The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant
Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.
One-day Peter asked, ‘Master how many times should I forgive someone who keeps wronging me?’ Religious people agreed that it was fair to forgive a person three times but Peter generously suggested, ‘How about seven times?’ Jesus smiled and shook his head.
‘No Peter,’ he said, ‘seventy times seven is nearer the mark. Listen to this story.
‘There was once a king who decided to check the accounts of his officials, to see how much money they owed him. He had scarcely begun when one of them was ushered into his room.
“This man owes you a huge sum,” the king was told.
‘The king consulted his books and found that indeed the servant owed him millions – enough for a king’s ransom.
“Sell him and his wife and children as slaves,” the king ordered.
‘But the official fell on his knees and sobbed out, “Please have mercy on me! If you will only be patient, I will pay it all back!”
‘The king knew very well that he would never be able to pay back such a huge sum, but he felt sorry for him.
“Get up,” he said kindly. “I am going to write off your whole debt. You don’t need to pay me any of it.”
‘The delighted servant jumped to his feet and bowed himself out of the king’s presence.
No sooner was he outside than he bumped into a fellow servant.
“Here!” he shouted out, “Stop! You owe me some money!”
‘His victim nodded miserably. “It’s only a very small sum,” he pleaded. “Give me time to pay you back!”
‘But the man grabbed him and shouted “pay me at once, or you’ll go to prison!” Then he kicked him out of the palace and took the man straight to prison. The rest of the palace officials were horrified. They told the king the whole story. The king was very angry, he sent for the servant.
“You are a wicked, hard-hearted servant!” he said. “I forgave you that huge debt, yet you refuse to have mercy on someone who owes you such a tiny sum. Because of that, you will go to prison yourself, until you pay back everything you owe me.”
‘Remember,’ Jesus said, as he finished his story. ‘God will not forgive you, unless you forgive one another from the bottom of your hearts.’
Forgiveness is fundamental to the character of God. Throughout the Bible, God is described as slow to anger, abounding in love and forgiving sin (Numbers 14:18).
Jesus was uncompromising in his command to forgive. Forgive, he said, ‘seventy times seven’ (Matthew 18:21). In other words, forgive and keep on forgiving without limit.
Forgiveness was at the heart of everything he did and is at the heart of the Lord’s Prayer. When Jesus declared a person’s sins to be forgiven, it often aroused the anger of those who were less willing to forgive than he was and yet a prayer for the forgiveness of his persecutors was on Jesus’ lips as he died. Christian preaching has always put forgiveness at the centre.
We forgive because we are forgiven. Paul says: ‘Be compassionate and kind to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.’ (Ephesians 4:32)
The parable of the Unjust Steward tells of a servant who was forgiven his large debt only to be condemned because he refused to forgive a small debt owed to him.
Forgiveness cannot be given or received unless it is asked for, and the asking must be genuine and from the heart. Too often ‘sorry’ is said very easily, implying: ‘All I need to do is say I’m sorry and everything will be OK’. Real repentance demands that we take what we have done wrong with the utmost seriousness and have a deep desire not to do it again.
The whole sacrificial system in the Law of Moses was based on the principle that forgiveness requires sacrifice. Animal sacrifices are no longer offered, but the truth remains that forgiveness is costly to all involved. Once we understand that, forgiveness can be truly liberating both for the person who is forgiven and for the person who