Study Guide: The Urgency of Forgiveness

Sunday August 27, 2017 | Greg Boyd

Focus Scripture:

Brief Summary:

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.  

Extended Summary:

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.

Reflection Questions: