The Unforgiving Servant

The Unforgiving Servant, Matt.18:15-35,  Pete Bauer

This sermon was recorded at Peace Hill Christian Fellowship on October 11th, 2015.  To listen to the audio, just click on this link – Audio.

We learned how to forgive as children.  And unless we have been re-trained in a new way of forgiveness, our way of forgiving and restoring probably has not changed from what we learned as children.  We have all been spiritually formed–trained in ways of living by those who raised us and those who influenced our lives.  My spiritual formation in dealing with anger and forgiveness looks like this…(1) Big Blow up/lots of anger, (2) I go away and stew over it in resentment and anger. (3) I come back, make sure everything is safe, and smooth things over

In comparison to my way of dealing with anger and forgiveness, Peter’s question to Jesus sounds like a very healthy and mature question.  He actually talks about forgiving and being restored with his brother–as opposed to Not Talking About It – which was my training.

I suspect that I am not all that unusual in my dysfunctional way of dealing with anger and forgiveness.  So let’s begin, as we look at this parable, with a bit of humility, and admit that most of us are probably not very good at dealing with forgiveness, one way and another.

The Kingdom of Heaven Has A New System.

The Kingdom of Heaven – Definition:  God’s People–God’s System of Government, (the way he does justice, mercy, etc.)–and that over which God has dominion, (which is Everything)!   The story of the unforgiving servant shows us how God governs, specifically in regard to being offended and forgiving.

The King Will Settle Accounts:  The first thing that Jesus tells us in this parable is that there was a king who wanted to settle his accounts.  This would have been a fairly common situation in the ancient world.  A servant who owed the king an enormous debt was called in to settle his debt, but could not pay, so the king decreed that he should be sold, into slavery–as well as his wife and children, and all he possessed.  This, again, was not a particularly unusual fate in the ancient world.

However the turn in the parable takes place where the man, facing with slavery and the loss of his family, begs for mercy and is shown compassion by the king who forgives his debt and sets him free.  This would have caught the attention of Jesus’ hearers.

Immediately the servant went out and acted shamefully, finding another servant who owed him a much smaller debt and attacking the man, choking him and demanding his money. 

Jesus telling the story, uses almost exactly the same words for this second servant, in begging for mercy that he used for the first servant who begged the king for mercy.  We are meant to hear the echoing cry for mercy and to be surprised when the first servant doesn’t recognize his own cry for mercy on the lips of this other man.  Instead the first servant throws the second servant into prison until his family and friends can find the means to raise the money to pay the second servant’s debt.

When the matter is made known to the king by the other servants, the king brings the man back and imposes the same justice, although intensified, that the unforgiving servant imposed on his fellow servant.  He imprisons him with torture until he can raise the money to pay his debt.

The King Will Give Us More Than What We Ask for:  Jesus is using this parable to illustrate God’s judgment on those who refuse to forgive.  But he is also showing us something about the way the Kingdom of Heaven will be governed.  God will either give us his mercy In greater measure than we ask, or our judgement In greater measure than we ask.  This is clear from the parable.  The servant asked to be able to pay his debt back, and in mercy the king forgave his debt and set him free.  He was given, initially, more mercy than he even knew how to ask for.   In the same way, the servant was judged in the same way that he had judged, except that because his debt was so much greater than the man he had thrown in prison, he was punished more severely–being both imprisoned and tortured.

The King Demands Forgiveness from the Heart:  Jesus ends the parable with a statement, “This is how my heavenly father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.  In other words, Jesus is telling his listeners, that his Father will absolutely reject forgiveness that comes out of a begrudging, or withholding heart. 

Forgiveness has to be more than an outward action.  God desires a graciousness in our hearts that is only possible for those who have understood and responded to the graciousness of his forgiveness.  Preemptory forgiveness is no forgiveness at all.  Jesus requires us to be the kind of people who can cancel debts and set free those who have offended us.

Step One: Identify Those in Your Debt.

Identifying Enemies Can Be Difficult:  This parable is not as straight forward for us as it might first appear. There is some cultural distance between Jesus’ story and our lives.  There are no kings around, and most of us are unlikely to ever be thrown into prison and have our families sold because of debt.  We live in a polite middle-class society, where we tend to be insulated from the unpleasant, and where we often are unaware of who our enemies are. In fact, many Christians, when asked, are unable to say whether they have anyone whom they would consider as an enemy (which makes it difficult to love our enemies).

Our thinking about enemies is often vague and undefined, or corporately focused and faceless (we all love to hate Verizon). We keep personal  enemies internal.  We oppose ourselves to people.

  • Because it’s threatening: Family (parents, spouses, siblings, even children), friends, fellow workers.
  • Because we often have partial enemies–people whom we have learned to get along with fine, most of the time, but who we find to be occasionally unsafe, or with whom we have a history of being hurt, and with whom we keep an uneasy peace.
  • (A word about abuse)

How can we identify Enemies?  It is our nature to deceive ourselves about important spiritual issues–to hide and to keep hidden what is in our hearts. We need to learn to ask God for help to be honest and to face the places in ourselves where we hide our unforgivingness and anger.  Here is some practical advice…

  • Pray and ask God to help you to notice where un-forgiveness remains in you.
  • Pay attention to Resentments and Oppositions. You may be so used to feeling resentment that it is hard to notice anymore.  We learn to push resentment down and ignore it, in the interests of polite society, while, at the same time, living in heart opposition to those whom we resent.
  • Listen to your conversation:  Where you condemn, bring up the past, speak with malice.  Sometimes we do these things in jest so that we can cover ourselves if caught.
  • Pay attention to how you feel.  There is a burning feeling of delight in malice that you can feel in your gut – just like there is a burning feeling of shame you can feel in your face.  Sometimes when we speak or think  of someone with whom we are angry, or towards whom we feel bitterness, we express contempt and there is that burning feeling – it feels powerful and justified and horribly good. 
  • Pay attention to contempt.  When you feel disgusted or angry by an individual’s needs and desires – that person is, in some measure, an enemy to you–you are opposed to their well-being.

Step Two: Forgive Those In Your Debt.

We Need to Bring Our Lack of Forgiveness and Our Anger to the Cross:  There is a stark contrast in this parable, between what the servant owes the master and what he is owed by the other servant.  That is Gospel. Jesus told this parable on his way to the torture, suffering and death of the cross. We are meant to see how much our rebellion and selfishness cost Jesus in comparison with what we believe others owe us.  We are meant to see how, we have been abundantly forgiven.  We are meant to see how, In that light, refusing to forgive is shameful–how it must be offensive to God.

Like the servant in the parable, our tendency to want to pay God back. But God, like the master in the parable, refuses to be paid back, and, like the master in the parable, he cancels our debt and sets us free. This is how God deals with our sin, our debt.

So Seek to forgive as God forgives – Abundantly:  As children of God–as those who have abundantly forgiven, we are to be imitators of God and of the abundance of his grace towards others.  As God gives more  grace than we know how to ask for–so, our goal should be to respond more graciously than expected.  We need to become students of graciousness.  And the more grace we extend to others, the more freedom we will have to receive grace for ourselves.

Be Patient in Forgiveness:  Anger and bitterness, however, do not go away just because we have forgiven. Forgiveness is not a one time event, but a repeated practice.  We will need to bring our resentment and opposition to the cross repeatedly, to remember our debt and celebrate our forgiveness repeatedly.

And we will have to be patient with situations and with people who have wronged us but who have not  admitted their sin, or cannot.  In these situations we should follow this principle:

    • Give grace and forgiveness where it is asked for. 
    • Hold willingness to show grace and forgive where it has not been asked for. 
    • Desire healing and do not hold onto bitterness.
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