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The Urgency of Forgiveness

• Greg Boyd

In our last sermon in the series Turning the Tables, Greg takes a final look at New Testament passages often appealed to in order to justify violence. This week we examine the Parable of the ungrateful servant.


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In our final sermon in the Turning Tables series Greg turns to a parable of Jesus often cited as justifying violence. In the parable of the ungrateful servant found in Matthew 18:21-35 a servant heavily indebted to a king is forgiven his debt, but refuses to forgive a much smaller debt of a fellow servant. The parable ends with the servant being thrown into prison and tortured by the king. Jesus concludes by saying this is how His Heavenly Father will treat anyone that refuses to forgive a brothers or sisters from the heart. This leaves many asking, will God act violently and unmercifully towards us if we refuse to forgive?

First some context to the parable. A talent was roughly worth 20 years of services, so this servant owed the king 200,000 years of labor (an adsorbent debt that one could never hope to repay). A silver coin was worth only what a servant would make in a day. So, the second servant owed only 100 days of labor. This parable comes directly after an interaction with Peter in which he asks Jesus how many times one should forgive. Jesus answer makes it clear that forgiveness should be unlimited.

Because we don’t use parables today we often misunderstand them. Parables are like analogies. X is like Y in certain respects, but you also must understand how X is not like Y to grasp the meaning of an analogy. Like in the saying “Your love is like an ointment for my aching heart.” You can only stretch this analogy so far before it no longer makes sense. The same is true of a parable. You need to start with understanding the point of the parable. Greg explains that all parables have punchlines and props. The punchline is the meaning and the prop is simply there to set up the story.

In another parable of Jesus, a widow persists in making a request of an unjust judge until he gives in. The punchline is that we should be persistent in prayer to God like the widow. However, the unjust judge is just a prop. We are certainly not expected to think of God as an unjust judge that has to be pestered in order for us to receive His help! Usually Jesus uses props that are familiar to His audience and that will be exaggerated enough to be memorable. His audience would have been familiar with kings who could call in a debt at any moment and punish harshly on a whim.

In this case, the punchline is easy…we must always forgive! However, the king is just a prop and the master/servant relationship is a legal paradigm, therefore the judgment against unforgiveness is shown as a legal consequence in the form of prison and torture. However, when God brings judgment it is not legal, but organic. For instance, if you heavily drink for 40 years and get liver disease, that is an organic judgment. The punishment is a natural consequence of the behavior. So it is also with God’s punishment. Sin is inherently self-destructive. God always stays with us in His mercy, trying to turn us from sin. If He sees He can no longer draw us a way from sin through mercy, He withdraws out of love so as not to enable us. This is always done with the hope that if His mercy can’t change us then perhaps the consequences of our sin will. We aren’t expected to draw any connection between the king’s character and God’s. Jesus always basis what we are to do on the character of God and in this parable, we are to forgive endlessly and freely. So, we can safely draw the conclusion that the character of God Jesus is revealing forgives endlessly and unconditionally too.

When Jesus draws the parallel between what happens to the ungrateful servant and those that choose not to forgive, Jesus is not saying that God will throw us in prison or torture us. Rather Jesus is saying that there will be serious consequence for unforgiveness. When we choose not to forgive we throw ourselves into a prison of our own making. Several medical studies recently have confirmed that unforgiveness and holding onto grudges causes negative health effect such as high blood pressure, and increased anxiety and depression. In fact, unforgiveness can even impact other generations! In short, we bring sickness on ourselves when we don’t forgive.

Like everything else in the Kingdom, our power to forgive is rooted in our identity in Christ. We need to have all our needs met by Jesus. When someone mistreats us, they are treating us less than we deserve and that creates a reasonable sense of debt. However, finding all your worth in Christ frees you from living in that debt and allows you to live the life God meant for you to live.

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Topics: Forgiveness, Grace, Judgment

Sermon Series: Turning the Tables

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Focus Scripture:

  • Matthew 18:21-35

    Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven[b] times.

    The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant

    “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents[c] was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

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4 thoughts on “The Urgency of Forgiveness

  1. Signe Verrill says:

    Wonderful!!! BUT — your podrishioners (at least, this one) wish we could have heard the song and watched the video too at the end….

    1. Tricia says:

      I had this same thought – can you at least give the name of the song so that we could go and listen to it on our own?

      1. Amanda Churchill says:

        Hello Tricia and Signe,
        Thanks for reaching out! We really wish that we could share these sorts of creative elements that happen during our services on our podcasts for our podrishioners! Unfortunately we are restricted by copyright rules. But I definitely can share the name and artist of the song! We sang “Turning Over Tables” by The Brilliance. Hope this helps!

  2. Peter says:

    There are some interesting observations in relation to this message.

    From the first reading of the Focus Scripture we are told that the servant is forgiven an enormous debt by the king and then, in turn, that servant seeks to extract a small debt from a fellow servant and, due to his lack of forgiveness, he places great pressure on his fellow servant to repay. When the king hears of this, he then says to the servant, “You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger, his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

    We are told at the beginning of the parable, “the kingdom of heaven may be compared to ….” that ends with the verses just quoted…”So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” With the whole matter predicated on Peter’s question, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me?” Clearly, there is an important message here for believers.

    The servant that incurs the enormous debt is interesting as to how this would be the case but obviously has lost the money through wrong choices…but that is most probably reading too much into the parable.
    However, the thought that comes to mind is why this servant that was forgiven the enormous debt but, is not forgiven by the king for his unforgiveness towards his fellow servant.

    While Greg has provided a reason for this in his message, it could also be interpreted that the servant pleaded for forgiveness, which the king gave, but the servant may have considered the result to have come from his own efforts and not so much the king’s grace in forgiving the debt. Consequently, when the servant approached the fellow servant, there was no suggestion of grace…only imprisonment and the demand to repay. So, effectively, the servant’s actions indicate that the king’s grace in forgiving him had no impact on his life to forgive others.

    (At this point, we can only imagine if forgiveness didn’t exist then there would only be retaliation/retribution…‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ (Matt 5:38).

    The point that can also be overlooked is that forgiveness is an act of love. Indeed without forgiveness how could we know “God is love”?)

    So the second judgement by the king on the servant was in relation to his refusal to forgive the fellow servant…with the punishment to be torture and the repayment of his original debt. This is also interesting as later from the scripture just mentioned, is Matt 7:1-2 where Jesus states,

    “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you.”

    So the judgement that the servant made on the fellow servant was to imprison and pay back his debt…was essentially the measure of the judgement imposed by the king on him.

    In between Matt 5 and 7 is, naturally, Matt 6…however, interestingly are verses 9 to 13…the Lord’s Prayer and, specifically verse 12,

    “and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors”


    “Forgive us what we have done wrong, as we too have forgiven those who have wronged us”

    It is also suggested by some commentators that the sin that is not forgiven (viz the ‘unforgivable sin’) is the sin for which forgiveness is not asked, for whenever Scripture speaks of sin being unforgivable it is primarily referring to the state of mind of the sinner, rather than to a particular sin which places a person outside of forgiveness.

    In a sense, the parable probably alludes to this as it is the state of mind of the unforgiving servant that is unpardonable and, for which he is judged and sentenced (as are those in the final verses of the Focus Scripture).

    These latter comments also seem to underlie the saying that ‘unforgiveness makes us a prisoner of the past’. We know in ourselves that where we hold such a position it prevents normal/loving relations with the affected party.

    Greg spoke of this aspect towards the end of his message and the impact it may have on a person’s health. This reminded me of two points. Firstly, Proverb 14:30, “A tranquil mind gives life to the flesh, but passion rots the bones.” This speaks to me of where we live without judgement/unforgiveness we can have a ‘tranquil mind’ but, if we harbour unforgiveness and the resultant grudges it can affect our mental and physical condition unless resolved.

    The second point relates to where Jesus healed people through the forgiveness of their sins…but that is not to say all sicknesses are a result of unforgiveness…but it can lead to such situations.

    So our forgiveness of others should not be a result of bad motives but one of love found through Christ and His resultant forgiveness of our sins, which ultimately should lead to right relationships with others and a tranquil mind.

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