“That is why the kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who decided to settle accounts with his servants. When he began the accounting, a debtor was brought before him who owed him a huge amount. Since he had no way of paying it back, his master ordered him to be sold, along with his wife, his children, and all his property, in payment of the debt. At that, the servant fell down, did him homage, and said, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back in full.’ Moved with compassion, the master of that servant let him go and forgave him the loan. When that servant had left, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a much smaller amount. He seized him and started to choke him, demanding, ‘Pay back what you owe.’ Falling to his knees, his fellow servant begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’ But he refused. Instead, he had him put in prison until he paid back the debt. Now when his fellow servants saw what had happened, they were deeply disturbed, and went to their master and reported the whole affair. His master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to. Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant, as I had pity on you?’ Then in anger his master handed him over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt. So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives his brother from his heart.” Matthew 18:23-35
In this parable, we have three main characters: a king, a servant, and the servant’s fellow servants. God is the king, we are the indebted servant, and those who may be indebted to us are our fellow servants.
The first thing worth noting is that throughout the scriptures, forgiveness of sins is often likened to the forgiveness of debts. For example, some translations of the “Our Father” say, “Give us today our daily bread; and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” (Matthew 6:11-12) This parable of the unforgiving servant further emphasizes the concept of sin as a sort of debt that is owed.
The debt that the servant owed to the king was incredibly large, it was so great that it was unpayable, “he had no way of paying it back.” Not surprisingly the indebted servant approached the king and he “fell down.” He approached the king in all humility, literally lowering himself. And begging for forgiveness for his incredibly large debt, forgiveness was generously given.
Whenever we as sinners approach God in all humility, falling down on bended knee, asking for patience from God, expressing a desire to set things right, and making any attempt to pay back what is owed, God in his compassion forgives us our debt entirely. This is the beauty of the sacrament of reconciliation: We go to our king face to face, and literally kneeling down (or lowering ourselves in humility), we confess our sins asking for forgiveness. Then making an act of contrition, we do penance, we attempt to set things right, paying back the debt inasmuch as we possibly can. And in this process we are completely forgiven.
A second item worth noting in the parable is that the king forgives first. “In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also must love one another.” (1 John 4:10-11) God is the initiator, he has loved us first, so we must love one another. He has forgiven us first, so we are meant to forgive one another. His forgiveness is truly a gift, it is something that we could never earn, and it is something that we most certainly don’t deserve. And since God gives gifts not to be hoarded by the individual who receives them but to be shared with others, we are meant to be generous in sharing the gift of forgiveness that he has given to us with others.
The parable helps us to see and understand how ridiculous it is to be unforgiving to our fellow man. When King David committed the double sin of adultery and murder, he didn’t quite realize how ridiculous his behavior was until the prophet Nathan put everything in perspective through the use of a parable. (2 Samuel 12:1-7) Nathan helped David to see the double standard that he was blind to. Similarly, Jesus who is The Prophet par excellence, through the use of a parable helps us to see how ridiculous it is for us to be unforgiving to our brothers and sisters. When it comes to forgiveness, we often have quite the double standard! We turn to our King asking, even expecting/presuming, to be forgiven hundreds of times for hundreds of sins committed. But sometimes we are unwilling to forgive a single person for a single wrong that they’ve done. We want the enormous debt that we owe to God to be forgiven, but we are unwilling to forgive the much smaller debts of other people.
The parable of the unforgiving servant teaches us to forgive others as God has forgiven us lest we end up in a place of eternal indebtedness to the King. The king’s forgiveness, already given, was withdrawn from his servant in the end because of the servant’s unwillingness to forgive the debts of others. Our Father has forgiven us, but if we do not forgive our fellow man, he will withdraw his forgiveness at the final judgment, and the punishment of those who are unforgiving will be endless.