Forgiving and Reconciling, Part IX: The Best Bible Story On Forgiveness That’s Rarely Told (And Even More Poorly Understood)

It’s the best Bible story on forgiveness that’s rarely told in churches and Sunday School lessons–and even less rarely understood. It explains why our reflecting Christ’s forgiveness to our enemies is such a crucial part of his plan to draw the world to himself.

The story is found in Matthew 18:21-35.

Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.

The servant fell on his knees before him. “Be patient with me,” he begged, “and I will pay back everything.” The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.

But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him and began to choke him. “Pay back what you owe me!” he demanded.

His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, “Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.”

But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened.

Then the master called the servant in. “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?” In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.

This is how Jesus defines forgiveness. Not as feeling, forgetting, or act of will, like human beings think about it. Instead, he defines forgiveness as our passing on to those who have sinned against us the judgment and the mercy that we ourselves receive from God. 

In the story, what should the servant have done? He should have passed on the judgment and the mercy he received from the king. 

What was the judgment? The judgment was that the man could not pay the debt, and therefore by rights he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.

What was the mercy? The mercy was that the king bore the debt himself. The debt didn’t just disappear. It was real money that someone had to pay. So the king paid it.

So what should the servant have done when he met the man who owed him money? He should have passed on that judgment and mercy that he had received from the king. That would have sounded something like this: “By rights, you yourself should be sold to pay this debt. But I will bear this debt myself, in the name of the king, who bears my debt in himself.”

And that last part of the sentence is the key: “in the name of the king, who bears my debt in himself.” Many readers of the parable miss that. If you ask them, “Why is the servant thrown in jail to be tortured?” they will say, “Because the servant should have been more generous. The master forgave the servant a big debt, so the least the servant could do is to forgive his fellow servant the small debt.”

But that misses the point. It leaves out the realization Jesus is wanting Peter and his other hearers to have. The servant is not thrown in jail and tortured because he wasn’t more generous. Torture, after all, is quite an extreme punishment for selfishness. Instead, the servant is thrown in jail and tortured for being, as the master calls him in verse 32, a “wicked servant.” He is a wicked servant because through his actions he has hidden the work of the king, who bears the servant’s debt in himself.

What would make the servant a “good servant”? Not just forgiving the debt owed him but forgiving the debt in such a way that the generous character of the king would be revealed. If all the servant did was to forgive the debt of his fellow servant, he would still be missing the point. He would simply be drawing attention to his own generosity (and drawing on his own generosity, which would last all of about a day before it burned a hole in him).

But if he said, “My fellow servant, I forgive your debt—I bear the cost myself—because our master the king is generous, and today he has forgiven me, and he bears my debt in himself.” That would draw attention to the work and character of the king master. And that would make him no longer a wicked servant.

So, back to Peter:

What Jesus is showing Peter is that how Peter forgives reveals—accurately or inaccurately—the work and character of Peter’s God. If Peter forgives seven times, the God of Peter is a God who forgives like a human being. Like a human being, that God quickly runs out of patience and wants sinners to pay for their sins themselves.

But if Peter forgives seventy-seven times in the name of the God of Peter, then the God of Peter is revealed to be a generous God indeed—one who does not forgive like human beings do. One whose forgiveness is judgment plus mercy—a force so powerful that it will eventually set right the damage that sin and death and evil have caused.

So God’s mission of righteousness—setting the world right through his judgment and mercy (which is what he means by forgiveness)—is advanced or hindered precisely to the degree that Peter realizes that his own forgiveness of others is nothing more or less or other than part of that mission.

Debts to the servant, in other words, have become debts to the master; as the servant forgives those debts, so forgives the master.

If the servant fails to forgive those debts, the generous character of the master is shrouded or, worse, denied. And sin and unforgiveness continues to burn like acid through our human race, sinners and sinned against alike.

But as we’ll share in Part X, the good news is how through the Holy Spirit, Christ is continuing to overcome our foolishness and gather our race’s sin and unforgiveness to himself.

We just don’t recognize him as he does it.

About EFoley

The Reverend Eric Foley is CEO and Co-Founder, with his wife Mrs. Hyun Sook Foley, of Seoul USA, a multinational, multicultural ministry supporting the work of the indigenous underground church in North Korea and the spreading of historic underground Christian discipleship practices worldwide. Pastor Foley is a much sought after speaker, analyst, and project consultant on the North Korean underground church, North Korean defectors, and underground church discipleship. He and Mrs. Foley oversee a far-flung staff in the US and across Asia that is working to help North Koreans and Christians everywhere grow to fullness in Christ. Pastor Foley is Dean of Underground University, a missionary training college for North Koreans. He is committed to equipping North Korean church leaders for comprehensive underground Christian service.
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