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Why did Jesus tell this parable?
The background behind the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant involves a conversation that Jesus had with his followers.
Jesus gave the church specific instructions that involve the correction of a member. Jesus taught that there is no discipleship without accountability. However, he wanted people to hold each other accountable in a gracious, life-giving way.
Jesus outlined three steps in the accountability and restoration process.
(1) Jesus said, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one” (Matthew 18.15).
The first step of accountability is a private conversation that preserves the offending person’s privacy.
We can be confident that Jesus would never use a Facebook or a Twitter post to air his grievances against anyone. Neither would he complain to a close friend about how he had been injured.
Step number one is a face-to-face visit with the offending person with the intent of regaining a good relationship with that person.
(2) If that doesn’t work, Jesus instructs us to take a second step. He said, “But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses” (Matthew 18.16).
Suppose you went to the doctor with a ruptured appendix and he didn’t want to hurt your feelings. Instead of recommending surgery, which he knew you didn’t want, he recommended a big dose of Pepto-Bismol.
The doctor may have a good bedside manner, but he was guilty of malpractice. The same could be said for Christians who fail to hold each other accountable.
The second step involves two or three people to help lead the “problem” person back to living the Jesus-kind-of-life.
(3) There are times when we are so deceived that we need to be startled into how destructive our behavior actually is. The third step is designed to show us how seriously the church takes accountability and responsibility.
Jesus said, “If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matthew 18.17).
Over the years, Christian leadership scandals have truly scandalized the world. People have left the church and lost their faith over the behavior of leaders.
Churches have rightfully removed leaders from their positions in an attempt at accountability. However, anyone who knows anything about these issues are aware of how destructive are the actions of leaders who refuse accountability or responsibility.
How do we respond to people who have injured us?
Peter listened to Jesus’ teaching about responsibility and accountability and had a question of his own.
He said, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” (Matthew 18.21).
Jesus responded and said, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18.22).
Jesus used the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant to put in perspective his teaching about accountability, responsibility and forgiveness.
The Parable in Detail
In today’s article we will read the parable and make some clarifying remarks along the way. Tomorrow’s article will show how the parable fits within the teaching that Jesus gave in the entire chapter of Matthew 18.
Jesus began the parable with these words, “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves.
“When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made” (Matthew 18.23-25).
The servant’s debt was so large that it would take him 164,000 years to repay it. This is an example of how Jesus used exaggeration in parables to get the attention of people.
The story continues: “So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything'” (Matthew 18.26)
The master would need a considerable amount of patience for the slave to pay him in full. Not only did the master need patience, he also needed to be able to live a very long life.
The master didn’t require his servant to labor for centuries to repay the debt. Instead he had pity on him as Jesus said, “And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt” (Matthew 18.27).
The slave accepted the mercy of his master, but didn’t give the same consideration to his fellow servant.
Jesus said, “But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe’
“Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’
“But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt” (Matthew 18.28-30).
One hundred denarii is equal to 100 days of work, in comparison to 10,000 talents equal to 164,000 days of work. The slave who received the forgiveness of an immense debt refused to extend mercy to someone who owed him infinitely less.
The third scene of the parable began with these words. Jesus said, “When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place.
“Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’
“And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt” (Matthew 18.31-34).
Jesus applied the parable and said, “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart” (Matthew 18.35)
Please note, in no place in the Bible does it say that God has torturers. Parables are fictional stories that make a point about reality.
That being said, the major point of the parable is that people who live a Jesus-kind-of-life are expected to show mercy and forgiveness when offended.
One of the dangers of interpreting the Bible is to lift portions of the Bible out of the entire teaching of Jesus and make them some kind of a “timeless truth.”
As you go deeper in the study today, spend some time reading the passage and considering how all of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 18 fits in the lives of people who desire to live like their Lord and Savior.
Try to discover ways that the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant helps bring balance and clarification to the other parts of Matthew 18.
About This Blog
Klyne Snodgrass has devoted 12 years of study to produce the book, Stories With Intent. His book is recognized as the best book on the parables in print. I am indebted to Dr. Snodrass’ work that helps shape my articles.
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