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Matthew 18:21-35

The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant

     21Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”

     22Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.

     23“Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. 25Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.

     26“At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ 27The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.

     28“But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.

     29“His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’

     30“But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.

     32“Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ 34In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

     35“This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

I’m not sure I’ve ever written a reflection on this passage before. Or, for that matter, a sermon. I suppose the reason is that at the end of the parable, Jesus seems to say that God will not forgive us any more than we forgive others. It makes me uneasy, for the same reason that the familiar form of the Lord’s Prayer seems to say we can expect only the amount of forgiveness we demonstrate.

On the face of it, that probably seems perfectly reasonable to a lot of people. “Well, sure,” they might say, “you can’t expect God to forgive you any more than you’re willing to forgive others.”

But stop and think about it for a minute. If that’s really the case, then we have to earn God’s forgiveness by forgiving others. And since we have to be forgiven to be saved, that would mean that we earn our own salvation by the forgiveness we demonstrate in our relationships with other people. And Paul’s Letter to the Romans sets out the principle that we are saved by God’s grace – by God’s un-earned favor – not by anything we do.

That’s why I’m more comfortable with the way it’s expressed in the version of the Lord’s Prayer that’s based on scholarship into the Aramaic language Jesus spoke. It tells us to pray, “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those we love.” And we extend a lot more grace to those we love than to anybody else.

But when this parable came up in the lectionary this time, I felt guilty for skipping it in the past, and I guilted myself into taking another look at what’s going on here – what Jesus really wants to say to us.

First of all, this parable comes right after a passage in which Jesus was telling his followers how they should deal with cases where members of the church sin against each other. They’re to work for forgiveness and reconciliation when these conflicts occur, but Jesus also gives them the authority to put people out of the church if they sin in scandalous or divisive ways.

So the fact that this parable follows that teaching on discipline in the church seems very significant. It seems to connect the two. It seems to be telling the church that while it has the power to enact discipline over church members, that discipline should always be exercised with the recognition that everyone in the church is a forgiven sinner – and that includes the leaders who make decisions on disciplinary matters.

So church members are warned not to delude themselves into thinking that harsh discipline toward others is somehow “God’s will.” Like everything else in the life of faith, church discipline is to be colored with the realization that every person who claims the name of Jesus is a forgiven sinner dependent on the grace of God.

For those of us who aren’t in a position of having to exercise discipline in the church, it seems to me that the bottom line of the passage isn’t that we have to earn forgiveness by forgiving others, but rather that if we claim to be following Jesus but refuse to forgive others their offenses against us (which are usually pretty trivial) we’ve failed to grasp the real nature of our relationship with God in Jesus. Because nobody who really understands their dependence on God’s grace would fail to extend forgiveness to others.

Let’s pray. Lord, since we acknowledge that the forgiveness of our sins and our new life in Jesus really are gifts out of your gracious love, move us to be more willing to forgive others as a way of expressing our thanks, and of passing along that gracious love to them. And let our love and forgiveness help others come to know you better and love you more deeply. Amen.

Grace and Peace,

Henry

(The listed readings for today are Psalms 62 and 145; Joel 1:1-2 and 9-17; I Peter 1:1-12; and Matthew 19:1-12.)