“Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants….”
-Matthew 18:23, NIV
This is the opening verse to a famous parable Jesus told to illustrate our need to forgive others. It is often labeled something like “The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant” or something like that.
Here is DM’s paraphrased version of the parable:
A servant owes the king a vast sum. We are talking like millions of dollars. It’s a lot, and the king wants his money back, but this servant cannot pay.
The king is about to sell this servant and his family into slavery to recuperate some of the debt. However, the servant pleads with the king for mercy saying that he will pay the king back the loan if given more time. The king decides to cancel the million dollar debt.
This servant then turns around on a colleague who owes him thousands. Unlike the king, the servant does not respond with mercy and debt forgiveness when his colleague begs. Instead, the servant throws his colleague into debtor’s prison.
Word gets back to the king, he calls the servant back and rescinds the forgiveness of his million dollar debt. Rather, he puts the servant in prison to be tortured until the millions are repaid.
Jesus closes the parable with the lesson that we will be treated by God as the King treated the unmerciful servant if we fail to forgive from our hearts.
I recount this parable as way to introduce an astute comment submitted by one of the blog’s readers, Michael.
He shares some good insights from this story as a corrective to the unilateral forgiveness narrative often propagated by well-meaning, but wrong, Christian teachers/counselors. I have chosen to feature the comment as I think many may benefit from Michael’s wise insights regarding this particular parable, which is easy to misread (I know that I have in the past).
Michael wrote (responding to another blog commentator),
One good thing that came out of my exes adultery is that God used it to help me understand His Word better. I also got Matt 18:21-35 thrown at me by my Christian marriage counselors. They tried to frame it as consequence for those who are unforgiving. While this is not entirely untrue, some key points were conveniently left out. I’d like to point out a few things I learned as I studied these verses more closely.
1. The first servant was unwilling to forgive the second servant who was repentant. Repentance is the key here as always, and consistent with the rest of the Bible.
2. Forgiveness can be revoked – the first servant had his forgiveness revoked and ended up suffering a sentence more serious than his previous sentence because he failed to extend the grace which he himself received. God considers this to be evil.
3. The condition for forgiveness (repentance, Luke 17:3) is illustrated but not directly stated as in Luke 17:3. My marriage counselors completely missed this nugget in Matthew and also in other verses with regards to forgiveness. Where the Bible talks about forgiveness it doesn’t necessarily mention repentance but it is always implied. And since God’s word does not contradict itself, it’s safe to say we can understand it in an additive way.
Also as a side note, the verses immediately following Luke 17:3 tells us not to expect praise for doing our duty.
As for the potential condition of bitterness – nowhere in the Bible does it say that forgiveness is more for the forgiving than the forgiven. That is a worldly idea where the burden of responsibility is opposed to the Bible. Bitterness rather, is a condition that comes from unforgiveness towards those who are repentant. The responsibility of making amends is always with the offender, not the offended.
Indeed a person who is hurting you and has not repented is still hurting you. It would not follow a Godly model to forgive that person because God Himself requires one to turn from sin before asking for forgiveness, never mind actually receiving it.