Parables of ForgivenessPosted February 22nd, 2010
by Richard Clark, Jr.
With His parables, Jesus vividly portrayed truth in a way that is compelling and not easily forgotten. Forgiveness is one of the themes Jesus knit into His stories. It is an underlying element of the Good Samaritan but comes to the forefront in the parable of the Unmerciful Servant.
One day, Peter asked Jesus how many times a person who continued to wrong him should be forgiven. “Up to seven times?” Peter inquired (Matthew 18:21, NKJV). Peter’s question was based on his legalistic understanding of forgiveness. How many times would he need to forgive in order to be righteous?
“I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven,” Jesus replied (Matthew 18:22, NKJV). In His response, Jesus scuttled Peter’s concept of forgiveness, insisting that his presumably generous suggestion was completely inadequate. To check your own response to Jesus, what do you think about forgiving the same person 490 times?
A servant owes his king a debt, Jesus continued. It is no small debt—it would be millions of dollars today. This is impossible for the man ever to repay and so he is sentenced to be sold, along with his wife, his children, and all he owns.
The helpless condition in which he finds himself is like the fallen, lost state of humanity. Everyone on planet earth has incurred a debt impossible to repay—the debt of sin. It is our birthright.
The servant falls down before the king and pleads for patience. Unexpectedly, the king responds with compassion and forgives the debt. In fact, the king’s grace goes far beyond the servant’s request.
Our Creator God is as merciful as He is just. He formed a plan that allows our debt to be canceled, liberating us from the indebtedness caused by sin. Jesus “indeed was foreordained before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:20). And John says that Jesus was “slain from the foundation of the world” (Revelation 13:8). God the Father laid on His Son the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53:6). “My righteous Servant shall justify many, for He shall bear their iniquity” (Isaiah 53:11, NKJV).
The parable of the servant and the king is about receiving forgiveness. It is also about failing to offer it. There is a cold, unforgiving element in the story that contrasts sharply with the king’s compassion, and it leads to an ironic turn of events.
The servant whose debt was canceled finds a co-worker who owes him the equivalent of a few dollars. Instead of remembering what has just happened to him and showing compassion toward his debtor, the pardoned man grabs his debtor, chokes him, and demands the money immediately. Just as the newly debt-free man had done, the co-worker now falls down, pleads for patience, and says he will pay all. But the pardoned servant throws him in prison anyway.
Displeased, other servants hurry to tell the king about the injustice. When the king hears of this he summons the servant whom he had just pardoned. “You wicked servant!” he says, “I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?” (Matthew 18:32-33, NKJV). The king reinstates the debt of the once-pardoned man and throws him into prison.
When the servant refused to forgive his fellow servant, he forfeited his only possible source of forgiveness. In truth, we humans have only one source of forgiveness. “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:11, NIV).
As the king pardoned the servant, so God has freely pardoned my unpayable debt of sin. In response to all He has done and continues to do for me, have I allowed His grace to transform me? Do I follow the injunction to “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32, NKJV)? Does God’s compassion propel me to acts of unselfish love? Am I merciful to my co-workers, my brothers and sisters? Do I show grace and patience to the stranger in my path?
Reasons Not to Forgive
The lead character in another of Jesus’ parables had many reasons not to be forgiving. In the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10), forgiveness is present, if, perhaps, unnoticed.
Hated and looked down on by the Jews, Samaritans were actually related by blood to the Jewish race. In the parable, this social outsider is on a journey and finds a Jewish man robbed, injured, and half dead on the highway. Already two of the victim’s countrymen had passed by—crossing to the other side of the road to avoid him.
In my imagination, I conceive of this Samaritan having often felt the sting of icy words and burning stares. He could have spat at the injured man and rode on. But instead of gloating over the misfortune of his traditional enemy, the Samaritan has compassion.
The Samaritan treats and bandages the man’s wounds. He takes him to an inn and personally cares for him. Then, the crisis past, and needing to be on his way, the Samaritan pays the innkeeper to care for the wounded man and bring him back to full health.
The Samaritan offers a glimpse into God’s compassion and forgiveness. Like the Samaritan, Jesus forgave His enemies. He stooped to rescue fallen humans. Stepping down from His exalted position in heaven, He bandages our wounds and covers our stripped bodies with the robe of His righteousness (Isaiah 61:10). He applies the healing ointment: “the blood of Jesus Christ His son” that “cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7, NKJV). He brings us to a place of healing, and promises to provide for all our needs (Psalm 23; Philippians 4:19).
A Parable in Real Life
In October 2006, Charles Carl Roberts IV entered the West Nickel Mines School in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. He was well armed. There was a standoff as police cautiously closed in outside. Then Roberts began shooting young girls in the back of the head. He killed five and injured five others; then he killed himself. The students all came from Amish families.
As the news hit the national airwaves, it seemed too cruel to fully comprehend. Yet the bereaved parents soon publicly forgave the attacker. The Amish community reached out to his widow who, in response, wrote a letter in which she said, “Your compassion has reached beyond our family, beyond our community, and is changing our world.”
Elizabethtown College Professor Donald Kraybill, in an article in the Christian Science Monitor, explained the thinking behind the Amish philosophy of forgiveness. It is founded, he said, on Jesus’ teachings. Kraybill identified the parable of the Unmerciful Servant and the Lord’s Prayer as the basis for the extraordinary forgiveness exhibited in the West Nickel Mines School story.
In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus taught His followers to pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” Then He added, “For if you forgive others the wrongs they have done, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, then the wrongs you have done will not be forgiven by your Father” (Matthew 6:14-16, NEB).
Forgiveness is not often portrayed as one of the characteristics of greatness. It may even be seen as weakness. Many legends tell of the deeds of valor done to get even, to violently avenge, to save face. But the example of Jesus reveals that forgiveness is evidence of far greater strength and courage than most common “heroes” exhibit.
As Jesus was nailed to the cross between two criminals, He prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do” (Luke 23:34, NKJV). He was praying for His executioners. The forgiveness Jesus taught and exemplified was not “seven-times” forgiveness, nor even “seventy-times-seven” forgiveness. It was “from-the-heart” forgiveness (Matthew 18:35).
His perfect sacrifice is sufficient to cover every sin ever committed. It was He “who loved us and washed us from our sins in His own blood” (Revelation 1:5-6). Jesus forgives the debt that we can never repay. He saves those who can never save themselves.