Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt.
(Matthew 18:32-34 ESV)
This parable of Jesus is about the importance of forgiveness. Peter, perhaps hoping to keep Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness “in bounds”, asks a leading question, “so I should forgive an offender seven time?” To which Jesus responds with a boundary breaking, “No, you should forgive an offender so many times that you have to take time to do the math.” Jesus then proceeds to offer a parable about a master who started the process of calling in servants who had borrowed from him and asking for their repayment. The servant who the parable focuses on owes quite a sum to the master and when he is threatened with incarceration he humbly pleads for mercy. The master, moved by the plight of the servant, doesn’t just give him more time or a better interest rate, he completely forgives the debt. The account is wiped clean, no more payments, the bank will stop calling from different area codes and the accounting department will stop sending post-cards (I may have had some experience here).
The story about forgiveness looks to have a happy ending but as Orson Welles famously said:
“If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.”
– Orson Welles
Jesus goes on to say that the servant that has just been shown so much mercy goes to find a guy that owes him a much smaller sum of money and demands it back. He doesn’t just demand it back but, in true Corleone fashion, he starts choking him and sending a message that this is a non-negotiable point. The master is informed of this servant’s ungrateful response and he informs him that because of his shenanigans he will find a long-term reservation at the house of many doors, and the debt is reapplied to boot. And the story’s ending is not quite as tidy as we may have wanted it to be.
I know that there are different opinions with regard to the way parables are to be interpreted. Some scholars believe that parable are meant to express a single point, one major idea, and there is no room to apply the details of the parable to life. Not to get to scholastic, but this viewpoint comes down to the argument of how we define allegory and whether or not parables should be labelled as allegorical (which would allow specific details to be applicational, not only the main point). I fall on the side of moderation in the discussion. Parables are generally used to “flesh out” a main point (as our parable here is about forgiveness), but the many of the details do have significant meaning and are most definitely points of instruction and information.
The last paragraph was necessary, I believe, because in this parable Jesus does something that I can’t recall him doing in any other parable (though I admittedly haven’t researched this statement, I’m working from memory). Jesus, in attempting to tell a story with the proper amount of force to adequately capture the gravitas of the command, “forgive your brother”, allows the plot to present the “master” of the story, the one to whom debt is owed, in opposition to the Gospel. It should be noticed, very conspicuously, that the master who “forgave him the debt” (v. 27), reinstated the same debt (v. 34). What we know about the forgiveness that flows from the love and mercy of God, as it is described in the Bible, is that it “keeps no record of wrongs” (1 Cor 13:5). There is an assurance that we hold in our forgiveness, in the work of the cross of Christ, that is cement, firm foundation, secure. We are instructed to forget “what lies behind”, and strain “forward to what lies ahead” (Phil 3:13). Jesus, it seems, leverages an anti-Gospel quality to describe the need for “kingdom” forgiveness (Matt. 18:23).
Why is this important? Isn’t this just theological minutia and not really all that applicable to our lives? I think not.
It seems to me to be a testimony as to the monumental importance of forgiveness that Jesus would go “off the reservation” to make sure the impact from the truth of this feels more like a concussion than a massage. Forgiveness is so critical to our lives as Christians that we find the Son of God willing to have a bedrock attribute of God’s character potentially called into question for the sake of clarity. Should we ignore this? Can we?
Forgiveness is a non-negotiable in our lives. It doesn’t matter what someone has done to us, how many times they’ve done it, or their motivation for having done it; we are bound by a code of love that demands we not let the infection of bitterness fester in our hearts or minds. It is this “no matter what” aspect of forgiveness that brings pause to many. “But he intentionally…”. “They knew exactly what they were doing when they…”. “She didn’t care how I felt when she…”. The reality of forgiveness for the follower of Christ is this: the what never takes precedence over the who, because the who is a person that God loves no matter what the what is.
Not to mention the power that forgiveness retains to free the forgiver from the bondage of the debt. It is not just the forgiven person that feels the freedom of a debt lifted, in fact the one who forgives is actually the greater recipient in the exchange.
He that cannot forgive others breaks the bridge over which he must pass himself; for every man has need to be forgiven.
– Thomas Fuller
Forgiveness is the economy of the heart… forgiveness saves the expense of anger, the cost of hatred, the waste of spirits.
– Hannah More
Unforgiveness is the cruelest form of masochism that a person can inflict upon themselves. I believe this to be true because of something the parable doesn’t explicitly say, but something that I believe it points to. When we fail to forgive others for the wrongs they’ve committed against us we cast doubt on every bit of forgiveness we ourselves have received. The cruel servant in Jesus’ story winds up incarcerated for a debt that was already forgiven. While the Gospel message is clear that once a sin is forgiven by God it is never held against us again, the truth of our own human nature is much more brutal. We hold ourselves accountable for those things far longer than God does, and we find our future locked in prisons we have built with our own hands. We are far more inclined to erect those walls around ourselves when we are unwilling to forgive others.
Mark Twain was by no means, it seems, a Christian. He wrestled with parts of Christianity, and he even tried it himself for the sake of the woman he loved. But ironically Twain had a gift for seeing truth, and he possessed a wit that was capable of speaking that truth in memorable ways. Perhaps one of the most incredible things I’ve ever heard with regard to the power of forgiveness is attributed to Twain:
Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it
– Mark Twain
This is the fragrance of the cross. The crushing of Jesus on that crossbeam released the scent of pure, undistilled forgiveness, and it has yet to stop drifting throughout the world for the last two millennia. We see it’s effects in different situations, news reports, altercations, and most profoundly in our own hearts. Jesus was so adamant about its importance that He was willing to let Himself become the eternal example.