The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant
Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times? Jesus answered, I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. Since 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. The servant fell on his knees before him. 'Be patient with me,' he begged, 'and I will pay back everything.' The servant's master took pity on him, cancelled the debt and let him go. But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow- servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him and began to choke him. 'Pay back what you owe me!' he demanded. His fellow- servant fell to his knees and begged him, 'Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.' But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened. Then the master called the servant in. 'You wicked servant,' he said, 'I cancelled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn't you have had mercy on your fellow- servant just as I had on you?' In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.
In the spring I planted several different types of seed in small pots – maybe you did the same. This year I grew flowers since I knew I wouldn’t be around to harvest vegetables, but generally, no surprises, the seeds I planted grew and flowered and the flowers that came were exactly as it said they would be on the packet. The seeds in the sweet pea packet germinated and grew into sweet peas, the sunflower seeds became sunflowers, and so on for the cosmos, the pansies, and the marigold seeds. We kind of expect that when it comes to gardening, we will reap what we sow. I wonder why it’s so hard for us, then, to translate that expectation to our relationship with God or with other people. In Galatians 6:7, Paul said ‘do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows’.
...So this king was going to sell his servant and the servant’s whole family in order to make up for the large debt owed to him. It must have mattered to the servant that he stay in this particular king’s service rather than get a new master, because he begged the king not to do this. But the king didn’t accept the servant’s promise to ‘pay back’ everything – instead, he cancels the debt unconditionally! The kingdom of heaven is like this, Jesus says.
But instead of being thankful and going on to be merciful to others, the servant becomes a bully, and he treats one of his fellow servants without mercy - first he assaults him and then gets him thrown into prison for the relatively small debt that he owed. The king finds out and makes sure the servant gets back as good as he has given: he reaps what he has sown. Jesus says this is how his Father in heaven will treat those who don’t forgive their brother or sister from their heart.
In one of his speeches, Martin Luther King said that ‘hate begets hate, violence begets violence’, toughness begets even greater toughness’; in the bible, in Matthew 26:52, when Jesus was being arrested and one of his companions draws his sword and cuts off the ear of the High Priest’s servant, Jesus says ‘those who live by the sword, will die by the sword’.
In the parable of the unmerciful servant, if we understand the king as representing God, we see that he offers forgiveness first, before the servant was expected to forgive. In our own life, if we receive the forgiveness that God has given us through the cross - the cancellation of our debt as sinners - but then we refuse to extend forgiveness to others - we have to ask ourselves, why should we be forgiven?
In Matthew 6, Jesus teaches his followers to pray for forgiveness in what we call The Lord’s Prayer: ‘forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us’. Jesus clearly says that if you want forgiveness you’ve got to be prepared to forgive others: he says ‘if you forgive others when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins’.
So in today’s passage, Peter comes to Jesus and asks, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?” ...“I tell you”, Jesus answers, “not seven times, but seventy-seven times”. Jesus is saying ‘don’t even think about counting: just do it’. Because if you’re still counting how many times you’ve forgiven someone, you’re not really forgiving them at all. Forgiveness is tough. But forgiveness is the only appropriate response to evil if we’re not to become what we oppose. We reap what we sow.
There’s a providence to the timing of today’s gospel passage. Today marks the 10th anniversary of 9/11, the devastating terrorist attack that resulted in the deaths of nearly 3000 people and shocked the world. There were two paths forward from the ashes and rubble of 9/11. The first path led to war, torture, and fear: President Bush announced a War on Terror, the aims of which would be to bring Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda to justice and prevent the emergence of other terrorist networks. The response was to engage the forces of many nations in war, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the result was the further death of many thousands of people, spending of trillions of dollars and billions of pounds. The result was a growth in radicalised groups, of all different allegiances – an increase in hate-crimes, and an increase in fear of ‘the other’. Discrimination, prejudice, stereotyping, vengefulness and violence breeding more violence.
But another path -- led by Christians and people of other faiths, and some of no faith too -- was marked by soul-searching, genuine mourning for the lost and standing up for peace-building, making efforts towards understanding, and caring for our neighbours.
The challenge we face when we are attacked is whether we’re prepared to let go of our need for "vengeance". In the end, if we seek "justice" in that way, we’re not seeking true justice at all – we’re just trying to balance the scales in our favour. The result is always a cycle of more pain. We reap what we sow. And so, once again, as hard as it is, we’re faced with the shocking, persistent call of Jesus Christ, to follow his example, and to offer forgiveness even to those we feel don’t deserve it.
As Christians, we pray to become ‘Christ-like’, which means we want nothing more than to reflect in our lives the love that God is, overcoming selfishness and self-absorption; pursuing love and reconciliation with God, with family, with Church, with people of other faiths, in culture and politics, and with our enemies. Reconciliation has to be at the centre of our mission. In the world to come, there will be no hatred. In the new creation, holding something against your neighbour or your enemy won’t be an option, because God will be all in all – Love will be all in all. That the servant in today’s parable could behave how he did towards his fellow servant – in the new creation, it just wouldn’t enter his mind... and our calling is to work towards that new creation even now.
Nelson Mandela once said there’s 'no future without forgiveness.' It might take a long time, but we can't give up. We’re called to stand up and be instruments of God for making things right in the world. The 10th anniversary of 9/11 is an opportunity for reflection. Imagine its victims looking at the world from heaven... The greatest memorial to those who died ten years ago, and to those who continue to die in the wars after, will be a world more inclined toward peace.
We are right to remember that God is with those who are in pain and suffering. But it would be a distortion of what Christ did for humanity on the cross if at the same time, we didn’t remember Christ’s attitude to those who crucified him: Jesus cries ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’. If we remember that God is with those who suffer, but do not remember his attitude towards those who inflict the suffering, then we’re not remembering in truth. And if we don’t remember that we are all part of sinful humanity, then we are not remembering in truth. So may you sow seeds of forgiveness - and may you grow the flowers of peace and reconciliation.
Let us pray: God of mercy, your love overwhelms us with your generous forgiveness. You release us from a debt we can never repay. Open our hearts to extend love and mercy to all who are penitent. And may we persevere in working towards dialogue, peace and reconciliation with those who are not. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.