on the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant: Matthew 18:23-35
times of conflict and war one of the casualties is the ability to see clearly
and discern fairly. We tend to view the world in terms of moral absolutes. "They
are either with us or against us." People are seen as either good or
evil, heroes or villains. The problem is, of course, that most of us, and
indeed, most human beings do not fall into such neatly defined categories.
nature is messy and complicated. People who sometimes lie or cheat on their wives
can at other times act like the heroes who risked their lives trying to rescue
others on 9/11. Likewise, those identified as saints or role models in history
have serious character flaws that good historians or biographers can readily identify.
This may well be one of the main reasons that forgiveness was such an important
part of the teaching of Jesus. Still, his emphasis upon forgiveness remains one
of the most difficult aspects of his teaching.
the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant. In the parable Jesus compares God to a
king who forgives his impoverished and indebted servant everything he owes. (In
my paraphrase of the parable, I've placed it in a contemporary setting.) In
this case the servant's debt amounts to something in the neighborhood of ten million
dollars. Moved by the servant's impassioned pleas for mercy, the king simply wipes
away that debt in a sweep of the hand.
the servant reacts to that act of mercy without the slightest sensitivity to the
plight of another man who owes him something like a thousand dollars. The unforgiving
servant seizes his debtor by the throat and bellows: "Pay me what you owe!"
But when the poor man cannot come up with the money, he has him thrown in jail.
Later the king confronts the unforgiving one: "You wicked servant; I forgave
you all your debt, should you not also have demonstrated mercy as I had mercy
on you?" In anger the king delivers him to the jailers. And Jesus concludes
the parable speaking directly to each of us: "So also my heavenly father
will do to everyone of you if you do not forgive your neighbor from your heart."
where does that leave us? It leaves us with the possibility of being thrown into
jail not because of having committed any crime or broken any law, but simply because
we did not forgive someone who had committed evil against us.
difficult it is to affirm Christ's teaching about forgiveness, let alone put it
into practice. Sure it may sound reasonable that we forgive the human race in
general for sins known and unknown, but how do you forgive your best friend for
an act of betrayal? How do you forgive your own parents for psychological damage
or even abuse inflicted upon you in the earliest years of childhood? How do your
forgive your spouse for falling in love with someone else? How do your forgive
your children for adopting a way of life that seems completely alien to all the
values you have tried to teach? It's easy to forgive in general, but it's almost
impossible to forgive a specific wrong that has brought you deep personal pain.
some cases it seems impossible to forgive once, let alone 70 times 7 as Jesus
forgiveness was at the very center of Christ's teaching. It was his principal
concern at the very hour of his death. As he hung there bleeding on the cross,
with pain as great or greater than any of us will ever experience, he said so
directly of those who delighted in his own death: "Father, forgive them,
they know not what they are doing."
Christ's teaching on forgiveness is difficult for us to apply in our personal
lives, how much more difficult for a group of people, for a whole nation to forgive.
Should we forgive the thousands upon thousands of people who cheat on their taxes,
resulting in a heavier burden upon those of us who pay our fair share? Should
we forgive those who aided and abetted the terrorists who struck the World Trade
Center on 9/11?
One of the very first difficulties
involved in any attempt to forgive is that forgiveness involves a judgment against
the offending party and this judgment may itself be faulty. A while back, during
the first Bush administration, a parent upset at the prospect that his son, a
soldier who had been sent to fight in the Middle East, might die in combat, wrote
to the New York Times. "If my son dies fighting to guarantee
this nation a continuing supply of cheap oil, I will have to pray that God forgive
you Mr. President, I cannot."
comes in trying to decide what form forgiveness should take. As depicted by Jesus
in the New Testament forgiveness is not just a fuzzy feeling; it expresses itself
in specific behavior. The canceling of a debt, the pardoning of a crime, the swinging
open of the prison doors. That's why Jesus was in so much trouble with the priests
and ministers, the lawyers and law enforcement officers of his day. He didn't
seem to be very concerned about their problems of law enforcement; he didn't seem
to be sensitive to their difficulties in the practical administration of justice.
In the world of practical politics we can't let every debt be cancelled; we can't
allow every criminal to go unpunished. The simple administration of justice requires
enforcement of the law. But that was not Christ's principal concern.
the world sees the human family divided between the good and the bad, between
the righteous and the sinners, between my team and your team, Jesus saw one family.
He saw all of us equally in need of God's mercy, and equally called to the work
God's love is not like a wall that separates
the law-makers from the law-breakers; God's love is like the sun which shines
down upon us all. God's mercy is like the rain which pours down upon law-maker
and law-breaker alike. Remember Robert Frost's poem the "Mending Wall?"
The poet enters into conversation with his neighbor, at the boundary between their
two farms. The harsh New England weather has broken down that wall, and the neighbor
is painstakingly putting the stones back in place. When the poet asks his neighbor
why he thinks it necessary to rebuild the wall, the man replies: "Good fences
make good neighbors." Frost doesn't agree: "Before I built a wall, I'd
ask to know what I was walling in or walling out, and to whom I was like to give
offense. Something there is that doesn't like a wall, that wants it down."
us, God may be that something or someone who wants the walls to come tumbling
But somehow we keep conspiring to
build them up. We're continually torn between God's mercy and our human need to
punish, to reprimand, to imprison. We want to contain by force of arms the evil
we find in those "terrorists;" we want to lock up the criminals, throw
them in jail and throw away the key. And in this imperfect world, for the foreseeable
future there may be a need to build some walls. Some forms of retributive justice
may be necessary; some systems of mutual defense may be required to preserve order
in the world. But we cannot heal the deep wounds within the human family by the
force of law alone. We can place a hundred and fifty thousand troops in Iraq;
we can place a police officer at every street corner in the land, but we cannot
even begin to heal the wounds that afflict us all by force alone. Neither this
nation's most powerful weapons, nor the most efficient police force in the world
can begin to heal the wounds of the heart. But that is where the real work of
healing must begin; and that is where forgiveness plays its part.
see, when we refuse to forgive, when we harbor our resentment, we place our very
lives in danger. In Christ's parable, the king has the unforgiving servant thrown
into jail, imprisoned, cut off from life itself. Sigmund Freud tried to express
the truth of this parable in the language of modern psychology. Freud compared
our journey through life to a long march down an imaginary road. At birth, said
Freud, each of us is supplied with a certain number of soldiers that we may deploy
when we come across some opponent, some threat to our safety, some enemy real
or imagined. When we have a conflict with a neighbor which we cannot resolve,
when we hold close to our hearts some anger or resentment, we must station some
troops at that point along the road. We must tie up some energy there; and that
of course leaves us with fewer resources, fewer troops in facing the next challenge
that presents itself. That's why some of us, having marshaled so many of our reserves
to fight so many ancient battles have so little energy left for the challenges
of the present. At bottom we are asked to forgive not because any of us has such
a great supply of charity that we can rise above our differences with our neighbors,
but rather because we must let go of our anger and resentment or we shall die.
When we clutch our judgments and our accusations close to our hearts, our hearts
themselves are poisoned. For our own sakes and for our very salvation we need
to pray, pray that we find the grace to forgive in our neighbors what God has
already forgiven in us. Thanks be to God for a mercy strong enough and bold enough
to set us free.
If you want to talk with someone in person, please feel free to call 212-864-5436
The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and
Executive Director of CrossCurrents.
He is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here. God and Science (Hypertext Edition,
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion: Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2007).
Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.