Posts Tagged ‘Matthew 18:23-35’

Last week we talked a bit about the topic of forgiving others from Mark 11:25 and how this affects our prayers getting answered. I want to pick up this theme of forgiveness today and remind each of us of this important teaching from Jesus. And I want us to do this by focusing on the parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18:23-25.

We will go through this passage in two different ways. First by means of an impromptu skit . . ..

Second, let’s go through this passage adding in some historical and cultural background to help us understand it.

Matthew 18:23-35

First of all, this is a parable of Jesus that tells us about how the kingdom of God works.

And also, all through it, economic terms are used to talk about how sin and forgiveness work. This was fairly common. Sin is seen as a debt that we owe to God that we cannot pay (Matthew 6:12). And also it can be a debt that we owe others – how we should have treated them but didn’t. Forgiveness, then, is to release someone’s debt, whether it be God or us releasing the debt.

“23Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. 24When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents.”

The servant here works for the king in his royal court. And he owes the king a great deal of money. There are different ways to estimate this, but using our minimum wage, by my calculations he owed 3 billion 480 million dollars. [A denarius equals one day’s wage, which at minimum wage is $58 for an eight hour day. One talent equaled 6000 denarii, which then equals $340,000. Ten thousand talents then equals $3,480,000,000.]

This was an astronomical amount. For instance, all of the province of Judea only paid 600 talents in taxes for a whole year to Rome. But he owes 10,000 talents. Today we might say it like this – he owed a gazillion dollars.

“25And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made.”

Being sold into slavery because of unpaid debt certainly happened in the ancient world. In this case his whole family and all his belongings were to be sold – although this would not even begin to touch the debt that he owed his master.

“26So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.”

He calls out for mercy, somehow thinking that he can pay off his debt. And then surprisingly, the king has pity on him. He doesn’t even set up a payment plan, he wipes out the debt entirely. He is completely forgiven.

“28But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt.”

A hundred denarii would be $5,800 [A hundred days wages at $58 a day]. So the amount here is mind bogglingly lower than what he had owed his king.

When his fellow servant pleaded for patience, like he had, he completely disregards it. The fellow servant is sent to a debtor’s prison, where he would stay until he came up with the money, or his friends or family paid up for him.

“31When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. 32Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ 34And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt.”

The king’s servant is found out. He is rebuked by the king. His former debt is reinstated. And he is put in jail.

The word for jailers is actually “torturers.” The idea is that he will be tortured until he comes up with the money. Maybe he has some hidden somewhere.

But since his debt is insanely large, and since he would now have no friends to help him given his behavior, he will be in jail forever.

Jesus then bring home the point of the parable – “35So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

God has forgiven us, and so we are to forgive others, Jesus says, “from your heart.” That is, not just outwardly, pretending or smoothing things over, but truly releasing their debt to us.

And if we don’t do this, God will treat us like the king treated the servant he had previously forgiven, which is a clear warning to us.

Let me highlight now –

Three key points

– from this passage, and from the teaching of Jesus on this topic in general. 1. We are to forgive those who sin against us.

  • Matthew 18:35 – “forgive from the heart”
  • Luke 17:3 – “forgive”
  • Luke 17:4 – “forgive”
  • Luke 6:37 – “forgive”
  • Mark 11:25 – “forgive”
  • Matthew 6:12; Luke 11:4 – in the context of the Lord’s prayer, we acknowledge that “we have forgiven our debtors.”

If someone comes to us in true repentance and asks (here begs) for mercy, Jesus tells us to forgive. Don’t hold their debt over them. Don’t hold their sin against them so that you seek to punish them. Don’t hold on to bitterness and resentment.

2. Why should we forgive? It is, after all, often very difficult to forgive. We are not just talking about trivial things here. This has to do with people who truly mistreat and wound us, and those we love.

This causes pain and anger, and we naturally want justice. So we have to work to give this pain and anger over to God so that we can find love and a heart of mercy for the one who has done wrong.

This is not easy, or necessarily a one-time event. It is often a process. And certainly the relationship will need time to heal and to rebuild trust, especially if the wound is severe.

When Jesus presented his teaching on forgiveness in Luke 17 the disciples responded by saying “increase our faith,” because they thought that this was impossible to do.

So with all this, why should we forgive? The answer is that if you don’t, you will not be forgiven. This is what Matthew 18 teaches. In fact, the servant’s former debt was reinstated in full.

  • Luke 6:37 says, “forgive, and you will be forgiven.” The reverse being clear that if you don’t, if you condemn, you will be condemned.
  • Mark 11:25 tells us that we must forgive, “so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.”
  • Matthew 6:14-15 says, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”

And when our sins are not forgiven this destroys our relationship with God. Just as with the servant in our story in relation to his king.

3. Why won’t God forgive us, if we don’t forgive? Certainly what the servant did was wrong. This is why when the others heard about it, they were “distressed.” And this is why the king called him “wicked” in v. 32

It was certainly self-centered. He wanted mercy for himself because that benefited him. And he wanted justice for his fellow servant  because that benefited him. He was always guided by his self-interest. 

And he certainly didn’t understand that one who has been forgiven has no ground to stand on to ask for justice. To receive grace is to acknowledge that you yourself can’t live up to the standard of justice. And so to demand it for others is to undercut the very grace that makes your life possible.

But at the core we are bumping into a fundamental principle of the kingdom of God. Our relationship with God is always interconnected with our relationships with others. They affect one another back and forth.

 •  So when God forgives us we are to forgive others. And if we do this, God will continue to forgive us. Our relationship with God affects our relationship with others. As the king tells the servant in v. 33, “should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” And as Jesus said in Luke 6:36 – “Be merciful even as your heavenly Father is merciful.”

 •  But if we treat others with justice, then this is how God will treat us. As Jesus said in Luke 6:38, measure for measure. The measure you give to others is the measure you will get from God. Our relationship with others affects our relationship with God. If you give mercy to others, you will get mercy from God. If you give justice to others, you will get justice from God – and your sins will be held against you.

So let’s not be like the unforgiving servant. But rather let us be merciful to others, just as we have received mercy from God.

William Higgins 

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