“…In anger his master handed him over to the jailors to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.’
‘This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.’” (Matthew 18:34-35)
If I’m honest, I find these verses a little terrifying. Peter asks Jesus how often he should forgive those who sin against him. Eager to impress, Peter offers ‘seven times’ as a generous number. It is, after all, the number of completeness. Forgiving the same person seven times for hurting you already seems quite forgiving. Jesus responds with an outrageous number (77!) and then tells a parable.
In the parable, a man who owes roughly the equivalent of the national debt is called by the master to settle his accounts. Obviously, the man cannot pay, so he begs for patience. Instead of simply receiving patience, the master cancels the debt and lets him go.
However, after leaving the presence of the king, the servant quickly finds his roles reversed. He is owed a debt (roughly $10,000-$15,000) and intends to collect. This fellow servant begs for mercy, using almost the exact same words the servant had used with the king.
He is unmoved and throws the man in jail. When the king finds out, he is livid. Having been shown great mercy, the servant was unwilling to show it in turn to others. The master rescinds his forgiveness and sends the man to be tortured.
Then Jesus says this is what the Father will do to us if we do not forgive.
This parable raises all sorts of questions for me: Can forgiveness be revoked? What does this do to our sense of assurance? Is the torture a part of the world of the parable or a description of the nature of hell? What does it truly mean to forgive a brother or sister from the heart? How will I know when I’ve done that?
All these are good questions, but at the very least, this parable tells us that God takes mercy seriously. The debt the servant owed, like the debt of our sin before God, is far beyond anything we could ever pay in a million lifetimes. And yet it is canceled by the mercy (‘pity’ in this parable) of God. According to this parable, receiving mercy should lead us to live with mercy. There is no debt another person could owe us that compares to what we owed God because of our sin. And if God has shown us mercy and cancelled our debt, we should be ready to do the same to others.
All this seems clear and challenging to me, but it is the flipside at the end of the parable that is haunting. God takes mercy seriously. To refuse to grant mercy to others cuts us off from God’s mercy. God’s mercy is first and unmerited, but it includes a call to show mercy to others. If we refuse to forgive others, it demonstrates we do not really know the God we claim to love and serve. And to reject the mercy of God by refusing mercy to others has consequences.
I would like to soften the blow that comes at the end of this parable, but I cannot. If we have received forgiveness for the great debt of our sin before God, then forgiveness must characterize our lives as Christians.