Summary: We have been given a priceless gift of grace which needs to be fleshed out in our relationships.
The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant: An Exposition of Matthew 18:21-35
We live in a world which demands “justice.” People have always demanded justice. Often this demand to justice leads to violence. On the other hand, people demand “grace” for themselves. This is the way it always has been. It was just as true in Jesus’ day as it is now. Jesus addresses this dichotomy in the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant.
A Parable is a story which makes a point. It is the Hebrew way of establishing a proposition. So if Jesus tells a parable here, what point is he illustrating. To look at this, we need to look at the previous passage for an answer. This passage gives instruction on how discipline is to be enforced within the church, between brother and brother. One purpose is to keep peace among the brethren. The church is to advertise to the world what the Kingdom of God is like. If the church cannot resolve its own internal disputes, then why should the world listen to our message? Internal unity and boundaries are always necessary in times of persecution as well. Another purpose of discipline within the church is restorative. Offenses are not to be swept under the rug. Believers need to be held accountable for their offenses. The passage also teaches us that this is to be dealt with as privately as possible. (For more on this, see “The Purpose of Church Discipline” which is also in this sermon archive.)
The Lectionary selection for this week begins with Peter asking how many times one must forgive his “brother”. He had been taught to do so seven times. Afterward, the person could be treated as a tax-collector and publican. This came from Jewish interpretation. The number 7 is very significant in Hebrew thought. It is the number of perfection. It is also the number for Sabbath or rest. Both of these could apply here. The idea of forgiveness is to restore a relationship to what it was before the offense. As it pertains to our offense against God, this would mean being restored to the relationship Adam and Eve enjoyed with God before the fall. The idea of Sabbath also indicates rest from conflict, the removal of enmity.
Or the “seven” here could be taken literally, as Peter’s asking the question seems to imply. Jesus replies not seven times, but seventy times seven. Jesus is not saying to now forgive 490 times. Ten also is an important number in Hebrew thought. Here we have seven times ten times seven. Jesus is clearly telling Peter, that he should have understood “seven” differently through use of hyperbole. The entire goal of discipline is to restore and not separate, even if temporary separation from the group is used to bring the offender to his or her senses. This view is the view of the Father as well. He has not put a limit upon us. As the Apostle John tells us, if we confess our sin, He is just and faithful to forgive us. The blood of Jesus Christ cleanses us from all unrighteousness. The very purpose of discipleship, that is a person under discipline, is to become like the master. If Jesus asks something of us, even if it seems hard or impossible, He is not demanding something that He will not do. We need to think our thoughts after His thoughts. So in this, we are comforted and challenged. We know how willing God has been in forgiving our sin. The challenge is to apply it to the other brethren.
We come now to the Parable proper. It almost seems that it is an application of the LORD’s Prayer in the Sermon on the Mount. The prayer we recite asks God to forgive our trespasses against God. But it also says “even as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Even though it can be applies generally to our dealings with everyone, it must first start within the church body. The only comment Jesus makes about this wonderful prayer is that if we don’t forgive others their trespasses against you, neither will your Heavenly Father forgive you. These words cut deep. The teaching of the Sermon on the Mount keeps showing up elsewhere in Matthew. We see the application of “Ask, seek, knock” is demonstrated in the persistence of the Canaanite (Syrophonecian) woman is just another of many examples.
The Sermon on the Mount is addressed to the Church and not to the “Jews.” It is not for some coming age. It is not an ethical teaching for the world. It is for us. This is a frightening thought, because it seems to make keeping the Law far easier because it prohibited acting and not the thought itself. But if we remember that this same Jesus died on the cross and shed His blood to reconcile us to God. If we do not remember this, then we shall be lost in utter despair. It is Jesus who keeps every jot and tittle of the Law, and we are in Him. (I have an entire series on the Sermon on the Mount in this archive, if you want to pursue this in more depth.)