is still unyielding, bring him before the church. Then, and only then, if he refuses to repent even before the church, you are to cast him out. Dan Doriani helps us understand what Peter is asking Jesus in light of this teaching.
The process of church discipline raises two questions. First, if it does not work, will we have the stomach to continue? Second, if it does work, are we then required to forgive the offender? When Peter asked, “How many times shall I forgive my brother?” (Matt. 18:21), he was proposing the second question. The second question has a corollary: if we forgive, must we “forget”? Must we act as if it nothing happened? We can enlarge Peter’s question in this way: “I understand that if my brother sins against me, I must confront him. I also know how to proceed if he refuses to listen. But what if the first step works, so that he listens? I presume I must forgive him. But what if he offends me repeatedly? How many times do I have to forgive? Up to seven times?” (18:21).
Do you see the problem Peter sees? If the brother does repent, that’s wonderful, but there is still the matter of forgiving him. The onus moves from him to you. Now that what you hoped has occurred, it’s your turn to do the hard heart work of forgiving. And no matter what we believe about the need for forgiveness, the act is always harder. Especially, as in Peter’s example, when the sin is repeated. Here in the parable of the unforgiving servant we have a problem: the problem of forgiveness. And inside the church, forgiveness isn’t optional. Forgiveness is required.
We can break the parable into three scenes. First, verses 23-27.
23 “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. 24 When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. 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. 26 So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.
The story, like all of Jesus’s parables, has an easily understandable plot. A king is trying to balance his books and, therefore, settling debts. He calls a man who owes him ten thousand talents. This man is a slave, given the fact that when he can’t repay, the king plans to sell him and his family, probably both as a punishment and to regain some of the lost money. The servant, of course, cannot pay such a large sum. So he begs for forgiveness.
It’s important here to understand how large the sum was. A talent was worth six thousand denarii. A denarius was a day’s wage for a common laborer. Therefore, the math tells us one talent was worth about twenty years’ wages. Ten thousand talents, then, would equal 200,000 years’ wages. Obviously, that’s an incredible amount of money, one this servant could not repay.
But the servant asks for time to repay the debt. How he accrued it we are not told. Regardless, we can see that his request for patience to repay is ridiculous. No one could pay such a debt. He’s at the end of his rope. He’s begging for patience, hoping that the king gives him time to make it up. But he doesn’t. The king does something far greater instead. He forgives him entirely and releases him. In this first meeting between the servant and king, the king grants radical forgiveness.
This forgiveness is meant to sound radical. Jesus is showing us the kind of grace and mercy he shows towards those who’ve racked up a massive debt against him. To understand the shock and scandal of this radical forgiveness, we need to understand the shock and scandal of what God does in forgiving our debts against him, for this is the point of the parable. We become forgiving people to the extent to which we understand God’s forgiveness of us.
You and I are sinners from birth. We can thank Adam for that fallen condition. It doesn’t take us long to prove our sin, either. As we grow, our sin begins to feel normal. It becomes a part of who we are, how we think of ourselves, what we expect from ourselves. But normalcy of sin doesn’t make sin less than it is. Sin is treason against the King. It is an offense to the God who created us. It is a serious matter. Alexander Maclaren defined sin this way. “Sin is rebellion, the uprising of the will against rightful authority - not merely the breach of abstract propriety or law, but opposition to a living Person, who has right to obedience. The definition of virtue is obedience to God, and the sin in sin is the assertion of independence of God and opposition to His will.”
Our sin is not a small matter between God and us. It is the issue that separates us. It is the problem in our life. It is the limiting factor in us attaining holiness, finding God, reaching heaven. It is the core issue of our life. And unless our sin is dealt with—unless our sin is forgiven—we can find no way around it, we cannot clean it up, we cannot undo it. We are broken. We need a Savior.
Throughout the Bible, when people find themselves before the Lord, they always find themselves soiled with sin in his presence. For example, Isaiah pronounces woes on himself (Isaiah 6:5). Before God’s holiness, we find nothing good in us. We cannot stand before him. We need a massive cleaning from God, or we will have no way to stand before him when he calls us to account. Fleming Rutledge says, “From beginning to end, the Holy Scriptures testify that the predicament of fallen humanity is so serious, so grave, so irremediable from within, that nothing short of divine intervention can rectify it.”
And divine intervention we have in Jesus Christ. What we receive in Christ’s justification on the cross is not mere forgiveness of sins. It is a restoration of the relationship. It is a setting right. On the cross, in his death, Jesus pays the penalty for our sins on our behalf. What he does, then, is bigger than forgiving our iniquity. He is paying the penalty for our sins in his perfection, trading his goodness for our evil. That great exchange grants us a right standing before God. We become as Jesus is because he became as we were.
In the parable’s second scene, the servant goes from his forgiveness from the king to oppression of another servant.
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.’ 29 So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt.
We should find this repulsive. Jesus wanted us to. But more than that, he wanted us to see our own heart before God’s forgiveness. Are we just as repulsive? What do we do with the forgiveness God has granted? Do we, in turn, forgive others? Or do we still expect justice? How forgiving are we?
This parable pushes us to a deep evaluation of our own heart. We can be so unforgiving of those who sin against us. So much of our unforgiveness we’re unaware of. But like poison, it will ruin us. When we withhold forgiveness, we are saying to the world that Jesus’s grace is sufficient to clean us, but not good enough to clean others.
Are we going from Sunday service to a troubled Sunday night dinner with the family? Are we harboring unforgiveness towards someone who can never undo their sin? Are we expecting something from others that we hope no one ever expects of us? Are we willing to forgive, or do we just talk about the idea of forgiving?
Whatever we say about our view of forgiveness, what we really believe shows up in how we act toward others. We will either let them go with a smile in our heart or we will throw them in jail with bitterness in our heart. There is no such thing as moderate forgiveness. There is radical forgiveness or radical unforgiveness. Which are you?
Judgment of Unforgiveness
In the third scene, the servant’s actions reveal his true heart to the king.
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. 32 Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. 35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
Earlier in the story, Matthew records Jesus’s words in 6:14-15, “If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” James says it this way, “Judgment by God is without mercy to those who have shown no mercy. But mercy triumphs over judgment.” (James 2:13). No matter how you slice it, the Bible makes it clear: if we are to be forgiven, we must also forgive others.
We see it here in the parable as well. The other servants witness this gross injustice and run to tell the king what they’ve seen. The king summons the servant once again, but this time mercy has run out. It’s time for judgment.
No one listening or reading this parable looks upon the king as the one in the wrong. He is just to condemn the servant for his unforgiveness. If we live our lives in unforgiveness, we alone will be surprised to stand before the King and be judged. Everyone else will see what we said we believed was only a nice thought we had, not a reality we lived.
The entire purpose of this parable is to answer Peter’s question, “How many times should I forgive my brother who sins against me?” Jesus’s answer is, forever. This means our forgiveness must be real, from the heart, and abiding. How can we do this?
Tim Keller helps us understand.
“Most of the wrongs done to us cannot be assessed in purely economic terms. Someone may have robbed you of some happiness, reputation, opportunity, or certain aspects of your freedom. No price tag can be put on such things, yet we still have a sense of violated justice that does not go away when the other person says, “I’m really sorry.” When we are seriously wronged we have an indelible sense that the perpetrators have incurred a debt that must be dealt with. Once you have been wronged and you realize there is a just debt that can’t simply be dismissed— there are only two things to do.
The first option is to seek ways to make the perpetrators suffer for what they have done. You can withhold relationship and actively initiate or passively wish for some kind of pain in their lives commensurate to what you experienced. There are many ways to do this. You can viciously confront them, saying things that hurt. You can go around to others to tarnish their reputation. If the perpetrators suffer, you may begin to feel a certain satisfaction, feeling that they are now paying off their debt.
There are some serious problems with this option, however. You may become harder and colder, more self-pitying, and therefore more self-absorbed. If the wrongdoer was a person of wealth or authority you may instinctively dislike and resist that sort of person for the rest of your life. If it was a person of the opposite sex or another race you might become permanently cynical and prejudiced against whole classes of people. In addition, the perpetrator and his friends and family often feel they have the right to respond to your payback in kind. Cycles of reaction and retaliation can go on for years. Evil has been done to you— yes. But when you try to get payment through revenge the evil does not disappear. Instead it spreads, and it spreads most tragically of all into you and your own character.
There is another option, however. You can forgive. Forgiveness means refusing to make them pay for what they did. However, to refrain from lashing out at someone when you want to do so with all your being is agony. It is a form of suffering. You not only suffer the original loss of happiness, reputation, and opportunity, but now you forgo the consolation of inflicting the same on them. You are absorbing the debt, taking the cost of it completely on yourself instead of taking it out of the other person. It hurts terribly. Many people would say it feels like a kind of death.
Yes, but it is a death that leads to resurrection instead of the lifelong living death of bitterness and cynicism. As a pastor I have counseled many people about forgiveness, and I have found that if they do this— if they simply refuse to take vengeance on the wrongdoer in action and even in their inner fantasies— the anger slowly begins to subside. You are not giving it any fuel and so the resentment burns lower and lower. C. S. Lewis wrote in one of his Letters to Malcolm that “last week, while at prayer, I suddenly discovered— or felt as if I did— that I had really forgiven someone I had been trying to forgive for over thirty years. Trying, and praying that I might.” 1 I remember once counseling a sixteen-year-old girl about the anger she felt toward her father. We weren’t getting anywhere until I said to her, “Your father has defeated you, as long as you hate him. You will stay trapped in your anger unless you forgive him thoroughly from the heart and begin to love him.” Something thawed in her when she realized that. She went through the suffering of costly forgiveness, which at first always feels far worse than bitterness, into eventual freedom. Forgiveness must be granted before it can be felt, but it does come eventually. It leads to a new peace, a resurrection. It is the only way to stop the spread of the evil.
When I counsel forgiveness to people who have been harmed, they often ask about the wrongdoers, “Shouldn’t they be held accountable?” I usually respond, “Yes, but only if you forgive them.” There are many good reasons that we should want to confront wrongdoers. Wrongdoers have inflicted damage and, as in the example of the gate I presented earlier, it costs something to fix the damage. We should confront wrongdoers— to wake them up to their real character, to move them to repair their relationships, or to at least constrain them and protect others from being harmed by them in the future. Notice, however, that all those reasons for confrontation are reasons of love. The best way to love them and the other potential victims around them is to confront them in the hope that they will repent, change, and make things right.
The desire for vengeance, however, is motivated not by goodwill but by ill will. You may say, “I just want to hold them accountable,” but your real motivation may be simply to see them hurt. If you are not confronting them for their sake or for society’s sake but for your own sake, just for payback, the chance of the wrongdoer ever coming to repentance is virtually nil. In such a case you, the confronter, will overreach, seeking not justice but revenge, not their change but their pain. Your demands will be excessive and your attitude abusive. He or she will rightly see the confrontation as intended simply to cause hurt. A cycle of retaliation will begin.
Only if you first seek inner forgiveness will your confrontation be temperate, wise, and gracious. Only when you have lost the need to see the other person hurt will you have any chance of actually bringing about change, reconciliation, and healing. You have to submit to the costly suffering and death of forgiveness if there is going to be any resurrection.”