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Gospel Reflections » International

The Unforgiving Servant

March 5, 2013

This parable, peculiar to Matthew, is one of the sternest passages in the Gospel. It reinforces the duty of forgiveness by appealing to another motive. The measure of mercy shown by one man to his fellow man, is the measure by which he in turn will receive mercy.

The parable presents a king, an oriental despot, and a “slave”. This is not a domestic servant, but an officer of high rank, perhaps a viceroy, with enormous sums at his disposal, who has defaulted on the payment of revenue. The sum mentioned – ten thousand talents – is an unreal figure, but meant to indicate that the sum cannot possibly be repaid. As the story goes, the slave promises payment, and the king not only accepts the promise, but generously forgives the whole debt.

This generosity is contrasted with the attitude of the slave himself who assaults and imprisons a fellow slave for the debt of a hundred denarii, a far smaller sum – one denarius being the daily wage of a casual laborer. On hearing of this, the king revokes his decision, and punishes the first slave with imprisonment and torture because he did not forgive as he was forgiven.

Keep in mind that in the parable not every detail is an allegory. God, for example, is not a vengeful king who gives tit for tat.

The most significant detail in the story is the difference in the debt owed by the merciless servant and the debt that he claims from another. If the norm is the forgiveness of God which knows no limit, then neither should we put any limits ourselves. If we do not forgive, neither can we expect forgiveness. If we do not renounce our own small claims, how can we ask God to dismiss the much larger claims against us?

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