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The Life of Jesus - Series 7: Episode 10

Parable of the unmerciful servant

| Martin Charlesworth
Matthew 18:21-35

Jesus ends his teaching on church community with a dramatic parable to teach the need to forgive - from the heart.

Jesus ends his teaching on church community with a dramatic parable to teach the need to forgive - from the heart.


Hello and welcome to Series 7 and Episode 10. This episode is entitled ‘The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant’. It's a parable that Jesus gives in the context of teaching in Matthew chapter 18, and the passage we'll study is Matthew 18: 21 - 35.

Introduction and Recap

Those of you who've been following this teaching in the last few episodes in Series 7, will know that we're working through a very important piece of teaching from Jesus, which is encompassed by the whole of Matthew 18. This is in fact a discourse - or a block of teaching - a piece of teaching by Jesus, that Matthew highlights. Matthew is a Gospel which focuses on discipleship and teaching and training. Matthew gives the Church access to substantial amounts of Jesus' teaching material that isn't recorded so fully in the other Gospels. He does this particularly by highlighting five main teaching sessions of Jesus, which are commonly called discourses. I've mentioned them in each of the recent episodes and I'll just briefly mention them again because this is the fourth out of five. The first one, the Sermon the Mount is the best-known. This describes, broadly speaking, the lifestyle of the Kingdom of God. In Matthew 10 we have teaching on the mission of the Kingdom, in the context of Jesus sending out the Twelve and giving them detailed instructions; instructions which went way beyond the immediate situation and instruct us too, in mission. In Matthew 13, we have the third discourse on the growth of the Kingdom and on this occasion, Jesus teaches through the form of parables - seven parables together - which describe the dynamics of how the Kingdom of God will grow in the years between Jesus' first coming and his second coming. Now here we are in the fourth discourse, in Matthew 18 and I've entitled it the community of the Kingdom. The whole of this chapter is dedicated to looking at relationships and relational structures within the Church. The final discourse, Matthew 24 and 25, is about the future of the Kingdom, and describes the Second Coming of Jesus and the events beforehand in preparation for that process, and the implications of the coming of Jesus again to this earth. That will wait for another day.

For now, we're focusing on Matthew 18. In Matthew 18, we see emerging the concept of the Church, which has only been mentioned once before by Jesus formerly, speaking in Matthew 16, when Peter confesses who Jesus is at Caesarea Philippi, in an episode that we looked at earlier on in Series 7. Jesus is now preparing the foundations for the future community that will emerge from his ministry after he has died, and been raised again, and has ascended to heaven, and has sent the Holy Spirit, and the Church has been launched, which really happened on the day of Pentecost, which we can legitimately describe as the beginning, or the birthday of the Church. This is all preparation for that day, and for the community that was to follow the coming of the Spirit and the preaching of the Gospel, and the spreading of the Good News among the nations. So, it's very important teaching.

Jesus gives this teaching at an interesting time in his life and in his ministry. The teaching structure that we have, enables us to always cross-reference backwards and forwards, the events and the context of everything that Jesus teaches. It's very common for people to look closely at particular parts of Jesus' teaching without being very aware of the immediate context. The context here is interesting because, up till Series 6 in our structure, the focus has been almost entirely on Galilee. Jesus has spent most of his time in Galilee. He's ministered extensively all the way throughout that region, preaching, teaching, healing, and gathering a tremendous following and much support. In the events of the beginning of Series 7, we've seen a quite dramatic change. Jesus has begun to say to his disciples, in one form or another, that a new season is coming. They're going to be heading to Jerusalem, and they need to prepare for a very changed environment in which opposition will increase and he will, in his own words, suffer and die, and then be raised again from the dead. He's given this warning on a number of occasions and he's indicated that this is connected with going to Jerusalem. He's obviously anticipating the final period of his ministry. Most of Jesus' public ministry has already been completed by the time we get to Matthew 18. It's hard to tell that without carefully analysing the chronology, and the events. Most of his time has been spent in Galilee and now, for a few months, he will be moving slowly and steadily towards Jerusalem, with detours here, stopping there, going backwards and forwards between different places in Samaria, Perea, Judea, the southern and central areas, as he's heading towards the capital city of Jerusalem.

He's now preparing the way and this teaching is specifically preparing the way, in the minds of the disciples, for the Church community, when it's gathered as a community after Jesus has left them and sent the Holy Spirit. We've seen a number of dimensions of this gathered community, but it's worth recapping on those before we come to this final and critical section - a really important section - and a very powerful and challenging parable that Jesus tells.

In the four preceding episodes that we've studied so far, from Matthew 18, we've looked at four different themes. Let me remind you of them, before we actually focus on this parable and this particular topic of forgiveness. In Matthew 18: 1 - 5, Jesus has been focusing on attitudes and defining what greatness in the Kingdom is, what the appropriate attitudes for being part of the Kingdom community are. He did this by illustrating the life of a child, a child of say 6, 7 or 8 years old, which he brought into the midst of the disciples. He set the child in the middle and then discussed childhood and the attitudes of childhood. He brought out things such as the attitude of trust, the attitude of receptivity to authority, and the attitude of humility, indicating that these are the sort of attitudes that should be foundational to Christian discipleship. In the second episode, moving on from that, he spoke in Matthew 18: 6 - 9 very clearly about the fact that Christian disciples - he describes them as a little ones, those who simply and humbly believe in him particularly - need protection; protection from those outside the Church who come and try and undermine their faith, and those within the Church who, through their own sinful action, are destroying their faith from within. In the third section, Jesus uses a parable, the parable of the lost sheep, Matthew 18:10 - 14, and describes how individual believers need to be protected from wandering away from the gathered church community, and how we need to model, or follow the example of shepherds with their sheep and God's shepherd heart for the people. This has an application for leaders, but it also has an application for church members. In the last episode, we've looked at the very challenging teaching that Jesus gives in Matthew 18: 15 - 20, about church discipline, the organisation of the church, and the dealing with problems that arise in the church through specifically, biblically definable, sinful actions. We looked last time at the process by which the church should address this issue one-to-one, then with a group of two or three witnesses, then within the church community more generally, and then finally, if no resolution can be found, there was an authority given by Jesus to the leaders in that church community, to remove people from the membership, in order to resolve the difficulty caused by their ongoing sinful actions, and their refusal to be accountable in that process. These have been some really challenging teachings, and if you followed through the last four episodes, I'm sure you'll agree with me that we're on quite a challenging journey, to see what Jesus is envisaging in terms of what a healthy church community can look like.

Peter's Question About Forgiveness

One thing he hasn't spoken about specifically, which is essential to the good functioning of the church community, is the issue of forgiveness. Peter's been thinking about everything that Jesus has said and as is often the case in the Gospels, Peter's often the first to speak, his emotions rise to the surface quickly, and his thoughts come to his mind and he speaks them out. While he was listening to Jesus talking about church discipline and confronting sin, resolving things or not resolving them, and if you can't resolve them the process of excluding people from the church, what came to his mind was a question that underlies all of human relationships. Let's turn to Matthew 18: 21.

‘Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, "Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?" Jesus answered, "I tell you, not seven times but seventy-seven times."’

Matthew 18:21-22

Peter was exercised in his mind, thinking, ‘How would I handle the situation if people are really annoying me because they're actually sinning and they're disrupting the church? This process of trying to resolve this is going on. How would I handle it at a personal level? What would I do concerning forgiveness?’ Peter may be influenced by the fact that the Pharisees, the dominant religious group of the day, whose teaching was very widespread and influential, often taught that a brother or sister, fellow Jew, can be forgiven up to three times for the same sin. Three times maximum. That was a significant tradition amongst the Pharisees. They had a variety of teachings on all subjects, but that was a common one in the day. Peter would have known this teaching, so three times - that sounds reasonably generous towards the person. Peter more than doubled it. He went to seven, and he hoped that this would be accepted by Jesus. You know, forgiving someone seven times is an act of the will, is sacrificial, involves a difficult emotional journey, especially for someone like Peter.

The church discipline process that we've just described, does not imply a lack of forgiveness. You can exclude somebody from the church because of the specific, unrepented sin that's causing huge harm in the church community, without any attitude of bitterness, anger or unforgiveness. It's a practical community decision that has to be made. Obviously, many people start getting bitter and angry when they have to go through this process but it's not implying that there should be any unforgiveness at all. Jesus' attitude towards forgiveness is indicated obviously, by his response. Peter has given what he considers to be a generous number, seven as opposed to the three times that the Pharisees might have suggested if they were in the conversation. Jesus takes the seven and he multiplies it up - seventy-seven times. His becomes a symbolic number of course; it's not an exact representation. You wouldn't be sitting there counting the number of times you have to forgive the sin! Basically, what Jesus is saying is, we forgive the sin as many times as is needed. There is no limit. Seventy times seven is like a perfect number, because seven is considered a perfect number amongst the Jews who multiplied it, and you just get a great perfect number.

Forgiveness therefore, is a matter of the heart, not of numerical calculation. You forgive from the heart. You forgive as many times as you need to. You forgive ongoing. That's really the implication of what Jesus is saying. Peter, of course, should not have been surprised that Jesus gave this kind of answer, because in the Sermon on the Mount when teaching on prayer, in Matthew 6, we have very clear statements. For example, Matthew 6: 9 Jesus gives the model prayer, the Lord's Prayer,

"Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. Forgive us our debts,(or sins) as we also have forgiven our debtors,(or those who've sinned against us).And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one."

Matthew 6:9-13, NIV

That's very clear, and clarified even further by Jesus in verses 14 and 15.

"For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive you your sins."

Matthew 6:14-15, NIV

So, a blockage comes in our relationship between ourselves and God our Father if unforgiveness and bitterness comes into our lives.

The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant

After this challenging conversation between Peter and Jesus, where Peter's answer is shown to be completely inadequate, Jesus then goes on to tell a story, or a parable. We must remember with every parable, as we often say, a parable essentially has one main point. It's not designed to be an allegory where every detail has an exact representation in some other area of life. There's a main point to the parable and that's what we should be focusing on. Some of the details can be compared with things in our experience, and some of them can't, but the thrust of the parable is the important thing. Let's now read this very challenging parable, Matthew 18:23.

“Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him 10,000 bags of gold was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. At this the servant fell on his knees before him. "Be patient with me,” he begged, “and I'll pay back everything.” The servant's master took pity on him, cancelled the debt and let him go. But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him 100 silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him, "Pay back what you owe me!" he demanded. His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, "Be patient with me, and I'll pay it back. But he refused. Instead he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened. Then the master called the servant in, "You wicked servant," he said, "I cancelled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn't you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?" In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart."

Matthew 18:23-35, NIV

A very dramatic story. The king, hugely rich, has a servant who owes him an enormous amount of money; the amount described here 10,000 bags of gold, is the equivalent of millions of US dollars in modern currency. It was an overwhelmingly large debt which it would be impossible for him to pay by any reasonable means, any time in his life. Such a huge figure was quoted here. He was in an absolutely helpless position and the king demands at the point of reckoning that he and his family be sold off into slavery, bonded labour so that, for the rest of their lives, they would work as bonded labourers, and gradually pay off some of the money, but they'd never be able to pay off that amount. That's a very important part of the story - the amount was vastly beyond what they could possibly earn by any reasonable means. The servant pleads for mercy and the king changes his mind on the basis of the man's humility, his apparent repentance, and his desperate need. The king has mercy on him and completely cancels the whole debt. That's a dramatic change of mind.

But then as the story goes on, we see that this servant, who has been let off a gigantic, and unpayable debt, goes to a fellow servant who has a very small debt; the figure - a few hundred silver coins - is a very small amount of money. He refuses to let his fellow servant off the debt, and he insists that he should be punished. The other servants hearing about this story, realise how unjust it was. They tell the king and he finally, severely punishes the original servant, by putting him in prison and under torture permanently. It's a very dramatic story and the financial figures involved are a huge contrast; a vast, unpayable amount that the first servant, the subject of the parable, has to pay off. He couldn't possibly pay his debt in any foreseeable circumstances, at any time in his whole life, and yet he was forgiven. The debt was cancelled completely but he would not let off someone who owed him, probably about 1% of what he had previously owed to the king.

This is a parable of contrasts and it's a parable that draws the distinction between God and what he does for us, like the king did for this man, and what we do for each other. The parable invites us not just to look at what other people have done to us, however awful that is, but to remember that when it comes to forgiveness, the context is what we have been forgiven, which in every case is vastly more than what other people have done to us, which we are being called upon to forgive.

In verse 35 the conclusion is, that just as the king handed the man over to the prison, to be tortured, so my heavenly Father will treat each of you in this way unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart. In other words, at a spiritual level we experience an inner torment through unforgiveness, that God allows us to experience; a bitterness of heart and a disconnection from the grace of God, a profound unhappiness that comes from unforgiveness. He allows that to happen, just as the king allowed the man to be put in prison permanently. It turns out that unforgiveness becomes a prison. The one who loses out is the one who refuses to forgive. Rather than forgiving the man a few hundred silver coins, he ends up tormented by the consequences of his actions for the rest of his life. It's a powerful story.


What reflections can we conclude with, as we draw this episode to an end and try and work out what the implications are for us? First thing to say is that divine forgiveness towards us vastly outweighs the forgiveness we must extend to our brothers and sisters in the church. Sometimes it doesn't feel that way. I understand that. Emotions get the better of us. Many people listening to this episode will know what it is to suffer at the hands of other people's extremely negative or evil behaviour. I'm aware of this but I believe the Holy Spirit wants us always to contextualise that with a wider reality - a greater and more permanent reality - which is God's forgiveness of us through Christ. All our sins, all our life we have been granted eternal life, the Holy Spirit, permanent forgiveness of everything we have ever done through the work of Christ.

The other thing we learn here is that forgiveness is not something you can put in a box and say, ‘I'll do this up to this point.’ Forgiveness comes right from the heart. You see, Peter thought, “Well, maybe seven times, I can say the words, ‘I forgive you’ much more than the Pharisees. After all, they only did it three times. Well we, we're better than them. Jesus turned that idea completely on its head. Forgiveness comes from the heart. It becomes like a permanent reality. Once you've let something go, it no longer controls you. You don't have to reiterate it. You gradually get free emotionally from the consequences of that unforgiveness. Our ability to forgive is based on our understanding of the grace of God, and the benefits of his grace towards us. The more we understand how much God has forgiven us, the easier it is to forgive other people. Other people don't have to do anything to earn our forgiveness. It's not a contract with them. It's unconditional and one-sided, unilateral. We don't demand anything of anyone else. If they resolve their issues, then a relationship or some other aspect of our connection with them could possibly be rebuilt. Sometimes we're forgiving people who've died anyway, or we have no contact with. Forgiveness operates within our heart. It's something that's between us and God. Then it has an implication to the other person, which may or may not work out in any relational sense.

You see, sin is described here as an utterly unpayable debt, just like this man had to pay 10,000 bags of gold. It's an absurdly large sum. No one could possibly pay that amount of money by any standard means of employment or business. Sin is an utterly unpayable debt. By the grace of God we, as Christians, have been forgiven an utterly unpayable debt of sin. Other people in other religious traditions, consider that we have to earn our way back into the favour of God and the forgiveness of God. Christians know that we cannot do it. It is impossible. We don't even try to do that. We just look at the cross of Christ, the substitutionary, sacrificial atonement, and we realise he paid the price for our sins. We need to repent of them, and trust him for salvation, and serve him out of love, not out of the hope that it will bring us justification and favour.

Unforgiveness sadly leads to spiritual and emotional imprisonment which becomes a root of bitterness. We gradually lose a vision of God's grace; we become judgemental, self-righteous, self-pitying, self-orientated, and it takes us away from a sense of God's presence in our lives. Therefore, unforgiveness can lead to the discipline of God, like being imprisoned emotionally, psychologically and spiritually. That's why forgiveness is absolutely foundational to healthy relationships, in all of life, in all our working life, in our communities, in our families but the particular application here is in the church community. Peter asks, "How many times shall I forgive my brother or sister" - the fellow member of the church community? The message of Jesus is clear: if we want healthy church communities, we have to exercise unilateral and unconditional forgiveness.

I can say to you, as my own testimony, and my own encouragement to you, it is utterly liberating to forgive. It's hard; it's difficult; it's sometimes a journey that we need help with. If you need help on that journey, please seek it out from Christians you trust. Take them this Scripture, take them the situation that you face, take them your history, pray with them. God will help you and you will get to the point where you can say, "I forgive". Then you can be free and you can function effectively as a Christian again. This is an amazing end to a hugely challenging, but utterly stimulating chapter. I encourage you to go back over Matthew 18; see the connection between the different sections that I've been teaching through in the last few episodes, see them together, see them as foundational of Church life, and seek to follow the teaching of Jesus as closely as you can in your own life, and apply it to your own church community. Talk to your leaders about some of these principles and, if you are a leader yourself, you'll know that there are many responsibilities you have as a result of the things Jesus taught as recorded by Matthew 18.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. What do you learn about forgiveness from this study? Remember the words from the Sermon on the Mount (Series 4) as well as the parable.
  • Discipleship
    1. If forgiveness is the foundation of a healthy relationship, why is it so hard to forgive?
    2. How do you feel about the debt that Jesus has forgiven you? Have you felt liberated because of it?
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. What is the difference between Christianity and other religions about having a relationship with God?
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