Reading beyond the Narrative

Unmerciful servant
Unmerciful servant

When we read the Bible, sometimes it’s easy to get stuck in the narrative. By that, I mean we read the story, and follow the “plot line”, but we miss the real point. For instance, in Matthew 18, Jesus tells the “Parable of the Unmerciful Servant”. TLDR; version: A guy gets forgiven of vast debt by the king (think mega millions) and walks away only to shake down his buddy for a minor debt (hundreds of dollars).  So the king gets mad and makes the guy pay back the debt and punishes him. Jesus finishes his story with the ominous statement “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

Yikes! that’s terrifying. If we just read that narrative, we read something like:

I was forgiven. If I don’t forgive someone enough, God will renege on His forgiveness and throw me in prison.

Wow, Jesus is rough and the forgiveness is like a Yo-yo that comes and goes. So let’s read it with some context, and go beyond the narrative. Immediately preceding this story, Peter asks Jesus a question:

 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.

Hmmmm, what’s behind that question? Well, just before that Jesus was discussing sin, and how to deal with those who sin against you. He is emphasizing unity among people, in fact Jesus says in verse 19:

 “Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”

Wow, we will get whatever we ask, and He is in the midst of us. Is this the same guy that is throwing us into prison a few verses later? With this new information in our heads, lets return to Peter’s question. Why was he asking it? It seems legit, but it is more likely that Peter was really asking “How long do I have to keep on forgiving someone who really bothers me.

The motivation of Peter is not love, and it is not forgiveness. Rather it is obligation. He sees forgiveness as an obligation or duty that he has to do. Peter still does not get this whole “love” thing. Jesus calls us to love. Period. Love is from Christ and loves is poured out freely. Peter is really talking about putting up with, or merely tolerating problem people. He is not yet to the point of LOVE. With this as our background, now lets return to the parable. It starts out:

 “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. 25 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.

26 “At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ 27 The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.

So far, so good. The servant asked for mercy, and the nice king gave it to him. What follows is key. How would you respond to such a debt? Would you rejoice? Would you tell everybody how great the king was? Would you tell your family and friends what a wonderful king you have who removed all you debt? I hope so. However, the servant worked a little differently:

28 “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.30 “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 

So, we get to the fateful end of the story:

31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.

32 “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ 34 In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

So, we already discussed the usual reaction to the story. But what if we looked deeper. What is Jesus really talking about in this parable? Is it just as the level of forgive, or else you’re in big trouble? I don’t think so. That is not consistent with the nature and character of God. So let’s look deeper.  Peter asked Jesus about the obligation to forgive, not what forgiveness really is, or how we should forgive. And as Jesus often does, Jesus answers the question that was asked, not the question you would really like the answer to. So Jesus gave Peter answer which was about obligation.

But hidden in the story is the real answer. On the cross, Jesus removed all sins:

He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. [Colossians 2:13-14]

Jesus forgave all sins, but not all have received, or walk in the forgiveness He has provided. In the parable, it is clear the servant never truly “received” the forgiveness that he has given. He went away from the King unchanged and untransformed. He left the presence of the King the same as he was when He arrived. He was forgiven, but did not live in forgiveness. In our vernacular, even though the debt was paid, he was not saved. So let’s make a different summary of the story:

God forgave our great debt. If we don’t truly receive forgiveness and live in His forgiveness, all that remains outside of Him is torment and debt.

That’s a little more consistent with the God I know. He is the great forgiver of debt. He wants us to live lives of love where forgiveness flows freely, not by obligation. If we will not live our lives empowered by Him, walking with Him, and loving like Him, we will choose to live in a debtors prison.