Synopsis: Jesus’ teachings about forgiveness are our favorite ones to ignore. Jesus uses the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant to illustrate quite straightforwardly why we can’t afford to ignore it.
Scripture Reading: Matthew 18:21-35
Peace be with you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
How many of us have to admit – if we were completely honest with ourselves – that we find it difficult to forgive? You are not alone. I have a confession to make. I found it difficult to forgive my father. I resented him for many years.
When I was 5 years old, my mother became seriously ill and spent months in isolation in the hospital several times over a few years. Needless to say, it was tough time for me. I had lost contact with my mother, and I needed a lot of emotional support.
That’s not what I got. I felt my father was emotionally distant and at times, unreasonably harsh. He had zero tolerance for me and my 2 brothers’ sibling rivalries and shenanigans, and each time he was too harsh was another strike against him in my mind and fuel for the growing bitterness in my heart.
So as much as we like to say, “Good for that unforgiving servant! He got what he deserved!” We can all relate to him. And Jesus said, “That is how my Father in heaven will treat every one of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.” Every one of you – no exceptions. This teaching is one of our favorite ones to ignore, but Jesus makes it very clear that we can’t afford to ignore it.
Jesus told parables to illustrate his teachings – often in response to questions posed to him. That’s the case with this parable. Peter asked him a question about how many times he should forgive his brother who sins against him. He suggested seven times.
Peter probably felt he was being quite generous to forgive his brother seven times – and indeed he was. The religious leaders of his day suggested only 3 times – “3 strikes, you’re out!” But instead of praise, Peter hears Jesus say, “No … seventy-seven times (or seventy times seven).”
Now, people try to dive into the spiritual significance of seven-seven times or 490 times, but I think that just complicates Jesus’ simple point that there’s no limit to the number of times we should forgive.
That takes us to the parable. I think this parable answers the question, “What does God’s forgiveness look like in the context of human relationships?” Human relationships are not perfect, so both Judaism and Christianity emphasize mercy and compassion toward one another. If we want a good relationship with God, we must have good relationships with others, who are created in God’s image.
Jesus tells us that this servant owed the king a total of 10,000 talents. In order to fully get his point, we need to translate these figures into today’s terms. So, I did some research and some math.
Ready to do some math?
How much is 10,000 talents worth today? Well, the average hourly wage in Pennsylvania is $17 per hour. If you work 40 hours a week, that’s $680. If you work 52 weeks a year, that’s $35,360 annually. Multiply that by 20, and you have $707,200. That’s 20 years’ worth of wages. That’s about what one talent would be worth today. But this servant owed 10,000 talents, so that would be 7 billion 72 million dollars ($7, 072,000,000).
Knowing the ridiculous amount of money that was, you can imagine Jesus’ listeners snickering when he said, “and as he could not pay ….” Yeah right? He probably owed more than the Jewish national debt! That’s more money than his listeners could even imagine! There’s no way the servant would ever be able to earn such a huge sum even if he worked 24 hours a day 7 days a week until the day he died.
Why did Jesus use such a ridiculous sum of money? Jesus introduces the parable with these words:
“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves.” In the parable, the king symbolizes God, and while we don’t like to think of ourselves as slaves these days, this situation was a common one that 2nd-century Jews could relate to.
God created us and gave us everything in His Creation to enjoy. God gave us our very existence and everything we need to live. If we were to put a price tag on that, what would it be?
If God called upon us to pay off the enormous debt we owe for our existence and sustenance, we’d be in big trouble. Jesus says, “His lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made.” Again, this was a situation 2nd-century Jews could relate to. Slavery was commonly used to pay off debts.
What would we do in that situation? Probably do the same thing the servant did – fall on our knees and beg for mercy – and just as the king forgave the servant his huge debt, God forgives us our huge debt. Jesus’ use of a ridiculous sum of money effectively illustrates both our enormous debt to God and God’s limitless forgiveness.
Unfortunately, instead of being grateful for the abundant mercy shown to him, this servant goes out and finds another servant who owed him a hundred denarii. How much is that in today’s world? Well, by today’s numbers, the silver contained in a denarius is worth about $3.62. So, his fellow servant owed him about $362.
This amount of money is an infinitesimally small fraction of what he owed the king. I did the math. It’s literally .000005% or 5 millionths of a percent of what he owed the king.
His fellow servant did what he did when the king ordered him and his family to be sold: he got down on his knees and begged for mercy. But the servant couldn’t even forgive an infinitesimally small debt in comparison to the debt he was forgiven. It’s disgusts us, doesn’t it? Yes, but we are often just like him.
Jesus tells us that the king hears word of his servant’s lack of mercy toward his fellow servant, calls him to stand before him, and sentences him to be tortured until he pays off his entire debt. Since we know there’s no way he would ever be able to pay, that’s basically a life of unrelenting torment.
Jesus came to correct people’s mistaken idea of God as wrathful and vengeful, so why does it seem as if he goes against his purpose here?
I don’t believe that God punishes us, but God did set-up Creation in such a way that we could learn from our interactions within it. He created the Law of Cause and Effect.
If you have children, then you know that if you keep rescuing your children from the consequences of their actions, they never learn. Your refusal to rescue them from the consequences of their actions is not an act of wrath or vengeance on your part, right? It’s an act of love. We call it “tough love.”
I think that’s what Jesus is implying here. The servant will have to face the consequences for his lack of mercy and compassion. This servant who in his bitterness inflicted suffering on his fellow servant to punish him for a small debt ended up punishing himself.
The main consequence of unforgiveness is separation from God. While we can’t literally be separate from God and continue to exist, we can shut off communion with God, and that’s what bitterness does. God can’t dwell in a heart where there is bitterness because God is love.
Every single human being – everything that lives – is part of God and is unconditionally loved by God. The life that animates every living thing comes from God and is exactly the same within each form just as light is exactly the same though it shines through many different lamps. The content is the same.
If we choose to not love any part of this unity in which we were created, we choose to banish ourselves – to put ourselves in prison – to torture ourselves.
We also separate ourselves from God because the present can’t dwell in the past. God is presence. God is here and now. To God, the only reality is the present moment. The past is only a memory of a former present moment, so God isn’t there.
We humans didn’t have a problem with forgiveness until our brains developed the ability to remember. If we didn’t have a memory, we wouldn’t remember the wrongs people have done.
Memory has served us humans well. It has been useful to us for learning, but when it comes to forgiveness it hasn’t been as useful. Unless – we remember mercy and compassion shown to us and extend it to others.
Unfortunately, our brain evolved with a negativity bias. We quickly forget the good things people do for us, but we never forget the bad things. The king’s servant quickly forgot the mercy and compassion shown to him the moment he laid his eyes on his fellow servant who owed him money.
At a certain point in my life, the iceberg of bitterness in my heart for my father started to melt. It began to melt when a therapist asked me, “So, what was good about your childhood? It wasn’t all bad, was it?”
At first, I was indignant. “Yes, it was!” But then, in spite of myself, I started remembering the good things that happened in my childhood and the good times I had with my father. She was right. My childhood wasn’t all that bad, and neither was my father.
What helped the most to dissolve the iceberg was to actually sit down and talk to my father about those memories and the bitterness I felt. After my father was diagnosed with cancer, I started taking him to doctor’s appointment. I had just taken him to get the test to find out the stage of his cancer, and we stopped for lunch.
I talked about how hard it was for me when mom was sick, and he talked about how hard it was for him when mom was sick – and that he made a lot of mistakes with us kids. I was able to understand that my father did the best he could during that time, and while he wasn’t the perfect dad, we all survived, and we all suffered emotional wounds, including my father.
Holding onto bitterness also keeps us stuck in disempowering roles. The more we see ourselves as a victim, the more we call to ourselves experiences to prove it. We don’t like being wrong. As long as I saw myself as a victim, I experienced victimization. Once I forgave my father, I stopped experiencing that.
Holding onto bitterness keeps the other stuck in the role of perpetrator. If we fail to forgive someone who lies to us, then we keep treating them like a liar. If we keep treating them like a liar, chances are they are going to continue lying – because that’s what liars do.
This might explain why we have problems with crime in American society. Our criminal justice system is very unforgiving. We label people “criminals,” treat them that way long after they’ve paid their debt to society, and then wonder why they keep committing crimes.
People resist forgiveness because they want to “hold the person accountable.” There’s no such thing as holding a person accountable. Accountability comes from inside the person who did wrong. They take responsibility. They hold themselves accountable. It doesn’t come from the outside.
What we call “holding the personal accountable” is often inflicting some form of punishment. Unfortunately, punishment doesn’t help people learn to hold themselves accountable.
It forces them to focus more on their own pain instead of the pain experienced by the person they harmed, which makes them more self-centered and less compassionate. It also doesn’t help them work through the emotions that led to the wrongdoing in the first place, so those emotions will probably cause the same behavior again.
But most of all, punishment takes away people’s internal locus of control because they expect authority figures to teach them what is right and wrong though punishment. Any behavior that doesn’t lead to punishment must be OK.
When we forgive, we release both ourselves and the other from the prison of the past so that we can create ourselves anew and become all God intended for us to become. There’s tremendous power in reconciled human relationships, and we could see it if we’d only give forgiveness a chance.
I’d like to conclude with a story from my Sower’s Seeds book. This one is called “Loving Your Enemies.”
Abraham Lincoln tried to love, and he left for all history a magnificent drama of reconciliation. When we was campaigning for the presidency, one of his arch-enemies was a man named Edwin McMasters Stanton.
For some reason, Stanton hated Lincoln. He used every ounce of his energy to degrade Lincoln in the eyes of the public. So deep-rooted was Stanton’s hate for Lincoln that he uttered unkind words about this physical appearance, and sought to embarrass him at every point with the bitterest diatribes. But in spite of this, Lincoln was elected the sixteenth president of the United States of America.
Then came the period when Lincoln had to select his cabinet, which would consist of the persons who would be his most intimate associates in implementing his programs. He started choosing men here and there for the various positions.
The day finally came for Lincoln to select the all-important post of Secretary of War. Can you imagine whom Lincoln chose to fill this post? None other than the man named Stanton. There was an immediate uproar in the president’s inner circle when the news began to spread. Advisor after advisor was heard saying, “Mr. President, you are making a mistake. Do you know this man Stanton? Are you familiar with all the ugly things he said about you? He is your enemy. He will seek to sabotage your programs. Have you thought this through Mr. President?”
Mr. Lincoln’s answer was terse and to the point: “Yes, I know Mr. Stanton. I am aware of the terrible things he has said about me. But after looking over the nation, I find he is the best man for the job.” So Stanton became Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of War and rendered an invaluable service to his nation and his president.
Not many years later, Lincoln was assassinated. Many laudable things were said about him. But of all the great statements made about Abraham Lincoln, the words of Stanton remain among the greatest. Stanton referred to him as one of the greatest men who ever lived and said, “He now belongs to the ages.”
If Lincoln had hated Stanton, both men would have gone to their graves as bitter enemies. But through the power of love, Lincoln transformed an enemy into a friend. That is the power of redemptive love.
Let’s pray together: Lord, we acknowledge the tremendous debt we owe God for all that we have been given. When we have been wronged, help us to remember God’s limitless forgiveness of all our debts and our loving unity with all of Creation so that we can extend mercy to our debtors. Amen.
Markham, Laura. “Why Punishment Doesn’t Teach Your Child Accountability.” psychologytoday.com, 6 May 2014.
Pokorny, Honza. “He Forgave How Much?” Honza.ca 22 Jan. 2019.
“The History of Currency: What is a Denarius Worth?” smallvizviewpoints.com, 4 Apr. 2017.
Young, Brad H. The Parables (p. 119-129). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.