The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant – Br. David Vryhof

Matthew 18:21-35

Poet and author Elizabeth Barrett Browning is probably best known for the words she wrote in a letter to her future husband: “How do I love thee?  Let me count the ways.”  Her father, Edward, was a controlling man who forbid any of his twelve children to marry, and when Elizabeth defied her father’s wishes to marry Robert Browning, her father never spoke to her again.

Elizabeth wrote weekly letters to her father in the hope that they might be reconciled, but for ten years there was no response.  Then one day, after a decade of silence, a box arrived in the mail from her father.  Her excitement quickly turned to anguish, however, when she opened it and found that it contained all of her letters – unopened.  Edward Barrett’s heart was so hardened towards his daughter that he didn’t open a single one of the hundreds of letters she wrote to him.

Unforgiveness does that.  It hardens the heart.  It magnifies the perceived offense to the point where we can no longer appreciate a person’s value because all we see is how they have grieved us.  If forgiveness is one of the most powerful forces for redemption in the Christian faith, unforgiveness is one of the most powerful forces for destruction.  In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus gives us a parable that speaks to us about forgiveness and unforgiveness.[i]

Jesus tells this story in response to Peter’s question, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?  As many as seven times?” (v.21)  Peter thinks he is being generous.  The rabbis of Jesus’ day taught that a person was obliged to forgive three times; Peter raises it to seven.  “No,” Jesus answers, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”[ii]

The story Jesus tells involves a king and one of his servants, who owes him an extraordinary amount of money: ten thousand talents.  The servant, in turn, is owed a smaller amount of money by one of his fellow-servants: one hundred denarii.  To grasp the contrast between these two sums, we need to know that a denarius was a Roman coin with a value equivalent to a day’s labor.  One hundred denarii is still a large sum for a servant to pay off, but it was at least imaginable.  A talent was the most valuable of Roman coins and was worth 6,000 denarii.  Possessing even a single talent was enough for someone to be considered rich.  Ten thousand talents, then, would have been worth 60 million denarii – an unthinkable amount!  We have no idea what this servant could have done to incur such an astronomical debt, but it doesn’t really matter.  The point is the debt is so large it would be impossible for him to ever pay it back![iii]

The king throws his debtor – the one owing 60 million denarii – into prison, where he is bound to spend the rest of his life.  But, after the man pleads with him to have mercy, the king changes his mind.  He not only releases him from prison; he forgives the entire debt!!  The man is set free!

The astounding generosity of the king is meant to illustrate the extravagant mercy and compassion of God, to whom each of us owes a great debt, one which we cannot possibly repay.  Knowing that we cannot pay, God accepts the self-offering of Christ’s life and death upon a cross, and forgives us the entire debt, setting us free.  “In [Christ],”  St. Paul writes to the Ephesians, “we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us” (Eph. 1:7-8)

If we have considered our sinfulness; if we are aware of our countless transgressions against God and against our neighbors in thought, word and deed; if we have realized our need for forgiveness and mercy; then we will begin to appreciate what has been done for us.

Somehow the servant missed this.  No sooner had he been granted complete forgiveness of his entire debt than he turned around to pressure a fellow-servant who owed him a hundred denarii.  Not surprisingly, when the king heard of it, he was enraged!  He arrested the servant whose enormous debt he had just forgiven and sent him back to prison.

Forgiven people should not be unforgiving towards others.  “Be kind to one another,” St. Paul urges the Christians at Ephesus, “tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Eph. 4:32).  Those who have been forgiven much ought to love much, and that love should including forgiving others with the same generosity with which they have been forgiven.

Living in a fallen world means that it is inevitable that we will be sinned against.  Christian faith does not diminish the pain or damage that someone’s sin against us has inflicted.  We need God’s help to work through our anger and bitterness to arrive at the place where forgiveness is possible.   But we need to do this work – it is not an option – because without it, we will be imprisoned by our own unforgiveness, like Edward Barrett, and much to be pitied.

Sometimes forgiveness can only come over time.  Be patient with yourself, but be equally determined to stay on the path towards forgiveness, even if it is an uphill climb.  Our hearts harden when we harbor unforgiveness.  Forgive, then, as God in Christ has forgiven you.

[i] I am indebted to Pastor Allen Snapp of Grace Community Church in Painted Post, New York, for the illustration of Elizabeth Barret Browning’s interactions with her father.

[ii] Other translations have “seventy times seven” rather than “seventy-seven.”  The difference is irrelevant; the point is that it is an extravagant number.

[iii] Value of ancient Roman coins drawn from “GR Coins”:

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  1. Sharon on March 2, 2023 at 10:48

    Forgiveness is a complicated thing. There are some people in my life that continually are hurtful to me. I can forgive, although it often takes a long time, but I also have to find a way to survive. I no longer care that they don’t care about it, but it is a bitter thing.
    But also, time does help. I thought today about an old wrong, and realized that I had, indeed,forgiven.

  2. Douglas H. Huber on March 2, 2023 at 10:17

    I am grateful for this message and the heartfelt comments of others who shared their own uphill climbs toward forgiveness. Thank you. I have my own work to do, including self-forgiveness. Pray for me as I pray for you.

  3. Karen Young on March 2, 2023 at 05:04

    I made a huge error of judgement and have paid the cost. I lost my home, my job and my reputation but a great deal of what was said was not true. I have been so angry, hurt and devastated. I wanted those who lied about me to suffer pain too. I am trying to forgive and keep asking for Gods help to forgive. Thank you for your words they have helped me today.

  4. John Wolf, FSJ on March 8, 2022 at 10:54

    . . . and the greatest of these is Love. How can we love and experience the love of others, and indeed Christ’s Love if we are ourselves bitter and unforgiving?

    As I try to live the Rules of the Order, and my own rule of life, this is one of the most difficult for me, and I fear it is for others as well. In my life career as a psychologist, my experience was that much pain and suffering results from anger and the inability to set aside personal needs in order to experience and to offer the gift of Love.

    As the old professional saying goes, ” maintaining unforgiving anger is like drinking poison, and hoping the other person will die.” We can be our own worst enemy or our own best ally, and God has given us Christ to show us the Way to choose. It is not easy but we have but to ask for the love to fill us after we empty ourselves of anger and hate. I cannot do it on my own. I have tried that, even still, and too often.

    Bless you, Brother David, for the words and the inspiration.

  5. Nanette O'Hara on March 8, 2022 at 09:32

    Today’s lesson has special meaning to me, as I grew up in a family where forgiveness was in short supply, but grudges were held forever. I have to work constantly to remember the damaging toll unforgiveness has taken in my life, so I can overcome it. When I do, it is like an enormous burden being lifted from my soul. My spiritual relationship with Christ helps me to hold my tongue, embrace a period of reflection and recalibration, and ultimately let go of the anger and resentment against those who have hurt or offended me.

  6. Rick Porter on March 8, 2022 at 09:28

    A topic none of us like to face. We all know the “rule” until we are wronged and temporarily blinded to our call to love. Thank you for this reminder. Life is rough and we will each have plenty of reasons to be resentful. May the Holy Spirit bring your words to mind that we might forgive.

  7. Connie Smith on March 8, 2022 at 09:00

    60 million denarii=60million workdays=164.38 years of daily work!
    “The point is the debt is so large it would be impossible for him to ever pay it back![iii]”

    Thank you, Bro. Vryhof, for showing me the significance of my sin relative to the overwhelming Grace of God, of my debt being paid by the sacrifice of Christ. May I always strive to be deserving of that Grace.

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