We live in an age where we believe the most merciful thing we can do is to remove the whole basis of mercy. At the beginning of the twentieth-century, G.K. Chesterton quipped that the political liberal was advocating the strange idea that he will make it easier to forgive sins by saying that there are no sins to forgive. In what is often called the “Parable of the Unmerciful Servant” (Matt 18:23-35), we are able to see the profound consequences of such an idea, and the radically alternative vision offered by the Christian gospel.
The parable is a response to Peter’s question to Jesus: How many times must I forgive my brother? Up to seven times? The number seven is often symbolic of perfection or completion, which may explain why Jesus responded by ‘perfecting’ Peter’s concept of perfection: the times we are to forgive are seventy times seven, or 490 times. Most commentators don’t take this number literally; instead, Jesus is recommending a perfection involving a potentially limitless or boundless forgiveness.
To explain his response, Jesus offered a parable. The story seems simple enough. A king was settling accounts with his servants, when he approached one owing him ten thousand talents. A talent was worth approximately twenty or thirty years’ wages for a laborer. Owing ten thousand talents was akin to owing approximately 10 million dollars! Perhaps this servant was a tax collector or official ordained to collect fees; regardless, “since he could not pay” makes it clear that this was a debt beyond anyone’s ability to pay. And so, the king decided that he and his family would be sold into slavery to at least recuperate some of his money.
Already, we can see what Jesus will say explicitly in v. 35, revealing that this parable is a window into the heart of God and the heart of humanity. God the King of kings is settling his accounts with humanity, Judgment Day, and we are all indebted by sin beyond any possible means to rectify such indebtedness. We simply cannot pay what we owe to a holy and sovereign Lord. And as a result, we are all justifiably “sold” into the service of another, Satan and the realm of hell.
And it is here that we see the extraordinary nature of divine forgiveness. The servant responds as we all do when confronted with a kind of death, in this case, slavery: the servant wants more time. He doesn’t ask the king to forgive the debt; he asks for more time so as to be able to pay it off. Of course, given the amount he owed, there aren’t enough years in a lifetime to fulfill such a proposal. And yet, to the servant’s shock, the king’s compassion covered up his debt and removed it from the servant. The king forgives not only his monetary debt, but also his impossible-to-fulfill oath to pay such a debt back. As the parable continues, the hardened and self-righteous heart of the servant is made more and more apparent, such that I would venture he had no intention of paying the monies back; nevertheless, grace and mercy shine forth.
But then, in v. 28, Jesus tells us that the same servant “went out”; it has been observed that such a phrase indicates not merely leaving the presence of the king but also fellowship or communion with the king. This phrase alone may summarize the heart of the unmerciful servant, which in turn calls us to assess the extent to which we remain in and with the King in worship, prayer, and fellowship.
In the process of going out, the servant found another who owed him money, about three months of wages, a sum that pales in comparison to what the servant owed the king. Nevertheless, the servant roughed him up while demanding payment. His colleague responded with the very same words with which the servant implored the king. But the servant would have none of it, and threw him into debtors-prison.
When we understand this parable against the backdrop of its introduction, “the kingdom of heaven may be compared to,” I think there is a key teaching here that is often overlooked. One of the key insights into our world that his parable gives to us is that we simply won’t find ultimate forgiveness and mercy anywhere else outside of the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom of God alone is the place of mercy, forgiveness, and grace.
In our own secular age, this is why Christian moral denunciations are fundamentally different from those of secularists. Christians have always recognized a contradiction in the human person: every person is created in the image of God and is thus endowed with the stamp of infinite worth and dignity, while every human person defiles that divine image because of their fallen nature. Rooted in the Hebraic prophetic tradition, Christian discourse is characterized by a mercy-entailed judgment: moral denunciations are pronounced in light of the salvation freely offered in the sacrificial death of Christ. Sins are thus denounced by fellow prisoners, the apostle Paul designating himself as chief among them.
However, this is simply not the case with secularism. It, too, morally denounces, but it has no savior, no cross, and no sacrificial basis for mercy. And thus proponents of secular values morally denounce others, not as fellow prisoners to sin and death, but as those wholly removed from the sins they are denouncing. They denounce bigots while considering themselves untainted by bigotry; they renounce the intolerant while purporting to be guardians of tolerance. They thus appear as the ones who could legitimately cast the first stone.
Thus, as it turns out, secularism is inescapably a religion of self-righteousness, and self-righteousness always seeks to vindicate the self at the expense of others: “I’m not like that person.” Outside the kingdom of heaven, there is simply no ultimate forgiveness.
The unmerciful servant is of course judged in the end, and this is because the one sin that God will not forgive is the sin of not wanting to be forgiven which, as Jesus notes, is expressed in the unwillingness to forgive others their debts towards us. And so, as it turns out, this parable calling us to a posture of seemingly boundless mercy and forgiveness isn’t trying to get us to follow some new law that God is handing down to us. Instead we learn from this parable that forgiveness is the very heart of the Christian gospel! Forgiveness is the mark of the Christian, and is the very merciful means by which all things are made new.
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