Matthew 18 21-35: THE PARABLE OF THE UNFORGIVING SERVANT

(1) Introduction: without limit. Read Matthew 18 21-35.

Jesus told the parable of the unmerciful servant in response to a question from Peter. Jesus had been speaking about how to deal with a brother who sins against you. Peter doubtless thought he was moving to a higher plane when he broached the subject of forgiveness. This, after all, was better than tackling a brother who wronged you even to the extent of involving the whole church in your dispute. Nonetheless, Peter suggested that there ought to be a limit on the number of times a brother is forgiven. He suggested seven times - a generous figure. The rabbis of the time taught that a man should forgive his brother three times. Jesus was having none of this and told Peter to put no limit on the number of times he forgives. This is the implication of the seventy seven times.

Some might protest at this point that Jesus was being unreasonable. But consider how often a little child needs to be forgiven by its parents. Recently I visited my friends Gill and Arthur Rutterford at Barton Mills. Hannah, their daughter, was there with her three year old son, Isaac. He, like most high spirited youngsters of his age, was continuously testing the boundaries: running wild, climbing over the furniture, throwing things, teasing the dog, failing to eat his meal, getting up from the table before he had finished. Isaac committed several low level offences that needed to be forgiven regularly and often.

It was the same at school. Some children were serial defaulters when it came to completing homework on time. It was no good writing these pupils off. I had to forgive them, persevere with them, supervise their homework in my lunch hour; all for their greater good.

I have to confess that my pupils also needed to forgive me, their teacher, for moodiness, grumpiness and fiery outbursts of temper - many, many times!

(2) Without supervision.

Jesus tells a parable about the servant of a king who manages to run up a huge debt of 10,000 talents. One talent was worth 6000 denarii. The denarii was the daily wage of a labouring man. It is the equivalent of about 80 today. So 10,000 talents would amount to 60,000,000 denarii or 4.8 billion pounds - an enormous sum.

The question that requires answering is: How could anyone manage to owe a king that amount of money? Certain conditions must have prevailed for a debt of this size to mount up. They are:

(a) The servant or high official must have had great financial responsibility. Only someone like the governor of a very rich Roman province, accountable for taxing that province, would handle such large sums of money.

(b) The high official was given immense freedom. The king must have extended to the official the time and freedom to squander the tax collected. He was given the freedom to speculate - to use the king's money for risky ventures. He could, perhaps, finance a fleet of ships to trade with the Far East only to never see the ships again. Maybe the official attempted to corner the market in olive oil only to be undone by a glut of the product. Money could be lost then as it is lost now!

(c) The high official enjoyed great trust. The king must have had tremendous confidence in his top official's judgment and competence - trust that as it turned out, was badly misplaced.

There is no doubt that taking mankind as a whole we have been given great responsibility, immense freedom and huge trust in managing God's creation. The resources of the world have been placed there for us to use as we see fit. We are at fault, not so much for using what God has provided, but for failing to acknowledge that it is God who has provided and who deserves our undieing gratitude.

(3) Without excuse.

We have run up a big, big debt to God because we fail to give him what we owe him for the resources he has provided us with. We owe God:

(a) Respect. He should be honoured for the creative genius he showed in preparing a world fit to live in. Do we honour God enough? Even Job needed to be reminded of God's creative genius.

(b) Gratitude. How often do we thank God for his providential provision for our material needs. There is a wealth of truth in the old harvest hymn, 'We plough the fields and scatter.'

          We plough the fields and scatter
          The good seed on the land,
          But it is fed and watered
          By God's almighty hand:
          He sends the snow in winter,
          The warmth to swell the grain,
          The breezes and the sunshine
          And soft refreshing rain.

That being said, God hasn't just provided for our material needs but also provided for the forgiveness of sins and new life through faith in the sacrificial death of his one and only son, Jesus, on the cross. The price has been paid, and accepted, to redeem us from our fallen estate.

(c) Service. We have received so much from God that we should be happy to serve his interests. In the words of Philip Doddridge's hymn:

          My gracious Lord, I own Thy right
          To every service I can pay;
          And call it my supreme delight
          To hear Thy dictates and obey.

Oh yes, we can sing the hymn; that's easy. The fact remains we are often reluctant servants of God. We are inclined to serve our own interests before God's.

(d) Devotion. Every man, women and child should be enthusiastic about expressing their devotion to God for all his benefits. We have a great capacity for worship as is evident to anyone attending a Premier League football match or a pop concert. Once again the hymn writer puts it better than I can:

          Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of creation!
          O my soul praise him for He is thy health and salvation!
          All ye who hear,
          Now to his temple draw near,
          Join me in glad adoration.

How few in this country gather to worship the King of Creation! It is tragic.

We run up a big, big debt to God by failing on innumerable occasions to give him his due: respect, gratitude, service and worship. We owe him a staggering amount. Every day we add to our debt in a low level way - like some promiscuous three-year-old. We take for granted all God has done for us and trade on his never failing grace.

(4) Without condition.

There are four observations to make about the king's treatment of the debtor:

(a) We are reminded of the limitations of punishment. Whatever the king does he has no way of recouping the money he is owed. The proceeds from selling the debtor and his family into slavery and realising other assets isn't going to pay off the servant's massive debt. Essentially what the king intends to do is punish the debtor. This can be justified in terms of retribution and as a means of deterring others from doing the same thing. But it does not repay the debt. People who are imprisoned do not repay their debt to society.

(b) The king in the parable had the right to cancel the debt of his erring official if it was owed to him and not others. If you want to give your own money away you are free to do so - because it belongs to you.

(c) There is satisfaction in cancelling a debt. An unpaid debt can result in a deteriorating relationship. That is one of the evil consequences of lending to a friend or family member. The lendee keeps thinking, "When am I going to be repaid?" The debtor wonders, "Can I get away without paying for a little longer?" It is better by far to make a gift instead of a loan or, if a debt is outstanding, to cancel it.

(d) There is a major danger in cancelling a large debt. The debtor in the parable was brought before the king by other officials - officials who were doubtless honest and who wanted the profligate servant to pay for his criminal behaviour. It was not fair on them for the king to forgive the mega-debtor. He was hardly encouraging prudence in his employees.

That is why God cannot forgive sins unconditionally. It is why the sacrificial system was introduced. The debtor makes a sacrifice, a token payment, but a payment none the less, that God, in grace, accepts to atone for sin. The ultimate sacrifice that Jesus made highlights the seriousness of sin. The forgiveness of our debt to God is only possible because Jesus offered himself as a sacrifice, a great but still only a token payment, that God in grace accepted as sufficient for all that believe.

(5) Without repentance.

It is now time to note some characteristics of the king's mega-debtor:

(a) He accrued a huge debt blatantly. The other high officials of the king were aware of what he was doing. It is certainly true today that men and women are quite open about their contempt for God. They make no effort to give God his due. They withnold every penny they owe him. At our recent Harvest Thanksgiving Service only 3 from our village of 300 bothered to attend.

(b) He lived in a fool's paradise. The feckless official carried on piling up debt upon debt oblivious to the day of reckoning. He spent, spent, spent as if there were no tomorrow. In this he was just like the British Government!!

Few in Britain have any real belief in the return of Jesus to earth in glory and power. He WILL come; there will be a day of reckoning. We will be called to account over the way we have spent our lives.

(c) He didn't throw himself on the king's mercy. The wayward official made out that he could pay back what he owed the king. He was trying to save face - to put himself in the right. In so doing he was being totally unrealistic. There was NO way he could repay the king for what he owed.

None of us are in a position to clear our debt to God. We owe him too much. There is only one thing to do: cast ourselves upon God's mercy and grace. We need to be shameless beggars!

(d) Without shame.

(a) The king's debtor was not humbled by the grace of his Lord. He didn't deserve to be forgiven such a massive debt. He was, as the hymn puts it: 'A debtor to mercy alone.'

The king's free and sovereign grace should have produced in the debtor a forgiving spirit - but it didn't. He acted without pity towards a fellow servant who owed him 100 denarii - about 8000. This was not a sum of no consequence, but it was nothing compared to the 4.8 billion pounds he had been forgiven. The high official acted without mercy to his debtor. He behaved harshly - grabbing him by the throat and throwing him into prison until his debt should be paid.

When the king heard about his servant's scandalous behaviour from some of his other employees he said: "Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-servant as I had on you." v33.

Sadly, some Christians can be like the unforgiving debtor. They may make much of God's grace in saving them but they can be very judgmental; hard on, and harsh to, people who do not live up to their expectations.

(b) The official forgiven his huge debt WAS NOT absolved his unforgiving spirit. In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed." v34.

This is an awful warning to those who have trusted in Jesus for the forgiveness of their sins but who possess an unforgiving spirit. Jesus taught us to pray: "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." We make a pledge every time we say the Lord's Prayer to forgive as we are forgiven. We need to remember just how much we have been forgiven. Our debt to God is out of all proportion to any debts we ourselves are owed. If God is willing to forgive us a gigantic debt we should, in gratitude, extend forgiveness to those who owe us relatively little. There is no wrong we should not be prepared to forgive.

The consequences of not doing so are dire. "This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart."

It is wonderful to sing Charles Wesley's great hymn, 'And can it be.' There are few better!

          No condemnation now I dread;
          Jesus, and all in Him is mine!
          Alive in Him, my living Head,
          And clothed in righteousness divine,
          Bold I approach the eternal throne,
          And claim the crown, through Christ my own.

It doesn't matter how lustily we sing this verse - if we are possessed of an unforgiving spirit there will be no welcome at the eternal throne, no crown - only the condemnation we so much dread.

ANY COMMENTS FOR JOHN REED: E-mail jfmreed@talktalk.net

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