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The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant

A sermon by Dr Graeme Finlay

Matthew 18:21-35 (Good News Translation)

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, if my brother keeps on sinning against me, how many times do I have to forgive him? Seven times?”

“No, not seven times,” answered Jesus, “but seventy times seven,

because the Kingdom of heaven is like this. Once there was a king who decided to check on his servants' accounts. He had just begun to do so when one of them was brought in who owed him millions of dollars. The servant did not have enough to pay his debt, so the king ordered him to be sold as a slave, with his wife and his children and all that he had, in order to pay the debt. The servant fell on his knees before the king. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay you everything!’ The king felt sorry for him, so he forgave him the debt and let him go.

“Then the man went out and met one of his fellow servants who owed him a few dollars. He grabbed him and started choking him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he said. His fellow servant fell down and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back!’ But he refused; instead, he had him thrown into jail until he should pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were very upset and went to the king and told him everything. So he called the servant in. ‘You worthless slave!’ he said. ‘I forgave you the whole amount you owed me, just because you asked me to. You should have had mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you.’ The king was very angry, and he sent the servant to jail to be punished until he should pay back the whole amount.”

And Jesus concluded, “That is how my Father in heaven will treat every one of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”

Today's lectionary reading stresses the wonder of forgiveness - both received from God, and granted to others.

Whenever we pray the Lord's prayer, we say, ' Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.' We know that at the heart of our faith is our need of God's forgiveness. And as we receive that forgiveness, we are reminded of the imperative that we forgive others.

When it comes to forgiveness of our failings, we are totally dependent on God.

Every time we come to the communion table, 'we are given important training in how to forgive and to receive forgiveness. ... If we are good enough at forgiving the strangers who gather around the Lord's Table, we hope that we shall be good at forgiving the strangers who gather with us around the breakfast table.'[1]

Granting forgiveness may be hard but it is life-giving.

Anthony Ray Hinton is an Afro-American who in 1985 was convicted for the murders of two fast-food workers in Birmingham, Alabama. When the crime happened, he wasn't in the same town. And he was convicted on the basis of a gun found in his mother's cupboard at home - even though it hadn't been fired for 25 years, and there was no ballistics evidence that the gun fired the bullets that killed the victims.[2]

‘At the trial, Ray forgave those who lied about him, adding that he still had joy despite his injustice. ... Because of his faith in Jesus, Ray had a hope beyond his trials. ... This joy that I have’, Ray said after his release, ‘they couldn’t ever take that away in prison.’[3]

Ray spent thirty years on death row. Upon his release, he said, 'You’re free if you can forgive.' Ray said he has forgiven the officers who stole his freedom for 30 years. It is enough that 'they’ll answer before God for their actions.'[4]

Ray said, 'I’ve never had an apology, but I forgave those involved in my conviction long before I left prison. ... I didn’t forgive them so they can sleep well at night. I did it so I can.'[5]

Some time ago, I mentioned Jurgen Moltmann. He is one of the world's leading theologians (still going strong at 90). During the war he was a teenaged POW in Scotland. He was in despair because of his experience of death and terror, the destruction of his native Hamburg and the German countryside, and the shock of discovering the holocaust.

Moltmann, ¯

He came to faith as he read Psalm 39 ('my anguish increased ... do not be deaf to my weeping') and the story of Jesus, especially his crucifixion ('My God, why did you forsaken me'). He discovered Christ, the one who goes with us through 'this valley of the shadow of death.'

Soon after the war, he and some others POWs attended a Christian camp - with 'fear and trembling'.

The POWs met some Dutch Christians. Moltmann described the meeting: 'They told us that Jesus Christ was the bridge on which they came to meet us, and that without Christ they would not be able to meet us as Germans. They told us about the Gestapo terror, about the murder of their Jewish friends, and about the destruction of their homes during the German occupation. We too could step on this bridge which Christ had built from them to us, even if we ... hesitantly at first, could confess the guilt of our people and ask for forgiveness. At the end we all embraced ...'[6]


Forgiveness not cheap. It was not easy for God and is not easy for us. But in a world of intolerance, polarisation and injustice, it should be a marker of people who follow Jesus.

Having received God's mercy, we of all people should be able to demonstrate it.

[1] Hauerwas S and Willimon WH, Resident Aliens (Abingdon Press 1989), 91 [2] [3] Our Daily Bread 18 March 2020 [4] [5] [6] Ashby R, et al editors, A Reckless God? (ISCAST Nexus Books, 2018), ch 33

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