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Parable of the Unforgiving Servant
Summer Quarter: Justice in the New Testament
Unit 2: Jesus Call for Justice and Mercy
Sunday School lesson for the week of July 1, 2018
By Rev. Earnestine W. Campbell
Purpose: To recognize the importance of forgiving as we have been forgiven.
Scripture Lesson: Matthew 18:21-35 (CEB)
Then Peter said to Jesus,“Lord, how many times should I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Should I forgive as many as seven times?” Jesus said, “Not just seven times, but rather as many as seventy-seven times. Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle accounts, they brought to him a servant who owed him ten thousand bags of gold. Because the servant didn’t have enough to pay it back, the master ordered that he should be sold, along with his wife and children and everything he had, and that the proceeds should be used as payment. But the servant fell down, kneeled before him, and said, ‘Please, be patient with me, and I’ll pay you back.’ The master had compassion on that servant, released him, and forgave the loan. “When that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him one hundred coins. He grabbed him around the throat and said, ‘Pay me back what you owe me.’ “Then his fellow servant fell down and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I’ll pay you back.’ But he refused. Instead, he threw him into prison until he paid back his debt. “When his fellow servants saw what happened, they were deeply offended. They came and told their master all that happened. His master called the first servant and said, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you appealed to me. Shouldn’t you also have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?’ His master was furious and handed him over to the guard responsible for punishing prisoners, until he had paid the whole debt. “My heavenly Father will also do the same to you if you don’t forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
Key Verse: Shouldn’t you also have mercy on our fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you? (Matthew 18:33)
The Text in Context
The Adult Bible Studies Summer 2018 Series’ writer introduces this lesson by referencing what we explored in Lesson 2 about the meaning of a parable and suggests a review of that lesson’s detailed information on the literary form of a parable. In this week’s lesson, we will examine another parable text, Matthew 18:21-35. The verses are all parables except for the first verse. Let’s begin.
The text begins with Peter’s question to Jesus about how many times should he forgive a “brother or sister who sins against me.” Peter seems to answer his own question, hypothetically, by saying, “Should I forgive as many as seven times?” The writer comments that in Peter’s Jewish culture that forgiving someone three times would be considered “exceedingly generous,” as the law required, but to suggest “seven times” would be considered going beyond the law. Moreover, Peter’s question was oddly timed as Jesus had just given a lesson on forgiveness in verses 15-20, as well as other Jesus’ teachings before his question such as the parable of the lost sheep, verses 12-14, on the importance of all people to God. Furthermore, exploring the lesson’s preceding verse 15, “if your brother or sister sins against you, go and correct them when you are alone together,” teaching that the “offender” and the “offending party” could be reconciled. The writer conveys that these teachings from Jesus demonstrate how we are to treat one another and live together as a faith community. They also act to establish procedures in the church on managing conflict as Jesus peacefully modeled in his time, but acknowledging the difficulty for us to do so as well as forgive our enemies.
Another observation made by the lesson’s author is that Jesus’ teachings on faith always were followed by questions of clarification from the audience (or maybe a challenge depending on the person asking the question). To this point, the writer uses the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10 as an example. Here, the question comes from Jesus’ teaching about eternal life, and the scribe or “legal expert” asks, “What must I do to gain eternal life?” (verse 25). Jesus’ answer to the question is to love God and neighbor. However, this answer led to another question, verse 29, “And who is my neighbor?” The question appears to be an attempt to challenge Jesus and prove righteousness for the scribe. Nevertheless, these questions often served to Jesus’ advantage, as he was able to expound further and explain more succinctly. And, Jesus did just that; he used the question as an opportunity to teach the true meaning of forgiveness and the meaning of a neighbor. I am quite sure that the legalist got more than what he bargained for.
The lesson re-engages Peter’s question, “Should I forgive as many as seven times?” The writer suggests that Peter presented this generous “seven times” number for forgiveness as a way for him to limit the number of times to forgive and also that he was speaking for the rest of the disciples. Unfortunately, we have seen this done, one person asks a question, but is really speaking for the entire group often for disingenuous reasons.
Jesus’ Answer to the Question
As we have learned throughout the lessons, Jesus often does not answer a question directly, but he uses parables to answer or to make a point throughout the Synoptic Gospels. Here, he gives what the writer calls a “hard truth of the gospel, in this case, that Christian forgiveness is about quality, not quantity.” As Christians, just as Peter, we often find it difficult to forgive someone over and over again. We quote sayings like “fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me” to defend our position on limited forgiveness. I believe we often limit our forgiveness to protect ourselves from hurt, embarrassment, other negative emotions, and to safeguard our reputations. However, the writer speculates that Christians often feel that if forgiveness is required over and over, then the offender is not sincere. Nevertheless, Jesus makes the point that forgiveness is both necessary and a way of life and ups Peter’s challenge from “seven times” by responding, “Not just seven times, but rather as many as seventy-seven times.” Further, the writer explains that some other Bible translations interpret the numbers as seven times 70 as probably not an arbitrary number (Genesis 4:24) and that Jesus’ answer to the question is a representation of an “infinity of times” we are to forgive as Christians.
The Unforgiving Servant Parable
The lesson’s author makes a timely observation that we live in a present world where unity continues to be in jeopardy and questions how society addresses the issue of “forgiveness.” However, Jesus addresses the issue of forgiveness by pointing to the importance of being able to forgive as a foundational part of the church. Furthermore, we see the “kingdom of heaven” symbolism in this parable as we have throughout the other lessons. Verse 26 reads, “The kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants.” The parable is about a servant that owes his master, the king, a debt. The servant approached the king and begged him to forgive his debt: “Please, be patient with me, and I’ll pay you back,” he pleaded. The writer explains the value of the debt owed would be astronomical and compares it to the “gross national product” of many large nations today. It is obvious that this amount of debt would be impossible for the servant to repay, i.e., “ten thousand bags of gold” (verse 24). Also, the writer explains, “the Greek word murion means ten thousand and that it was the largest number used in accounting debt in the ancient world,” making the point that Jesus possibly used the number for mere exaggeration. Furthermore, in the New Testament era, this debt would take for a regular worker several lifetimes to repay. However, the text tells us the king forgave the servant his debt. It is rather disappointing in the following texts how the servant treats his fellow servant in a similar predicament.
The first servant whose debt was forgiven by the king has the opportunity to exercise forgiveness to a fellow servant that owed him a hundred denarii, the equivalent of a hundred day’s wages for a regular worker. The amount was far less than
what was owed to the king by the first servant. However, according to the text, the first servant did not show the same mercy and forgiveness given to him by the king to the second servant. The first servant does not forgive the second servant his debt, but goes farther and grabs the servant by his throat and demands immediate repayment. Jesus furthers the irony of the situation by saying that the second servant asked the same identical words for patience for his repayment as the first servant did with the king. Instead, the first servant’s response was brutal as he had the second servant thrown into prison for much less than what he owed the king that was forgiven of him.
Teacher, ask: What are some issues of injustices in our society where some have been granted mercy and forgiveness, but then when the opportunity is presented for the same to be exercised, the opposite occurs?
However, it seems like justice prevails as a teaching moment for the listeners of Jesus’ time and ours. Jesus continues in the parable with an account of the other fellow servants that were witnesses to the first servant’s treatment to the second servant as upsetting and reports the abuse to the master. The master responds by reversing his decision to forgive the first servant and has him locked up in prison for non-repayment. Jesus states, “My heavenly Father will also do the same to you if you don’t forgive your brother or sister from your heart” (verse 35). What a powerful message!
Finally, the writer concludes that we may draw from the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us for the ways we have wronged you, just as we also forgive those who have wronged us” (Mathew 6:12). Also, it leaves us with these “’three-fold amen:’ 1) The church must not just talk about forgiveness but forgive; 2) Christians are to forgive for the large and small things that find their ways into the church’s fellowship; 3) To forgive, we must be accepting of God’s forgiveness.” Individuals, groups, organizations and other formations often have power over those that are in need. I believe that Jesus teaches us in the parable that we are to have mercy on those that are not as fortunate as we are and practice forgiveness instead of acts of harshness and heartlessness.
Father, we pray that we live as Christians in today’s society exercising mercy and forgiveness for those who are in need and acknowledge and accept that we need your forgiveness as well. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).
Rev. Earnestine W. Campbell serves as the Associate Director for Connectional Ministries. Contact her at email@example.com.
The “Adult Bible Studies, Series Summer 2018, Justice in the New Testament” is used for the content of this lesson.