“Therefore is the kingdom of heaven likened unto a certain king, which would take account of his servants. And when he had begun to reckon, one was brought unto him, which owed him ten thousand talents. But forasmuch as he had not to pay, his lord commanded him to be sold, and his wife, and children, and all that he had, and payment to be made. The servant therefore fell down, and worshipped him, saying, Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay thee all. Then the lord of that servant was moved with compassion, and loosed him, and forgave him the debt. But the same servant went out, and found one of his fellowservants, which owed him an hundred pence: and he laid hands on him, and took him by the throat, saying, Pay me that thou owest. And his fellowservant fell down at his feet, and besought him, saying, Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all. And he would not: but went and cast him into prison, till he should pay the debt. So when his fellowservants saw what was done, they were very sorry, and came and told unto their lord all that was done. Then his lord, after that he had called him, said unto him, O thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all that debt, because thou desiredst me: Shouldest not thou also have had compassion on thy fellowservant, even as I had pity on thee? And his lord was wroth, and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due unto him. So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses” (Matthew 18:23-35).
No doubt we are all very familiar with the ‘Parable of the Unmerciful Servant’, but have we ever bothered to apply the Lord’s teaching to our lives? Maybe we simply allow bitterness, hurt and pride to hinder us from putting this important truth into action. We want to be forgiven, but why do we cling to our memories of past offences? Why do we desire revenge instead of reconciliation? The details of this parable are purposely exaggerated by Jesus to reveal the true extent of what forgiveness is all about. The exaggerations are there to teach us that we cannot put a limit on forgiving others, for none of us would want God to limit His forgiveness towards us.
This parable was taught by the Lord in response to a question raised by Peter. “Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times? Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven” (Matthew 18:21-22). It seems Peter had been thinking about something Jesus had taught concerning forgiveness, but he thought he had found a problem. Maybe he also thought that to forgive someone seven times was being extremely gracious and therefore going beyond what even the religious teachers taught. The rabbis believed that forgiving an offence three times was enough, but we see here that Jesus did not agree with the limitation they put on forgiveness. He speaks of forgiving a person 490 times, which is almost three times every minute. While we are not meant to take this figure literally, the Lord is saying that even this is not the limit of forgiveness. The figure is an exaggeration since it is highly unlikely that anyone would experience such intense offence from one person, but that is the point, since true forgiveness knows no bounds.
The details of the parable are purposely exaggerated to illustrate Jesus’ answer to Peter’s question. Here was a king who had loaned one of his servants ten thousand talents. Notice that the “talents” are not the same as the “pence” mentioned later. A talent was not a coin but the weight of the gold or silver they consisted of. One talent was 30 Kg, therefore we can see that even if the servant only owed this much, he was deeply in debt. In fact he owed ten thousand times more! When we bring it up to modern standards, then amount he owed would come to over £19,000,000 (nineteen million Pounds sterling). The Classic Bible Commentary puts this figure at £72,000,000 for gold and £400,000 for silver. Considering that a denarii (penny in the parable) was a day’s wages for a labourer back then, it would take the servant centuries to pay back what he owed. The servant begged for forgiveness and asked for the king’s patience. In light of the above, the king really needed to be patient did he not? The servant promised to pay back every last penny of what he owed, which was in fact impossible. The king was merciful and “was moved with compassion”. He graciously wiped the slate clean, so the servant was free from his debt. Once again we see the exaggeration, for what king would be willing to overlook such a massive debt.
We can almost see this servant skipping out of the palace, totally thrilled and rejoicing that such a large burden had been lifted from his shoulders. Now his family could enjoy a worry and debt free life. But on his way out he notices someone who owed him 100 pence. Such a paltry sum considering what he owed the king! This man pleaded with him in exactly the same way the first servant had begged the king, but he was unwilling to forgive as he had been forgiven. The king, once he had learned what the man had done to his fellowservant, reversed his decision and cast him into prison to be tormented until he paid back the 10,000 talents. This means that he would never be set free, for it was impossible for him to pay off his debt.
Jesus used exaggeration in the parable to counteract any teaching about limiting forgiveness. Though the details are exaggerated, the Lord’s final words are far from being so. The exaggerated parable holds a poignant message, one that we do well not to ignore. As Christians we must have a forgiving spirit and be willing to overlook all offences no matter how often they are levelled against us. “Be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:32) … “Forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye” (Colossians 3:13). If we cannot forgive, but instead have resentment towards others and seek vengeance, then we know nothing of Calvary’s love. Jesus taught us to pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:12).
So what about the Lord’s closing statement? Theologians, commentators and preachers often try to explain away what is written, and in doing so undermine the clear teaching given. It is very plain to see that the unforgiving person is destined to everlasting punishment or do we think that God will break His own word! “For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14-15). Jesus may have exaggerated the details of the parable, but He never does so with His teaching. Let us not think that this is levelled at the unsaved, for they have not as yet experienced the joyous gift of God’s forgiveness. It is clearly spoken to those whom the Lord has set free from sin and guilt; therefore we need to pay attention. Those believers who are bitter and have resentment towards others are not displaying the characteristics of a child of God. “And when ye stand praying, forgive, if ye have ought against any: that your Father also which is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses” (Mark 11:25) … “If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?” (1 John 4:20). In forgiving others, we do not do so with mere words but from “the heart”. We must really mean it, for God does when He forgives us. Someone might ask, “Would God reverse the forgiveness He has given us in Christ?” This question misses the point of the parable, for Jesus wants us to see that if we withhold forgiveness from others, then God will withhold forgiveness from us until we come to our senses. But the fact remains, while a believer is unwilling to forgive he or she is on a downward slope to destruction, for unforgiven people will not be received into God’s Kingdom. “And shall we still say, but when we are once freely and fully forgiven, our pardon can never be retracted?” (Classic Bible Commentary). Some may argue against what is written here, but surely a true Christian desires to emulate the Lord in every way! “Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful” (Luke 6:36).