What Jesus Really Said: The Unforgiving Servant

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What Jesus Really Said

The Unforgiving Servant

Matthew 18:21-35

21 Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.

23 “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. 24 When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. 25 And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. 26 So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. 31 When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. 32 Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers [lit. “torturers”], until he should pay all his debt. 35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” 1

Last week we began looking at some of Jesus’ grace parables, stories describing God’s one-way love, by examining the Parable of the Lost Sheep. We learned in God’s upside-down Kingdom, he values the last, the least, the little, and the lost. The disciples, the leaders of Israel, and all sons of Adam and daughters of Eve naturally value right-handed first-ness, propriety, property and power.

In the parable of the Lost Sheep, the shepherd makes the disastrous business decision (from a right-handed standpoint) to leave 99 sheep to themselves in order to pursue one lost sheep – as good as dead in the wilderness. That is how the Good Shepherd comes to all of us; he comes searching in the desert of death, not the garden of self-improvement. In the power of Christ’s resurrection, he puts us on his shoulders rejoicing and brings us home.2

The Lost Sheep parable displayed grace by focusing upon the saving heart of the Shepherd and the lostness of the sheep. The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant shows grace from the facet of Law and Gospel, death and resurrection. It kicks lostness up to the level of the un-repayable debt in the face of the unrelenting law of perfect accounting. It describes our natural antagonism to unmerited favor and the end result of our failure to die to our own bookkeeping.

CONTEXT

Biggest and Best

You may recall from last week that Matthew 18 records Jesus’ disciples arguing among themselves about which one of them had the most right-handed power. During this time, they found a man driving out demons in Jesus’ name and tried to stop him because he was not a card-carrying member of the Exalted Order of Certified Disciples.

Aren’t all of us like that? We want to be grand and great. At the very least, we want to belong to the grandest and greatest group. The Old Adam’s quest for relative-morality-bookkeeping digs its roots down into our spiritual lives, driving us to seek religious merit for our own glory. The Lost Sheep parable was Jesus’ response to our quest for human greatness, even religious greatness.

Following the Lost Sheep parable, our Lord gives the disciples instruction on conflict resolution and discipline, in which he teaches that the unrepentant person is to be treated as a Gentile and a tax collector (Matt. 18:17). Since Jesus was known for associating with and ministering to those very kinds of people, he is not giving the Church an excuse to shun the unlovely; he’s inviting us to minister to the least and the still lost.

In fact, the only people NT writers command believers to have nothing to do with are those teaching against apostolic doctrine and the grumblers, complainers, and division-creators inside the church – the very people to whom we tend to be attracted because they stroke our egos with novel ideas or insider information.

        Forgiveness Without Limit

The entirety of Matthew 18 is about forgiveness, not punishment. If we haven’t gotten that yet, we now know that because of Peter’s question that prompts Jesus’ parable of the Unforgiving Servant. 21 Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?”3

The Jewish Rabbis (from Amos 1:3, 6, 9) limited forgiveness to three times.4 But Peter makes a leap beyond rabbinical teaching.  It is possible Peter makes this leap because he’s heard Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and realizes that the Lord hasn’t come to dumb down God’s Law but to show its full, unkeepable obligation. Seven, after all, is considered a complete number in OT teaching. Proverbs 24:16 says, “for the righteous falls seven times and rises again.”5

It’s also possible Peter may have had in mind a saying of Jesus that Luke records in Lk. 17:3-4, “Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.6 Peter’s question here in Matthew 18 shows that what Jesus intended to represent unlimited forgiveness, the disciples took to merely be a literal number (letter vs spirit of the law).

Thus Jesus replies to Peter, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times” [or “70 x 7”]. 7 The Lord illustrates his point with the parable of the Unforgiving Servant to expresses the limitlessness of God’s grace in opposition to human legalism, bookkeeping.

PAY UP!

        Law

There is one, and ONLY one, setting in which to place the limitless grace of God in Christ Jesus. That setting is not helping the good-intentioned; it is not improving upon the somewhat-improved; it’s not favoring the partially favorable. The only way Scripture itself announces the grace of God is within the framework of a Law-Gospel distinction – a Law that demands perfect and a Gospel-proclaiming freedom from slavery to the Law-debt.

Jesus begins the parable of the Unforgiving Servant with law, not grace, as the first element of the story. The king is a bookkeeper, kind to the honest and upright and (above all) the profitable. But for the insolvent, to those in real debt, he has no care except to recoup his loses any way he can.8

Standing before the great accountant-king is a man who has amassed an almost-infinite debt of ten thousand talents (v. 24).  The debtor was likely high minister of state, or … a tributary prince, who had withheld the payment of tribute until it reached this enormous sum.9 He was important among men.

It is difficult to estimate how much money that was, and it may only mean the largest conceivable debt, “ten thousand” being one of the largest common numbers and a “talent” being the largest denomination of currency.”10 In Greek, there is no number beyond 10,000.

This is one more over-the-top illustration. But if we want to go literal with the numbers, a talent is about 75 pounds of either gold or silver; that’s 750,000 pounds of precious metal. If they were gold talents, that would be 9 million Troy ounces of gold.11 As of Friday, July 8, 2016 (at 5:00 pm, Central), that would come to 12 billion, 222 million dollars of debt. Jesus’ point is that the debt the man owes to the king is simply beyond comprehension and utterly beyond repayment.

The king orders the man and his entire family to be sold into slavery. Now, a high court official with business management experience might fetch a high price on the open slave market. But a slave whose most impressive skill is losing 12.2 billion dollars would be completely worthless, completely untrustworthy to even take out the trash.

Depending on their ages, his wife and children might have some minimal value, but this guy is a horrible investment for any slave-holder. Who would purchase such a worthless salve from the king? He is as good as dead. His business is dead. His reputation is dead. His family life is dead. Even his slave life is dead before it begins because of his worthlessness.

There’s no forgiveness in the story so far. There’s no reason to expect any forgiveness. There is only a complete lack of merit, an utterly unpayable debt, and the reasonable expectation of a just ending in light of the perfect law of accounting. The accountant-king will cut his loses, recoup what he can and move on to the next account. But then verse 26 happens.

        Mercy

26 So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.12

The king’s attitude changes from one of pure accounting to one of compassion. Nothing could be more opposite to this unpayable debt than to simply forgive it. The perfect law of accounting requires the king to get as much out of the debtor as he can, even if the return is only minimal.  But the king cancels the debt for reasons entirely internal to himself.13

The servant promises “I will pay you everything” (18:26).14 Really? If anything, such an empty worthless promise should have sent the king into full rampage mode. But the servant is totally oblivious to the sheer stupidity of his promise. Bad bookkeeper that he is, he no doubt thinks the king is responding to his ridiculous offer of meritorious performance as a condition for mercy.

Do you see it? The bankrupt servant has not one speck of a notion of grace. He knows he’s in an impossible spot. He knows he cannot escape without some outside help. But he cannot conceive of anyone not like himself. He not only assumes the king is interested only bookkeeping, but is also a terrible bookkeeper “who cannot spot a losing proposition when it slithers up to him.” 15 The servant knows he needs salvation, but the only savior he can imagine is an accountant who plays fast and loose with accounting principles.

But the accountant king has made no profit-and-loss calculations. Instead the king “drops dead to the whole notion of bookkeeping and forgives the servant.”16 He does something the servant couldn’t imagine doing. The king ends his life of accounting.

But the servant refuses to die to his life of accounting; so he never even sees what the king has done. He has not the slightest idea what this act of grace has cost the king who willingly dies to the debt-collecting business. And the servant’s failure to comprehend the king’s death to the accounting life is exactly what prompts the servant’s actions that follow.

        More Law!

28 But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ …and put him in prison until he should pay the debt.17

Jesus’ story seems over-the-top, doesn’t it? What kind of human being would react to grace with such heartless ruthlessness? The kind of human being exactly like you and me, the kind unwilling to face death in any way. The servant is unwilling to face the death of his bookkeeping life, so he chooses to be utterly oblivious to the death of the king.18

Immediately upon his gracious release by the king, he sets about his life of bookkeeping again – only this time with more malice and, now, violence.  By refusing to see how the king has died for the servant’s freedom, the servant rejects the new life he could have had.

What’s more, the unforgiving servant is acting solely out of his own interest. Do you see what Jesus is saying to the leaders of Israel at this point? Israel’s leaders claim devotion to God, but their heartless bookkeeping is really nothing more than their selfish, refusal to die to their own ambition. So they extort a few pennies of human approval in the face of a multi-billion-dollar debt with the true King.

Messiah Jesus, at this point in Matthew’s account, has been proclaiming clearly that he will pay the world’s debt by dying. “His answer to our sins will be the oblivion of a death on the cross. His answer to our loss of control over our destinies will be to lose everything himself.”19

Unless we, unlike the unforgiving servant, are willing to die to the bookkeeping by which we justify our lives we will never be able to enjoy the resurrection to real life that Jesus freely offers. If we refuse to face the price Messiah Jesus has paid to free us, we will shrivel away in our bookkeeping lives that are actually no real lives at all.

What the unforgiving servant cannot see, the king’s other servants – the lesser servants, the little servants, the least servants – see clearly enough. They see the unforgiving servant doing violence to the King’s grace by refusing to set aside his quest for a mere pittance of gain (a denarius was a day’s wage for a common laborer, so the debt owed him was approximately a third of a year’s wages). 20

In Matthew 6, Jesus condemned the hypocritical religious leaders for their public religious displays intended to earn human approval for their relative morality. Three times Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward” (6:2,5,16).21  

Hypocrites refuse to die to their bookkeeping, preferring to earn a few months’ wages of human approval rather than receiving the free gift of Messiah’s sacrificial death and resurrection. And because they refuse to die to bookkeeping, the great accountant king will now settle his account with them on the basis of his law of perfect accounting.

The unforgiving servant chose a bankrupt life over a gracious death. When he is brought back before the king, there is no more grace to be given. There is only bookkeeping; there is only a settling of accounts. There is only the judgment of the Perfect Law for the one who refuses the Gospel of death and resurrection.

We call the parable of the Unforgiving Servant a Grace Parable. But it’s also a Judgment Parable because it clearly shows the one basis upon which Messiah will condemn anyone. “Not one of our debts – none of our sins, none of our trespasses, none of our errors – will ever be an obstacle to the grace that raises the dead.”22

At the most, they will be the measure of our death, and as soon as we die to our bookkeeping life by trusting into the death and resurrection of Messiah Jesus, our sins will be dead because the King has already died to them. We are raised into a new life entirely free from bookkeeping.

If you are trusting into the perfect, law-keeping life of the resurrected Messiah Jesus and into his bloody his bloody sacrificial death this morning, then you are free from a life of bookkeeping! You don’t need to keep the books with your spouse, your children, your brothers and sisters in the Church, or even with the lost who refuse to die in Christ.

If you are living with the law of bookkeeping, demanding that everyone and everything around you must measure up, you have rejected the gracious death Jesus offers you. You ARE the unforgiving servant.

To the extent you get grace, you will begin to live graciously. To the extent you reject grace, you will continue to live as the unforgiving bookkeeper, angry over everyone else’s failure to measure up in your books. Thanks be to God it is He who keeps his own, not we who so-often fail to cling to him, that makes us found sheep and forgiven servants!

Relative morality (“I’m better than that guy!”) is a pittance compared to the forgiveness of our unpayable debt to God.  All of us, even the most obvious outcasts of society, feel better about ourselves if we can keep someone else further outside than we are by balancing our phony accounts. But relative morality, relative bookkeeping, cannot save us in the end.

“In heaven, there are only forgiven sinners. There are no good guys, no upright, successful types who … have been accepted into the great country club in the sky. There are only failures, only those who have accepted their deaths in their sins and who have been raised up by the King who himself died that they might live.”23

The one who will not die to bookkeeping, Jesus warns, will be delivered to the torturers, until he should pay all his debt.24 The wages we owe to the great Accountant King can never be paid back; so the Unforgiving Servant is eternally left to the torturers [“jailors”].  

Hear me you bookkeepers! Listen to me all you accountants working to keep others further outside the circle of successful living than you. You who refuse to die to your bookkeeping and be raised up into the freedom of one-way love, I have a word directly from your Maker, the great Accountant King:  

23 For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. 25

1 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Mt 18:21–35.

2 Capon, 188.

3 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Mt 18:21.

4 John J. Owen, Commentary on Matthew and Mark (New York: Leavitt & Allen, 1864), 230.

5 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Prov 24:16.

6 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Lk 17:3–4.

7 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Mt 18:22.

8 Capon, 196.

9 John J. Owen, Commentary on Matthew and Mark (New York: Leavitt & Allen, 1864), 231.

10 James Montgomery Boice, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2001), 394.

11 James Montgomery Boice, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2001), 395.

12 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Mt 18:26–27.

13 Capon, 196.

14 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Mt 18:26.

15 Capon, 196-97.

16 Id.

17 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Mt 18:28–30.

18 Id.,198.

19 Id.

20 James Montgomery Boice, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2001), 395.

21 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Mt 6:2.

22 Capon, 199.

23 Id. 200.

24 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Mt 18:34.

25 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Ro 6:23.