Unequal debts, unmerciful servant
“Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit. Anyone who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; anyone on whom it falls will be crushed” (Matthew 21:43,44).
If you’ve grown up with siblings, you’ll know the experience. Perhaps you’ve done something wrong, and mum or dad are present for a reckoning. Down on your proverbial (or literal) knees you go, begging with them to exercise mercy.
“I promise I’ll wash up for a whole week!”
“I won’t do it again, I swear!”
And in the ideal situation, your parents let you off with a minor consequence or turn a blind eye because your puppy dog eyes are too much to handle.
Then you walk down the hallway, smirkingly satisfied with your negotiation skills, and turn the corner to see your sibling ramming your Hot Wheels car into the bedroom door repetitively, or pulling the head off your Barbie doll (understood, these are toys typically from an earlier generation, but you get the picture).
Well, well, well. A fire is lit in your belly, the pungent smell of vengeance is released into the air and you’re either screaming “Mum! Dad!” or you’re scrambling toward your sibling with pent-up rage. Your property! Your precious prized possessions destroyed! “Vengeance is mine,” says the child.
If you’re following along, it’s likely that you’re thinking “gone are the days when my world is cars and dolls. I’m not wrapped up in my own little world.” For many of us, we’re not kids anymore. Not in the physiological sense of the word, anyway. We’ve got cars that are at least three times the size of those in a Matchbox collection (it’s more than three times, but a moment of distracting silliness never hurt anybody). We’re (generally) not living our dream fantasy lives, swapping our outfits 20 times a day like in the land of dolls. We’re not wrestling in mud, spending our summer days licking watermelon juice trails off our forearms, or building blanket forts in the lounge room on a day when the heat is sweltering outside and the air conditioner is on full blast. We’re adults. Grown men and women. Mature . . . right?
Ha. I don’t know about you, but as a 29-year-old, the objects of my affection may be different, but my attitude sometimes isn’t that dissimilar to that of the disgruntled grump that is a child who doesn’t get their way. I’m protective over my own goals, dreams, ideas, perspectives and it’s not often I operate immediately and solely from a place of mercy and understanding towards people. Admittedly, life isn’t easy. There are over seven billion of us here on the planet, all with selfishness as our default programming, and I’ll bump and clash with my fellow human on the daily. I’ll do things for people, hoping they’ll return the sentiment or favour. But in reality, what I’m expecting from them, I would never expect it from myself.
But this story is not a new one. It’s not original. In fact, as has been pointed out, it’s a common experience for all of us. It is so common, in fact, that God Himself speaks of this tendency of ours to want forgiveness from above but yet not extend the same mercy and kindness to others.
Peter was talking to Jesus one day. He talked to Jesus a lot. In fact, the word “to” rather than “with” is aptly used here, as Peter is known to be an ideas man, whether or not they’re well thought out. Quite confident in his assumption that there must be some limit to forgiveness, he asks “how often should I forgive my brother who does wrong against me? Seven times?” Jesus, possibly bemusedly, looks at Peter. If Jesus had a knack for Australian humour, of which I believe (quite presumptuously) that He does, He would have borderline sarcastically but also prophetically said “no, not seven times. Seventy times seven.”
Switch back to Peter’s face, who is quizzically now doing the mental arithmetic and possibly going cross-eyed in the process. I imagine Jesus humbly chuckling, and then painting the picture of what goes hand in hand with forgiveness: our relationship to the mercy of God and how it impacts our relationships with others.
In the parable of the unmerciful servant, we get a play by play of a man who just like each of us, receives an immeasurable serve of mercy from the king when the debt from his mistakes is still owing. After begging the king for patience (v 26), the king doesn’t just give the man an opportunity in the form of more time to pay off his debt, he totally eradicates it (v 27). He goes beyond what would be expected by any king.
Let’s pause. The man goes from owing ten thousand talents (v 24), to owing nothing at all. Can you imagine that? Have you ever experienced anything remotely like it? (spoiler: you have . . . ). The fact was, he did experience something like this. And yet somehow, as we come to find, the takeaway lesson from receiving unmerited mercy did not, in fact, get taken away. He left it behind when he left the King’s presence.
You see, the ongoing experience of true forgiveness comes from a place of recognising we are truly forgiven. It seems as though the issue wasn’t that the king didn’t offer forgiveness —he did, and in abundance. It was that the king’s forgiveness wasn’t received; it wasn’t taken to heart.
The servant walks away and finds a fellow servant owing him a small amount, and demands repayment. It seems he, like me puppy dog eyeing my parents before seeing my brother disfiguring my dolls, did not truly see the gift of forgiveness extended to his entire being.
Are we all “perhaps” like this unmerciful servant? I say perhaps almost facetiously, as, in reality, we are. The Bible is story after story of God giving His people—all the people of the world—unmerited forgiveness and mercy. And yet what would really indicate our appreciation for such a thing would be to take what these repetitive acts of forgiveness say about His love for us, internalise that beautiful reality, and extend them to others . . . no?
In the parable, the King calls upon the unmerciful servant. You see, God (spoiler alert, the King is God) is not just concerned with how we relate to Him. He wants to see the authentic appreciation we have for Him flow to others. The King (God) passionately expresses his disappointment and hurt in hearing of how the servant has dealt with his fellow man—one of those who the king would happily forgive all debt himself. The king’s sadness knowing the heart of this servant is unchanged by the mercy afforded to him results in the withdrawal of his favour. He wants only one thing from and for this man: a changed heart.
After a tumultuous year (hello 2020, you snowball of character growth, you), I’ve seen more and more a tendency within myself to expect mercy and not give it. I’ve very possibly lost close friendships over it. And it got to a point where I realised the following: this is not life abundant. This is not an acceptance of the gift promised in John 10:10 by Jesus Himself. The living kingdom is one that works towards fairness and opportunity in every sense. The gentle “thwack” on the back of my head that I so desperately needed was seeing the way my search for mercy to be given to me from people (rather than from God), and my unwillingness, when I did receive it, to share it on is an indication to me that I’ve envisioned the kingdom as something outside of myself, rather than within myself. In God’s kingdom, the central point is the temple, and as a temple of God Himself, this living kingdom begins with me. It begins with mirroring mercy to my fellow members of society because I’ve truly received it. It begins with me not qualifying and quantifying what is sufficiently “forgiving” behaviour and just leaning back into the arms of God Himself and saying “I see your radical goodness, and I wish to reflect that.” Seventy times seven for Jesus wasn’t just individual moments, it was years. It was four hundred and ninety years of forgiveness and reconciliation extended to His people, according to Daniel chapter 9. It was more than a lifetime for any human. A lifetime to not expect debts to be paid, but a lifetime to wipe them free.
As I continue on through 2021, may my mercy be driven by His. May it not count moments of failing, but count it all joy that I, and those I interact with, have a whole lifetime to patch up our relationships and perfect doing life together: that, right there—that’s the Living Kingdom.
Ruth Hodge invites others to accept God’s grace and join the kingdom family through her earthly professions as a counsellor and writer.