“The Unmerciful Servant”
1633 – 1659
The Wallace Collection - London
21 Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ 22 Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. 23 For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. 24 When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25 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. 26 So the servant fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the lord of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But that same servant, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 Then his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 31 When his fellow servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32 Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35 So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.’”
As we saw last week the second part of Chapter 18, the so-called “Community Discourse”, is dedicated to the duties of the Disciples (18:15-35). Last Sunday we reflected on ‘Fraternal Correction’ (18:15-20) and today the text that concludes the Chapter, speaks about ‘Forgiveness’ (18:21-35).
We are already used to seeing Peter taking the initiative to address questions to Jesus.
Peter speaks with the frame of mind of the people of his time in general and of the Disciples in particular. Let us analyze how Peter reacts to Jesus with a very ‘Jewish’ mentality:
We have just heard Jesus talking about Fraternal Correction. Jesus says something like: “When all the means at hand to bring back a brother to the Community fail, treat him as I treat the pagans and tax collectors”.
Peter understands that the values proposed by Jesus are different from those of the Pharisees, therefore he asks Jesus a question about forgiveness.
Peter is ready to forgive generously: not once, three or five times; Peter makes what he thinks is an exceedingly generous proposal: by calling to mind the Jewish principle of perfection (the number ‘7’), Peter thinks that forgiving up to seven times is more than could ever reasonably be asked for!
On the issue of Fraternal Correction Jesus taught that one should not ever lose hope about bringing back a brother to the Community. With regard to forgiveness, He teaches that the will of God is that we always forgive.
The Parable of Jesus
Jesus constructs this Parable around three scenes:
1. The first scene takes place in the king’s court: we find a king and a debtor. Here Jesus underlies:
a. The extraordinary amount of the debt: ten thousand talents correspond to
60,000,000 denarii (1 denarii was a daily wage);
b. The very harsh conditions the debtor faces: him being sold, together with his
family and possessions;
c. The anguish of the debtor looking for a solution: he asks for forbearance;
d. The goodness of the king who, instead of offering only patience, condones all the
2. The second scene takes place in the street. This scene is in marked contrast to
the previous one:
a. The protagonists are of equal social status;
b. The debt is ridiculous (100 denarii against 60 million);
c. While the king rightly demanded repayment of the debt, here the former debtor
“seized his fellow servant by the throat and throttled him”;
d. When the same request for forbearance is made, the former debtor rather than
offering the same forgiveness has his fellow servant put into prison.
3. The third scene takes place back in the king’s court:
a. The protagonists are the fellow workers, the first debtor and the king;
b. The behaviour of the former debtor was a scandal for his companions who
became indignant with him;
c. The conclusion is: “Should you not have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I
had mercy on you?”
Forgiveness is not ‘popular’
Many times friends and neighbours share with us sad stories of how they felt offended. We naturally show our understanding and feel compassion with the way they have been hurt. We put ourselves in their shoes and feel something of their own anger and rage at the wrong done to them. We understand if they tell us that “they are not ready to offer forgiveness” for such a grace offence.
However, let us pay attention to the reaction of the fellow workers towards the first debtor: they do not try to excuse the debtor’s lack of forgiveness.
If we look at our resentment at being mistreated as something that happens exclusively between ourselves and another person, we will always find reasons not to forgive. However, if we put such resentment into the wider context of our relationship with God, we realize that God has always forgiven us and we owe much more to God than anyone can ever owe to us.
The mentality prevalent in today’s world would seem to consider forgiveness as something extraordinary and unusual. Forgiveness seems impossible by human standards and therefore retaliation and ‘getting even’ seem to be more than acceptable. Forgiveness then seems beyond the human reach, but Jesus has already warned his Disciples that the way man thinks is not the way God thinks.
In this Parable Jesus offers a theological justification for forgiveness and He also offers us a way to put forgiveness into practice:
When we think that God has set us free (because our sins have made us slaves) forgiveness becomes much more natural and spontaneous. If we resist offering forgiveness, we have to remember the last words of the Parable: that we need to forgive from our heart.
Let us remember that ‘from our heart’ does not mean ‘from our feelings’. Forgiveness does not mean that wounds disappear and no longer hurt. Rather, forgiveness is a simple and sincere act of the will, with confidence that the love of God is in us.
Were we to count how many things we have received from God, we should think that every breath we take is a piece of grace that enters our life …
we will never be able to enumerate all the goodness God bestows on us every moment.
Forgiving at times is so hard to do, but with your help, God, I know I can do it.
Lord, show me the freedom that forgiveness gives me.
Free me from my emotional prison.
I find it hard to forgive the people who have done me wrong, Lord,
but I pray for the grace to let go, forgive,
and leave everything up to you.
Help me to live with an attitude of forgiveness and love, Father God,
and to surrender myself into your hands so I will not be imprisoned in bitterness.
Recall the peace you experienced in those moments of your life when you felt forgiven by God.
Contemplate what the world would look like, if forgiveness was really offered by individuals, peoples and nations.
Contemplate what the world would look like if there was no forgiveness at all.
Give thanks to the Lord for belonging to a Community of Faith that looks for forgiveness and tries to put it in practice.
See how Jesus has forgiven us by dying for us in the Cross and when He opened the doors of Paradise to the Repentant Thief.
Love is the distinctive character of a Community gathered together around Christ. Forgiveness is the expression of that love when things go wrong.
 Lev. 15: 10: “And you shall hallow the fiftieth [7x7+1] year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: you shall return, every one of you, to your property and every one of you to your family.” Luke 17:4: “ [Jesus said:] And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.”  Matthew 16:23: “He turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”  CCC no. 2843 (Catechism of the Catholic Church): “It is there, in fact, ‘in the depths of the heart’, that everything is bound and loosed. It is not in our power not to feel or to forget an offence; but the heart that offers itself to the Holy Spirit turns injury into compassion and purifies the memory in transforming the hurt into intercession”.