The Parable of the Unforgiving Forgiven Servant
The Unforgiving Forgiven Servant
Text: Matthew 18:21-35
Perhaps one of the most well-known and beloved passages in all the Bible is the Lord’s Prayer. As Jesus teaches us to pray there in Matthew 6:9-13, right in the middle of his Model Prayer is this request: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Jesus finishes his prayer and then in Vs. 14-15, He explains the part concerning asking forgiveness of sin. He says, “For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: but if you forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
Yikes! According to Jesus, God’s forgiveness when I sin against Him is contingent upon me forgiving others who have done wrong against me. If I don’t forgive others, then I shouldn’t expect God to forgive me either. Indeed very likely He won’t. So very clearly being right in my horizontal relationships with others is important to being right in my vertical relationship – my relationship with God. Bitterness, unforgivedness, and grudges all hinder me from receiving the forgiveness of God.
In fact, Jesus was so serious about this truth that he also said in Matthew 5:23-24, “If thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath aught against thee: leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother and then come and offer thy gift.”
The “gift” brought to the altar Jesus spoke of there is the sacrifice that Jew would offer to receive forgiveness of their sins against God. And so here’s what Jesus said, “Suppose you come to the temple to offer a sacrifice for sin and to get right with God.”
And while you’re there, if you remember that you are not right with your brother, Jesus says stop what you’re doing; leave your sacrifice before the altar; go get right with your brother; and then come and get right with God.”
Again the principle is the same: that we should not expect to receive forgiveness from God if we’re not first right with those around us; that God will refuse us forgiveness if we refuse forgiveness to those who have wrong us.
Now that’s a serious thought: that I could be genuinely sorry for my sin and sincerely wish to be forgiven and willing to confess and be made right with God, and have God say, “No” if I have unforgiveness towards my fellow man.
Well here in Matthew 18:21, Jesus has just finished teaching a number of lessons including a brief word about forgiveness. Look at Vs. 15. Now normally this verse is read in the context of church discipline, but it starts with seeking forgiveness: “If thy brother shall trespass against thee.” So I’ve been wronged – ever been there? And so what am I to do? Jesus says “go and tell him his fault between thee and Him alone.” Don’t get bitter; don’t go gossip about your friend who wronged you. Go to him, let him know that he’s done you wrong, and the hope is that he might realize his wrongdoing and seek forgiveness.
So right on the heels of this lesson, Peter asks a question in Vs. 21: “Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him?” What Peter’s saying is, “Jesus, if I do what you said and go to my brother that has wronged me and if he won’t admit his fault and won’t apologize, Lord, how many times should I forgive him? Jesus, how many times am I to forgive a person who wrongs me and isn’t sorry about it?”
And then he makes a suggestion: “Lord, how about seven times?” In Peter’s mind it seems perfectly reasonable that if you forgive someone 7 times, on the 8th time you should be off the hook and no longer have to forgive – that there must be some limit to our mercy and forgiveness.
Well no doubt Jesus’ answer to Peter’s caught him by surprise. “Lord how oft shall I forgive? Til seven times?” But Jesus answers, “No Peter;” “I say not unto thee, Until seven time: but, Until seventy times seven.” By the way, for those not quick at math, 70 x 7 is 490. If one person managed to wrong me 490 different times, I’m supposed to forgive every single time.
By the way Jesus, isn’t saying that we’re to keep tally or that there would ever come a point where forgiveness would be exhausted. No Jesus is saying that our forgiveness for others should be unlimited. Jesus added this instruction over in Luke 17:4, “If thy brother trespass against thee seven times in a day, and seven times in a day turn again to thee saying, I repent; thou shalt forgive him.” So not just 7 times in total like Peter suggested, but Jesus says 7 times every single day. Again not that we keep count, but meaning that forgiveness should be extended every time someone wrongs us: that there’s no place in the Christian life for revenge, retaliation, getting even or holding a grudge.
Well Luke 17:5 records the shock and surprise of the disciples at Jesus’ answer. They exclaim, “Lord increase our faith!”
Their reply to Jesus was, “Lord, I barely have faith for 7 times total. But 7 times in one day? And 70 times 7?! Lord you’re gonna have to help us out here! We don’t have faith for that!” And you know what, neither do we.
Not holding a grudge and not getting bitter and not wanting to get even when someone wrongs us is the exact opposite of what comes natural to us and what we feel like doing. We want to see them come begging for forgiveness. We want to make them agonize a bit before we forgive. We’d often rather hold onto a grudge and let bitterness poison our spirit before we’d forgive – especially considering some of the things that have been done to us by our enemies and even by our friends and family.
But Jesus tells us time and again, “Forgive. Forgive not just once or twice or even 7 times. No, let there be no limit to your forgiveness.”
And so then Jesus proceeds, beginning in Vs. 23 down through Vs. 34 to give a parable that is often called The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant. I call it The Parable of the Unforgiving Forgiven Servant. I think you’ll see why by the time we’re done.
In this Parable, Jesus tells of a king who had several servants that owed him money. Evidently some of them have not been making their monthly payments and have outstanding debts. And so the king decides one day to call these servants who have not paid their debts to stand before them and give an account of why they are delinquent in their debts. Verse 24 tells us that one of these servants owed the king an unpaid debt of an astronomical sum: 10,000 talents.
Albert Barnes puts the value of a single talent at $25,000. And so with 10,000 talents owed, he owed like $250 million dollars. I don’t know if Albert Barnes’ math is correct or not, but in any case, we’re to get the idea that this servant owed a huge sum of money. No wonder he couldn’t make his payments. No wonder he was delinquent on his debt.
And put yourself in the shoes of this servant. He’s been called before the king. That’s not unusual by itself. Perhaps he asks the messenger, “What’s the king want?” expecting to provide some service for the king. But can you just see the color fade from the servant’s face, and him perhaps even collapse to the floor as the messenger tells him, “The king wants to talk to you about your debt.” His heart skipped not one beat but probably two or three.
And imagine yourself as this servant waiting outside the throne room; waiting for your audience with the king. It must’ve been agonizing. He didn’t know the mood of the king. He didn’t know what would be demanded of him. And knowing that he couldn’t pay, he didn’t dare to think of what the king would do to him when he found out.
As he walked inside the throne room and approached the throne, I’m sure this servant was trembling. I’m sure all kinds of thoughts were running through his mind: “What excuse might I give? Should I lie? Should I beg for mercy?” And then the king demands of his the sum of his unpaid debt. And the servant can barely say, “Sir, 10,000 talents.”
And then his greatest fear was realized: the king demanded immediate, full payment. The servant gave his best excuses. His crops had failed. His business was slow. His plowing mule had died and his milk cow had dried up. The kids had been sick and his wife had just had another baby. But then in Vs. 25, he realizes his grave mistake in mentioning his family: for the king immediately demands that if he cannot pay in full that very moment, then he, his wife, and children will be sold along with all his possession; and they would work until the debt could be paid.
Vs 26 describes the utter agony of the servant. A gasp escapes his lips. He falls to the ground, sobbing and begging for the king’s mercy and patience. He doesn’t even beg for forgiveness. He simply begs for more time and patience to pay his debt.
Vs. 27 tells us that the man’s tears and agony moved the heart of the king to compassion. And in a totally unexpected and undeserved display of mercy, we’re told that the king loosed him – meaning already the guards had bound him to take him away to the labor camp. But not only did the king loose him as though he would give the man more time to pay the debt, but the king forgave him the debt. 10,000 talents; perhaps as much as $250 million dollars, forgiven in an instant. Unbelievable mercy and forgiveness from the king.
I can only image the relief, and joy of this now forgiven servant. His family was spared; his possessions remained his, and his debt was wiped clean away. He rushed out of the king’s throne room to go tell his wife the good news of his forgiven impossible debt.
But Vs. 28 tells us that he decided to make a quick stop on his way home. He reasoned with himself that he wouldn’t have been behind on his debt to the king if this other guy he’d loaned money to had just paid what he owed. And so he decided to pay a visit to this man who owed him money.
We’re told that he found the man and in an unexpectedly harsh manner, grabbed the man by the throat and demanded, “Pay me that thou owest.” On the way over to this man’s house, he’d had time to think about his recent predicament. And it had angered him.
I can just hear his words to the man that owed him money: “Do you know what kind of agony I just went through? Do you know how close I came to losing everything and being forced into hard labor because of you? If you’d just paid me what you owed me, I wouldn’t have been in this mess at all.” And he grabs him by the throat and shakes him violently demanding an immediate full payment.
The sum of money that this other man owed the king’s servant was 100 pence or 100 pennies. A penny in those days was equivalent to a day’s wage, so we’re talking about 1/3 of a year’s salary: maybe around $15,000 – a far cry from the 10,000 talents the king’s servant had owed, but still a big sum of money. But relatively small when compared to the recently forgiven debt by the king.
Well as you can just imagine, all the fear and all the agony that the servant had endured before the king was now felt by this man who owed him money. We’re told that, just as the servant had done before the king, this man fell down sobbing and begging for patience and mercy: “Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all!” cried the frightened man.
Now as this point in the story you would perhaps expect the servant to remember the incredible mercy and forgiveness he had just received from the king, but he does not. Instead, he immediately had the man cast into prison, meaning the very same hard labor camp that he had previously been sentenced to.
Well, all the day’s happenings was no secret to anyone. Word has spread fast of the king’s mercy and forgiveness, and now those that stood around were appalled and saddened as they watched the unmerciful, unforgiving attitude of the servant.
And so one of them went and told the king what they had seen. No surprise here: in Vs. 32-34, we encounter an angry king. And so soon does the servant. The servant receives another message to appear immediately before the king, and I wonder what went through his mind? “Oh, the king wants to see me again? I wonder what he wants? Maybe he has more kindness to show me. It seems that the king loves me so much, maybe he has a gift for my wife or some sweets for the kids.” So off he rushes back to the palace to see the king. Well whatever it was that he thought, his heart surely sunk upon entering the throne room, seeing the face of the king, and seeing the prison guards standing by.
I wonder if the servant understood right away the severity of what he had done or if he was oblivious until the king told him. In either case, the king has some harsh words for him in Vs. 32 and 33: “O thou wicked servant.” Not a good start for a conversation with the king. “I forgave thee all that debt because though desiredst me: Shouldest not thou also have had compassion on thy fellow-servant, even as I had pity on thee?” And in Vs. 34, the angry king revoked his forgiveness and condemned the man to the labor camp until every last penny was paid in full.
And here’s Jesus’ conclusion to the parable in Vs. 35: “So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses.”
That’s a stern warning. God will withhold forgiveness from us and deal with us harshly if we do not extend forgiveness to those who wrong us and instead hold a grudge.
From this parable I see several truths that I want to quickly give to you tonight.
We all owe a huge sin debt. In fact it’s bigger than we could ever repay. We have sinned against God and deserve his punishment. If we got what was fair and what we deserved, we’d spend eternity in hell.
But we also owe a huge sin debt to our fellow man. How many times have you said or done something against another person that you never went back to them and made it right and asked for their forgiveness. Lots. I know for a fact there are things I’ve said and done in the past that hurt people and wronged people and I can never make it right because I don’t even know where they are today to make it right. And surely some of the wrong I’ve done, I’ve forgotten about and will never seek forgiveness because I’ve completely forgotten I did it.
The king in the story undoubtedly represents the heavenly Father. It is to Him first that we owe our debt of sin and it’s greater than we could ever pay. And so God the Father was moved with compassion upon you and me and the entire human race. He sent His Son Jesus to die on the cross for our sins and to pay the debt for us. He forgave every sin you’ve ever done past, present, and future. That’s some unbelievable and undeserved forgiveness.
So, great forgiveness received demands great forgiveness given. God has forgiven us of our sin debt that would have sent us to hell and when we still sin, He forgives us each time we come and ask Him to. We’ve been greatly forgiven. We certainly don’t deserve His mercy.
And God wants us to extend that same kind of forgiveness to our fellow man. And whatever someone has done against you by way of wrong, is nothing compared to what you and I have done to the Lord Jesus Christ. Let’s not forget that your sin and my sin sent Jesus to Calvary’s cross. Let’s not forget that you or I might as well have been the ones spitting in His holy face, plucking out His beard, and nailing Him to a cross. That’s what it means that Jesus died for you and me. We are as guilty as those Jews that condemned Him and the Roman soldiers that crucified Him.
Now I’m not trying to minimize the hurt and pain of being wronged, but let’s be honest: whatever wrong has been done to you by others, frankly is minor when compared to how we’ve wronged God by our sin. And yet God forgave us and still forgives us of every sin. And God wants, yea He demands that we forgive others like He has forgiven us. Because great forgiveness received demands great forgiveness given.
And Jesus’ conclusion is that if we do not forgive others every time; if we limit our forgiveness in any way, then we displease our Lord God and we allow bitterness to put a barrier between the forgiveness we need from God.
So what does Jesus say to do? He says, forgive, 70 x 7. He says, forgive 7 times in one day. He says don’t even think of asking God for forgiveness if you’re withholding forgiveness from one of your fellow servants. Rather, get up off your knees, and go forgive your brother. There is absolutely no room in the life of a Christian for grudges, bitterness, or revenge.
Turn with me to Ephesians 4:32 and we’ll close, “And be ye kind one to another, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.”
Sermon Topics: Forgiveness