Scripture Reading for April 3, 2011

Matthew 18:21-35

The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant

Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church* sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven* times.

‘For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents* was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow-slaves who owed him a hundred denarii;* and seizing him by the throat, he said, “Pay what you owe.” Then his fellow-slave fell down and pleaded with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow-slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?” And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he should pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister* from your heart.’
These teachings of Jesus touch on one of the most important aspects of Christian faith, forgiveness. Often in Christian circles, forgiveness is thought of in terms of a person being forgiven by God. In this passage, however, Jesus is instructing the disciples about forgiving one another. With what might seem like an unreasonable standard, Jesus instructs the disciples that they must forgive someone who sins against them seventy seven times. In Luke’s version of this saying, the response to this teaching is “Lord, increase our faith!”, nicely capturing that this requirement of constant forgiveness seems beyond our capacity to fulfill.  

 In thinking about this passage, help me to ponder any or all of the following:

1) When have I needed forgiveness for something I have done?

2) Is there ever a time when it is not only understandable but right to refuse to forgive someone?

3) After I forgave someone important to me or was forgiven by someone important to me, how did that relationship change?

4) Jesus’ parables often have a straightforward meaning, and a more metaphorical meaning. What does the parable say directly? What might it be trying to hint at?

5) What details of the parable are confusing or not readily understandable to modern readers?

John Edgerton, BA, M.Div.
Pastoral Resident

About PlymouthSpirit

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6 Responses to Scripture Reading for April 3, 2011

  1. Joan Smiley says:

    I realize that I am apt to ask for forgiveness when I have said something without concern for how my words might be hurtful to another..

    I think it realistic to expected that an individual may initially be hesitant to forgive when the pain of the injury, physical or mental, is still fresh. I sense that when someone is told to forgive a recent hurtful and perhaps careless action/verbal exchange it should be understandable that he/she refuses to comply and forgive the other. No one likes to be pushed into a moral corner with the insistence of forgiving another. Forgiving at its best is sincere and given with concern for the other and respect for ones self.

    When an individual can forgive an injury or insult they then earn/obtain the freedom to interact with the other without anger .

    Straight forward meaning–the Golden Rule, do onto others as you would have them do to you.
    Greater understanding–When we show compassion for others we have reason to hope in the compassion of others.

  2. Paul Price says:

    I am not deeply familiar with the Old Testament, however I have at times come across passages-as I recall-that invoke god’s wrath for some people or tribe for generations to come. Christianity has struggled (more often nurtured) for centuries with the supposed “blood guilt” of the Jewish people for crucifying Jesus. Anti-Semitism has caused the slaughter of millions. Cultural and political nurturance of cross generational resentments, I bet, can be found everywhere on the planet. So it seems to be one of our specie’s vulnerabilities and ‘[n]ot seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times’ is good guidance for working to defuse this murderous dynamic, staying “shrewd as serpents” with our wings strong, limber, and practiced.

  3. Randall Rogers says:

    When I read about forgiveness in the bible I end up with a few questions. Like, is there more than one kind of forgiveness? After all, there are the day-to-day sorts of incidents that remind us how divinely human we each are. They require a kind of forgiveness. Like cutting someone off in traffic, or ignoring that you received too much change at the grocery store for that $20. There is a certain amount of quid quo pro that goes along with this being human.
    Still, when urged to consider this scripture where forgiveness is described as one of the most important aspects of Christian faith, I believe the context of forgiveness being extolled is that of God the Father toward us, his wayward human creation. That seems like a very different sort of forgiveness. In the Bible, failing seems to be part of the human condition and I can’t help but wonder, “Is the Christian God, the sort of God that would create all that we know and feel as human beings and then set us up with a perpetual no-win situation?” A built-in wellspring of shame?

    In other words, are we are created to exist in a life-long struggle in which we are forever beholden to God for forgiveness for our very nature– the nature He created us with?

    The bible is many things. It may well be a guide to human salvation, and it is certainly an enduring work of literature and spiritual insight in regards to the human condition– human dilemmas, motivations, and certainly human failings. Many of the stories and incidents are shrouded in overt mystery– a snake that speaks, a few fish and loaves of bread that feed thousands, yet, is there anything more mysterious than the act of forgiveness?
    In the scriptures for this week, I am struck how much the tone and the words around the act forgiveness sound like my dad telling me to clean my room, or my mother telling me to wash my own clothes. My Bible might be missing a few pages but, I don’t see the part where God instructs us on how to accomplish this feat of forgiveness. No. Instead, it seems to me, a presumption is made that the behavior requested is either innate or intuitive. That like sinning or loving, forgiveness is irrevocably a fundamental aspect of the human experience.

    Here’s the thing. I believe that forgiveness is innate and intuitive AND that it comes only from a place of grace (a little like salvation). How easy it is for a child to forgive! No wonder we are exhorted to be child-like in our faith. The rise of the Self that is born of human experience and unmet expectation supplants that innately natural act of Grace with concern about the position, success and stature of the Self. I was about to suggest that forgiveness often requires time and a history of some sort. As a 51-year-old man I find that time on this planet, mindfulness and a certain amount of loss and humility go a long way on the road to forgiveness. Yet, a child, unencumbered by the sorts of wounds and psychological baggage we thrive on in contemporary American society CAN forgive almost without thought! Thinking may well get in the way of forgiveness.

    In Matthew, the part of the verse that bids us to forgive not seven but seventy-seven times, goes to the heart of the human situation. This is perpetual stuff. Never-ending. Like so many of the tools for navigating human life, this one must be re-visited many times. I myself am like a man with dementia struggling to hang on to what I have learned, often stumbling in the dark on the very tool I need.

    Finally, it is easy to speak of the mystery of forgiveness as something reserved for or practiced on others. As such we sell it and ourselves short. One of the deepest mysteries around ‘forgiveness’ is the forgiveness of self. Curiously, if we believe the Biblical texts that suggest God lives within each of us, perhaps this is where we begin.

  4. Charles Matson Lume says:

    The end of the reading is a little shocking to me. Jesus makes our “heavenly Father” out to be a bully. I guess I don’t understand why Jesus would end the parable in this way. It sounds like we have no free will. Indeed, forgive or be tortured.

    Perhaps on further reflection, there might be self-torture by not forgiving.

    I am also surprised by the use violence in this scripture. I understand the kind of raw justice that is being forwarded, but the violence seems more like a Tarantino film or a Flannery O’ Connor short story. There is a kind of “thuggery” in the last scripture verse that Brando embraced in The Godfather. I can hear Brando whispering the last verse into Al Pacino’s ear. Am I way off base?

  5. Joan Wicklund says:

    Might the torture described in the parable describe the torture of the mind trying to decide if forgiveness is possible? My thoughts are that there are some things that are unforgiveable without grave consequences. One might put crimes against nature such as sexual abuse of a child or war crimes in this category. Does severe punishment for these offenses alleviate the guilt and then require forgiveness? I’m not sure. One of my husband’s family members suffered sexual abuse by another family member and I find it impossible to forgive him or even be in the same room with him. His legal punishment for this act was minimal. Can I leave the forgiveness to God? At this point I can only tell you that I have not forgiven him and I don’t know if I ever will find the grace to let the anger go. He destroyed a life and his presence in the family is an affront to us all. Perhaps if he showed some measure of humility or remorse for his actions it would be easier to forgive but this has not happened and probably never will.

    • Paul Price says:


      In a similar way, I have often felt that the torture mentioned in the scriptural passage can be interpreted as a conscience at least vulnerable to great doubt and yet slow to act, (thick necked) which describes me during more than a few periods of my life. It is not pretty. It might actually be a hoped for state in contrast to socio/psychopathy.

      I think forgiveness is tricky, though I will not remove the (“otherness”) challenge of seventy seven. I have a problematic history of forgiveness regarding my parents-mistakes were made, depression and bitterness never addressed, and violence. I have found myself moving forward in stuttering steps of forgiveness, often linked to gaining more understanding and sympathy about what happened to them. They were also once just five year old kids, not comprehending what happened to them, or was going to happen . . . I ascribe responsibility in many layers and then there is me. In a thought experiment, I would not ever plunk a kid into my parents parenting “hey day,” though I might when they were older, elderly-I think they were actually pretty good grandparents. Nothing has happened overnight, and there are times when I am still angry and then sad for the waste caused. I have had problems with forgiving if it seems like I have to drop my guard and expose myself to further hurt or betrayal. It sounds almost like safety and trust (of primary importance) have not been re-established in your family. Sometimes the hurt may be too great.

      At the same time, not forgiving can imprison others-the unforgiven-in sadistic wrethchednes, and imprison oursleves. (I am reminded of myself, not at my best, when a relationship has “destructed.” I have sometimes harbored and nurtured resentments, poisoning me.)

      It’s a strongly seasoned, compelling parable, that needs careful implementation. Even healing predators have to be watched and treated carefully. (Forgiveness while palming a very strong taser?) Our prisons have become more vindictive and we have created additionally horrible results. Yet, providing real educational opportunities to inmates has demonstrated, solid-not perfect-positive outcomes; all the while some officeholders find it easy to panderingly slash programs for eduction, portraying themselves as not “soft on criminals.”

      It’s complicated. I have a way to go. When I have reconciled with someone, and felt safe and not used, I have felt stronger in a good way.

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