The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant - Part 2
Malcolm Horlock, Cardiff, Wales
INTRODUCTION AND CONTEXT (continued)
We concluded the previous article by noting that in the preceding context our Lord had spoken of the possibility of the disciple causing offence (i) to unbelievers, Matt. 17. 24-27, (ii) to fellowbelievers, Matt. 18. 1-6, and (iii) to himself, Matt. 18. 8-9, and had then outlined the route to be followed if the disciple happened to be the one who had been caused offence, Matt. 18. 15-18.
On the face of it, therefore, the subject of ‘offences’ has been fully covered. But clearly not to Peter’s satisfaction!
Matthew 18. 21.
Then Peter came to Him and said, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?”’
Peter considered it was not sufficient that the Lord required him to do all he could to reclaim (and, by implication, to forgive) a brother who had wronged him. Evidently, he felt it necessary that he be given a ruling as to how many times he was expected to forgive the offending brother.
As I understand it, given the two requests which lie at the heart of the Lord’s story (‘have patience with me’ in verses 26 and 29), both the Lord and Peter assumed throughout the repentance of the offending party. This would be consistent with our Lord’s later teaching concerning offences committed in a single day: ‘If your brother sins against you, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times in a day returns to you, saying, “I repent”, you shall forgive him’.1
In all likelihood, when suggesting ‘seven times’, Peter was confident that, if anything, he erred on the generous side. For his ‘offer’ went far beyond the oral teaching of the Jewish Rabbis. Their standard seems clear; you are required to forgive only three times.
For example, according to the Babylonian Talmud, (a) Rabbi Jose ben Hanina said, ‘One who asks pardon of his neighbour need do so no more than three times, as it is said’, and (b) Rabbi Jose ben Jahuda said, ‘If a man commits a transgression, the first, second and third time he is forgiven, the fourth time he is not forgiven, as it is said, ‘Thus says the Lord, For three transgressions of Israel, yea for four, I will not turn away their punishment’.2
Rabbi Jose ben Jahuda took his proof text from Amos chapter 2 verse 6. This was, in fact, one of eight occasions in chapters 1 and 2 when Amos used the same expression with respect to various nations.3 From these words of the herdsmanprophet Rabbi Jose ben Jahuda concluded that if the Lord was not prepared to spare men His anger if they committed an offence four times, then neither need he – or anyone else for that matter. Hence his ruling ‘if a man commits a transgression . . . the fourth time he is not forgiven’. But our Rabbi friend, clearly not the brightest bulb on the chandelier of Bible interpreters, had entirely misunderstood the point; that the expression ‘for three transgressions, yea for four’ was never meant to taken literally – that the expression indicated rather that the measure of the people’s sins was full, and more than full.
But Peter had been in the Lord’s company too long to expect to get away with only three times. So he doubled the Rabbinical standard of three, added one for good measure, and ‘offered’ a seven-fold forgiveness.
Verse 22. But, generous as Peter’s ‘offer’ must have seemed to him, it was far from acceptable to the Saviour. ‘Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven”’. By which our Lord did not mean, of course, that Peter should obtain a papyrus notepad and keep count – ‘487 . . . 488 . . . 489 . . . 490’ – and that he was then at liberty to retaliate. Peter understood the Lord correctly. He clearly meant that Peter was to forgive times without number. Jesus’ standard was not seven, nor 490 for that matter. His demand was for unlimited forgiveness.
It is likely that our Lord had in mind the words of Lamech, a descendant of Cain.4 This Lamech boasted to his wives that, if vengeance would have been exacted on Cain’s behalf ‘seven times’, then on Lamech’s behalf it would be exacted ‘seventy times seven’. This is how the Greek Old Testament renders the words of Genesis chapter 4 verse 24, employing the very same expression as that used by the Lord Jesus in Matthew chapter 18.
Lamech was referring back to God’s own words, ‘Whoever kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold’.6 That is, this arrogant and blasphemous man was saying, ‘If God once warned of a sevenfold vengeance on the killer of Cain, I hereby serve notice that I guarantee a seventy times sevenfold retribution on anyone who dares lift a hand against me’.
Certainly, it was the view of Tertullian (ca.160– ca.220 AD) that ‘when Peter asked “whether a brother was to be forgiven seven times”, He said, “Nay, rather seventy times seven”, that He might remodel and improve the law by which in Genesis “vengeance over Cain” was reckoned “seven times, but over Lamech seventy times seven”’.7
I wholeheartedly endorse the claim, ‘A definite allusion to the Genesis story is highly probable. Jesus pointedly sets against the natural man’s craving for . . . revenge, the spiritual man’s ambition to exercise the privilege of . . . forgiveness’.8
Verse 23. While Peter was doubtless still reeling from the Lord’s demand for unlimited forgiveness, Jesus told the parable. Clearly, opening as it does with the word ‘therefore’, the parable’s purpose was to illustrate our Lord’s requirement for just that kind of forgiveness. ‘Suppose’, He asks in effect, ‘that you do fulfil what to you is an outrageous demand, do you think that any number of offences committed against you can measure up to those which God has forgiven you?’9
Verse 24. An official was ‘brought’ to the king. And that word ‘brought’ stands in contrast to those occasions in verses 28 and 30 when Jesus said that the official ‘went’. For here it is not said that he ‘came’ but that he was ‘brought’. And small wonder. For this servant owed an immense, an astronomical debt. ‘Ten thousand talents’, Jesus said.
Frankly, it is impossible to express the sum with any degree of accuracy in present-day values. But it is clear that there was no way such a sum could represent a private debt owed by one individual to another. Ten thousand talents was rather the scale of transactions conducted between empires and kingdoms. Ten thousand talents was, for example, the sum with which Darius III sought to buy off Alexander the Great from entering Asia. It was also the size of the indemnity (to be paid in 50 annual instalments) which Rome demanded of Hannibal of Carthage when a peace agreement was signed between them in 201 BC.10 And the fine which Rome imposed on Antiochus the Great at the Peace of Apamea in 188 BC, following Antiochus’s defeat, was 15,000 talents, payable over 12 years.11
To give some idea of the vastness of the sum, it appears that the combined annual tribute paid in the whole of Judea, Idumea, Samaria, Galilee and Perea was only 800 talents.12
One talent alone was the equivalent of 6,000 denarii. And Peter had earlier been present when the Lord had fed ‘about five thousand men, besides women and children’.13 Just prior to feeding them, He had asked Philip, ‘Where shall we buy bread, that these may eat?’ To which Philip had answered, ‘Two hundred denarii worth of bread is not sufficient for them, that every one of them may have a little’.14
If, as a rough guide, we assume that two hundred denarii would have fed the 5,000 men, then 10,000 talents would have been sufficient to provide a meal for 1,500 million people; that is, well over a fifth of the world’s population today.15
Peter’s mouth must have dropped open at the suggestion that any one person – even if some high ranking official from the royal court – could ever owe such an enormous sum.
Verse 25. ‘He was not able to pay’, which was hardly surprising in the circumstances. The man was utterly bankrupt and, in accordance with both Roman and Jewish law, his lord ordered that he be sold, along with his family and all his possessions.16 Not that such a vast debt would be discharged by selling a single family into slavery. The very top price paid for a slave was about one talent, and slaves were usually sold for a tenth of a talent or less.
Verse 26. Again, not surprisingly, Jesus said, ‘The servant therefore fell down before him, saying, “Master, have patience with me, and I will pay you all”’ – where the word ‘all’ is emphatic.
Peter’s face must have been a picture! For it went without saying that such a man was hardly likely to be given a good job reference. And even if he did succeed in finding future employment, his problems were far from over. Based on another of our Lord’s parables (that of ‘The Workers in the Vineyard’, Matt. 20. 1-15), a decent daily wage for an agricultural worker was one denarius. Indeed, a denarius was also the daily pay of a common foot soldier in the Roman army.17 Even if we assume that the servant in our parable could earn a denarius a day, and that he was prepared to work every Sabbath and without any holidays, for him to pay off his entire debt would take 164,383 years, 6 months and 25 days!
The Lord’s point was obvious. This was a debt which no man could ever hope to repay. I suspect that Peter roared with laughter at the whole idea. Why, the whole thing was ludicrous.
Verse 27. But, our Lord said in effect, the miserable servant was answered, indeed was answered super-abundantly above all he had any right to ask or think.18 He had requested the king to show him patience, but instead the king showed him compassion, giving him his freedom and extending him the most astonishing forgiveness.
‘What a strange story’, Peter may have thought, ‘but at least it has a happy ending’. Ah, but wait, Peter; the Lord hasn’t finished yet.
Verse 28. ‘But’, Jesus added, this same servant ‘went out and found (seemingly having sought out) one of his fellow-servants who owed him a hundred denarii’.
And, contrary to the impression which many have as they read (and expound!) this parable, it is important to note that 100 denarii was far from being a trivial amount. After all, it amounted to over three months earnings for a vineyard worker.19 No doubt to Peter, as to Philip,20 it was a considerable sum of money.
Jesus could have chosen a smaller amount if He had wished; for example, ten denarii – or one denarius. Indeed, He could have gone much smaller. There were 128 ‘mites’ (lepta) in a single denarius!21 But our Lord chose to speak in terms of a small fortune, of three months wages.
I have no doubt He was making the point that offences between brethren, in themselves, are significant. They can be very hurtful. Such offences shrink in importance only when measured up against the sins of which we are guilty and which, in His grace, God has forgiven. JOHN CHRYSOSTOM (the 4th-century church father) expressed it well, ‘Though you forgive seventy times seven, though you continually pardon your neighbour . . . as a drop of water to an endless sea, so much, or rather much more, does your love to man come short in comparison of the boundless goodness of God’.22
But the forgiven servant seized his fellow-servant and began to throttle him.23
Verse 29. The second servant pleaded for patience in words almost identical to those of the first servant.24 Surely, the very words should have reminded the first servant of his own recently granted pardon.
Verse 30. ‘He would not’. With the memory of the king’s compassion and forgiveness still fresh in his mind, he had every incentive to grant an immediate and full pardon to his fellow-servant. But he (the first servant) wasn’t willing to grant even an extension of time for him to repay that which he owed – which no doubt he could have been done within a relatively short period.
It appears that the first servant wasn’t legally entitled to sell him into slavery to recoup such a relatively small debt. ‘Even an inexpensive slave sold for five hundred denarii, and it was illegal to sell a man for a sum greater than his debt’.25
In this case, the first servant ‘threw him into prison till he should pay the debt’. I take it that, viewed simply in legal terms, what the first servant did was not technically wrong. He was within his ‘rights’ to act as he did. After all, the money was owed him. The law was on his side and doubtless any magistrate would have ruled in his favour.
True, but what he did was wrong. It was morally wrong, because he had been forgiven so much more. This was a case where that which could be said to be ‘a right’ was very much ‘a wrong’!
I have no doubt that Jesus meant to shock and disgust Peter before He thrust home His point and said, in effect, with the prophet Nathan some thousand years before, ‘You are the man’.26 And just as the prophet Nathan first made King David angry with his story about the little lamb,27 so I imagine Peter has long since stopped laughing and that he is now enraged over the first servant’s action.
Verse 31. The other servants were ‘very (exceedingly) grieved’, Jesus said, over the action of this obnoxious character. They went therefore and ‘told’ (‘made clear to’, literally) their lord all that had happened.
Verse 32. Predictably, the king was not amused! ‘Calling him forward’ (literally), the king addressed the first servant sharply, ‘You wicked servant’. The king had been prepared to excuse the man’s incompetence or dishonesty, and to forgive him ‘all that debt’ (the words our Lord emphasized by placing them first in His sentence), but not his heartlessness and unforgiving attitude.
Verse 33. Literally rendered, ‘Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-servant, as I (emphatic) also had mercy on you?’
Verse 34. In his anger, the king had the wicked wretch cast into prison and his life made as miserable and as bitter as possible.
Verse 35. ‘So’, Jesus concluded, ‘my heavenly Father also will do to you, if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses’. Not, of course, that God is in the business of cancelling the forgiveness of His true children. For in the Lord Jesus ‘we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace’.28
But we ignore at our peril the Lord’s teaching about the way in which God deals with unforgiving people. And those who by trait of character and by persistent habit refuse to forgive others demonstrate that they themselves are total strangers to God’s forgiveness. Whatever they may claim, they show that they know nothing of God’s forgiveness. And God will not acknowledge as belonging to Him any who, by their unforgiving attitude and actions, show themselves to be devoid of compassion and mercy.
'If each of you, from his heart, does not forgive’, the Lord said. That is, we must not forgive in word only, but genuinely and sincerely. Such forgiveness does not keep count. So we would never know if we did reach 490 times!
The Saviour is teaching that our acceptance of God’s forgiveness imposes serious obligations on us. For, whether I knew it or not at the time, in seeking and accepting His forgiveness I implicitly pledged myself to extend forgiveness to all who wrong me and ask my forgiveness. As a Christian, to withhold my forgiveness from such is not an option open to me.
‘Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you’.29
- Luke 17. 3-4.
- These Rabbinical quotations come from the Soncino English Translation of the Babylonian Talmud, which can be found at http://www.mediafire.com/?zjydkynwlzb. The quotations come from Yoma 87a and 86b respectively. A slightly different translation can be found at http://www.sacred-texts.com/jud/t03/yom13.htm, pages 139 and 137 respectively.
- Amos used the expression of Damascus, Gaza, Tyre, Edom, Ammon, Moab, Judah and Israel; see Amos 1. 3, 6, 9, 11, 13; 2. 1, 4, 6.
- Lamech was the seventh in Adam’s line through Cain, Gen. 4. 17-18, just as Enoch was the seventh through Seth, Gen. 5. 6-18; Jude 14.
- To be distinguished from the father of Noah, Gen. 5. 28-31.
- Gen. 4. 15.
- Quoted from Tertullian’s treatise Concerning Prayer, the end of paragraph 7.
- W. F. Moulton, quoted in J. H. Moulton’s The Grammar of New Testament Greek, page 98.
- When Jesus said ‘a certain king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants’, the word translated ‘servants’ is literally ‘slaves’. But we mustn’t be misled by the use of this word. Greek writers such as Herodotus and Xenophon often applied the description ‘slave’ to important officers of state. In this parable our Lord pictures high officials, required to render their ruler an account of the revenues they had received.
- See http://www.livius.org/hahd/hannibal/hannibal.html
- Compare also 1 Chron. 29. 7; Esther 3. 9.
- This tribute was paid to two of the sons of Herod the Great; two hundred talents to Philip and six hundred talents to Archelaus. See Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book XVII, Chapter XI, Section 4.
- Matt. 14. 21.
- John 6. 5-7.
- At the end of May 2009, the earth’s population was estimated to be towards 6,800 million.
- See Exod. 22. 3; 2 Kgs. 4. 1.
- Publius Cornelius Tacitus, The Annals, Book 1, 17.
- See Eph 3. 20.
- Matt. 20. 2.
- John 6. 7.
- There were two lepta in one quadrans, Mark 12. 42. A quadrans was a quarter of an assarion, which was one-sixteenth of a denarius. See Alan Millard, Discoveries from Bible Times, page 232.
- Homily 61 on the Gospel of Matthew.
- To choke him. This is the word translated ‘drowned’ in Mark 5 verse 13.
- The majority of the oldest manuscripts omit the word ‘all’ in the expression ‘I will pay you all’.
- D. A. Carson, Expositor’s Bible Commentary, on Matthew 18. 28-31.
- 2 Sam. 12. 7.
- 2 Sam. 12. 5.
- Eph. 1. 7.
- Eph. 4. 31-32.