Parable of the Unforgiving Servant
"Then Peter came and said to [Jesus], ‘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.’”
Peter sounds like that eager student hoping—and expecting—to gain approval from the teacher. Peter assumes that all of the other people would only be willing to forgive once or twice. After all, we don’t want to be a doormat and let people take advantage of us. So when Peter asks, “as many as seven times?”, he is expecting Jesus to pat him on the head and compliment him on his generosity of spirit. Picture Peter’s face when Jesus tells him that seven times isn’t anywhere near sufficient—it is more like seventy-seven times. He is crestfallen. Seventy-seven?
It is easy to miss the depth of Jesus’ response if we focus on the numbers. Peter was thinking that getting to seven would be hard, but eight would be too many. In response, Jesus tells Peter he isn’t even close. But Jesus isn’t really saying that when you get to time seventy-eight, you then have permission to be unforgiving. Rather, Jesus tells Peter that if you understand the depth of God’s forgiving love, and respond with forgiveness, you will no longer be counting how many times you need to forgive. Forgiveness for a Christian is a way of life rather than merely an occasional event. It reshapes our thoughts, our actions, and our emotions.
After answering Peter, Jesus then proceeds to tell a parable about an unforgiving servant—someone who receives forgiveness for an extraordinary debt only to then go out and hold someone else accountable for a much smaller debt. The parable is straightforward to understand, yet hard to embody. Given what God has done for us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, forgiving us of all of our sin, it would be inconceivable for us not to forgive our brother or our sister from our heart for much smaller sins. Yet in practice, it happens all of the time—perhaps because we haven’t really absorbed the extravagance of God’s forgiving love, and because people do habitually continue to sin against us (and we against them). Yet, even when it is challenging in specific circumstances, we are called as Christians to make forgiveness our way of life, for all of our life.
Questions for Reflection: What obstacles do you experience in accepting the fullness of God’s forgiving love in Jesus Christ? How are thoughts, actions, and feelings interrelated in receiving or offering forgiveness? Describe a situation where someone forgave you quite unexpectedly. How does that description help us learn what it means to forgive others?
Prayer: Dear God, we thank you for the extravagance of your forgiving love revealed in Jesus Christ. We ask your forgiveness for those times and relationships where we have failed to be forgiving people. Empower us through your Holy Spirit to make forgiveness our way of life, beginning today. In the name of Jesus we pray, Amen.
P.S. from Mark: Throughout the season of Lent, the Daily Reflections will focus on knowing Jesus better. They have been written by a talented collection of writers, my associates at Foundations for Laity Renewal. You'll be able to follow this Lenten series through the Daily Reflections. If you would like to download a PDF of the whole series, you can do so at this link.