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Forgiving the Wicked Servant

“After summoning him, his master said to him; ‘Wicked servant!  I forgave all of your debit because you begged me, thus is it not necessary that you show mercy on your fellow servant as I also showed mercy to you?’  And angered, his master delivered to the inquisitors until he could pay back all that he was obligated to pay.  And in this way your heavenly father will treat you if each of you should not forgive your brother from your heart.”

(Matthew 18:32-35)


            If you turn to the Gospel of Matthew and take a peek at the passage that these verses come from, you will see that this is the conclusion of what is often called “The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant.”  As the story goes, there was a master who had a number of servants.  Because the servants were not always wise in their dealings, sometimes the master would loan them money.  One day the master decided that it was time to bring the accounts up to date.  When his accountants presented him with his financial books, he quickly realized that one of his servants had accrued a substantial debit; in fact, it was a debit so great that the master knew that the servant had no hopes of ever being able to pay it off.  Thus, he called the servant in to see what he had to say for himself.

            When the servant came in, he was horrified at the prospect of having to pay such an astronomical debit and fell on his face, repenting of his evil ways and pleading with the master for mercy and forgiveness.  Because the master was a kind and loving master, he not only extended mercy to the man but grace as well.  He forgave the man the entire debit so that the servant might know what a good and merciful master he served.  The servant understandably went away rejoicing at the master’s gift.

            Sadly, bad habits die hard and soon this servant found himself wanting for money again.  Then, he remembered that a neighbor owed him respectable, but not overwhelming sum of money.  Thus, the servant went to his neighbor and demanded payment.  Unfortunately, times had been difficult for his neighbor as well and his neighbor did not have the funds to pay the servant what he owed.  The neighbor pleaded with the servant to allow him to pay in smaller installments, but that was not good enough for the servant, and he had his neighbor thrown into debtor’s prison until the neighbor’s family could raise the money to pay his debit.

            The master heard about what had transpired, for news travels quickly in any region of the world, and he was enraged by what he had heard. He had shown mercy to the servant in a great way and the servant had been unwilling to show even a small amount of mercy to his neighbor.  The passage above relates the master’s fierce rebuke of his servant.

            There are a few things about this parable that we should put before us so that we can understand its full impact.  The first is that as Jesus tells the story, he refers to the amount of debit that each man had in terms of denarii and talents, and while those measures of money were clearly understandable in Jesus’ day, we have trouble relating to the measure of these debits.  A denarius was equal to about a day’s pay for a common laborer during Jesus’ day, thus the money that the neighbor of the unforgiving servant owed was nearly 5 months’ wages (based on a 6 day work week).  While not an impossible amount of money to pay off, it was still a sizeable debit—probably about the same level of burden that a new-car payment would be to us today.

            A talent on the other hand was equivalent to about 6,000 denarii.  In the parable, the servant owed the king 10,000 talents—or 60 million days worth of labor.  On a 6-day workweek, that would take nearly 192,308 years to pay off!  It would take the entire salaries of 2,000 workers, working for 96 years to pay this debit off!  In modern terms, this figure would look something like the national debit.  With this before us, now, perhaps, we can start to get a better feel for the ratio of debit that these two men had to their names.  To help bring things into perspective even more, the gross national income during the height of Solomon’s reign was 666 talents of gold.  Solomon was the richest of the kings of Israel and the debit that this lowly servant owed was 15 times greater.

            Friends, Jesus did not tell this parable simply to make us shudder at the amount that this unforgiving servant owed, but he used such great amounts to try and give us a picture of how much we owe to God as a result of our sin—a debit that a hundred, indeed, not even a thousand lifetimes could repay.  This debit, Jesus offers to pay for us if we just would put our faith in him.  As the hymnist, Elvina Hall once wrote:

Jesus paid it all, all to him I owe;

Sin has left a crimson stain,

He washed it white as snow.

            Yet, there is another side to the coin.  The punishment for the servant who was forgiven yet refused to forgive was to be thrown into torture. This is no debtor’s prison that the master sends the servant to, but literally, the passage says that the master handed him over to the basanisth/ß(basanistas).  This word is used not so much to refer to a jailer, but to refer to a jailer who tortures.  Probably the closest thing that we have in our more modern history is the Inquisitors that worked for the Roman Catholic Church not only in Spain but elsewhere in the world.  These men went out of their way to devise tortures that would push men and women to the point of death without killing them.  This is the general idea that Jesus is conveying.  It is not simply that this unforgiving servant will have to sit in jail for all of eternity, but he will experience horrendous torture day in and day out for that time.

            If you haven’t made the connection yet, Jesus is painting a picture of what Hell is like.  It is a place of never-ending torment and pain.  It is a place devoid of mercy.  It is the place prepared for the Devil and his minions, yet unbelieving humans will be sentenced to that place as well if they stand unforgiven by God.

            Friends, you who have been forgiven so much, how is it that you can refuse to forgive the comparatively small debits that people around you owe.  Even the greatest offense that one can inflict upon you is but nothing compared to what you or I owe to God.  Believer, you have been forgiven that which you could never hope to pay—demonstrate that same mercy that God has shown you to the world around you.