Parable of the Unforgiving Servant

Scripture reading. Matthew 18:21-35.

Narrator: This morning’s Scripture reading is known as the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, and is found in the 18th chapter of Matthew. We are going to present the reading as a radio play, with our script based loosely on the Common English Bible. Very loosely. In fact, the editors of the Common English Bible have asked for deniability.

Jesus and his disciples have been traveling throughout Galilee, and when they reach Capernaum, Peter poses a question to Jesus.

Peter: Lord, how many times should I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Should I forgive as many as seven times?

Jesus: Not just seven times, but as many as seventy-seven times.

Peter: I’m so confused. In other translations you said, “seventy times seven.” And I was told there wouldn’t be any math.

Jesus: Maybe a story will help clear this up for you: The kingdom of heaven is like a master who wanted to settle accounts with his servants.

And now we have a play within a play. I think that’s called “meta,” but since the word won’t be coined for another 20 centuries, I’m not quite sure.

When the master began to settle accounts, he met with a servant who owed him ten thousand bags of gold. Because the servant didn’t have enough to pay it back, the master said to have him sold, along with his wife AND children AND everything he had. The proceeds would be used as payment. But the servant fell down, kneeled before him, and begged.

Unforgiving Servant: Please, be patient with me, and I’ll pay you back—bigly.

Jesus: The master had mercy, released him, and forgave the loan. But in two shakes of a lamb’s tail—that’s less than a New York minute—the servant caught

up with one of his fellow servants, who owed him 100 coins. And he grabbed him by the throat.

Unforgiving servant: Pay me what you owe me! Now!

Jesus: Then his fellow servant fell to his knees. It was his turn to beg.

2nd Servant: Just give me a little time and I will pay you back—with interest.

Jesus: But he refused. Instead, he threw him into prison until he paid back his debt. Which doesn’t make a lot of sense, because it is pretty hard to find a job while you are in prison.

And when his fellow servants saw what happened, they weren’t very happy about it. They told their master, who couldn’t believe his ears. The master summoned the servant and gave him a piece of his mind.

Master: You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you appealed to me. Shouldn’t you also have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?

Jesus: The master was furious and handed him over to the guard responsible for punishing prisoners, until he had paid the whole debt.

Unforgiving servant: THANK YOU, SIR! MAY I HAVE ANOTHER?

Peter: And this is supposed to clear things up for me how?

Jesus: My heavenly Father will also do the same to you if you don’t forgive your brother or sister from your heart.

Unforgiving Servant: THANK YOU, SIR! MAY I HAVE ANOTHER?


Several years ago, Pastor Tim asked me to preach on the subject of forgiveness. My first thought was that God has quite a sense of humor, because what I know about forgiveness can be written on the back of a postage stamp.

I like to blame it on my heritage. You see, my mother was Irish, and my father was Scots-Irish. So, I’m pretty much hardwired to hold a grudge. In fact, I grew up with an understanding that you weren’t likely to amount to much if you didn’t know how to nurse grudge. And not just nurse it, but carry it into the third and fourth generation.

Yet Jesus taught us that we are supposed to forgive. Not just seven times, but 70 times. And perhaps, depending on which translation you are reading, 70 times seven times.

A little later in this service, as we break bread and share the cup, we will pray the words that Jesus taught us, the words that we pray week after week: Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.

I want to make sure you caught that, because many of us have repeated those words so many times that we don’t really think about what we are saying.

We don’t pray, “Forgive us our trespasses, and we will try to forgive those who trespass against us.” We don’t pray, “Forgive us our trespasses, and we will forgive those who deserve forgiveness.”

Jesus taught us to pray “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” He taught us to pray for forgiveness in proportion to the forgiveness that we extend to others.

Why do you suppose that the Lord’s Prayer—like the master in the parable we just heard—links the forgiveness we receive to the forgiveness that we extend to others?

Maybe it’s because our unwillingness to forgive is so harmful. And not just to others as it was in the parable. In fact, sometimes our unwillingness doesn’t really hurt others at all. But it is always harmful to us.

Because this is a church that is passionate about mission, we often look to the passage from Isaiah that Jesus read in the synagogue at the beginning of his public ministry:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

because he has anointed me

to proclaim good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

and recovery of sight to the blind,

to let the oppressed go free.

God wants us to be free. You already know that, but it is worth repeating: God wants us to be free.

And here’s the problem: When we don’t forgive, we’re in bondage.

Emmet Fox, in his classic study on the Sermon on the Mount, explains it this way: Forgiving others—setting others free—means setting yourself free, because resentment is really a form of attachment. When you hold a resentment against someone, you are bound to them by a cosmic link.

So here’s a question for you: Why would anyone knowingly bind themselves to something that hurts them? It doesn’t make sense. But if we refuse to forgive someone, that is exactly what we are doing: binding ourselves to heartache and hurt.

Even so, forgiveness is hard for me. Because my first impulse is to keep score.

When Pastor Tim asked me to preach about forgiveness, I talked about how my mother and I had been estranged for a number of years. That’s a nice way of saying that we had stopped speaking to each other.

And for years, I prayed for healing in our relationship, but I wasn’t willing to forgive. And I wondered why my prayers went unanswered.

Until one Sunday, about 25 years ago, I had an epiphany. It happened in the most unlikely place. In church. During a sermon. While I was listening to a sermon. The text was “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.”

Well, I had a severe case of the “yeah, buts.” Has that ever happened to you? When I hear something I don’t want to, I try to convince myself that it doesn’t apply to me by way of a series of “yeah, buts.” And I started running a tally of everything that stood between my mother and me.

Suddenly it hit me right between the eyes: It wasn’t about her. It was about me. It wasn’t about what kind of mother she was, it was about what kind of son I was. And I knew that I had to let go of all the hurt and all the anger.

For the first time in my life, I was able to stop keeping score and to reach out to my mother. And we were able to put the past behind us.

You might think that after such a powerful experience, forgiveness would come more easily for me. It still doesn’t.

That’s why I need to return to worship week after week, year after year, and repeat the words that Jesus taught us to pray.

That’s why I need to pray for the people I don’t want to forgive. Luckily for me, I don’t have to pray that they get a promotion or a new car . . . or a pay raise or a bigger house. I only need to pray that they will experience God’s love.

Now if you looked at the cover of the bulletin this morning, you may have noted that our theme in worship this month is giving thanks. So, what does all of this talk about forgiveness have to do with gratitude?

In the parable we’re talking about this morning, a servant receives mercy from his master. His enormous debt is forgiven. Here’s a question for you: If the servant had been at all grateful for the mercy he received, how do you suppose he would have treated his fellow-servant, the one who owed him a much smaller sum of money?

Do you remember the story in Luke’s Gospel about Jesus healing the ten men who had leprosy? They approached him from a distance and cried out, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!” And he cured them of their disease and told them to show themselves to the priests.

One of them, a Samaritan—and remember the Samaritans were hardly held in high regard by the Jews—came back praising God and threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And Jesus wondered out loud: “Where are the other nine?”

So, what’s the big deal? Why was it so important to Jesus that these men remembered to write their thank-you notes?

If we need forgiveness in our hearts to be free, perhaps we need gratitude in our hearts to be healthy—to be whole. Jesus could cure the men’s bodies, but he couldn’t give them gratitude.

We need gratitude to be healthy because gratitude crowds out fear and envy. It crowds out the things that keep us in bondage.

Gratitude keeps us in right relationship with God. It keeps us right-sized.

Maybe you are thinking, “How can I be grateful when I am stuck in a job I hate?” Or maybe you’re trying to find a job. Maybe you’re stressed about getting the grades you need to get into your dream school.

Perhaps you’re worried sick about one of your kids or an elderly parent. Maybe you’re mourning the death of someone you love. Or you’re afraid that your marriage is in trouble.

A few moments ago, I suggested praying for the people we don’t want to forgive. We can pray about our disappointments, fears, and heartaches as well. And while we are taking our burdens to God in prayer, we can offer a word of thanks.

Praying for the people we need to forgive may not change them, but it will change us. And giving thanks won’t make our troubles disappear, but it

will help put them in perspective . . . and make room for God’s grace to enter our lives . . . and change us.

I heard a simple but profound observation not long ago: Life is not always fair, but God is always faithful. Life is not always fair, but God is always faithful.

In this season of Thanksgiving, we can give indeed thanks.

· We can give thanks that God works for good in all things.

· We can give thanks that we are not alone.

· We can give thanks for the support of a faith community.

· We can give thanks that Jesus chose to walk among us and suffer with us.

· We can give thanks that we have been forgiven.

· We can give thanks that even though life is unfair, God is always faithful.

Now and forever.