The parable of the unforgiving servant has a pretty straight forward message that we all understand. Forgive so you are forgiven. Got it. But as easy as the lesson is to get, that’s how tough it is to actually put into practice. Add to the whole scenario that Satan is trying to wear out the saints and iniquity is abounding, and all of a sudden we have a real danger on our hands. There is a big difference between forgiveness and stuffing those hurts and offenses deeper and deeper under the rug of the mind. We must forgive from the heart.
The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant: The Setup
The story takes place in Matthew 18:21-35. It starts when Peter asks Jesus how many times he must forgive a brother who sins against him. He suggests what he probably thinks is a very large number: seven. But, “Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.” Now, some versions say 77 times, which just might be a more accurate translation. It is most likely an allusion to Genesis 4. In it, Lamech murders a man who wounded him but insists that, like his ancestor Cain who was protected by God, he can’t be harmed in return without being avenged by God. He says, “If Cain shall be avenged sevenfold, then Lamech seventy-sevenfold.” Jesus is reversing things from radical vengeance to radical forgiveness.
In any case, we are simply to interpret the numerical phrase as an “unlimited number of times.” Then Jesus tells a parable to illustrate the concept of grace for grace.
The Parable Itself
The kingdom of heaven is like a master who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. He called for a man who owed him 10,000 talents. Now, a talent was the equivalent of 6,000 to 10,0000 denarii. One denarius was a day’s wages for twelve hours of work, and people typically earned about 300 denarii per year. That means that it would take 20 to 30 years for a day laborer to earn just ONE talent. In modern terms, at minimum wage, he owed roughly seven billion dollars.
It was an impossible sum that, of course, he could not pay. When the master ordered that he and his wife and children be sold to pay the debt, the servant fell on his knees and begged for mercy. “‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’” A hollow promise at best. But, the master took pity on him, cancelled the debt, and let him go.
The Man Forgets Mercy
Now, as soon as the man left his master, he went right to one of his fellow servants who owed money to him. This debt was much smaller, though. It was only 100 denarii. It was about a third of a year’s wages. In our time, that is about $11,733.00 at minimum wage (with overtime). When the man could not pay, the servant began to choke him, demanding the money immediately. The servant fell at his feet and begged him. He used almost the exact same words that he, himself, had spoken just a little while before. “’Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’” With this comparatively small sum, he probably could have, too. But this unforgiving man did not have pity. He threw the debtor into prison until he could pay back every penny.
The other servants who saw what had happened were not happy. They went and told their master what the ungrateful servant had done. He was immediately hauled back in before the master. The master said, “’You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’” Then he handed him over to the jailers to be tortured until he paid back all he owed.
The parable ends with a very chilling statement that is aimed at you and me.
So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses.”Matthew 18:35
The lesson is clear that we are to give grace for grace. We are not to withhold forgiveness to anyone. No matter what the person has done to us, it is NOTHING compared to what we have done to God. God has new mercy for us every day, and most days (I don’t know about you) I need it. I try to bring every thought into subjection, but those little buggers are nasty sometimes. And, certainly, I try to keep control of my mouth, but the Bible doesn’t call the tongue “untamable” for nothing.
As hard I try, I still have a deceitful heart that gets me into trouble and flesh that is constantly trying to talk me into bad business. And none of this is even a drop in the bucket to my behavior before God saved me and gave me His precious Holy Spirit. Now, every time I step over the line, He is faithful to remind me Whose I am and Whom I serve. I immediately repent, of course. And, every single time, without fail, God’s mercy brings me back into right standing with Him.
Iniquity is Abounding & Satan Knows His Time is Short
We are to forgive everything, but offenses are waxing worse and worse. Not to mention, they are getting more frequent in these last days. Iniquity is “grossly unfair or immoral behavior,” and it is abounding about now. When speaking about this time, 2 Timothy 3:2-3 says, “For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God…” With all that bad behavior out there, the Christian is sure to get hit in the crossfire on a regular basis. When this behavior affects us – and Satan makes sure that it does pretty often – we must forgive from our hearts. This is hard to do once, even harder to do seven times, and impossible (without God!) an unlimited amount of times.
Sweeping It Under the Rug of the Mind
So what do we do when we know we SHOULD forgive, but we are so fill-in-the-blank (angry, sad, upset, tired, betrayed, disgusted…etc.), that the best we can do for the moment is an “It’s fine” through clenched teeth. We paste on a churchy smile, but inside we can start to feel a little like a punching bag. The world knows we are Christians and are required to forgive, so some people push and push. In fact, sometimes and with some people, the offenses come so fast and furiously that it’s hard to even keep up. “I forgive. I forgive. Help me, Lord! I forgive. I forgive,” but instead of forgiving, we are stuffing. Out of sight, out of mind.
“It’s fine. I forgive,” but ten minutes later when the subject comes up, our nostrils flare, and a string of words will come out of our mouths before we have had a chance to check our WWJD bracelets. Just because we don’t scream back or retaliate at the moment doesn’t mean we have forgiven from our hearts. We could just be sweeping all that hurt under the carpet of our minds and deceiving ourselves that we have dealt with it appropriately. But you can’t keep sweeping things under without one day getting tripped by the big, fat bulge in the rug. It’s the same with unforgiveness.
Three Steps to Forgiving From the Heart
So how do we forgive every single time from our hearts? After meditating a lot this week, I believe it comes down to a three step process.
Step 1: Acknowledge Our Feelings
First, we must acknowledge that there has been a wrong done and we feel some type of way. Someone has sinned against us, and it is okay to be upset. Ephesians 4:6 says, “Be angry, and sin not.” We aren’t robots. Ignoring our feelings and shoving them down deep just creates a hardness of heart that we must guard against at all costs. In order to keep our hearts of flesh, we have to allow ourselves to have feelings. Maybe it was a snide comment, a snap, a disrespectful tone, or even a betrayal of trust. Or, it could be something significantly bigger. Maybe someone caused you to lose money, a big opportunity, or even the life of someone you love. We must acknowledge that the actions were wrong and that we have feelings of hurt or anger in response.
Step 2: Forgive and Give it to God
Second, we must consciously choose to forgive and give the situation to God. Whatever the offense “deserves” for justice to be done, in Romans 12:19, God says, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” Luke 17:3 says, “It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones.” Let’s be clear here. Nobody is getting away with anything. Even if God doesn’t send lightning bolts to zap people much these days, every single person will stand before God to give an account on judgement day. Every careless word spoken will be accounted for. Every negative action will have a price unless covered by repentance and the blood of Jesus.
Step 3: Pray
Third, and I think this is pivotal, we must pray. We must give thanks to God for His grace to us, reminding ourselves that God is our Master who has forgiven us a sum that we could never ever hope to repay. In response, we must cancel the debts that others owe to us. Next, we must ask for clemency for those who have hurt us. In Luke 23:24, Jesus was betrayed unto death but prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” In Acts 7:60, Stephen was being stoned but took the time to breath, “Lay not this sin to their charge.” Matthew 5:44 says, “But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you.” It’s important to pray.
Forgiveness Is for US, Not the Other Guy
Refusing to forgive others doesn’t hurt the other people, and it certainly doesn’t create justice for the wrong done to us. It only hurts us by making us bitter, angry, or upset, and worse than that, it is an offense to our Master who has forgiven us of so much. This is an item that I think a lot of people understand on a cognitive level but have never taken to heart. We MUST forgive to be forgiven.
Our faith in Jesus allows His sacrifice to pay for our sins, but unrepentant sin cannot be covered by His blood. Hebrews 10:26-27 says, “For if we sin willfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful expectation of judgment, and fiery indignation which will devour the adversaries.” We must forgive from our hearts. Every offense. Every time. Because no matter what anyone has done to us, nothing is worth trading for the words, “Well done, thy good and faithful servant.”
If you like to look at scripture more closely, try Twinkly Trash: A Closer Look at Job 28. Or, A Different Interpretation of the Pearl of Great Price. Like to read more from Evangelical Christian sisters who “tell it messy, true, and wonderful because we are His”? Check out Telling Hearts.