Saturday, September 10, 2011

"Forgiveness" - Reflections on the Parable of the "Unforgiving Servant" - Matthew 18:21-35

Read the Gospel Parable here: Matthew 18:21-35

Reflections on the Parable – “The Unforgiving Servant” – Matthew 18:21-35
The parables are like a large and beautiful diamond.  To focus one’s gaze on the parables is to gaze into the heart of the Kingdom of God.  Each of these parables give us a different view and help us to complete the picture of what God’s realm on earth looks like; and they help us to also see a little of who God is.  These images are often surprising, shocking and even offensive: God is like a sower who doesn’t really know how to sow; God is like an incompetent judge; God is like an employer who doesn’t know how to manage personnel.  God’s realm is a place where all of God’s people are a part of one community; where we have responsibility for each other; where the usual human cultural, racial and sexual divisions and stereotypes no longer apply.  God’s realm is a place of radical, illogical abundant grace, love and forgiveness.
The parable of the Prodigal Son gave us one glimpse of the abundant and radical forgiveness that God offers to us through Jesus.  Today our parable gives us another view and may add some more to the picture.  In the parable of the Unforgiving Servant we have a King who has slaves and one slave in particular has become substantially indebted to him.  The slave owes the king 10,000 talents!  Now, a talent was a measure of weight – roughly 130 lbs – which was used to measure out silver or gold.  In monetary terms 1 talent was equal to about 15 years of income for a 1st century peasant or farmer.  That would be 10,000 x 15 = 150,000 years of income.  This slave owes the king something somewhat equal to the US current national debt!  That is a lot of indebtedness!  The slave cannot hope to come close to paying this off.  He begs for forgiveness and it is granted.  The king forgives him the entire debt!  That is a lot to forgive!  The king (God) extravagantly and abundantly and illogically forgives!
And what does this slave do in response?  Well, he goes out and comes across a fellow slave who owes him 100 denarii and demands repayment.  Now slave 1 owed 10,000 talents; 1 talent is worth 15 years of income and 1 talent = 5,475 denarii.  So, if 10,000 talents are close in value to current US debt, 1 denarii would be like having $1,000 on a credit card that you can’t pay off.  It is a burden, but not really comparable to the trillions owed by the US to banks.  But slave 1 will not forgive and has slave 2 thrown into debtor’s prison.  Slave #1, by refusing to extend forgiveness, has just refused the forgiveness offered to him by the King.  Despite the extravagant gift offered to him by the King, he refuses it through his inability to extend the same gift, at a much smaller level, to another.  He chooses prison and darkness for himself and his family.  End of story…. Not really.
What about us?  “How much do I have to forgive?” asks Peter.  “77 times,” answers Jesus – which means there is no limit.  And that refusal to forgive will be a prison for us and for our families.  The 1st point of course is obvious – God’s forgiveness for us is abundant and extravagant and illogical.  God’s forgiveness of us is always available.  Can we accept it though?  Remember, the other parables have made it clear that we are interwoven with others in our community and refusal to forgive others is tantamount to rejecting God’s offer of forgiveness, which binds us and throws us into the darkness and prison of our bitterness and anger and nursing our hurts.  God offers us the opportunity to turn all of that over to God and to be freed from this prison of our own making.  This parable offers us a choice: can we accept the gift which God offers to us, which includes our being willing and able to turn our hurts over to God and offer forgiveness to those who have hurt us?  Or would we prefer to remain bound and in the darkness of our bitterness and anger, nursing old hurts and betrayals?
A couple of words about forgiveness: this is one of those Church words which gets bandied about so much that over time it takes on baggage that keep us from understanding what it really means.  1. Forgiveness does not mitigate consequences.  If you have been victim of a criminal act you might very well be able to come to a point where you can forgive the perpetrator, but this does not mean that then there are no consequences for either of you.  There may be serious consequences which you might need to live with for a long time.  When I broke my grandmother’s picture window playing baseball, my grandmother forgave me, but I still had to pay for the window. Forgiveness does not eliminate the consequences  2. Forgiveness does NOT mean – “forgive and forget!”  Repeat: Forgiveness does NOT mean – “forgive and forget.”  How this attitude ever developed I do not know.  But it is completely unbiblical.  When we forgive we need to have learned and grown through the experience – and the same with the one who we are forgiving.  This comes up all the time – but if forgetting is part of the equation then we will never move forward.  3. Forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation.  We may be able to come to a point where we can forgive a hurt or betrayal which we experienced, but it does not necessarily follow that we can be reconciled with the perpetrator.  Maybe, but it is a different process. 4.  Who benefits from forgiveness?  It is not necessarily the one who is being forgiven.  The gift of forgiveness is a gift which God offers to us as a way of our being freed from the bondage and darkness and dungeon of holding grudges, seeking revenge, nursing hurts and so forth.
       Finally, forgiveness is a gift from God.  We cannot do it on our own.  We need to pray for God’s help in forgiving others, and in forgiving ourselves.  God is offering this gift to us abundantly and extravagantly, but too often we would prefer to turn our backs on the gift so we can continue to nurse the hurts and remain in the familiar surroundings of our prisons.  Slave #1 ultimately was unable to accept the extravagant gift that the king offered him.  What about us?  What hurts do we continue to nurse?  What and to whom do we need to offer forgiveness?  Are we ready to ask God to open our hearts and forgive so that we might be freed?  

     Have we as a nation come yet to the point where we can forgive the 9/11 terrorism attacks?  We have come a long way in 10 years: 2 wars, an economic meltdown (which is not unrelated), a new security regimen.  We have been profoundly changed.  So many beautiful and precious lives were lost; families profoundly changed.  There has been much that has been heroic and deeply moving; but there continues to be scapegoating of Muslims, the stupid burning of the Islamic Holy Book the Quran, the senseless outlawing of sharia law - all of which just continues to scapegoat and victimizes Muslims.  In some ways we are still in the darkness of the dungeons of anger and revenge.  But there is light too, there are stories of grace and self-giving.  Forgiveness on a personal level is hard; forgiveness on a national scale is even harder.  But yet God offers us the gift of forgiveness.  The light of this gift appears as a small light in the midst of the darkness, as a crack of the dungeon door.  I believe that it is in this that we find our hope.  God is with us - even in the midst of the aftermath of such a horrific event and God will effect healing and forgiveness.  It may take a long time - but we will move forward, we will experience healing and God will continue to shower us with God's love and grace.


  1. Even though this was posted 1 year ago today, I thought you might still like a comment. Thank you for posting this! My name is Katie and I am from Titusville, FL. I help run a youth center downtown and I am teaching tomorrow night on the parable of the unforgiving servant, as this is an issue that has been heavy on my heart lately. I hope you don't mind, but I intend now to point out some of the things that forgiveness is not, based on your writings. The hesitation I've always had about teaching on forgiveness is trying to explain to angry teenagers what it is supposed to look like. You've helped me have a clearer picture and I just thought you should know. I'm sorry that I don't have an account that I can post this with, but I won't be upset if you do not reply.

    In Him,
    Katie W.

  2. Dear Katie - thank you so much for your comment. I am very grateful for the feedback. I think this is an important and very misunderstood subject. Blessings on your ministry.
    In Christ,
    Pr. SBD+