The Unforgiving Servant

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Today we explore a parable that is relatively easy to understand, yet very difficult to apply. If indeed this is a metaphor for what Heaven looks like here on earth, then it helps us see heaven through a different lens than through that of church history. We can find this parable in Matthew 18: 21-35

21 “Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.

Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. 24 When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. 25 And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. 26 So the servant[i] fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. 31 When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. 32 Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. 35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”

Things always looks different as an outside observer. If we watch an exchange between two people, it is not the same as if we are one of those people within the exchange. From the outside looking in, we possess a slightly more objective line of sight. As an insider, the experience is mostly subjective. This parable teaches us that when Heaven comes to us, it reorders our line of sight. It frees us from the prison of judging others in our objective posture, and allows us to impose upon such judgements, our own subjective experience.

Though I am not you… I am not other than you either.

Here the vertical is intended to transform the horizontal. Our experience and relationship with our Maker is intended to transform our relationships with our brothers and sisters in life. That is really the corpus of the teaching of this parable. Jesus used it to help his disciples get beyond the basic level of forgiveness. It is to help us reset our framework for what forgiveness looks like. A common Jewish practice was to forgive three times and then that’s it. Peter was more than doubling this because he has seen Jesus go further than the the Jewish law before (Matthew 5:21-42). Jesus breaks that framework and essentially says “Keep going, you’re not even close.”

Until it dawns upon us just how forgiving or Heavenly Father is toward us, we cannot comprehend nor apply this teaching. This is another way of saying: “Until we understand this, we will miss Heaven.” The kingdom of this world’s disposition toward forgiveness is very different than the kingdom Jesus is inviting us into. The world may offer forgiveness but certainly not many times. One and done is probably the best it’ll get. This is because from the world’s objective viewpoint, judgement is exacting, one sided, and justice is retributive. Once the kingdom of Heaven takes over our frameworks, judgement is withheld, we see ourselves and our failures in the failures of others, and justice is restorative, not retributive. The greatest justice is to restore the broken, the lowly, the lost or separated back into the fold where they can live at peace with others as if our sins did not count against us. This is the glimpse of Heaven Jesus is showing.

Of course, like I said, this isn’t so easy to apply. Like the character in the parable, we often struggle to get out of the jail of our objective, retributive, and unloving judgements. This means that when we can’t or won’t live according to the rules of this other kingdom, we are constrained to live according to the world’s. Thus the thirty years of debt that was and could have remained forgiven, is reapplied as this man lives out his life in captivity. The point being, if we don’t apply heaven here and now, by default we remain insist on our own hell. There isn’t a fork in the road choice: heaven or hell. There is only hell, all the time, constantly, until we apply the rules of heaven. Once we do, everything changes. Jesus’ threat at the end is a reminder that missing restorative truth will contain us into a prison of captivity to a life of judgement and retribution.

It’s common in our modern world for people to cherish their judgments. Our news and entertainment is an endless severe school master who pumps up our own ego’s by hating, judging, and criticizing the actions of others. The more we drink this elixir of prideful objectivism, the more we become blind to our own mistakes. We minimize our failures, we excuse them, we reframe them with a nuanced context which allows us to give ourselves a pass… the exact opposite of the law of love. We remain harsh and critical with those who don’t measure up to our own self centered appraisals. The deception of the masses is on full display everyday…the world system is a living Hell, and why wouldn’t it be? It is the twisted imitation of Heaven and now our world sees the new Kingdom as foolish, for the weak minded or completely ineffective. For a world that struggles to believe in heaven, it seems clear that it’s because it has embraced it’s own Hell.

This parable reveals that the antidote to our life in this Hell is the counter-intuitive rule of heaven. Begin seeing our self in others, offer to others the forgiveness that we may need or one day require. Then, little by little, Heaven begins to displace the darkness and the prison which we shouldn’t be enjoying. Someone in our path today will likely cause us to judge them. We’ll call them stupid, a dumbass, an idiot. Our scathing reviews deflects the light from shining on our own heart and life. If we can catch ourself in a moment of self awareness, and withhold judgement, and even extend grace… then we will begin to know Heaven and become the agents who bring it to the dying world.

Imagine that: Heaven comes to earth, through us…right in the midst of our living Hell.

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