On forgiveness – The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant

Matthew 18:21-35

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.”


Several things are going on here.

In the text it seems a clear implication that God has much more to forgive than do we, or is at least far more extravagantly forgiving by comparison. 10,000 bags of gold, whatever their worth, is an incalculable debt compared with 100 silver coins. There is truly no way the former could have been paid. It’s hard to imagine how that debt was accrued to begin with. Who let it go that far? What happened to cause such a breach of trust? We don’t know, because that’s not the point.

We do well to note the opening dialogue giving rise to this story: Peter asks how many times should I forgive? The tradition taught that a righteous person would forgive 3 times, so Peter doubles it and adds 1 for good measure,to show how wise he is and how what a good student of Jesus he is.

Nope. Jesus gives a response that suggests there is no limit: 77 times (some translations read 70×7 times) suggests an infinite and perfect forgiveness. After all, whose going to keep count? I might keep track of 7 offenses and on the 8th, you’re done for. But 77 (or 490)? Never. 

Jesus is saying, “Peter, don’t keep score. Forgiveness is not about keeping track and teachings limit. God’s forgiving love is beyond limit, and this is your benchmark.”

Fine. I get that. All well and good.

But are there things that cannot be forgiven? At one point Jesus says “The only unpardonable sin is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.” But he’s talking about God forgiving us, not about us forgiving. Are there violations that are simply to great to forgive?

Or could it be that we confuse anger born of grief with lack of forgiveness. And could it be that we think forgiving would somehow nullify our grief, make the loss seem less significant, like a betrayal of the trust broken by the violation, a betrayal of our love?

I’ve never known that kind of anger or grief or pain or loss or violation. Many others have, and I hesitate to say what they could or should feel, think or experience.

I will continue to believe in the possibility of redemption and freedom from everything that captures and controls us, including those unforgivable violations.

Moving from the center toward the margins

When you (aka along with your social/ethnic/religious/political group) perceive that you are moving (being moved/”forced”) from the center of influence and power, it may feel like marginalization or discrimination simply because you/we/I experience a loss of privilege. When my privilege declines, whatever the reason, I am likely to experience grief and loss. This may translate into fear or anger.
Even when in the intellectual abstract I recognize that no one group should wield disproportionate influence, when my influence decreases I experience a disequilibrium. It may be this feeling is impossible to avoid, even if I chose and initiate the move away from the center.

As a Christian I need to be reminded that our faith is rooted in this move from the center toward the margins. This move is essential to God’s salvific work. The incarnation itself is God moving from power toward weakness (cf Col 1 & Phil 2). To begin his ministry Jesus moves from Jerusalem to Galilee. The penultimate act of God is submission to trial, conviction and crucifixion as a blasphemer and traitor (placed on the margin of society and culture).

Jesus is the embodiment of God moving from the center to the margin. Genesis 1-2, John 1 and Revelation 20-21 tell us that this is where God chooses and prefers to be – here with us.

What does this mean for the church today, in the West, in the US, here in Dallas? Will we follow God in this move toward the margin and release our hold on he centrality of our power and influence? What will such a move cost us? What will it gain us?

During this Lenten season, my desire is to move toward the margins together with the people of Central. One might argue that my arrival as the Senior Pastor of a church on the border of Highland Park is a move toward the center. This can’t be honestly argued against. And yet for me it is a dance – moving toward the center so that together we might move toward the margins. Clinging to past glory or privilege gains us nothing. Jesus never sought favor because of his royal or priestly lineage. Instead, what if we carry the benefit and privilege we have gained at the center, which may simply be our solid sense of self, and what is possible. What if we take this hope and expectation for the future and carry it with us to the margins, offering hope to others? 

Central Christian Church of Dallas, Texas is literally on the margins of multiple largely homogenous communities: #ParkCities, #NorthPark, #Oaklawn, #Uptown. We are in Dallas (and #DallasISD) but look across the street into #HighlandPark. What might it mean for Central to be literally that – to be the center toward which people from all of these communities move. In the process they would be moving from their own community toward the margins, and toward a meeting place with others.

My friend Matthew Russell and his colleagues at Project Curate are doing exactly this in the city of Houston. Matt is also on staff at St Paul’s UMC in Houston.

Missional church is another way to consider this move. Missional calls us to “go out – go deep – go together”. Missional is a move together into deep community for the sake of going out in to the world, toward the margins, where Christ may be found. When we look at the beatitudes of Luke 6 or Jesus call to serving him by serving others (Mt 25) we are being called to the margins.

How can you move toward the margins in your own life? How can you do it not as a visitor and vacationer, but as a pilgrim, a migrant, with all the inherent trust and vulnerability those suggest?