The Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18:21-35)
I want to talk for just a few minutes this morning about something that is vital to our salvation and to the salvation of every follower of Christ throughout history and into the Millennium for all the people and nations we reign over. It is that wonderful thing we call forgiveness. When I was asked to give an exhortation, I knew I needed to talk about something I could relate to, maybe something I was familiar with; so I chose the Unforgiving Servant; I know I can relate to the Unforgiving Servant, simply because I am one; sometimes I have a hard time forgiving people. This morning I want to take a look at how our forgiveness toward others relates to God’s forgiveness toward us.
In this parable that we read, the way Jesus puts it, the lord or master in the parable is God; when it comes to forgiving others, we’re to be like God and Jesus in the way we treat others. Whatever measure we use, it will be measured back to us (Matthew 7:2).
We can either be the one who was moved with compassion or we can be the one who will not forgive even for something much more minor. The parable doesn’t say: “Then the lord of that servant was moved with compassion, and said, ‘Well, just pay me back as soon as possible or it’s go time.’” It says he “forgave him the debt.” When I imagine this scene, I think of the servant pleading with the master, asking for mercy and forgiveness with all humility. Recently I asked someone for forgiveness; someone I didn’t treat right at a Bible school a while ago; I asked for forgiveness, I said, “I love you,” and that I wanted to be forgiven. And I imagine the master maybe even giving the servant a hug telling him that it was alright. But then as we know, unfortunately, that servant went to his fellow servant and demanded that he pay him back, a much smaller amount of money.
A few years ago at a Conference, I got really hurt by a certain girl who led me on and played with my emotions, and I was really upset about it; I told a few of my friends about how awful that girl was; totally badmouthed her; but sure enough, a few months later, I got an email from another, unrelated girl from a Bible school a few years before that, telling me that I had done the exact same thing to her, yet she had forgiven me a long time ago. I hadn’t forgiven the girl from the Conference, yet here I was, guilty of the exact same thing that had been done to me, and had been forgiven without even asking.
Jesus tells us that if we don’t forgive each other, we can’t be forgiven by God:
“For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins (Matthew 6:14-15).”
“And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins (Mark 11:25).”
When I read the parable of the Unforgiving Servant, I think of Jonah—pardon me if I’m making a stretch here, but think of Jonah as the unforgiving servant; he had disobeyed God by running away; God could have just let the fish digest and pass Jonah and that would have been the end of it, but God forgave him and gave him another chance. Notice how when God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh the second time, God doesn’t say “Now you better not screw this up or else!” He starts all over and tells Jonah to preach to Nineveh. That’s such an important aspect: forgiveness only moves forward, never backward. It should never cause someone to walk on pins and needles.
“As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us (Psalm 103:12).”
A few years ago my best friend and I had a major falling out; we made up a year later and the past is never brought back into memory; it’s gone, never to be used against either one of us ever again. But right after Jonah preaches to Nineveh, what does he do? He goes and waits for the city to be blasted, and when God has mercy, Jonah is angry, and an unforgiving servant. I want to tell you a story about something that happened to me about six years ago:
At the Mid-Atlantic Bible School in 2008, a group of young people went out late at night, and did something stupid, and broke a state law. My parents were on the committee, who all had a decision to make; when I found out what these people had done, I just thought “Yes, those idiots are finally going to get the punishment they deserve. They’ve caused trouble here before and now they’re really going to pay!” I was so self-righteous back then that when I saw one of those people the next morning, I just shook my head. Later that day I found out that the committee had decided to punish these people by making them spend the rest of the week with their parents. I just thought that was a little slap on the wrist compared to what they should’ve gotten, that is, being kicked out of the Bible school. I was ruthless; I wanted those troublemakers to finally get justice served. My parents told me those people were incredibly sorry for what they had done, and I didn’t care. I could spit fire; I even told my parents something to the effect of “If I had done something like this you all would have shipped me off to Neptune!”…not even realizing that if I was in the position of those people, I would have been right there next to them pleading for forgiveness and mercy—”please don’t make me leave Bible school early…” But I wanted those people out even if it meant their parents would have to leave with them. What did the parents ever do wrong? I had no compassion whatsoever; my mindset was “they screwed up, they deserve to be punished.” But of all people, I was in no position to say that; I wasn’t baptized yet; for what it’s worth, I hadn’t even been forgiven for my own sins.
We know from Romans 6 that we cannot continue in sin that grace may abound, but we know also that God is gracious and longsuffering so when we do fall short, we will be forgiven. This is exactly how we should be toward others. When we ask for forgiveness, God is moved with compassion and forgives us, knowing our human nature, and knowing that we’re going to fall short. Sometimes at baptisms we quote the verse that says there’s more joy in heaven over one sinner that repents that over ninety nine righteous people who need no repentance (Luke 15:7), and that’s all well and good, but that verse can certainly apply to whenever someone asks to be forgiven of their sins. God is so passionate about human repentance that it gives him great joy when a sinner turns from his ways. It should give us great joy to forgive someone who has wronged us as well: “Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21).”
Forgiveness is actually more for the person who was wronged than for the person who did the wrong; a famous religious figure once said: “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one getting burned.”
Quite often, the biggest reason we don’t forgive is because it requires us to swallow our pride; Jonah certainly wasn’t about to do that; he thought he was better than the Ninevites; how quickly did he forget that he was a sinner just like them, and how much he needed God’s forgiveness? It’s so easy to see the speck in our brother’s eye (Matthew 7:3).
“If any one of you is without sin, let him cast the first stone (John 8:7).”
We can’t ever pay God back for all he’s done for us—he’s given us Jesus who died that we might be forgiven, and in the end, it’s what every single one of us will need, since we can’t get into the Kingdom without it.
“If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9).”
So let’s “get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave us (Ephesians 4:31-32).”