The Parable of Unforgiveness

The text is Matthew 18:21-35. Its length keeps us from printing it here, but my guess is it’s so familiar you already know the details of the parable.

It all started with a question, the way so many of the Lord’s most memorable teachings had their genesis.

Throughout this chapter, the Lord has called attention to the virtues of childlikeness, has warned of the danger of causing “these little ones who believe in me” to stumble, and has spoken the parable of the lost sheep. He taught the disciples what to do when a brother sinned against them and how the church leadership should deal with the matter.

Jesus went on in His teaching, but Simon Peter was stuck back there on the matter of his brother offending him.

“Lord,” he said, “How many times must I forgive my brother when he keeps sinning against me? Seven times?” Some rabbis had given seven as a reasonable limit for such tolerance. That sounds about right to most of us.

Jesus’s answer had two parts.

First, He said, “Not seven times, but seventy times seven.” Basically, an unlimited number of times since we can’t imagine that the Lord was encouraging us to keep count.

Secondly, He followed that up with this parable of the unforgiving servant.

Hillary Rodham Clinton is said to have commented, “In the Bible it says they asked Jesus how many times you should forgive and he said 70 times 7. Well, I want you all to know that I’m keeping a chart!”

Not knowing whom she was addressing or how seriously she meant it, I have no idea whether that elicited laughter or groans. I hope she was teasing someone.

The way we understand the teachings of the Lord, the person who keeps a chart on others has one kept on him by the Lord Himself. And no reasonable person wants that.

If you expect forgiveness from Him, you’d better become good at showing it to others.


“Forgiveness is the release of all hope for a better past.” –Alexa Young

In going over his books, a king discovers one of his creditors owes him 10,000 talents, which we are told would be $10 million today. The man was unable to pay, so in the custom of the times, the king ordered him, his family, and all his possessions sold and the proceeds applied toward the debt.

The man fell to the ground before the king and asked for mercy. “Be patient,” he said, “and I will repay everything.”

More than showing him patience, the king did something astounding. He forgave the debt and released the man.

That was one fellow who was having a very good day. We’d like to think it affected him deeply and he became a changed person after receiving such kindness. Not so, said Jesus.

What the man did next makes sense to us only if he was going to be expected to repay the 10,000 talents. The only way he could pay his debt to the king would be to collect from his own creditors. But, he has been forgiven. He owes the king nothing.

However, he went out and found a fellow who owed him 100 denarii. We’re told this amounts to 20 dollars. The poor guy was unable to pay that debt and began to beg for patience and a little time.

But the harsh man had no mercy. Not ony did he refuse to show leniency, he had the man arrested and thrown into debtors’ prison until he could come up with the 20 bucks.

We wonder about that. Throwing someone in prison because they can’t pay a debt does not seem like much of a remedy for the situation. How would he be able to raise the money from jail? Presumably, someone loved him enough to come up with the money. If that was the plan, jail was not unlike holding someone for ransom.

Listeners to Jesus’ parable are struck by the contrasts in the amounts involved. The man was forgiven $10 million but refused to forgive $20.

Since our article–and all the articles on these parables–is less a study and more of a conversation on various facets of the story, you won’t mind if I insert an illustration here and there.

After all, story-telling is my favorite thing to do.

This businessman needed to borrow $30 million. No bank would lend it to him and all his other sources turned him down, so one day, as a last resort he goes down to the church to pray about it.

He walked into the sanctuary, found a spot in the rear, got on his knees and began to pray. He hadn’t been there a minute when he became aware that someone else was praying in the room. He did what you would have done–he stopped and listened.

Down at the altar, some poor fellow was on his face praying, “Oh Lord, I need 25 dollars. Lord, if I just had 25 dollars, it would solve all my problems. Oh, Lord, please, send me 25 dollars.”

Well, the businessman had 25 dollars; what he needed was 30 million. He got up, walked to where the man was kneeling, tapped him on his shoulder, and said, “Mister, you need 25 dollars. Here. Here’s 25 dollars.”

The man stands to his feet, rubs the tears from his eyes, takes the money, and pumps his hand. “Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you.” And out the door he runs.

As the door closes, the businessman turns to the altar, drops to his knees and looks toward Heaven.

“Now Lord, that I’ve got your undivided attention, let me tell you about a real problem.”

30 million, 25 bucks–it’s all the same to the Lord. Ten thousand talents to one person, a hundred denarii to another–insurmountable debts for which we need help.

The thing about servants is that they tell on their friends’ masters who are guilty of harsh treatment. In those days as well as our own, household servants had their own unofficial unions. They talked to each other and most of them knew the secrets from inside the various mansions. (At the moment, I’m reading “The Help” by Kathryn Stockett. This novel, set in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1962, has as one of its underlying themes how servants tell each other the secrets of their household.)

When the king heard how the man was treating his creditor, he was enraged. This man who was capable of such largesse in wiping a $10 million debt off his books, was also capable of fierce wrath. He called in the offending creditor.

“You wicked servant,” he blasted. “I canceled that massive debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on the man who owed you in the same way?”

Jesus said the king turned him over to the jailers “to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.” (vs. 34)

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

Nothing subtle about that. Jesus might as well have plastered it across a billboard: “How you treat others will determine how you yourself are treated.”

This reminds us of the Beatitude: “Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy.” (Matthew 5:7)

Here is how James, the Lord’s half-brother and the leader of Jerusalem’s church, put it: “Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgement.” (Jas. 2:12-13)

Good thing it does. If we each received justice, we’d all be in trouble.

My beloved friend James Richardson, now in Heaven, enjoyed telling how an ornery fellow stood in a church business meeting and insisted, “All I want is what’s coming to me.”

A little white-haired woman sitting nearby said, “Sit down, George. If you got what was coming to you, you’d be in hell.”

He would, too. So would you and so would I. Justice is not what we want; it’s mercy or nothing.

I was preaching one Sunday night on this subject. I told how in my childhood we lived in a coal mining camp in West Virginia and how pleased we were when our family bought a combination radio and record player. Along with this purchase, mom and dad had brought home a number of 78-rpm records–all of them by one group, the Chuck Wagon Gang, which, despite its western-sounding name, was a Southern Gospel group.

I said, “One of the songs they sang, one I remember so well, was titled, ‘Justice Calls, But Mercy Answers.'”

At that point, our church pianist, a seminary student named Tim Walker, spoke up.

“My grandfather wrote that.”

I was stunned. This was easily 50 years after I had heard the song as a child. The next Sunday, Tim handed me the sheet music for “Justice Calls, But Mercy Answers.” Underneath the title, it said clear as day, “Clyde A. Walker.”

“He was my grandfather,” Tim said. “And my uncle is Clyde Walker, Jr.”

What are the chances. I often urge young preachers to take care concerning anything they say from the pulpit, especially in an unguarded moment. “You never know who’s in the audience.”

As a young pastor attending seminary in New Orleans, I had a daily 25 mile commute to my church field. One afternoon, stuck at a traffic light, I decided to open the Bible at random and read something, then meditate upon it for the drive home.

The Bible fell open to Matthew 18:21-22 where Jesus tells Peter he is not to forgive 7 times but 70 times 7. I closed the Bible, the light changed, and I started the drive home.

“I know that text,” I thought to myself. “It’s perfectly clear. Nothing in there to reflect on for the next 30 or 40 minutes.”

Ah, but I was mistaken.

It soon occurred to me that God was sending a major message for my personal life and ministry from that tiny passage:

“If I expect you to forgive an unlimited number of times, I am willing to forgive you in the same manner.”

That was an incredible insight. So many times I had come to the Lord in prayer at the end of a day. “Lord, here I am again, confessing the same sin(s).” Soon, my pride kicked in and began to resist such daily confessing:

“The Lord does not want to hear that again. He’s disgusted with you never getting victory over this. He’s through forgiving it.”

He is a God of forgiveness. And aren’t we the better off for it?

Even on the cross–which was about nothing if not forgiveness–Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them. They do not know what they are doing.”

This is the single message the enemy would keep from the world if he could.

Satan is willing for the millions kept in chains of sin to believe anything about God they please so long as they never learn or believe that He will forgive them for their sins and never bring them up again.

In fact, I can see Satan enjoying one little aspect of this parable. Once the king learns the unforgiving creditor has done what he did, he cancels the forgiveness of the earlier large debt and reinstates it. “God is like that,” Satan charges.

I once sat in a city court and heard one of our church members, Tommy Wallace, passing judgment on a traffic offender. I’ve long since forgotten what the fellow had done, but will never forget what Judge Tommy told him:

“We’re going to retire this to the files. You can go free today. But, I’m warning you. If you ever are brought back into this courtroom–I don’t care if it’s for spitting on the sidewalk–we’ll open this file again and charge you with both offenses. Is that clear?”

I sat there giving thanks that, while it’s often necessary for us to do such a thing, our Lord in Heaven does not treat us this way. Once He forgives, it’s over.

“Their sins and iniquities I will remember no more.” (Hebrews 10:17)

Notice the last phrase in Matthew 18. “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother FROM YOUR HEART.” (Unable to italicize it here, I’ll use all caps.)

Forgiveness is an act of the volition, not the emotions. We must not think the Lord is demanding that we “feel” a certain way toward those we forgive. He is not calling for feelings, but finality and definiteness. Complete forgiveness.

In his commentary on Matthew, Craig Blomberg states, “Counselors often discover that a client’s unwillingness to forgive someone lies deep at the heart of all kinds of personal problems.”

Every pastor can easily summon a dozen stories on forgiveness or the lack of it.

If you are unfamiliar with Corrie ten Boom’s account of how she forgave one of the German guards at Ravensbruck concentration camp, you should find this and read it in its entirety. Briefly, after the Second World War, this Dutch survivor of Hitler’s brutal regime had returned to Germany to speak to anyone and everyone on the need for repentance in order to receive God’s forgiveness. After such a speaking engagement one evening, a former S.S. guard approached to ask for her forgiveness.

“I was at Ravensbruck,” he told Corrie ten Boom. “God has forgiven me for my actions, but whenever I find someone who was a prisoner there, I ask them to forgive me, also. Fraulein, will you forgive me?”

Corrie ten Boom had recognized the man from prison although he did not remember her. The last time she had seen him, he was wearing the cap with the skull and crossbones and stood with other guards laughing at the women prisoners who had been stripped naked in front of them. Corrie remembered noticing her sister Betsy, and how skinny she was.

“Does he think I can forgive him with just so few words?” she thought to herself. “Does he think it’s that easy after all he has done?”

The man had reached out to shake her hand. Corrie, however, was digging in her purse as though searching for something. In truth, she was rejecting the man for his harsh treatment in the prison camp.

In her post-war work with prisoners of those concentration camps. Corrie had noticed something. Those who refused to forgive their German captors had continued to deteriorate and had died. Only those who forgave seemed to get better.

In that second or two while she’s fiddling in her purse, Corrie thought of something else. She knew that forgiveness is an act of the will, not the emotions. She could will herself to forgive the man, no matter how strongly her spirit was resisting.

With that, she literally forced her hand out of the purse and thrust it toward the German man. She made herself speak the hardest words ever to come from her mouth:

“I forgive you. I do forgive you.”

At that, an electrical surge ran through her body, starting where their hands joined, running up to her head and down to the sole of her feet.

She began to cry.

“I do forgive you, sir. I forgive you with all my heart.”

That’s how it’s done.

A church member told me of his brother who, whle serving in the U.S. military during the Korean War, had taken offense at something in the family back in Mississippi. “Ever since,” he said, “he was had nothing to do with any of us. He’ll talk to Mama, but no one else. Every letter we’ve ever written him has come back. He’ll not see us and won’t take our phone calls.”

He said, “We don’t have a clue what did this. And he will not tell us. His lack of forgiveness has destroyed our family.”

After we chatted a bit, I said, “Let’s pray for your brother, that he will be saved.” That alone ought to remedy that situation, I thought.

The member said, “You don’t understand, pastor. That church in Tupelo where you just preached the revival? He is a deacon there.”

I was stunned.

I said, “My friend, I do not know whether your brother is saved or not. But I can tell you as surely as anything I know: your brother has not had a single sin forgiven or a prayer answered since the Korean War.”

Jesus said, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” He added, “For if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” (Matthew 6:12,15)

It was Gandhi who said, “The weak can never forgive; forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”

God, make us strong.

2 thoughts on “The Parable of Unforgiveness

  1. Thanks Joe. You hit the nail on the head as you always do. I needed that and I have some relatives(active in churches) who need to hear it as well. Pray for me as I wait for the right time and opportunity to share it with them.

    Thanks Friend.

    Jimmy Griffith

  2. Joe,

    As Jimmy has previously posted, you hit the nail on the head. I think that starting with my dad’s illness in July; whatever he had in his heart concerning any wrong that he had felt or slight directed his way, that the door was opened to extend and receive forgiveness.

    Unforgiveness has probably killed more folk than we are likely to ever know. Thank you for speaking the Word with truth and clarity. I have resolved and do resolve daily to walk in forgveness and live in the state of being forgiven.

    Ben