The Unforgiving Slave (Matthew 18:21-35) is my all-time favorite parable. I know, the ESV and the NIV, along with most other modern translations, use the word “servant” instead of “slave.” The Greek here is δουλε, one who submits completely to the will of their master. This is more than a butler or a maid. This is someone whose entire being– their hopes, their desires, and all their possessions–exists to serve their master. The apostle Paul uses this word to describe himself in his rightly-ordered relationship with Christ (Romans 1:1). Right off the bat, in the very title of the parable itself, Jesus is telling us that we are slaves to God’s will. Beautiful. So, what is not to love about this parable?
If you are in Lectionary Series A, as we are, this parable was your Gospel reading for September 11-17. In case you have not read this parable in a while, let me refresh your memory. Peter asks Jesus how many times he should forgive his brother. Jesus tells Peter that there should be no limit to his (and our) forgiveness. To illustrate His point, Jesus tells Peter about a king who wanted to settle accounts with his slaves. A slave (us) who owed the king a tremendous debt he could never hope to repay was brought before the king. Since the slave could not pay, the king ordered that the slave, along with his entire family, should be sold as payment. The slave pleaded for patience, and the king had pity on him, forgiving his entire debt. Immediately, the slave found another slave who owed him a minor debt. The forgiven slave demanded payment. The second slave begged for mercy, but the forgiven slave had him thrown in prison. Upon hearing what the forgiven slave had done, the master had him thrown in prison. Jesus then tells us that God will do the same to all of us if we do not forgive each other from the heart.
It was not until a few lively conversations after our Sunday service and Tuesday-night Bible study that I realized how many Christians struggle with Jesus’ warning that God will condemn us if we do not forgive each other from the heart. It never occurred to me how this parable might rob a Christian of the peace and comfort that comes from the promise of the Gospel. After all, we pray the Lord’s Prayer frequently. In the Fifth Petition of the Lord’s Prayer, we ask God to forgive us of our sins as (in the same manner, to the same degree that) we forgive those who sin against us. While this was our Gospel reading, the point of the parable is not the pity of the master. The point of this parable is the provision of more Law (the Lectionaries are weird like that sometimes). If you feel convicted by this parable, you should. This is the second function of the Law – to convict all of us before God. However, to the extent that our fallen nature prevents us from truly forgiving our brother, this parable is no more or less damning than any of God’s other commands to us. Jesus’ warning here seems particularly ominous because the context of the parable is God’s forgiveness for our sins.
It is important to note that the master in the parable forgives his slave out of pity. After the slave pleads with his master, the master forgives the slave’s debts. Plead as we might, God’s judgment is just, and there is nothing we can do to avoid His wrath. Fortunately, pity and grace are not the same thing. God does not pity us. God’s forgiveness is not contingent on anything we do. In fact, the Father, when we stand before His judgment, sees only the slain Lamb of God. This is called “vicarious atonement” – literally, Christ, in the full glory of His crucifixion, takes our place in judgment. Luther tells us, “Christ became a curse for us, that is, a sinner worthy of the wrath of God; that He clothed Himself in our person, laid our sins upon His own shoulders, and said: ‘I have committed the sins that all men have committed.’” The sin of failing to forgive has the same remedy as any other sin – repentance. Repentance is nothing more than contrition and faith in the vicarious (or substitutionary) atonement of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of our sins. Our inability to keep God’s Law plays no role in the grace we have been given through faith. To put your mind at ease, Jesus tells us that there is only one unforgivable sin – blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (Matthew 12:31-32). Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is generally understood to be the rejection of the Gospel – a fact that fits well with a ministerial use of reason. If we reject the Gospel, we can be contrite, we can be truly sorry, but we cannot have faith that our sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake (a gift of the Holy Spirit).
So, what do we do with Jesus’ warning that the Father will condemn us if we do not forgive our brother from the heart? First, I think it is important to recognize the location of this parable in Matthew’s Gospel. Immediately preceding this parable, Jesus gives His Church the Office of the Keys (Matthew 18: 18) – “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” The parable of the Unforgiving Slave is a blueprint for how the Office of the Keys should be discharged. Secondly, Jesus knows that our fallen, sinful, mortal nature prevents us from forgiving our brother in the same way that our infallible, eternal God forgives us. So, to answer the question of what we should do with Jesus’ dire warning: we should repent, and pray that His will, as detailed in this parable, would guide our Christian lives – just as us poor, miserable sinners should always do. We will always fall short, but do not despair. Our hope is in grace through faith in Jesus Christ, not in the pity of a vengeful master.
Soli Deo gloria!