To Forgive or Not to Forgive...

Do you remember the days, perhaps long ago, when you did something awful to a sibling (or they did something awful to you) and then mom orchestrated a reconciliation transaction?  So…you stole her doll…or he knocked down your tower…and, thankfully, mom intervened.  Then, after having exchanged a seemingly empty “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you” (with the threat of time-out-time now looming), life eventually continued onward.  But was it necessary?  Did it work?  And when is enough enough?  Those are the questions of this week’s text.

In context, Matthew 18 is perhaps best understood as the “The Sermon on the Congregation” - a mini version of the “Sermon on the Mount” that is now more focused on the internal life of the family of faith - the church.  And, like all families, belonging is quite easy…but getting along is a whole other thing. And so the chapter ends climactically with a question & a story about forgiveness.


Peter asks Jesus: “How many times do I have to forgive my faith-sibling when they keep sinning against me?!”  And Jesus’ answer is “seventy-seven times” or “seventy times seven” …and whatever the number is literally, 77 or 490, the implication seems to be “at least one more time,” or “yes, this time too.”

Then Jesus tells the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant.  The story starts with the standard hook, saying: “The Kingdom of God is like…”  And it unfolds just as C.H. Dodd said that a parable would: “as a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt as to its precise application to tease it into active thought.”

So, let’s draw out some of those details…

  1. What’s the metaphor/simile drawn from common life?  It is the experience of being in debt and of having that debt suddenly forgiven…if that ever happens!

  2. What’s arrestingly vivid or strange in the story?  Definitely the huge discrepancy between the servant’s debt forgiven (10,000 talents = 164,000 years of day labor!) & the other debts that the servant refused to forgive (100 denarii = 100 days work).  

  3. How is our mind left in sufficient doubt?  Perhaps by the introspective questions that now remain: Am I forgiving in the same manner to which I have been forgiven?  And what exactly is the nature of the relationship between forgiving and being forgiven?  (See Matt. 6:12, Lk 7:47, & Jam. 2:13)  

Of course, forgiveness is much easier in theory than it is in real life.  Even if your earliest experiences of forgiveness were somewhat fake and forced (as they may have been orchestrated by mom), the practice was still well worth it.  It was early training in what Jesus here elevates to utmost importance.  And, like all the parables, Jesus told the story so as to change attitudes and behaviors.

So, how has the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant teased your mind into active thought?

Grace and Peace,
Pastor Ross

Matthew 18:21-35


21 Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church[a] sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven[b] times.

The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant

23 “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents[c] was brought to him; 25 and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26 So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii;[d] and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 31 When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32 Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35 So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister[e] from your heart.”