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Lessons from the Unmerciful Servant

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Lessons from the Unmerciful Servant

Matthew 18:23-35

Forgiveness is not natural to man. Our fallen-human nature has at its core a selfish desire for revenge, and personal retribution. But forgiveness is the whole basis of our opportunity for heaven. It is a most Christ-like character trait. Think about Christ as he was dying on the cross, having been falsely accused by His own people, beaten and mocked, by the Roman soldiers. Yet His attitude on the cross is one of forgiveness, Luke 23:34 (KJV), Then said Jesus, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.

Forgiveness reflects the highest human virtue, because it so clearly reflects the character of God. A person who forgives is a person who emulates godly character. Nothing so much demonstrates God’s love as His forgiveness. A person who does not forgive is therefore a person lacking in godly character and without Christ-like love, no matter how correct his theology or how outwardly spotless his morals appear to be. A Christian who will not relinquish a hateful, resentful attitude toward someone who has wronged him is a person who knows neither the true glory of his redeemed humanity nor the true glory of God’s gracious divinity. An unforgiving Christian is a living contradiction of His new nature in Christ. It is central to the heart of God to forgive, and only the Christian who radiates forgiveness radiates true godliness.

Considering forgiveness from another direction, Christians need to forgive because they themselves need forgiveness. They are spiritual children and, like all children, are ignorant, weak, selfish, disobedient, and regularly in need of forgiveness, both from God and from each other. Forgiving is a give-and-take issue of life.

Forgiveness is therefore the key to spiritual unity in the church, because it is the key to love and the key to all meaningful relationships. Only forgiveness can break down the barriers that sin continually and inevitably erects between people, including God’s people.

Our passage today is a parable in response to Peter’s question to Christ about how often we need to forgive. Peter, thinking his answer was going to sound really pious, asked Christ, “Should I forgive seven times?” Jesus’ answer blew Peter away by saying, “Seventy times seven.” In other words, “You forgive every time.” Jesus said on another occasion. “Even if a brother sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.” (Luke 17:4). Jesus was not setting a daily limit, but quite the opposite. He was speaking of repeated, regular sinning that is committed many times a day, day after day, and of repeated forgiveness. He was saying that even if a fellow Christian sins against you every day for seven times each day, you should be ready and willing to forgive him that often. The faithful, godly Christian will never allow his own forgiveness to be surpassed by a brother’s sin. Reflecting his heavenly Father’s nature, where sin against him increases, so does his gracious forgiveness.

This parable is so severe that many people conclude that the principle Jesus teaches through it could not possibly apply to believers. But just as it is sometimes necessary for a parent to deal harshly with a persistently disobedient child, it is also sometimes necessary for the Lord to deal harshly with His disobedient children. The writer of Hebrews reminded his readers of what the Lord had taught when he said, “Those whom the Lord loves He disciplines, and He scourges every son whom He receives” (Heb. 12:6; Prov. 3:12). Some of the Corinthian believers had become so immoral and impenitent that God put them on sickbeds and even caused some to die (1 Cor. 11:30). He struck Ananias and Sapphira dead for lying to the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:1–10). The Lord is sometimes stringent with His errant children because that is sometimes the only way He can correct their disobedience and protect the purity and holiness of His church.

With that as an introduction let’s read the parable of the unmerciful servant. The Kingdom of Heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts. It was common for a king to give his advisors and others a certain area of responsibility. “Servants” was a term used of anyone who worked for the king. Here the parallel is easy enough to see: the king of the kingdom of heaven is God and the servants are those who have been redeemed, you and me. One servant was found who owed him 10,000 talents. A talent was a unit of weight estimated anywhere from 50 to 83 pounds, and the metal was probably gold. A talent of gold is about 15-20 years wages. Ten thousand talents would have been an enormous debt, on the borderline of what the ancient mind-set could have conceived. Ten thousand is the highest number for which the Greek language had a word. All this was to show that the amount of debt was incalculable and unpayable. 

That incalculable, unpayable debt represents the debt for sin that every man owes God. When the Holy Spirit convicts a person of his sin (John 16:8), that person is faced with the fact that the extent of his sin is beyond comprehension and humanly unpayable.

 Verse 25 tells us that the man had no money to pay. So the lord ordered the man, his wife and kids to be placed into prison. The severity of the punishment reflects the enormity of the debt. Both the magnitude of the debt and the enormity of the punishment are intended to stagger the imagination, and the punishment reminds us of the punishment that we deserve for stealing from God His glory. Even if we were to suffer in hell for all of eternity it would do nothing in paying back to God the enormous debt that we owe him, just like this servant will not be able to pay his master back.

Verse 26 tells us that realizing the enormity of the plight he was in, the man prostrated himself before the king and asked, “Have patience with me.” The verb is in an imperfect tense meaning that he kept pleading "have patience with me." He was giving no half-hearted plea. The same is true for us when we realize the enormity of our sin against God and the punishment we will receive for our sin. When people are confronted with their sin they many times will make promises they cannot keep, such as this man made in offering to repay the king.

Verse 27 tells us that the lord was moved with compassion and did far more than give him time to pay. He cancelled his debt completely. What a wonderful picture of the compassion of Jesus Christ and the canceling of our debt by God.

Verse 28 and the man went out and did what seemed to be inconceivable considering the enormity of the deed of kindness he just received. Inconceivable, that is, until you consider that we are in many ways guilty of the same thing that this slave is. He went out and began choking a man who owed him 100 denarii. A denarius is about one day’s wage. One hundred denarii is not a small amount, about 100 days wages, until you compare it to what was just forgiven this man previously.

Although the second debt was extremely small by comparison to the first, it was nevertheless a real debt and represents a real offense committed by one believer against another. If the offense were not real, it would need no forgiveness. Jesus was not teaching that sins against fellow believers or against anyone else are insignificant but that they are minute compared to the offenses every one of us has committed against God and for which He has freely and completely forgiven us.

The power of the sinful flesh that remains in a transformed believer is seen in the first servant’s hardheartedness against his fellow servant. The first man was much further removed from the king in status than he was from the other servant, and the amount of debt he had been forgiven by the king was immeasurably greater than the amount he refused to forgive his fellow servant. Those two facts should have made the man not only especially grateful but especially merciful. His inclination should have been to search out his fellow slave to forgive him rather than condemn him. There is no indication, however, that his own experience of mercy made him grateful, and it clearly did not make him merciful. Instead, he became proud, presumptuous, and hardhearted. Unfortunately, as Christians we sometimes reflect a similar arrogance and insensitivity.

The man pleaded for time to repay his debt, just as he had done to his king, but in a move of incredible callousness, he threw him into jail until he could pay back what he owed. But with no way to earn money, the man was never going to get out of jail. Such unforgiveness not only is morally unthinkable and bizarre but irrational.

Yet as both Scripture and personal experience make clear, that is the way Christians sometimes treat each other. The parable is an unflattering picture of the sinful flesh that still resides in every believer and that has caused great conflict and damage within the church since its birth.

Verse 31 says that when the fellow slaves heard and saw what had happened they were deeply grieved and took their report to the king. Christians should be deeply grieved when a fellow believer is unforgiving, because his hardness of heart not only tends to drive the offender deeper into sin but also causes dissention and division within the church, tarnishes its testimony before the world, and deeply grieves the Lord Himself.

The other slaves went to the king with the awful story, expecting that proper action would be taken against the unforgiving creditor. This feature of the parable forms an interesting insight into the believer’s responsibility not only to go through the steps of disciplining a sinning brother but to petition the Lord Himself to act in chastening and purging the ungracious sinning child of God.

Verse 32 The king is furious that his lavish mercy is spurned. In the context wicked probably means something like “worthless” or “good for nothing.” renders “You scoundrel!” and has “You utter scoundrel!” We do act wickedly when we are controlled by our flesh.

Verse 33 is in a real sense the key to the entire parable: those persons whose debt of sin God has forgiven are obligated in return to forgive the sins that others commit against them. The Lord was teaching that forgiveness ought to be in direct proportion to the amount forgiven. The first servant had been forgiven all, and he in turn should have forgiven all. A child of God has had all his sins forgiven by faith in Jesus Christ. Therefore when someone sins against him, he ought to be willing to forgive . . . from the heart no matter how many times the act occurs.

To finish the parable the king was moved with anger and had the man sent to the torturers. Since the earlier debt was already legally forgiven, the remaining debt was primarily this man’s duty to show the same kind of mercy to others. The “torturers” represent the rod of God’s discipline. The lesson of the parable is this: Christians who refuse to forgive others will be subject to the severest kind of discipline until they learn to forgive as they have been forgiven.

All that was owed him” also represents the temporal consequences of sin. This parable seems to suggest that as a means of His loving discipline, God might actually magnify the earthly consequences of sin. Though the guilt of sin is forgiven so that it will never be an issue in eternal judgment, God may permit the consequences of sin to be even more severe, in order to motivate a sinning believer to obey. Because unforgiveness is so completely foreign to what Christians should be, Christ applies this threat particularly to that sin: “So shall My heavenly Father also do to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart” (v. 35).

Christians ought to be the most forgiving people on earth, because they have been forgiven as no one else has. Therefore, those who refuse to forgive are worthy of the most severe kind of discipline from the hand of a loving Father.

 James 2:13 gives an inescapable principle of divine justice: “Judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy.” For the unsaved, the prospects of this principle are fearsome indeed. Those who have been merciless will have no mercy in the eternal court of God. They will suffer eternal torment entirely without mercy.

But there is an application of this principle for the believer as well. Christians who fail to show mercy will be subject to divine chastisement without much mercy. That is the whole message of this parable. I am convinced that multitudes of Christians who suffer from stress, depression, discouragement, relationship problems, and all sorts of other hardships experience these things because of a refusal to forgive. Forgiveness from the heart would liberate the person immediately from such “torturers”—and glorify God in the process.

Notice that Jesus speaks of forgiveness “from your heart” (Matt. 18:35). Genuine forgiveness is not feigned or grudging, but is given as freely as we ourselves desire to be forgiven. It involves a deliberate refusal to hold the guilt over the head of the offender. It means ending the bitterness, laying aside anger, and refusing to dwell on the offense that has been forgiven. It is a complete letting go of any thought of retaliation or reprisal. It is, as nearly as possible, the human equivalent of what God promises—to remember the sin no more (cf. Jer. 31:34).

Such forgiveness does not come easy, particularly when it deals with the kinds of sins that destroy lives and relationships.

APPL: There are some today who have harbored bitterness against people for years, because of a trespass, a slight, because of some hurt, or because of any one of a multitude of other issues. You are suffering from the consequences of your own lack of forgiveness. Worse yet, the church ministry is hurt, the name of Jesus is hurt, simply because you will not forgive. The quickest path for you to obtain peace inside yourself, peace with God and display Christ-like love is for you to confess and forsake. Then, go to that brother or sister in Christ and make things right. You have a God who is full of lovingkindness and mercy and will lavish His blessings upon you, if you will obey Him by repenting and forgiving others.

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