Getting God Angry: the parable of the unforgiving servant
Readings: Luke 7:36-50; Matt 18: 21-35
INTRODUCTIONSince Australians are strongly into “natural justice”, the story of the unforgiving servant should “really ring our bells”. This servant is like the banks who during the GFC lost billions through their own stupidity pleaded for bail outs from governments, which they usually received, then never went on to release their millions of small debtors. Like such institutions the unforgiving servant plainly deserves no mercy. The righteous anger of the king in our story, who represents God, is surely deserved. However since none of us is in the position of God, something Donna reminds me of at times, this is not the main point of the story. Its main point is a stern warning about the cost of limiting forgiveness.
The parable of the unforgiving servant is set in the context of Jesus’ teaching about church discipline. It instructs us how to deal in an orderly way with a brother who sins against us. In this circumstance Peter’s question is a natural one.
In this instance the sinning brother seems either has no awareness about or no concern that he has done wrong i.e. he is not repentant.
Some of the rabbis had put a threshold on forgiving at 3 times, so Peter would have thought his calculation was generous. Jesus however extends the disciples thinking beyond limit. The “77 times” seems to be the direct opposite of the threat of the evil Lamech in Genesis 4:24; “If Cain’s revenge is sevenfold, then Lamech’s is seventy-sevenfold.””. 77 isn’t to be taken literally, it’s a way of talking about limitless forgiving of others. True forgiveness means a. I will not think about this incident, b. I will not bring it up to use it against you, c. I will not talk to others about it and d. I will not allow it to hinder our relationship.
For some years ago, after a sequence of church related disasters where I felt had been sinned against, I used every Sunday morning to make it part of my prayer routine to pray for the people who had most hurt me and my family. Until I came to a place of peace.
Jesus answer to Peter assumes that God’s own willingness to forgive is unlimited. If there was a limit to divine forgiveness Peter, the disciple who went on to deny Jesus, would never have been forgiven and we would never have this story.
The importance of Christians forgiving one another appears throughout the New Testament. E.g. Paul exhorts the Ephesians, “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamour and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. 32 Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” (Eph 4:31-32; cf. Col 3:13). Later on we will consider what makes it possible for us to forgive sin.
This is a parable about the kingdom of God, especially about how forgiveness is central to God’s kingly rule in this world. The king in the story represents God/Christ, even though some details suggest a pagan kingdom.
Crucial to understanding the parable is the fact that the debt of the first servant is unimaginably high, being more than the entire amount of money than existed in Palestine at the time. Since the talent was the highest unit of currency and 10,000 the highest Greek numeral Jesus seems to be saying that the debt is unlimited. The poor man owed the king something like 250,000 years wages for an average worker. Compared to this mountain of debt (cf.v.32 “all that debt”) selling the man and his family into slavery would realise almost no return on the loss.
The key expression here is “out of pity”. This word has already been used in Matthew 9:36 for Christ’s “compassion” on crowds of lost people. The king is far from hard hearted, he is inwardly deeply moved to help the indebted man. While the servant had asked for time to repay the king forgives the entire debt. Now the story takes an unexpected turn.
100 denarii was around one six-hundred-thousandth of the debt the first servant owed the master, this was a debt easy to repay. In other words Jesus is teaching that the debt others owe us is nothing to the debt we owe God.
These other servants are compassionate “whistle blowers”.
James says in his letter, “judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy” (James 2:13). Christ himself said, ““Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.”” (Matt 5:7) and ““Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.”” (Luke 6:36). To be merciful is to be like God, the merciful receive mercy, the merciless receive no mercy. God is longsuffering and patient (cf. vv. 26, 29) but he has his limits. To refuse to forgive others is the sure way to make God angry with you so the debt you owe him returns on your head.
The “torturers” were jailers who by inflicting pain on prisoners put pressure on the defaulter and his family to produce the money owed. But given the enormity of the debt and that to come to the help of the jailed man would make someone an enemy of the king, the debt will never be repayable Now follows a dreadful warning.
In other words pretend disciples will be consigned to hell forever by the wrath of God. There are no exceptions; those who don’t forgive cannot expect forgiveness (Matt 6:12, 14-15). Notice that Jesus does not say that in his anger “your heavenly Father” will not forgive, but “my” Father will not forgive you. Those who do not forgive do not have God as their Father. If we are not like the all forgiving Jesus we will not be forgiven (Luke 23:34). Does this mean that we need to try harder to forgive other Christians…? No. The good news is that the power to release others from the debt of their sins against us comes from our union with Christ.
When Paul commands, “Put on… bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” (Col 3:12-13) he means that we will sincerely forgive others in exact proportion to how our hearts have been impacted by the full and free forgiveness that is ours in Christ. Much like Jesus put it about the sinful woman who wept at his feet, ““I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven, so she has shown me much love. But a person who is forgiven little shows only little love.”” (Luke 7:47). The closer we get to Jesus the quicker we forgive others. This is a fruit of our union with Christ.
Saint Teresa of Avila was correct to say, “I cannot believe that anyone who has approached so nearly Mercy itself, will not immediately and readily forgive, and remain on good terms with a person who has done it wrong.” Or, if you don’t like Catholic saints, Protestant legend John Piper says, “If you hold a grudge, you doubt the Judge.” If Jesus is in your heart you will forgive others. Am I simplifying a complex moral issue? What do you think of this situation?
At a Concentration Camp in 1943, Simon Wiesenthal is summoned to the bedside of the dying Nazi soldier. The soldier tells him he is seeking “a Jew’s” (Wiesenthal’s) forgiveness for a crime that has haunted him since it was committed a year ago. The man confesses to having destroyed a house full of 300 Jews and as the Jews tried to leap out of windows to escape the burning building he gunned them down. After the soldier finishes his story he asks Wiesenthal to forgive him. Wiesenthal leaves the room without speaking to the dying soldier. Later Wiesenthal wrote a book about this ethical dilemma and asked 53 religious scholars and dignitaries whether or not he should have forgiven the soldier. Most said “Do not forgive”, some were “Uncertain”, a few [[Buddhists and Christians]] said “Forgive”. What do you think…?
If we think the Christian thing to do is to forgive a Nazi murderer why do Christians so often find it difficult to forgive their brothers and sisters in Christ? Why, for example, are there many marriages in which two fellow disciples of Jesus refuse to live out the gospel of forgiveness? Surely the living out of forgiveness, not some outward profession of doctrine, establishes the boundary between the true and false church.
Let us beware lest we fit Christ’s description of false disciples, ““this people draw near with their mouth and honour me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me,”” (Isa 29:13cf. Matt 15:8-9; Mark 7:6). These are people who claim to be Christians but deep down think there is some goodness in themselves which is other than a fruit of their union with Christ.
Only a true disciple of Jesus will freely confess, “Left to myself I am that ‘wicked servant’ (v.32) who deserves to be cast into hell…. Left to myself I will not forgive.” Such a confession shows we are really forgiven people, people who humbly recognise that the sole difference between the wicked servant and our own natural malicious hearts is that at some time the gospel revelation of undeserved forgiveness in Christ moved us to repent towards God and to forgive others (2 Cor 5:19 cf. 1 John 4:19-21)!
Let us live like true disciples, as men and women who love what Jesus loves and hate what he hates. If we love Jesus we love his cross and we will want to forgive all; no matter what they have said and done against us.
MESSAGE DELIVERED: 22nd October, 2017 | St Mark’s
Author: Dr. John Yates
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