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.’ So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. 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. (Matthew 18:28-31)
We’ve definitely reached an interesting point in this parable. Previously in the story, we met a servant who was in debt to his master for 10,000 talents (an insurmountable debt), yet was forgiven everything when he pleaded for mercy.
Now that same servant is in the position of creditor, holding the 100 denarii debt of a fellow servant. This other servant pleaded for mercy, just as his creditor had done to the master. Yet the original servant, the one who had been forgiven so much by the master, refused to forgive the debt of his peer, and instead chose to imprison him until his family and friends could raise enough money to pay the debt and have him released.
Whoa. The story concludes in the succeeding verses by looking at the master’s response to this hypocrisy, but for now, I think there are a few insights into the human condition that we see here:
1. We quickly forget our own debt when dealing with others. Look back at how this passage started in verse 28: “But when that same servant went out…” There doesn’t seem to be any passage of time built into the story. It appears that this servant was forgiven, turned around, and refused to forgive. Similarly, how often do we go to the Lord (or even another person for that matter) for forgiveness, only to soon thereafter deny forgiveness to someone who has sinned against us.
2. We don’t fully understand the size of our debt when dealing with others. The original servant was forgiven 10,000 talents. The debt he refused to forgive was 100 denarii. A denarius was a small silver coin, the equivalent of a day’s wages. A talent was upwards of 60 pounds of gold. The debt he was owed was about 3 1/2 months salary. The debt he was forgiven was more than 16.5x greater than all the taxes collected from Judea, Idumea, and Samaria in the year 4 BC (which was about 600 talents according to Josephus’ The Antiquities of the Jews). He was forgiven perhaps billions of dollars, yet he was refusing to forgive a few hundred.
I also think there is significance in the fact that the master “ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made,” while the servant, “seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’” Not only did the servant fail to forgive the debt, but he was both physically and verbally abusive to the debtor.
This seems ridiculous until we realize that we do the same thing. We have been forgiven all of our sin, which was rooted in outright rebellion against God and which caused Jesus to be nailed to the cross on our behalf. We have been forgiven a debt that we could never have paid ourselves. But then we grow bitter and hold grudges over petty personal slights, unintended insults, and wounded pride. When you really think about it, it’s almost silly. If we really understand our own debt, it should be easier for us to forgive others’ debts toward us. The fact that it’s so hard shows we don’t fully fathom our own.
3. We don’t realize that others watch us to see how we handle forgiveness. I think verse 31 is greatly significant: “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.” I don’t see a reason for his fellow servants (plural, not just the one he refused to forgive) to be distressed and go tell the master except for the fact that they knew he had been forgiven and was now refusing to forgive others. His refusal to forgive wasn’t simply something between him and his debtor; it was something that impacted the entire community and gained the attention of the master. And tomorrow, we’ll see the master’s response.
Things to Reflect on in Light of this Passage:
1. Do I fully comprehend the size of my debt that has been forgiven? Do I need to spend more time contemplating my sin and Christ’s death to pay the penalty for it?
2. Is there anyone in my life I am refusing to forgive? How can a more full understanding of my own forgiveness help me to forgive that person?
3. Can the people in my life tell that I have been forgiven just by watching the way I forgive others? Am I causing the community of believers distress by my refusal to forgive?