Parables – The Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18:21-35)

As discussed in a previous post, Parables are short pointed stories that give shocking and yet memorable lessons which are associated with the lessons being taught at the time. This parable of the “unforgiving servant” is told within the context of what in Matthew is referred to as kingdom life or principles. Please read all of chapter 18 leading up to this parable to gain a sense of what is going on that sparks Jesus giving this parable.

The parable is just after Jesus teaches about dealing with a sinning brother. We are to forgive, and seek restoration of those that sin against us. Yet Peter chimes in asking just how many times are we to do so before we “cut off” or consider our sinning brother as an unclean tax collector or Gentile. Peter probably thinks he is taking the morally higher ground that Jesus would prefer in offering to forgive 7 times (more than double the 3 times as prescribed in Jewish law). Here is a cultural disconnect to be aware of. We talk about forgiveness in terms of doing so for our mental health and well being. In Peter’s time this was a matter of legal, social and religious standing. Jesus corrects by requiring forgiving up to seventy times seven; a number so ridiculous to keep track of or really count. This is where the parable begins, within the context of forgiving, church discipline, and kingdom life.

Within parables it is typical that you can find God as a major character. He is so included in this parable in the person of the king (also referred to as the master). So a servant (I’ll call him Bill) comes upon this day of settling accounts and is asked to pay all that he owes (his loan maturity date). Aside from running the calculations it is a balance owed which is impossible for a servant to be able to pay back (we’re talking in the billions of dollars). Upon pleading for time, the master is moved with compassion, forgives the debt and releases Bill.

Try to be Bill for a few minutes. We might think that Bill would be so excited and so graciously overjoyed that he would be singing and smiling for the next year or so. The weight must have been awful to bear for so long. Bill and his wife would sit at the dinner table for weeks going over the bills that were piling up. He was stressed about this accounting as soon as he heard about it, not knowing what to do. We might expect that he is so overwhelmed with joy, having been forgiven, that he would have a kind disposition towards everyone. But this is not the case.

Bill sees his fellow servant or co-worker (let’s call him George) coming up the street toward him. Bill suddenly shifts in heart and spirit from joy, to anger and outrage. He grabs George by the throat and demands to be repaid (about the equivalent to a weeks or maybe a month’s earning). George in return makes the same plea which Bill made to the king, that with enough time he will repay the debt. This is not good enough for Bill, who takes George to the jailers himself.

Are we getting the picture of how this relates to the passages dealing with sinning brothers (18:15-20)? Being forgiven, we should have the love, joy and gratitude to forgive others. This goes far beyond wanting to keep any checklist of 3, 7 or 490 forgivenesses offered because they do not compare to what we have been forgiven of by our King. Yet this did not happen between Bill and George. There is a problem within the congregation. The fellow servants were witness to this and yet they do not set out to free George or to mob Bill, they go to the king. Now this should really start sounding like our passage on the sinning brother, or church discipline. The matter is taken to God in prayer as if God the Father was present within the fellow workers to understand and hear their concern and make a just judgment on their behalf.

The king/master (God) makes a judgment against Bill that he must now be placed in jail and repays all that he owes (discipline of becoming seen as the unclean tax collector or Gentile). Some struggle with this as if God is revoking someone’s salvation. This is where the context of the passage protects us from such thoughts and yet, at the same time, it gives a very severe and stern warning about the conditions of being in the kingdom of God.

When the church makes its pronouncement that someone is to be excommunicated it is not something to be taken lightly. It is to be cut off from the people of God such that they treat you as one needing salvation, with the hope that you come and seek the reconciliation they are offering. If you were a teacher, deacon or elder, such titles would be removed. You may still attend sermons and Sunday school classes but the idea of taking communion and being asked to lead in prayer or a study is out of the question. Are you unwilling to forgive and “hear” your brother you have a fault with (18:15-17)? Beware and consider the matter of offense seriously, because to stand against your brother, the witnesses and finally the church is to offend the king of those servants. Remember that Christ promised to be present and among them in authority when they judge the matter (18:18-20).

Forgiveness is not a matter of keeping a checklist for others or ourselves before God. Peter was wrong to think that there was a measuring rod for forgiveness. Forgiveness was to be an estate of the heart, always contemplating the forgiveness we have in Christ. God has forgiven us so great a debt that we must be overflowing with joy and wonder thinking of His mercy and compassion. In this, how can we possibly hold our fellow believers in judgment and leave grudges unresolved within the church? This is not supposed to be the case, and so when the church is taking disciplinary action we do well to recall this horrible scene and remember who has the ability to cast us out of the kingdom. Maybe we do well to consider if we are self-deceived in holding what we do against our brother/sister in the Lord. We should ask why we are unable to forgive a fellow Christian and really ponder over our estate in Christ.

I’ve seen those under church discipline flee to another congregation attempting to just “start over.” They are confident that they are saved, and do not consider that they have any broken fellowship with God. These feel that just because a fellow Christian, some witnesses and now an entire church is asking them to repent does not mean they have to, in their eyes. But they go out from us proving they were never of us, at times. Yet, in some cases there are those who upon close examination of the Scriptures, their forgiveness before God, and humbly repenting of some sin have found their way back to the church, and true reconciliation has occurred. Praise God!

What is kingdom life like? It is like forgiveness, knowing that God has forgiven us as we are in the process of forgiving those who trespass against us (Matthew 6:12, 14-15).

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Parables – The Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18:21-35)

  1. Hey, this sounds familiar! ;-)

    But your comments toward the end about how unrepentant church members who are under discipline will seek to escape such trouble by simply going to another church, raises a question in my mind:

    Since you’re a member of a congregation in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), and I’m a “communicant visitor” (came up with that one myself) in that same congregation, say a member were to flee to another church in the same presbytery. Has it been your experience that in such a case both sessions will communicate about the issues involved in his leaving the former church and beginning to visit the latter? Or has it tended to be otherwise? I assume little communication about such issues proves fruitful when the church to which the member under discipline flees is of another denomination altogether. Penny for your thoughts.

    • Yeah, Being I could not attend this past Sunday I thought I’d do my own study. I’m sure Joe was more in depth with it. I’ll have to listen to it once it’s posted.

      The simple answer is yes. The two sessions would discuss the matter in and among themselves as how to handle the matter. This is if the fleeing member made it known that they were of a previous OPC church, seeking transfer of membership. If the fleeing member was already under excommunication, I believe the accepting church would still carry out that stance, not allowing this person to hold an office or partake in communion. I would expect that there would also be further counseling by the receiving pastor and/or session to strive for repentance.

      The Book of Church Order goes into greater detail then I am outlining here in a very general sense. There are specifics for all of these proceedings, and formalities that are observed for the protection and honor of all parties. There are even means of appeal, and methods of how to take matters of disagreements to a next higher court (session to presbytery to general assembly) if needed.

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