Guilt, Grace, and Debt-Collecting: The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant

Parable of the Unforgiving Servant by Nikola Saric
Parable of the Unforgiving Servant by Serbian German painter Nikola Saric

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”

Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.

“Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.

“At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt, and let him go.

“But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.

“His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’

“But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.

“Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

“This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” (Matthew 18:21-35, NIV)

It is unfortunate that one of the few guarantees in life is that someone will hurt you, and that hurt will tear a hole in your heart and last a long time.

When the hurt comes, we all must decide how to handle the issue of forgiveness. Oh, it’s easy to talk about forgiveness when you are doing fine – its another thing when you are hurt. One man, during a conversation with his Pastor, had this story:

“Nineteen years ago, this guy stole my wife away from me. They got married and moved to Florida while my life unraveled.  After I was arrested for assaulting a police officer, this guy smirked through the entire hearing.  When I was convicted, he flipped me the finger. I’ve hated him for nineteen years. He’s coming up here next week. I have a thirty-two-caliber pistol strapped around my ankle, and when I see him, I will kill him. I’ve thought about it. I’m sixty-three years old. I’ll get a life sentence, but I’ll also get free medical, a warm bed, and three meals a day.  I’m ready to end my life this way.”

We may wonder: “Why even bother to forgive?  Why even care about that person?” Emotional pain and angry hurt can be so deep that we see no need for forgiveness. “After all,” we might reason, “look at what that person has done to me!”

Jesus does not want bitterness to be the last word; he wants it to be forgiveness. The parable of the unmerciful servant is a piece of Christ’s teaching concerning “little people,” that is, people who are, by status, lowly and unimportant to others. The heavenly Father’s heart is one that cares deeply for them. They are lost, lonely, and languishing in pain. They need help. Jesus clearly explained what to do, giving a three-step process to privately go to others who have hurt us and win them back through reconciliation (Matthew 18:15).

The disciple Peter, ever the wondering, if not wandering disciple knows that if a person hurts someone, they might do it again. So, if a lost sheep is brought back to the fold, and then is offensive again-and-again, at what point do we say enough-is-enough and stop forgiving?

We as people can often feel a keen sense of “ought to.” We feel we ought to pay the debt we owe to others, and that others must pay us the debt they owe. This works on the emotional level just as much or more than any other arena of life. If we offend someone and they become angry, we believe we ought to make them feel better.  If someone angers us, we expect them to make it right and make us feel better.

The late Methodist scholar and author, Dr. David Seamands, said the two major causes of most emotional problems among Christians are: 1) The failure to understand, receive, and live out God’s unconditional grace and forgiveness; and, 2) The failure to give that grace and forgiveness to other people. I wholeheartedly agree with Dr. Seamands.

We have grace available to us in Jesus Christ through his death and resurrection. We cannot earn forgiveness.  Grace is free.  Equally true is the fact that no one owes us anything.  Grace is free for others, as well.

The Failure to Receive Forgiveness

In the end, was the unmerciful man in Christ’s parable forgiven?… No…. Why not?… Because he failed to understand forgiveness and receive it.  It was not the master’s fault; it was the man’s own fault. So, why did he react so mercilessly to a fellow person in debt? (The man’s debt was in the billions and could not be paid off, but the other man’s debt was just a few dollars). The unmerciful guy failed to grasp the master’s grace; he didn’t get it.  He thought he could work it off, and when the debt was canceled, he could not wrap his heart around such mercy. None of us can repay grace – it is free.

The inability to know and receive grace drives many Christians to the tragic treadmill of constant striving for perfection, achievement, and recognition from others. Many people refuse grace and instead try to get rid of their guilt through endless work – fueling the workaholic, motivating the addict, and animating much of the service done in the church and the world. The problem is not a lack of understanding sin or acknowledging personal sinful actions among Christians; the problem is what to do about it. Too many believers are trying to work-off their debt.

The Unforgiving Servant by American artist James B. Jangknegt

Here is a little test: Why do you do what you do? Why do you do good and right things?  Be honest.  Is it to truly worship and celebrate the Lord who has erased such a great debt of sin in our lives? Or, are we working to pay off a debt to God?  Am I striving to assuage my guilt? Are we searching to feel better through our service to others?

We can be so accustomed to operating according to guilt instead of grace that we don’t know what to with the absence of guilt – so we just go back to guilt as our default setting, like a dog returning to its vomit. Furthermore, the tragedy is compounded by insisting that others operate out of guilt, too.

Another little test: Are we content to simply ask people to help or to serve, or do we believe that there must be arm-twisting with some guilt to motivate them? Guilt and arm-twisting are inconsistent with the gospel of grace.  If we believe we must guilt our kids, family, co-workers, neighbors, or anyone else before they will do anything, then it is us who have a spiritual problem.

Ideally, we live and work out of a sense of gratitude toward God and not by guilt. Yet, there are always folks who continue to work out their unhappiness on other people by insisting they get on the guilt train along with them. We are unable to forgive ourselves, so we live with the guilt and try to pay off our debt, making ourselves and everyone else miserable in the process.

The Failure to Give Forgiveness

The unforgiven are the unforgiving. The reason the guy in the story responded so violently to a person who only owes him a few bucks is because he never really believed he was forgiven by the master in the first place. He could not envision a world in which his debt was paid. The unmerciful man was still operating as though life were a matter of collecting debts.

At the heart of many broken relationships and emotional conflicts is an insistence on debt-collecting. We want from others something they cannot give us. God in Christ erases the great debt we have, not some other person.  Yet, we go out and seek from others what only God provides. People are good at being people – but they make lousy gods. It is God who meets the deepest needs of our hearts – your spouse, children, friends, church, and community cannot do it. That is a job for Jesus. The watershed issue is grace – whether we can receive it, or not.  We cannot give something we have not first received.

It would be weird if a marriage vow went something like this: “I have a lot of terrific inner needs and inner emptiness and debts to pay, and I’m going to give you a marvelous opportunity to fill my Grand Canyon of insecurity and take care of me!”

Sometimes people have a nasty tendency to make idols of other people and look at them as though they owe us a debt of happiness, joy, and peace. For example, the weird marriage vow, if followed through with, inevitably will result in debt-collecting. A few years down the road the spouse says, “This is not what you were like when I married you… You owe me!” Our insecurity comes from the inability to receive grace. It is all about grace. Everything is about grace, not guilt and not debt-collecting because the debt has already been paid and the guilt has been erased.

Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled (with the blood of Christ) to cleanse us from a guilty conscience. (Hebrews 10:22)

Conclusion

You and I are forgiven. There is no need to collect a debt which is already paid. The cross of Jesus Christ has taken care of the sin issue once for all, and not one person reading this is an exception to grace. Here is a final exam, to determine if there is someone we need to forgive:

  1. The Resentment Test: Is there someone you resent? Is there someone who has wronged you?  When you see them or think about them, do you have resentment in your heart?
  2. The Responsibility Test: You say to yourself, “I wouldn’t have this problem if it wasn’t for ________.”  This is passing the buck and believing that my happiness is dependent on another person. The truth is that no one is responsible for your emotional well-being and happiness except you.
  3. The Reminder and Reaction Test: Is there someone who “presses your buttons?” This is when we see or talk to a person who reminds us of someone else who hurt us, and we react to that person by transferring our anger and/or pain onto them.

The Pastor responded to the man mentioned earlier who had lost his wife to another man by saying, “Well, I guess it doesn’t matter if you go to jail because you’re already in jail.  The guy who stole your wife and smirked at your hearing isn’t in jail. You are. You are a prisoner of your own hate, and you are slowly killing yourself.”  A week after that conversation the man called the Pastor and said, “You know, I get your point.  I put the gun away.  I don’t want to spend the rest of my life in jail – and I want to get rid of this bitterness.”

The way to do deal with bitterness is through forgiveness. To forgive involves a long journey, just like every other aspect of following Jesus. Hopefully, by retelling the gospel of grace to one another week after week our hearts will be soft.  We will want to begin the journey to forgive others, stumbling forward with hearts torn by hurts, yet set free by grace.

May it be so to the glory of God.

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