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  • Writer's pictureFr. Scott Haynes

The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant

Fr. Scott A. Haynes

In Matthew 18:23-35 we read the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant:

At that time, Jesus spoke to His disciples this parable: The kingdom of heaven is likened to a king who desired to settle accounts with his servants. And when he had begun the settlement, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. And as he had no means of paying, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. But the servant fell down and besought him, saying, ‘Have patience with me and I will pay you all!’
And moved with compassion, the master of that servant released him, and forgave him the debt. But as that servant went out, he met one of his fellow-servants who owed him a hundred denarii and he laid hold of him, and throttled him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ His fellow-servant therefore fell down and began to entreat him, saying, ‘Have patience with me and I will pay you all.’ But he would not; but went away and cast him into prison until he should pay what was due.
His fellow-servants therefore, seeing what had happened, were very much saddened, and they went and informed their master of what had taken place. Then his master called him, and said to him, ‘Wicked servant! I forgave you all the debt, because you entreated me. Should not you also have had pity on your fellow-servant, even as I had pity on you?’ And his master, being angry, handed him over to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him. So also, My heavenly Father will do to you, if you do not each forgive your brothers from your hearts.

It is a beautiful thing to proclaim the virtue of forgiveness. To be forgiven is a blessed thing but having to forgive someone who has wronged you is not so easy. The writer C.S. Lewis put it this way:

“Forgiveness is a beautiful word until, you have something to forgive.”

Why is forgiveness so hard for us? As Christians, we are to forgive just as Jesus forgave. Because of our sinful nature, forgiveness is unnatural. It seems we prefer revenge to forgiveness. Forgiveness is hard because it is not fair. It offends our sense of justice. We want vindication. Yet, Christ told us more than once,

“Forgive, and ye shall be forgiven.”[1]

He established the forgiveness of our neighbor as the indispensable condition for obtaining forgiveness from God.

Once, when Jesus was speaking to His disciples on this theme, St. Peter asked how many times one must forgive his neighbor. Following the Old Testament teachers of the Law, one could forgive three times. Wanting to exceed the righteousness of the Old Testament, St. Peter asked the Lord if we should expand that to forgiving offenses seven times. Jesus answers that we must forgive seventy times seven. Christ is telling us to be generous with forgiving offenses, and to illustrate this, He then told the parable of the unmerciful debtor.

In this parable, the servant owes ten thousand talents to his King. It is an outrageous sum. The Scripture tells us that one talent equals fifteen years’ wages. To pay off ten thousand talents, one would have to work for one hundred and fifty thousand years. The only way to pay back that unimaginable sum would be to enslave yourself and your family to the King and his descendants for untold generations. The indebted servant needed a special indulgence in order to be forgiven. Whether or not it was the Jubilee, it seems the King was willing to grant the Jubilee indulgence for this servant.

According to Jewish law, there is a special year known as the Jubilee year. It’s a year that occurs once every fifty years. It is the year which follows seven cycles of seven years. In Leviticus 25, the Jubilee year was to be a year in which the slate is wiped clean. All debts are forgiven, all prisoners are released, and all slaves are granted their freedom. It was a year in which Israel hits the reset button. The talk of God’s mercy would be made very real, and all was forgiven. This ancient idea of Jubilee is something foreign to the mindset of our modern dog-eat-dog world.

While we may never know an economic Jubilee, every single day can be a Jubilee in a spiritual sense through Christ’s victory over the grave. God is ready to hit the reset button daily for us. The Lord is always ready to forgive His repentant children in the Tribunal of His Mercy (i.e., the Sacrament of Confession). God invites us to experience the intimacy of divine fellowship in His Sacred Banquet of Love (i.e., the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist). But we must approach the Throne of God hand in hand with those who are no longer enemies but friends. We must heed St. Paul’s command:

“Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.”[2]

For the servant in the parable, the King’s mercy frees him and his family from generations of servitude. Yet, this servant shows how ungrateful he is for the mercy shown him by the King when he himself is utterly merciless to a fellow servant who owes him the small sum of on hundred denarii.[3] This debt of one hundred denarii is pocket change in comparison to the enormous debt of the wicked servant. This uncompassionate servant, freed of his debt by the merciful King, in turn shows no mercy for his fellow servant and has him thrown into prison until the debt can be repaid.

When the King learns how the servant whom he had forgiven (with a massive debt) in turn treated his fellow servant (with a small debt), he was enraged and turned the wicked servant over to torturers. St. John Chrysostom explains why, namely, the king acted thus:

“Not out of cruelty or inhumanity, but in order to frighten the servant, and thereby to spur him on to submissiveness…to make the servant understand how many debts he was forgiving him, and through this means to compel him to be more lenient toward his fellow-debtor.”

The Lord’s forgiveness is heavenly grace, but it is only effectual for us when we receive it with thanksgiving, otherwise grace is cheap and forgiveness flimsy. While the King in the parable could have unilaterally forgiven his servant without signs of repentance, the King desired that the debtor learn in his hear the true spirit of forgiveness, so that he might later show such mercy to others.

We expect and receive everything from God: mercies, forgiveness, love, earthly blessings, and spiritual gifts, but when people ask for a show of mercy from us, we often prove to be stern, unbending, and unmerciful. Before it is too late, we must soften our hearts, keeping in mind the manifold mercies of God throughout our lives, recalling Christ’s commandment:

“Judge not, and ye shall not be judged; condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned; forgive and ye shall be forgiven.”[4]

By this selfish and ungrateful attitude, the wicked servant’s action put himself back into prison, bringing himself and his family terrible suffering. When we are unforgiving, we shackle our souls in the prison of an unforgiving spirit, where we experience bitterness, anger, resentment, and self-destruction. If we refuse to forgive our neighbor, our hearts are corroded by bitterness. That bitterness becomes a prison.

Once upon a time, an aunt insulted her niece. It was not about anything all that important, but he niece held onto that anger for over seventy years even though her aunt was long since gone. Even after all those years, she could recount the event to the precise detail. She could make herself experience the same bitterness, anger, and resentment within her as the day when it originally occurred. This woman had imprisoned herself in bitterness and had become a crotchety, angry, and unhappy woman. To obtain a spirit of forgiveness, the woman must let go of the bitterness.

Imagine an old-fashioned country church with a bell in the steeple. To ring that bell, you have to tug on the rope for awhile. Once it has begun to ring, you merely maintain the momentum. As long as you keep pulling the bell keeps ringing. Forgiveness is letting go of the rope. It is just that simple. But when you do so, the bell keeps ringing. Momentum is at work. However, if you keep your hands off the rope, the bell will begin to slow and eventually stop.

Forgiveness is like that. When you decide to forgive, the old feelings of unforgiveness may continue to assert themselves. They have momentum. But if we steadfastly imitate Christ, and make a firm decision from the heart to forgive in the Name of Jesus, that unforgiving spirit will begin to slow and will eventually be still. Forgiveness is not something you feel, it is something you do. It is an act of the will—letting go of the rope of retribution.[5]

We who belong to Christ have been forgiven the debt of our ten thousand talents. Each of our sins is like the talent in the parable. Our debt of ten thousand talents are our sins against God’s Ten Commandments, our debts of ingratitude for all of God’s innumerable mercies toward us. Even though we have known the richness of God’s forgiveness, we tend to be miserly in doling out forgiveness. We have trouble seeing others through a lens of mercy and we squabble over the pocket change, over the little offenses committed against us, and forgetting the big offenses we commit against Almighty God.

We have freely received, but we do not want to freely give. We have received grace upon grace, so we pray to the Lord to forgive us for all our unforgiveness. We ask God to give us a new and merciful heart, reflecting the mercy of Christ on the Cross, not keeping score, not making a record of other people’s sins, but praying: “Lord, help us to forgive, even as we have been forgiven.”

[1] Luke 6:37; cf. Mark 11:25-26. [2] Ephesians 4:32. [3]As a denarius is one day’s wage, the fellow servant could have paid his debt in four months, whereas the ungrateful servant’s debt would take many lifetimes to pay back. [4] Luke 6:37. [5] Ted Kyle and John Todd. A Treasury of Bible Illustrations. (Chattanooga: AMG Publishers, 1995), 423.


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