The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant
How often are you tempted to forgive someone only when they ask for forgiveness? In Matthew 18, Peter asked Jesus how many times he should forgive his brother. Jesus answered, “Not seven times, but seventy-seven.” Note that the question is not posed like this: “If my brother comes and asks for forgiveness, how many times should I forgive him?” We are called to forgive others even before the person asks. Forgiveness is a continuous process that happens throughout our lives.
In the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant, a king called in his debtors so they would repay him. One servant who could not pay fell to his knees and begged for mercy. The king had pity, was merciful, and canceled the debt in full. Then the servant turned around and did precisely the opposite to a fellow servant of his. This servant could not pay, so he threw his fellow servant in debt prison, even though he begged him for mercy. As would be expected, the king found out about this event and threw the merciless servant into prison “until he should pay back all he owed.”
Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”
Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.
“Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.
“At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.
“But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.
“His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’
“But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.
“Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
“This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
Jesus is talking to every one of us. All of us have debts that we cannot pay. The entire family of man had debts we could not pay. God gave us his son Jesus to pay those debts. This is how he cancels the debt of the sin of mankind. With Christ's death on the cross, the whole debt of mankind was paid.
But what exactly is the debt that mankind owed God? Yes, we've been told, Adam and Eve disobeyed and ate the apple from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. But how is that a debt?
In the beginning God gave us life to the full. He gave us everything and required no payment in return. Life was freely given to his people. We owed nothing. There was no catch at all. But God knew there was one thing that would keep us from having life in full and that was knowledge of good and evil. So, he warned us and explained to us that if we ate that fruit “we would surely die.” And as we know from the story of Adam and Even, we ate the fruit. Then by knowing the difference between good and evil, we no longer had life in full. When we know something, we have a relationship to it. Life was no longer lived in full with the shadow of evil. This is when death appeared on our horizon. Now that we understand the idea of evil and death, each of us inevitably experience it. So, death became each of our individual and collective payment of the debt incurred by choosing to know evil—warned as we were.
It's like being a baby and having everything we need done for us. As children we owe nothing to our parents. They give and give. We don't owe them. This is what it was like for all of humanity before the Fall. But when we become adults, we learn how to support ourselves, we know we must make a living for ourselves. If we keep taking from our parents, then in most cases, we will start feeling indebted to our parents. When mankind became 'adults' (in a tragic sense), sin, debt and death came upon us. We felt and knew the burden of death, which affected every last thing we engaged in. With it came greed, jealousy, anger, and all the human characteristics that are caused by a lack of faith in God.
Thankfully, through Jesus, this debt of original sin was canceled in full by the Father, just like the king canceled the debt of his pitiable servant. Jesus pays the debt of our sin, because he takes on the whole person of Adam, and because he is eternal, he can actually pay off the debt through his death. It's tragic, wonderful, beautiful and true. Jesus divided our debt by his infinite life. Any number divided by infinity is zero. Our debt was nullified by Christ's death.
However, there's more to the story that each of us must consider in which Jesus explains in this parable. As God canceled our debt, we are also called to do the same thing to others. This isn't something that God just wishes for us to do. He doesn't say, “You can release the debts of others, if you want to, dear Child.” Rather, it is required of his children, especially us who know God has been merciful to us. We must release others from the debt they owe us. It is our duty. We must be merciful as well. If not, we will be judged by the mercy we provide others. We are measured by the measure we use against others, just like the original servant had to enter prison until the last of his debts were paid. Christians have a job to do and it's to free others. What a job title: Freer of Debts!
But how often do we still hold each other hostage with debts, financially, emotionally, physically and spiritually?
Jesus calls us to lend freely without even asking for repayment. How often do we do that with others? This is why usury is such an absurd concept for the Christian. When we lend, we should give freely with no expectation of return. But how often have I had that kind of faith?
But even beyond actual physical wealth, there is also spiritual usury. Every time we hold a grudge until we're satisfied that other as bowed down emotionally to the extent we feel has paid the debit, we're committing spiritual usury. When we stay mad after the sun goes down and resurrect the anger in the morning, we're committing spiritual usury.
This parable is directly connected to the binding and loosing of Matthew 18 (and Matthew 16). Jesus says, “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” When Jesus speaks of “heaven,” he is talking about the heavenly realm. We live and walk in the earthly realm, but we exist simultaneously in the heavenly realm. They parallel each other closely. The earthly realm is the physical manifestation of the heavenly realm. But it's not only a one-way relationship. The earthly realm affects the spiritual realm and vice versa. When we say “no” to temptation in the name of Jesus, we ward off spiritual advances of the enemy, just like Jesus did when he was tempted in the wilderness. Likewise, when we forgive others, we loosen the destructive debt-bonds we make with people.
Jesus came to set us free from the bonds of sin. The way he does that is by loosing our bonds through mercy, pity, forgiveness, joy, hope and love. We sever those bonds to our sin nature by forgiving debts—both spiritual and physical.
When someone hurts or wrongs us, a spiritual wrong occurs. And whether we see it or not, a binding spiritual contract develops, where the one who has committed a wrong-doing owes the other. We must release these debts over and over again until the day we die. In doing we so, we help bring about the kingdom of heaven here on earth.
This is also why Jesus calls us to not make promises we can't keep. He explains, “Let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’” We can't bind others to our false conceptions of reality. Most promises are lies because we truly can't know if we will be able to fulfill them. Now there are bonds that we are able to fulfill, but only ones that are done in God's will. We can only do things with God's help.
Similarly, we are able to uphold covenant bonds, like marriage, because as Jesus explains, through covenant bonds, two are made into one in the heavenly realm. It's not a coincident that Matthew connects marriage vows to this parable. Just after the parable, Jesus is asked if it's lawful to divorce. He explains that the wife and husband “are no longer two, but one flesh.”
There are times that we should engage in promises, but they should only be based in the love of God. Is making more money in the love of God? Is emotional manipulation through “You Owe Me” language in the love of God? When we engage in contracts, spiritual or physical, we must ask ourselves this important question: is the promise for love or for power.
We also must consider the distinction between contract and covenant to understand why Jesus asks us to forgive others debts. Contractual relationships are always quid pro quo: you owe me and I owe you. Another way to put it would be: I own you and you own me. Contracts are about ownership, placing another under our domain. We become bound together in contractual debt, not one of love.
Conversely, covenant relationships make two into one through God's love. God made covenants with his people. They were two-way unbreakable relationships done in love. David and Jonathan had a covenant together. The were bound in God's love rather than quid pro quo contract. David and Jonathan were blood brothers and the covenant they entered was unbreakable. They were no longer individuals, but one. The same is the case for our covenants in marriage and with God. We become bound to God. There is no breaking a covenant. To break a covenant would mean death to both parties.1 Contracts, however, can be severed by the party who holds the power. And we must release the quid pro quo contracts for God's kingdom to be ushered into our lives.
This is why God's covenant with Israel is so often compared to marriage. Jesus is the prince and he is wedded to his bride the Church and there is nothing that can stop that from happening. The one Church (the New Israel) and God will become one at the heavenly wedding feast.2 It is a covenant. It is unbreakable. This is why the concept of marriage indissolubility is so important to the Catholic Church. Divorce within a covenant marriage is just not possible. But it is an understandably complex issue in this day and age and we must always remember that we are all sinners and we must be merciful as God is merciful to us.
Jesus calls the power-brokers among us to release our debtors and not engage in new debts. But in the same breath, he also calls us to keep our covenant relationships. The place to start is through forgiveness. Forgiving others cancels the debt and frees the other party. Covenant relationships are fortified. People are freed to love.
This parable is about severing those sinful contracts. This is one of the primary purposes of us Christians in this age, which is why Jesus makes it central to the Lord's Prayer. As each of us free others from debts, we will become free to love more, hope more and know God better. It will dawn on us that our debts keep us and others from being free to love God and others. We must free all those in our midst and watch the kingdom of heaven unfold around us. Be ready, though, because as you begin to free others (and be free), there will be temptations placed before you by the Evil One to draw you back into his net of indebtedness to sin, which is why we must always and everywhere, say the Jesus Prayer, “Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.” This prayer frees us through Jesus' work on the cross.
We must also be aware what will happen to us if we do not forgive others. In the parable Jesus tells us, “In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” Jesus makes it clear that the “measure you use...will be measured to you.” Don't confuse this with legalism. We can't fulfill the law of God handed to Moses. However, now that Christ has freed us from the debt of original sin, we must free others or we will bind ourselves back into sin. We must let ourselves be free to love rather than to bind ourselves to the wide path of sin that leads to destruction.
Remember, when God makes a covenant, it will not be broken. Knowing that God has promised, "Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you," should increase our faith and free us further to be at peace to do his will. For his Church is bound to him in an unbreakable covenant and we will be his for all eternity. We are one with him through his son and spirit. Now that we have life in full again, though we do not see it fully realized yet, we must live life as free people of God. We must live life freely. We must freely give and freely release the debts of others.