Forgiveness is a unique power. Only those who are offended have the authority to forgive. Judges and juries can’t forgive. Some wrongly presume that power; some coerce or obligate others to exert that power; some belittle that power. But just as crime and sin disrupt the course of peace and justice, so forgiveness disrupts the march of justice, but for the sake of reconciliation and healing.
Financial debt is not a perfect analogy for moral debt, but imagine all your sins and indiscretions, every compromise and offence, coming due in one day.
That is the premise behind the parable of the unforgiving servant (see Matthew 18:21-35). Jesus tells of a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. When one was not able to pay, the king ordered that he, his family and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.
After selling the debtor into slavery, the king would never recover the debt’s full value. The debtor would start all over again—this time with nothing. So, why would the king collect in such a violent manner? After “making an example” of that debtor, the king could collect on other debts with less difficulty.
It’s hard for us to imagine a world in which people who are unable to pay their debts can be sold to recover some of the amount for their creditors, yet such circumstances didn’t surprise Jesus’ audience.
Threatened with slavery, the debtor asked the king to have patience so that he could pay the full amount. He thought, I don’t need forgiveness; I only need time. But the king knew that the man could not pay no matter how much time he had, so he forgave the man his debt.
If it’s hard to imagine living within this debt slavery system, then it’s even harder to picture a ruler disrupting the whole system by forgiving the debt instead of collecting it. What kind of a precedent would that action set? How can people take justice seriously when forgiveness is dispensed willy-nilly to those who don’t deserve or need it?
Forgiveness, demonstrated by the king, is literally “letting go” (aphiemi in Greek), rather than holding on. The image is of opening one’s hand rather than keeping it closed. A divine attribute (see Psalm 86:5), forgiveness releases a debtor from their obligation.
The unforgiving servant’s actions starkly contrast those of the king. The Old Testament Torah taught that payment should match offence (see Exodus 21:23-25, Leviticus 24:17-22, Deuteronomy 19:15-21), but in this parable, the servant demanded that his debtor be sold into slavery, grabbing his fellow servant by the neck to strangle him. After begging for mercy, the second debtor was sent to jail. How would he pay his debt from jail? Holding debts over our neighbours can cause us to do irrational things.
Some people point out that forgiveness can achieve therapeutic effects, but Jesus does not focus on such benefits. The primary benefit of forgiveness accrues to the undeserving debtor. For this reason, forgiveness is benevolent, selfless and voluntary.
Jesus told his followers this parable after Peter asked him to quantify the appropriate measure of forgiveness in the community of disciples: is seven times excessive (see Matthew 18:21)? Peter assumed the perspective of the offended, who had moral standing against the other to forgive or not to forgive.
Jesus invited Peter to consider other perspectives—the fellow debtor and other subjects who desired to live in the kingdom of mercy that their radical ruler was creating.
Jesus showed Peter the beauty of such a kingdom. Like the subjects who objected to one servant harassing and abusing another after being forgiven a large debt, Jesus hoped that Peter would see that he was more like the one who would have been destroyed without forgiveness than the one who was owed something.
Jesus invites us to consider the perspectives of others. Freed from our sin, guilt and shame through God’s forgiveness, he invites us to join him in building a kingdom of freedom—not just for us, but for others.
The king in Jesus’ parable forgave the debtor and released him into the community to continue building this kingdom of forgiveness. Jesus urges us to forgive 77 times (a high and full number)—not because we owe it but because that is what “the kingdom of heaven is like.”
Dr. Isaiah Allen is an assistant professor of religion at Booth University College in Winnipeg.