Parable of the Forgiving Master

Text: Matthew 18:21-35

Let us pray: O Lord, open our ears that we may hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church-and to each one of us in the depths of our own hearts. Amen.

The last time I was blessed to be among you, we examined a passage from Matthew that used the Greek word, “ecclesia,” or church. If you remember, that word is only found twice in all four Gospels. You might think that today’s passage, might also contain the Greek word for “church.” After all, we read in our English translations that Peter comes to Jesus, and says, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?” This is not actually what is said in the Greek. Using inclusive language with my own translation from the Greek, this passage actually says, “Then up came Peter and said to the Lord, ‘How often, when another sins against me, will I forgive that one, seven times?’”

As you can see, there is no word for “church” here. If there was, the writer would have used the Greek word “ecclesia.” Or, if the passage as recorded was early enough, another Greek word, “sunagog,” meaning “gathering, assembly, meeting, or synagogue” might have been used. Neither word is present. So, this is not a specific question for a church community (ours or Matthew’s), it is a universal question for all people living in community, no matter if they are members of an “in group” such as the Church or not. That makes this passage particularly challenging. Furthermore, I must confess it slightly troubles me that our translators chose to word their English version the way they did when the Greek does not warrant it.

That is not the only reason I am slightly troubled by this passage, however, in fact it is just the beginning. The answer Jesus gives Peter is just plain ridiculous, “Not seven times, but seventy times seven,” he says. To forgive a transgressor 149 times sounds to me like an open door to being taken advantage of time and time again, and I find that utterly frustrating.

Then there is the parable with an unhappy ending that follows; a slave gets thrown into jail by another slave until such time as a debt payment is made. Then, the first slave gets tortured by the master until his debt is paid off. To top it off, one more thing just clinches my dislike of this passage: Jesus says God will torture us unless we forgive our brother or sister from our heart. Where does that come from? That doesn’t sound like the grace-filled God I know. Who has forgiven us and set us free from entrapping cycles of self-destruction, communal alienation, or becoming perpetual victims to other’s cruelty? Jesus, the Son of God, very God himself; and he is telling us his father will torture us? This is indeed a troubling passage, to say the least!

So what do we do with this “parable of the unforgiving servant?” I have already begun to take it apart, bit by bit; perhaps we can put it back together bit by bit and discover together what it is actually trying to teach us.

Remember Matthew is the account of a Jewish Rabbi written by a Jewish Christian, for a mixed Jewish and Gentile Christian congregation. The author, being thoroughly Jewish, reflects the hesitancy to speak God’s name – in Jewish perspective, it is too holy to say – so the author uses other words. When you hear the “Kingdom of Heaven” in Matthew, it is really referring to God. Thus, when verse 23 begins a parable; stating, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like…,” the author is really saying, “God is like….”

In verse 24 we have the king demanding repayment of debt from his slave. There are two things that sound rather odd to me with this, and which serve as clues to the hearers that Jesus is speaking hyperbole, that is, illustrating a truthful point by way of an exaggerated example. The sum, “ten thousand talents” is an absurdly large amount of money. To give you an idea, one single talent represented many years’ wages for a laborer. Ten thousand talents represents an impossibly huge amount; there is no possible way on earth a slave could owe this much, or repay this much. A slave is property, not a paid worker.

The slave, of course, begs for patience. We read in verse 27, “out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt.”

Take a look at verse 28. When this slave finds a fellow slave who owes him money, he throws a rage and demands to be paid. He does not follow through with the same mercy that was shown him. No, when his fellow slave begs for patience, his plea is rejected and he is thrown into debtors’ prison. The King, of course, hears about it and the first slave is summoned. We read, beginning in verse 32, “’You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt.”

Then we have this little added bit in verse 35 that Jesus sort-of tosses off at the end: “So my heavenly Father will also do to everyone of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” Note that it is plural in emphasis, not individual. Everyone of you, that is, everyone of us within the community needs to forgive, in order for the community to thrive in an atmosphere of mutual support.

For me, the most troubling piece of this passage is this: God handing us over to be tortured until we pay our full debt.  As finite, broken people constantly running from God, we are far, far, far from able to pay our debt. I can see how this passage might make excellent fodder for a fire and brimstone kind of sermon; but I must say I am very glad that kind of sermon is not usually found in our tradition. Instead, let us recall that a parable is a story not meant for a literal reading. It is an illustration of a central truth with an image or situation that is intentionally blown out of proportion in order for the simplicity of that central truth to be poignantly stated.

Which leaves us to ask, of course, what is the central truth, the main point of this story? God condemning us to torture and punishment? I think not. I submit to you the central point of this parable is the grace of God. In fact, with that in mind, I would rename this passage the “Parable of the Forgiving Master.” As a direct metaphor for our life with God, the grace of God in Jesus Christ is incredibly farther beyond the ability of any of us to ever repay. Christ lived for us, Christ died for us, Christ rose again and reigns in power for us. In Christ, we are a new creation, forgiven and renewed.

Now that you know my personal feelings about this passage and how I did away with fire, brimstone, and eternal punishment, it might be wise for us to hear from some other experts. I especially appreciate commentator Kathryn Blanchard, who writes this about today’s passage: “God’s “default” stance … of mercy must lead to the conviction that God’s people are those who likewise practice mercy—willingly, concretely, and as a communal way of life.[1]

That is a central message I like! Put another way, as long as we, Christ’s body, continue the ongoing practice of forgiveness, then grace, the love of God, indeed the very resurrection itself is continually proclaimed.

Additionally, commentator Charlotte Dudley Cleghorn observes:

“While all of the world’s major religions teach about the necessity of forgiveness, it has been only recently that the medical and scientific world has also begun to delve into the importance of forgiveness for health and well-being. It is now widely known that un-forgiveness, or holding on to past hurts and resentments, deeply affects our emotional and physical health.

Jesus speaks to the necessity of forgiveness because he knows the effects un-forgiveness has on individuals and communities. There are so many situations within our society, in the world, in our churches, in our families, and in our workplaces that, when not dealt with, can sow the seeds of bitterness and fester into deep, painful wounds.[2]

I have permission from a friend of mine in North Carolina to share with you her true story as an illustration of this point. I will not go into the length or detail with which she shared her story with me; suffice it to say, she was physically abused by her father from about age 4 until her freshman year of college when she finally confronted him and his unacceptable behavior. Probably the most poignant description for me from her story happened when as a little girl she sat in church after the service while her parents talked with their friends; she would stare at a stained glass picture of Jesus the Good Shepherd, holding the little sheep in his arms. She often wished she could have been that sheep, safe from all harm, instead of living the hellish torture of life under her father’s belt. I can only guess that her wish, not even cognitively thought of as a mode of prayer at the time, must have made it to heavenly ears.

Herein lies one of the deepest secrets for any person or community of faith: As she hungered, so also did she taste. As she thirsted, so also did she drink of the Water of Life. As she grew and feasted on the Bread of Life, even the small portion that she tasted, in her grew the ability to move beyond her own painful experiences and wish a blessing upon the one who ravaged her childhood spirit.

At 40, she held his hand in hers as he lay upon his deathbed, and she prayed to God on his behalf. She did not ask God to forgive him, nor did she herself forgive him. His actions were not acceptable. They were a mean and selfish power play of the strong over the weak. What happened for her, however, was forgiveness so complex, so mysterious, and so tied up with how God works that at least for me, it boggles my mind.

I have become convinced while she prayed, she moved beyond forgiveness to the realm of intercession. In so doing, she opened up her own heart to be healed by the mysterious power of God’s Holy Spirit. And God? God responded in faithfulness with an outpouring of grace so total it flooded her spirit completely; she was enabled to let go, let God, and become the instrument of grace God called her to be.

What I learned from her and from today’s scripture is that forgiveness is hard-but it is necessary. If we do not learn to forgive one another, we endanger ourselves, turning inward on our own souls, becoming bitter and unable to experience or share the love of God; and sharing the love of God to all is, after all, what we have been called to do.

To God be all glory, honor, power, and dominion over our hearts, our minds, our bodies, and the very impulses of our human nature. To the One who lived, who died, who rose again for us, even Him who is the Christ, we give our thanks and praise. Let us pray:

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you, our Rock and our Redeemer; Amen?

May it be so.


[1] Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Feasting on the Word – Year A, Volume 4: Season After Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ).

[2] Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Feasting on the Word – Year A, Volume 4: Season After Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ).


About Scottrick

Parent ~ Pastor ~ Poet ~ Author
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