The Unforgiving Servant
The parable of The Unforgiving Servant is found only in Matthew 18:23-35. The occasion of this parable is found in the context of a conversation the Lord had with His disciples and the resultant questioning of Peter. I suggest you read all of Matthew 18 at this point so you’ll be familiar with what was said. I’ll just hit the high points as we move through this.
It starts in verse 1 with the disciples asking Jesus the question, "Who is the most important in the kingdom of heaven?" This seemed to be an on-going dilemma: James and John showed their immaturity and carnality by allowing their mother to campaign for their promotion in the kingdom (Matthew 20:20-28); Jesus scolds the Pharisees for their long history of religious self-importance (Matthew 23:1-13); and during their final evening with the Lord in the upper room the disciples argued about who was perceived to be the most important and, therefore, qualified to take over when Jesus was gone (Luke 22:24-27).
Then in verses 3 and 4 Jesus answers their question; and His statement is revealing. "Unless you change your ways and become like little children (trusting and forgiving), you can never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever will humble himself and become like this little child will be important and valued in the kingdom." The question revealed a problem, and Jesus let them know that change was needed. Evidently, at least by this point in time, the disciples had not yet "arrived". By using this example Jesus is telling them (and us) that those who would enter the kingdom must be like young children who have not yet learned to be selfish and competitive and have not developed a lust for the wealth, power and fame offered by the world. True humility demands the conscious rejection of all these things in exchange for the selfless determination to please God and be obedient to Him, regardless of any personal consequences (see the paper titled "Humility").
There are several topics in this chapter that should be addressed. I’ll try to be brief. Some of it (the cutting off of hands and plucking out of eyes in verses 8-9) is a little too graphic for the religious crowd. Have you ever heard a message preached on these two verses? The idea of actually doing something that might be painful in order to rid themselves of the sin that keeps them separated from God is unreasonable to some and unnecessary to others. Religious pretense is the order of the day ("I’m OK, God loves me just the way I am").
Some of it (instructions for discipline among believers in verses 15-17), they turn upside down and use as some sort of permission to allow themselves to be offended at any little thing that happens, so they can whip out their supposed spiritual superiority and straighten out the offender. I’ve yet to see anyone properly understand the context of Jesus’ remarks here. The "trespass" and "fault" of verse 15 has to do with a brother’s unwillingness to humble himself and forgive, because he’s been offended! It’s the one who has been offended and refuses to forgive that is in trouble. And everything Jesus says here about efforts towards restoration or discipline should be understood in that light. Jesus is simply emphasizing the fact that every effort must be made to make sure no one harbors an unforgiving attitude, so others will not be affected by or infected with his unforgiveness. I know from all my years in traditional ministry how easily people take on the offenses of others and how unforgiveness can quickly spread to destroy relationships.
Of course, then we have the binding and loosing (verse 18) and all the really bizarre applications in religion, especially among those involved in so-called spiritual warfare. Let me just say, in spite of the unfortunate rendering of this verse found in most translations, all Jesus is saying here is that we should be very careful to forbid only what is already forbidden in heaven and permit as proper only what is already permitted in heaven. This is not God’s permission for those in religious institutions to decide for themselves what they want "bound" or "loosed". Again, in religion man thinks he’s in control and it’s up to him to decide. In spiritual reality true believers know that God has already decided; they know He’s in control, and they’re submitted to that.
Then you have one of the TV preacher’s favorite gimmicks (verse 19), the prayer of agreement. "Now I’m going to pray, and I’m asking you to pray with me, and we’re going to agree together, and remember what Jesus says about the prayer of agreement, and I’m going to ask God to bless your finances as you send me your seed faith offering, because God has given me an anointing to make you rich". In others words, "you don’t understand this, stupid, because I’m cloaking my deception in religious half-truths and appealing to your flesh, but I’m asking you to send me your money so I can get rich, and I really don’t care what happens to you." Anyone with even half a brain should be able to see that Jesus’ statement here is based on what He has just said in the previous verse and the "agreement" must be founded on what God has already declared in heaven, not what any two people decide to declare out of their flesh or desperate circumstances. God’s promise to answer prayer is always in the context of praying according to His will (I John 5:14), not according to ours. He’s not interested in what our flesh wants; He’s interested in us submitting to His will and purpose.
And finally the promise "where two or three are gathered in My name, there am I in their midst." (Verse 20) This is not "where two or three are gathered in a building with My name on it to do what they have decided to do, there I am in their midst." As I’ve pointed out before in several articles, the idiom "in My name" means "as a representation of all that I am". When people gather together to focus on the will and purpose of God, to do what He requires (remember, the emphasis here is on forgiveness), He promises to be there. When they gather to do their religious thing, to participate in their rituals and traditions, someone might show up from the spirit realm, but it won’t be God.
This emphasis on forgiveness was not lost on Peter, who shows he understood Jesus’ comments; obvious from the question Peter poses in the very next verse (21). "How many times can my brother sin against me and I forgive him, as many as seven times? To which Jesus answers, "No, not seven times, but as often as necessary." I know, most translations say "seventy times seven". But Jesus is only using this as an illustration to make His point. He’s simply using a large number (an extension of the same number used by Peter) to say that when it comes to forgiveness, you don’t keep score and then stop forgiving when a certain number is reached. There is no limit on the requirements of forgiveness where God is concerned.
This brings us to the parable of the unforgiving servant found in verses 23-35.
"Therefore the kingdom of heaven is like a king who arranged to examine the accounts of those who handled his affairs. And as he began this accounting, one was brought to him who owed 10,000 talents. And because the man had no way to repay the debt, the master ordered him to be sold into slavery, along with his wife and children and everything he owned, in order to recover at least some of that great debt. Then the man fell to his knees and begged, have mercy on me and I will pay back every penny! And the king was moved with compassion and let him go, forgiving the debt altogether. But that same man, as soon as he left, went out and found another man who owed him a hundred denarii, grabbed him by the throat and angrily demanded payment. This man fell down and begged earnestly, give me time and I’ll pay you what I owe! But he wouldn’t listen and had the man thrown into the debtor’s prison until someone else paid his debt. Now, when others saw what had happened, they were troubled and went to tell the king. Then the king called the first man back and said to him, you’re a wicked and contemptible man. I forgave that great debt of yours because you begged me to. Should you not have had mercy on this other man to forgive him of this small debt? And in anger the king turned him over to the jailers till he paid all that he owed. My heavenly Father will deal with every one of you in this same way, if you do not freely forgive your brother out of a sincere heart."
Now for the application, the human king is God the Father and those who handled His affairs are believers. The one in the parable who had the debt he was unable to pay illustrates all of us who are wise enough to understand that we, too, have a debt to God impossible to repay. Our only hope is to be forgiven that great debt. And in His gracious mercy, God is willing to forgive. However, as Jesus has already told us (Matthew 6:12, 14-15), and as He illustrates in this parable, there is a catch. The Father’s willingness to forgive our sin against Him is always predicated on our own willingness to forgive those who sin against us. In order to walk with God certain realities are required. You can fake it and fool some of the people some of the time. But you can’t fool God.
I talked about this reality at length in the paper "The Greatest Commandment". And in some of the other papers I point out the difference between religious pretense (or morality) and spiritual reality. The realities God requires always demand we go against our nature to prove our submission and loyalty to Him. And here’s something to consider, especially for those who worry about whether or not there’s been any change in their lives (knowing that it’s God’s purpose to conform us to the image of His Son and that means we have to change).
You need only look in your life for some of those realities that demand you go against your nature. The reality here is forgiveness. Do you harbor resentment against those who may have hurt you? Do you plot revenge against those who have opposed you in some way? Do you justify yourself with the delusion that it’s up to you to decide to forgive or not? Or is there an understanding in your spirit, a clear voice that comes through loud and clear, telling you there is no choice, you must forgive.
The realities I’m talking about are simply opportunities God gives us to prove we care more about being submitted and obedient to Him than we do about catering to our flesh. And so, the reality is that you forgive, no restrictions and no limitations. Does this mean you easily forgive, every time? Not necessarily. You might struggle with it sometimes. But what do you do in the end, after the struggle. You forgive.
In the paper "Avoiding the Hogs and Dogs Disease – Part Two" I talk about several realities. And every one of them is specifically designed by God to make us go against our nature. Why? I’ll explain it again. Not to prove to God that we can, He already knows if we can or not. It’s to give us the opportunity on a regular basis to prove to ourselves that we can make the conscious decision to go against our nature and follow through with that decision by doing what God wants us to do. That’s how we change. We reject our nature and partake of His. We forsake who we are and embrace Who He is.
Our flesh will never commit suicide; it has to be killed. So God continually orchestrates the circumstances we need to respond to Him and demonstrate our loyalty to His character and nature by doing things our flesh doesn’t want to do. This makes our flesh weaker and our spirit stronger. There are those who want to ignore what I think is a very clear reality. God requires us to give on a regular basis to acknowledge His ownership of all that we have and give us the continual opportunity to deny our flesh in the areas of self-preservation and materialism. He wants us to give to prove that we trust in Him and in the provision He has for us. And, He wants us to give to prove that eternal, spiritual issues are more important to us than selfish materialism.
Those who make excuses in this area (and in the light of God’s purpose and His promises, they’re feeble excuses at best) follow the self-determined ways of the world, develop a spiritual blindness that keeps them from understanding spiritual issues and applying spiritual principles as they should. The result is that they get sucked deeper and deeper into the self-preservation and materialism of the world, making it more and more difficult for them to get back to a place of obedience. Why? Because giving is a reality that God requires, and there are consequences for ignoring it. Now I’ve gone to preaching, or meddling, depending on your view.
But I can’t help it. Because these realities are what separate the religious, pretentious crowd, who think it’s up to them to decide what they do and what they don’t do, from true believers who trust God and submit to what He requires. This is a very simple issue. God makes it black or white, yes or no, you either do it or you don’t; there’s no gray, in-between, "it’s up to you" areas. It’s the same thing with discipline and correction or suffering. You can ignore God, determine your own course and not experience the discipline and correction of God. And there are many, obviously, who think it’s a good thing to avoid such unpleasantness. But what’s the reality? If you don’t submit to and receive God’s discipline and correction, it’s because you’re not His child (Hebrews 12:5-8). You want to avoid suffering? OK, exercise your options and try to insulate yourself from anything God may try to bring your way to test you. God will allow you to exercise your free will. But then you’ll suffer the consequences of your avoidance of this reality in God; if you refuse to share in His sufferings, you’ll not share in His glory (I Peter 4:12-13). Those who deliberately disregard what God requires are playing a dangerous game of self-delusion (Galatians 6:7-8).
So, let’s get back to the parable. Jesus lets Peter and the rest of the disciples know that forgiveness is not a choice to be made or something that has its limitations. It’s required. The man in the story received forgiveness, because he asked for it. But he didn’t do what the master required, so, in his failure, he lost the forgiveness he had been granted. The larger part of the religious crowd wants very much to believe that once you receive something from God, it becomes a permanent possession and can never be lost. But, as Jesus clearly illustrates with this parable, only those who meet God’s conditions are able to possess His promises.
The Good Samaritan
The parable of The Good Samaritan is in Luke 10:30-37. As is usually the case, we should look at the events leading up to Jesus telling this story to really understand His reasons for using the illustration. If you simply read the parable alone, as most people do, it’s easy to assume He’s talking about a lack of compassion in some and a willingness to show compassion in others, a good Sunday School lesson for small children. But, as we will see, Jesus was not simply supplying the Sunday School teachers of the world with another lesson in ethics.
To get the full meaning of this parable we at least have to start with Jesus’ statement in verse 21, "I thank You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things (truths regarding His plan of deliverance) from the wise and learned and have given them to babes." If you have read all of Luke 10 (I recommend you do), then you can understand that what Jesus says here is in response to the comments made by the seventy He had commissioned to go before Him with the Good News of the kingdom. They were excited and exuberant as they reported back to Jesus what they had experienced. In the verse above Jesus contrasts those wise in the ways of the world from which these truths had been hidden (due to their own arrogance and rebellion), to those unsophisticated followers who trusted Him and, as a result of their simplicity, were participating in the kingdom firsthand.
Now, in verse 25 Jesus encounters one of those "wise and learned" religion experts, yet another self-confident fool who actually thought he could engage the Lord in a verbal sparring match and win. "Then a religion expert came to test Him and said, Teacher, what must I do to inherit everlasting life?"
To which Jesus answers in verse 26, "What is written in the Law? How do you see it?" Now I have to stop and explain something I think is important. Keep in mind; this guy was not just an expert in the Law as it was delivered to Moses. He was an expert in Judaism, a religious perversion of the Law, which had been distorted and manipulated by the addition of countless man-made rules. Truth comes from God, religion comes from men, and it’s up to every individual to submit himself to God (John 6:45) and learn the difference, so he isn’t deceived by religion.
Now, Jesus does the same thing with this guy that He did with the rich, young ruler in Luke 18:18-25. The rich kid asked Jesus the same question and Jesus responded the same way, asking what the Law and commandments said. Now why did He do that? It’s simple; Jesus knew the hearts of men (Matthew 12:14-15, 25; John 2:25; 13:11), so He knew what they were trusting in. Both of these guys fell into that category described above as the "wise and learned", the religion experts. They had their own agenda. Their minds were set. They really didn’t care about anything Jesus had to say. They were trying to achieve their own self-righteousness through their ability to follow the rules. So Jesus uses what they knew to point out the futility of what they were trying to do.
This is an interesting point, because there are many times in the Gospel accounts when Jesus was talking to that other category, the "babes", the unsophisticated, simple people. And He never asked them about the Law and commandments! He knew they didn’t have a clue. Their minds weren’t set on anything. Granted, many of them weren’t necessarily chasing around the countryside after Jesus because they desperately wanted to hear what He had to say. But, at least they were willing to listen. And, some did understand.
And because of that, Jesus’ message to them was "follow Me" (Matthew 4:19; 8:22; 9:9; 16:24; and 19:21 just to list a few). And just so there isn’t any misunderstanding, let me explain what He meant. There are those today who want to think they’re following Jesus because they go to a building with God’s name on it and participate in rituals and activities where His name is mentioned. That is not what He meant. The word translated "follow" is akoloutheo, from the prefix a, here expressing the idea of being "united" or "alike", and keleuthos, "a way"; hence, you have "one going the same way" or, literally, "following an example".
Every time Jesus said, "follow Me", He was saying "follow My example", "do what I’m doing" or "live the way I’m living". That’s why I translate Mark 8:34 "If you intend to go the way I’m going (the way to the Father), you must forget your plans and schemes, embrace the suffering that’s required and follow My example (because I’m the only One Who can show you this way)." If that verse is not familiar, you’ll recognize the usual translation, "Whosoever will come after Me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me."
Let’s follow the text a little further. In verse 27 this guy answers Jesus’ question about the Law and commandments with "You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind (your whole being), and your neighbor in the same way." And Jesus then responds in verse 28 with, "You’re absolutely correct. If you can do that, you will live."
Remember, Jesus knew the hearts of all men. He knew from the get-go the religion expert was a phony. And, it’s here that I suspect this guy noticed a hint of skepticism in Jesus’ voice, because verse 29 says, "Then he, wanting to make himself appear righteous, said, tell me, just who is my neighbor?" And this, then, brings us to the most revealing point in this entire passage. If you’re reading the so-called Authorized Version, the beginning of verse 30 simply has, "And Jesus answering said". This is an extremely weak and wrong translation. The word translated "answering" is hupolambano and literally means, "to take the ground from under".
Jesus is getting ready to tell the story we call "The Good Samaritan". But as you’re following the text and paying attention to the tone of the conversation and the actual meaning of the words in the text, you’re made to realize Jesus is getting ready to knock this guy off his religious pedestal! Jesus is going to use this parable to expose this guy’s hypocrisy and insincerity! He’s just asked Jesus to define "neighbor". Why? The intimation is clearly sarcastic. "Tell me who my neighbor is, so I can love him (even though, in reality, I have no intention of doing so)." The parable follows. This is verse 30 through 37.
"And Jesus, in order to expose this religious hypocrisy, said, A certain man was going down the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, and was attacked by robbers, who stripped off his clothes, beat him and left him for dead. And as it happened, a priest was going down that same road, and when he saw the injured man, he passed by on the other side. Then a Levite came by and looked at him, then quickly passed by on the other side, as well. After that a Samaritan came along on his journey, and when he saw the injured man, he was moved with compassion. He stopped and cleaned the man’s wounds, pouring oil and wine on them. Then he set the man on his own animal, took him to an inn, and looked after him the rest of that day. The next day he gave two day’s wages to the innkeeper and told him to take care of the injured man and if more money was required, he would pay it when he returned. Now which of these three proved himself a neighbor to the man who was attacked by robbers? And he answered, The one who showed compassion to him. And Jesus said, You must go and do the same."
OK, let’s look at what we have here. As I said earlier, to most, this parable is nothing more than a simple lesson in morality. A child’s book of Bible stories would not be complete without The Good Samaritan. As usual, religion misses the mark. The assumption is that the priest and Levite didn’t help the injured man because they simply lacked compassion. They didn’t stop, because they didn’t care. But, as Paul Harvey would say, "Let me tell you the rest of the story."
Jericho is approximately 18 miles east of Jerusalem, and at this time, the road between the two was a steep descent from Jerusalem through rough, robber-infested terrain. It is estimated that Jericho was a city of about 100,000 people in Jesus’ day and at least 10,000 of them were priests. By necessity, then, the road between Jericho and Jerusalem was heavily traveled, since it was the shortest route for priests going to visit or serve in the temple. Jesus’ story was easily understood so far as the circumstances and details it portrayed.
Both Jesus and the religion expert agreed that, according to the commandments, everlasting life could be gained by "loving God with your whole being, and your neighbor in the same way." But then Jesus illustrates with this parable that this man was trusting in a religion that made it difficult, if not impossible, for him to do what he agreed was necessary (loving his neighbor). The focus of this parable is not the fact that the priest and Levite simply lacked compassion; instead, it is that they were engaged in a religious system that clearly emphasized forms and rituals over kindness and compassion.
This religion expert knew full well why the priest and Levite wouldn’t stop to help the injured man. He knew that Leviticus 19 outlined all the ways a man is defiled and therefore, unclean. They couldn’t be present when someone died (remember, the injured man was left for dead, he either looked dead or looked like he could die at any time). They couldn’t touch a dead man. They couldn’t touch the wounds of a dead man. If they did, they would be unclean and, therefore, unable to go into the temple area. What is also outlined in Leviticus 19 is God’s provision for purifying oneself when it became necessary to do anything that might render a man unclean. Either the priest or the Levite could have stopped to help the injured man, knowing that, in the event he died, they could have purified themselves. The real hang-up for them was that they knew the purification process took 7 days and the injured guy just wasn’t worth it.
What’s the point? What Jesus was telling this man and what, I’m sure, he understood, was that he had no intentions of doing what he himself had said was necessary. Why? Because, like the priest and the Levite, his religion was more important to him than compassion, and his efforts to achieve his own self-righteousness had absolutely nothing to do with helping others, they had more to do with him helping himself. And, in fact, in this religious, elitist culture it was quite acceptable when those efforts came at the expense of others (sounds familiar). Like the priest and the Levite in the story, this guy was dead in the water. He had no chance. Why? He had no intention of doing what he knew the Law required – because his religion did not require it!
Let me make this one observation, and then I’m finished. The parables of The Unforgiving Servant and The Good Samaritan are connected in their meaning. The fate of the unforgiving servant illustrates the necessity of spiritual reality. The failure of the priest and Levite (and the religion expert) shows how those who are committed to religion choose pretense over reality. It’s interesting to notice that one of the best references in Scripture teaching us about spiritual reality is found in Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman in John 4:23-24.
"The time will come, in fact it is already here, when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in reality; because the Father is seeking such to worship Him. God is a Spirit (invisible, but real) and those who worship Him must worship Him both in spirit and in reality."
And just to be clear on this, I know most translations use "truth" where you see "reality" above. The word is aletheia and means, the reality as opposed to appearance, what is manifested or real. If you follow the conversation that leads up to Jesus’ statement above, you’ll see that He’s introducing a new thought, contrasting the worship of both the Samaritans and the Jews that had been mentioned in verses 20-22. And when He comes to verses 23-24 He’s saying the time has come to reject religion and forget the pretense that comes with it. From now on the Father seeks only those who are willing to worship Him with honest intentions (spirit) and reality.
And I can’t mention the word "worship" (proskuneo) without reminding you that the act of worship has nothing to do with getting together in a group and singing sappy songs about God. Worship is an individual act of submission, where you acknowledge God’s authority over your life and await His instruction, with the intent of being obedient when it comes. Reality is doing what God requires, no excuses, and no avoidance. It’s the only proof you have that your submission and loyalty to Him are real. And in the absence of that, all you really have is religion.
To be continued in Part 8 - The Parable of the Minas