‘Should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’
The Unforgiving Servant
The Prodigal Son. The Lost Sheep. The Sinful Woman. We have been contemplating these and other parables in recent weeks that offer vivid pictures of the boundless grace, compassion and forgiveness of God. In the coming weeks, we need to turn to our proper response.
We may begin with what is a ‘negative’ example, that is, the wrong response, as Christ teaches in the parable of the Unforgiving Servant. The time has come for our servant – as it often can in our daily lives, and must come at the end – when he must settle accounts. In this case, our servant finds himself in debt to his lord for an incalculable account. One scholar estimates that the amount would be equivalent to 200,000 years wages at the rate of pay at the time!
Begging on his knees for the lord’s patience, our servant is forgiven, but then turns around and refuses to forgive the pittance he is owed by a fellow servant, although the debt is 600,000 smaller than the one our wicked servant had incurred. Hearing of this, the once tolerant lord punishes our servant in righteous indignation.
You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you besought me; and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you? (Matt. 18:32-33)
Though the lesson is clear, there is an apparent contradiction to the parable that must be resolved. We have seen how there is no limit to the quality of God’s forgiveness, and the story indicates that we are to imitate this boundless forgiveness toward our neighbor. When, then, we may we well ask, does Jesus now seem to place a condition on God’s mercy?
And in anger his lord delivered him to the jailers…So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.(Matt. 18:34-35)
It appears that in these verses Jesus is presenting a qualification. We must be careful here, however, not to confuse a teaching about the truth of God’s ways with words of encouragement about our ways. Boundless forgiveness is rooted in God’s nature, but not our own. If anything, when we are wronged, we tend toward anger, indignation, or revenge. Through the warning of the parable, Jesus is exhorting us to seek divine strength to overcome our vengeful ways toward others, even we are challenged by the mean-spirited, the habitually careless or the unrepentant.
This is not a call to offer a sentimental blanket pardon for offenses. Jesus is clear elsewhere on how to call each other to account. Today, however, we should consider the advice of St. Paul:
Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. (Gal. 6:1)