The Unmerciful Servant
Ordinary 24 Year A
A Hebrew Catholic Perspective
St. Matthew 18: 21 — 35
Our Lord has been putting His Apostles through rather intense in-service training. Internal discipline and procedures for resolving conflict and dissension can be as “dry as old bones”. But as we have commented, every organisation needs to have these in place if it has any hope of remaining robust and on track to fulfil its purpose. Jesus breaks new ground. He is not talking about “just some organisation”. He is unfolding His vision of what it means to belong to the Household of God, and how He wants His followers to preserve, indeed nurture His very own family. They are to love, to be devoted to God and to one another. But they are to be realistic and take responsible steps to foster these aims even when the going gets a bit rough.
This text follows on immediately from the instruction given by our Lord, on how to treat fellow disciples who sin against you. Jesus, on the request of Peter, attends to one or two matters needing clarification.
The spiritual content of this passage from our Messiah is very intense, powerful and truly dogmatic in every meaning of the term. We will highlight only the central doctrinal points emphasised by Jesus. St. Peter seems to ask a casual question. Jesus leaps at the chance to pour out from the depths of His heart the absolute, critical need for us to model in our daily life, the loving mercy of our Father, who yearns to see us reflecting this among one another and even beyond.
So ends the fellowship section of this Gospel which is regarded as one of the greatest chapters in the whole of the New Testament, and thus one of the most esteemed treasures of the Hebrew Christian heritage: a patrimony Jesus earnestly wants us to share with every single person who cares to receive it as His gift.
Now let us observe how the final scene in this chapter unfolds.
Some Reflections on the Text
Then Peter approaching asked him, “Lord, if my brother sins
against me, how often must I forgive him? As many as seven
Peter is pursuing an earlier discussion with Jesus and wants to clarify a fairly important issue: “Lord, how many times must I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Should I go as far as seven times?”
If someone commits the same offence against you seven times, it’s likely you would feel hard done by. So Peter’s suggested threshold of toleration is rather generous: but not generous enough.
Jesus, answered, “I say to you, not seven times but
Jesus replies in words equivalent to: “Definitely not seven times but seventy seven times — or seventy times seven.” The Greek text can indicate either number but both have the same meaning: there is no limit to forgiveness! There is a link here back to an incident in Genesis, but we do not need to over-analyse just now.
Many a reader has stalled here, asking an intriguing question: by this teaching, are Christians obliged to forgive another his private wrongs as often as he does them, and especially if he keeps on doing them? A brief glance at the earlier parts of this chapter will help resolve this issue. (Also see Ryle on Matthew 18: 21 to 35 in our “Mercy and Lovingkindness” supplement.)
Verses 23 — 25
Our Lord now gives a powerful parable which helps us to see
the spiritual realities to which we would otherwise be blind.
That is why the kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king
who decided to settle accounts with his servants.
When he began the accounting, a debtor was brought before
him who owed him a huge amount.
Since he had no way of paying it back, his master ordered him to be sold, along with his wife, his children, and all his property, in payment of the debt.
The parable opens with (some would say to be technically correct): “The kingdom of heaven has become like a king who decided to settle accounts with his servants.” One of the first to be called up owed him what we now call billions, in any modern strong currency. Since he could not pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and children and all his possessions be sold to help repay the debt.
At that, the servant fell down, did him homage, and said, ‘Be
patient with me, and I will pay you back in full.’
The servant fell on his knees in front of his master and begged him: “Be patient with me for I am determined to pay back everything.” Since, in fact, he would never have been able to pay back this out-of-control debt, he was being rather unrealistic and hopeful.
Moved with compassion the master of that servant let him
go and forgave him the loan.
Contrary to expectations, the master took pity on him and immediately cancelled the debt and let him go free.
Verses 28 — 30
When that servant had left, he found one of his fellow servants
who owed him a much smaller amount. He seized him and
started to choke him, demanding, ‘Pay back what you owe.’
Falling to his knees, his fellow servant begged him, ‘Be patient
with me, and I will pay you back.’
But he refused. Instead, he had him put in prison until he paid
back the debt.
The same servant, quickly forgetting how narrowly he had escaped ruin, went and found a fellow servant who owed him about three months wages; a lot of money, but not impossible to pay back, given a reasonable chance. He took this poor man by the throat demanding everything he was owed, and right away!
His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged for a little time to pay back the debt in full. The plea was refused and he was sent to prison until he could pay off the debt. Since there was no way of earning any money while he was in prison, there was no way he was ever going to get himself out! His situation was hopeless.
Verses 31 — 34
Now when his fellow servants saw what had happened, they
were deeply disturbed, and went to their master and reported
the whole affair.
His master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked
servant! I forgave you your entire debt because you begged
Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant, as I had
pity on you?’
then in anger his master handed him over to the torturers
until he should pay back the whole debt.
The rest of the servants were distressed at what had taken place and reported the incident to their master. Without delay the master called the servant back to him, and dealt to him:
• “Your actions are nothing less than evil.”
• “I cancelled the whole of your debt simply because you begged
• “Was it not fair that you should have shown mercy on your
fellow servant just as I had on you?”
• “I am turning you over to the torturers until your original debt
• And in case you haven’t got the message, because you can’t ever
pay off the debt, your torture will last forever!
Jesus ends the lesson with a simple warning which in many respects pointed towards the foundation of all His teaching:
So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you
forgives his brother from his heart.”
Here is the climax of the whole chapter — the whole lesson on forgiveness and correction of faults. Jesus Messiah addresses each person individually: you are to forgive each member of God’s family from your heart. There is a long history of the Church calling itself the beautiful titles Body of Christ or the Mystical Body of Christ — and so it is. But it is very meaningful that Jesus also insisted His followers remember they are family, and should always act accordingly to one another. That is the standard He put in place. It implies responsibilities, but it also denotes a very special status we have, and an equally wonderful relationship.
As an overview of what Jesus has been teaching, we could say that
His subject is really His Father, who is willing and ready at all times
to forgive the repentant sinner, however great may have been his
offences. (Callan O. P.)
If we love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength — and our neighbor as our own self — we will reflect the image of the merciful Father to the whole world. This, after all, is the Great Commandment, and everything flows from it and leads to it.
In carrying out this Great Commandment, not only are we required to be merciful in a general “kindly” sense. We are req uired to match our Creator! In no other way can we even begin to think of such an ambitious objective. However, in our attempts to reflect and demonstrate the mercy and lovingkindness of God, we are helped by the Holy Spirit who whispers in the depths of our soul: “When you do this, you will be like God”. (See Genesis 3: 5) Can the God of all Creation give us a greater honour? Is not this, true restoration?
Would it not be fairly accurate to say that for many of us, this parable has a similar effect on us as the parable of the “Publican and the Sinner”? When we have heard the parable, we are shocked at how callous and insensitive is the attitude of the scoundrel in the story. We might even feel grateful that we are not like that!
We shouldn’t be surprised if this is our experience. Our Lord’s technique for developing spiritual insight in His disciples is to confront us all in this way. It is not that He sets out to trap us so much as to hold up a mirror for us to see that really, there is a bit of that callousness or insensitivity in all of us, and frankly, it has to go! The saints of the Church, down through the ages, have learnt to understand that it is a great spiritual privilege to be shown our shortcomings by the Lord. It is seen as a sign of God’s favour for Him to reveal to us our ungodliness so that we have a chance to make amends. When our Lord drives home these high standards, we also find in the same text, that He provides the answer: the way ahead. A rushed and superficial reading of this, or any text, will never yield the richness of its spiritual treasure. As we know from our meditations and waiting upon the Lord, we must show reverence for Sacred Scriptures, and God’s Holy Presence, as we approach his Word. As we ponder and wait upon Him, His Holy Spirit unfolds these precious truths for us to take in. This is never more so the case than when we approach this text with its urgent message.
A Special Collection of Jewish and Christian Writng.
So important is this theme, we have assembled a small cluster
of reflections, devotional as well as study-focussed, to share
some of the Judaeo / Christian understanding of mercy and
lovingkindness down through the ages. We hope they will be
of genuine use, and strongly recommend they be read and
reflected upon, over an extended period of time.
They are all precious gems! Let us treasure them!
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the readings for Sunday, please visit:
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just scroll down the page.
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Proclaim the Gospel to Every Creature
(Mark 16: 15)
The real Jesus, is the real answer to the real needs of the world!
Let us remember God’s teaching, contained in His Word and in doing
The Unmerciful Servant
Ordinary 24 Year A St. Matthew 18: 21 to 35
1. In our modern day thinking, it would be easy to look upon the whole
“The final word on Church-life and Church-order must be
2. One of the most avoided and compromised of the commands Jesus
“When you pray, say — Our Father ….. “ (Matthew 6: 9)
It was meant to be said at least daily, but many ignore His instruction.
“….. forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who
That is, forgive us as we have already forgiven those who offended
A. Jones makes the pointed observation that:
“….. the Father lays down two firm conditions, and only
R. T. France also has an excellent closing sentence:
“If the Church is the community of the forgiven, then
3. There can be no avoiding our Lord’s linking our exercise of mercy and
D. Carson reminds us how even God, omnipotent as He is, cannot
“Jesus sees no incongruity in the actions of a heavenly
Let us pray for one another that we will find the spiritual strength to forgive from the heart as often as we are called upon to do so — and will thereby be accepted as family in the Household of God.Prayer
Matthew 18: 21 — 35
Ordinary 24 Year A
21 18 Then Peter approaching asked him, “Lord, if my
22 19 Jesus answered, “I say to you, not seven times but
23 That is why the kingdom of heaven may be likened to
24 20 When he began the accounts, a debtor was brought
25 Since he had no way of paying it back, his master
26 21 At that, the servant fell down, did him homage, and
27 Moved with compassion the master of that servant let
28 When that servant had left, he found one of his fellow
29 Falling to his knees, his fellow servant begged him,
30 But he refused. Instead, he had him put in prison until
31 Now when his fellow servants saw what had happened,
32 His master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked
33 Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant, as
34 Then in anger his master handed him over to the
35 24 So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of
18 [21-35] The final section of the discourse deals with the forgiveness that the disciples are to give to their fellow disciples who sin against them. To the question of Peter how often forgiveness is to be granted (⇒ Matthew 18:21), Jesus answers that it is to be given without limit (⇒ Matthew 18:22) and illustrates this with the parable of the unmerciful servant (⇒ Matthew 18:23-34), warning that his heavenly Father will give those who do not forgive the same treatment as that given to the unmerciful servant (⇒ Matthew 18:35). ⇒ Matthew 18:21-22 correspond to ⇒ Luke 17:4; the parable and the final warning are peculiar to Matthew. That the Parable did not originally belong to this context is suggested by the fact that it really does not deal with repeated forgiveness, which is the point of Peter’s question and Jesus’ reply.
19  Seventy-seven times: the Greek corresponds exactly to the LXX of ⇒ Genesis 4:24. There is probably an allusion, by contrast, to the limitless vengeance of Lamech in the Genesis text. In any case, what is demanded of the disciples is limitless forgiveness.
20  A huge amount: literally, “ten thousand talents.” The talent was a unit of coinage of high but varying value depending on its metal gold, silver, copper) and its place of origin. It is mentioned in the New Testament only here and in ⇒ Matthew 25:14-30.
21  Pay you back in full: an empty promise, given the size of the debt.
22  A much smaller amount: literally, “a hundred denarii.” A denarius was the normal daily wage of a laborer. The difference between the two debts is enormous and brings out the absurdity of the conduct of the Christian who has received the great forgiveness of God and yet refuses to forgive the relatively minor offenses done to him.
23  Since the debt is so great as to be unpayable, the punishment will be endless.
24  The Father’s forgiveness, already given, will be withdrawn at the final judgment for those who have not imitated his forgiveness by their own.
Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised
Mercy and Lovingkindness
Some resources for your reflection and meditation.
1. A Sermon on Matthew 18: 21 — 35 Around A.D. 380
See what a good thing it is to be mindful of your own sins. Had this man kept them clearly in remembrance, he would not have been so cruel, so inhuman. Therefore again I say to you, and I shall nor cease from saying it, that it is truly most profitable and most necessary, to keep clearly before us the remembrance of our own offences. For there is nothing makes the soul so truly wise, so truly gentle and compassionate, as the continuous remembrance of our own sins. Because of this Paul also was mindful not only of the sins committed after purification, but also of those committed before baptism; though all had once and for all been wiped out and destroyed. And if he kept in mind the sins he had committed before baptism, much more should we remember them. For, remembering them, we not only wipe them away, but through this practice of humility we grow milder towards all men and begin to serve God with more fervour and good will: coming through this humble remembrance of our own sins, to understand better his ineffable compassion for us.
But this the wicked servant in the parable did not do; but forgetful of the magnitude of his own debt, he also forgets the compassion his lord had shown him. And through this forgetfulness of his compassion, he becomes cruel towards his own fellow-servant. And in his wickness he loses all he had gained through the goodness of God.
By St John Chrysostom, Patriarch of Constantinople.
2. Two Jottings On Mercy
And what is a merciful heart? It is the heart’s burning for all of creation, for men, for birds, for animals and even for demons. At the remembrance and at the sight of them, the merciful man’s eyes fill with tears which arise from the great compassion that urges his heart. It grows tender and cannot endure hearing or seeing any injury or slight sorrow to anything in creation. Because of this, such a man continually offers tearful prayer even for irrational animals and for the enemies of truth and for all who harm it, that they may be guarded and forgiven.
Do you desire to have communion with God in your mind by receiving the perception of that delight which is not subject to the senses? Cleave to mercy. For if (mercy) is found within you, it is formed by that holy beauty which it resembles. All acts of mercy will make the soul a partaker without delay, in the unique glory of the divine rank.
By St Isaac, 7th century Bishop of Nineveh.
3. Trusting God’s Mercy: Entrance into the way of Holiness
“Here I am, Lord, I have neither light nor strength. All my promises and resolutions avail nothing; I can neither make them nor keep them without thee. Do thou take charge of my soul; I abandon it unto thy hands; sanctify it in whatever way shall please thee. I will do nothing in this work but thy orders and under thy direction.”
Thus the saints said, and so they did from the moment when they elected to become saints. If I may so say, they despaired of themselves and put their trust in God alone. If some of these at the outset gave the rein too much to their fervour and ran into pious excesses, they changed their conduct afterwards; they learnt not to give way to their imagination or natural character, to impetuous and intemperate zeal, but to await the impulse of God’s grace; to follow it step by step, and not to press beyond it.
At last they saw by interior light and by experience that their sanctification was the work of God (alone) and not theirs and that the way to advance was simply to second his action and never to impede it.”
On the Love of God, by the French Jesuit Priest John Nicholas Grou, SJ. (18th C. E.)
4. The Path of the Just
Excerpts from the Jewish Classic, by the much esteemed Rabbi Moshe Chayim Luzzatto (18th Century C. E. American spelling retained.)
The practice of lovingkindness is of central importance to the Saintly, for “Saintliness” itself derives from “lovingkindness.” And our Sages of blessed memory have said (Avoth 1.2), “The world stands on three things,” one of which is lovingkindness. They have numbered it (Peah 1.1) among those things whose fruits a man eats in this world and whose essence endures for his reward in the World to Come. And they have said (Sotah 14a), “R. Simlai learned, “The Torah begins and ends with lovingkindness.” “Rava learned (Ye vamoth 79a), ‘All who possess these three traits are without question of the seed of our father Abraham mercy, shyness, and lovingkindness.'” R. Eleazar said (Sukkah 49b), “Lovingkindness is greater than charity, as it is said (Hosea 10: 12), ‘Sow for yourselves with charity and reap with lovingkindness’.” “Lovingkindness is greater than charity in three ways: Charity is performed with one’s wealth, and lovingkindness with one’s body; charity is given to the poor, and lovingkindness to rich and poor alike; charity is given only to the living, and lovingkindness to the living and the dead alike.” And (Sizabbad~ 151b), “‘And He will give you mercy and He will have mercy upon you (Deuteronomy 13: 18) — Heaven is merciful to all who have mercy upon their fellow creatures. ” This is self-evident; for since the Holy One Blessed be He pays measure for measure, one who is merciful towards his fellow creatures and treats them with Iovingkindness is deserving of mercy and of absolution of his sins in lovingkindness. As our Sages of blessed memory have said (Rash Hashanah 17a), “Whose sins does He forgive? The sins of one who overlooks an injustice committed against him.” And if one is unwilling to forego his claims or to act with lovingkindness, it follows that he, too, is to be treated only in accordance with strict justice.
Who could abide it if the Holy One Blessed be He acted on the basis of justice alone? King David prayed (Psalms 143: 2), “Do not enter into judgment with your servant, for no living creature will be found righteous before You.” One who engages in lovingkindness, however, will receive lovingkindness. And he will receive it in proportion to the extent that he engages in it. David exulted in possessing this good trait to the extent that he sought the good even of those who hated him (Ps. 35: 13), “When they were sick, I put on sackcloth; I tortured my soul with fasting;” and (Ps. 7: 5), “If I have paid back those who served me ill…..”
Included in this category of Saintliness is not causing pain to any creature — even animals — and showing mercy and pity towards them. As it is stated (Proverbs 12: 10), “The righteous man knows the soul of his beast.” There are those who hold (Shabbath 128b) that the Torah itself prohibits the causing of pain to animals, but in any event, it is at least a Rabbinical prohibition.
In fine, mercy and beneficence must be enduringly ingrained in the heart of a Saint. His constant aim must be to give pleasure to his fellow creatures and not cause them any pain…
May the Blessed One in His mercy open our eyes to His Torah, teach us His ways, and lead us in His paths; and may we be worthy of honoring His name and bringing pleasure to Him.
“The honor of God will endure forever; God will be happy in His works” (Psalms 104: 31).
“Let Israel be happy in its Maker, the sons of Zion rejoice in their King” (Psalms 149: 2).
Amen. Amen. Amen.
5. From Matthew, by John P. Meier
The loving Father will condemn us to eternal punishment if we do not lovingly forgive one another (Compare 6: 12, 14 to 15). Why? Because, although the Father has already forgiven each member of his family, the church, his forgiveness remains conditional and can be revoked at the last judgment, if we have not shared the forgiveness we received with one another. We cannot earn God’s forgiveness, but we can lose it — by trying to hoard it instead of passing it on to others. A person who does not forgive others shows he has not really experienced God’s forgiveness; otherwise, it would overflow to others. True sons naturally show their resemblance to their Father by acting like him, by forgiving like him — simply out of compassion, with no question of merit. (Compare 5: 43 — 45). And the forgiveness must not be grudging or pretended; it must be sincere and effective — “from your heart,” the center of the person.
(Veritas Publications, Dublin. 1980.)
American spelling retained.
A Brief Comment
Notice the focus Fr. Meier places on key aspects of our Lord’s teaching.
• The Church as God’s family, His Household.
• The Last Judgment hovering in the background;
• Forgiveness being a gift from God — a gift which will
evaporate unless we pass it on to others.
• If we cannot or do not forgive others, we simply cannot
have truly experienced (accepted) God’s forgiveness.
• Our acts of forgiving must flow from the heart — the centre
of our being.
• We cannot earn the mercy of God — but must accept it as
pure gift: likewise, paradoxically, if we do not humbly accept
it from God, and pass it on, it will evaporate, and we will
become cold, heartless and spiritually dead!
6. J. C. Ryle Matthew 18: 21 — 35
In these verses the Lord Jesus deals with a deeply important subject, — the forgiveness of injuries. We live in a wicked world, and it is vain to expect that we can escape ill-treatment, however carefully we may behave. To know how to conduct ourselves, when we are ill-treated, is of great moment to our souls.
In the first place, the Lord Jesus lays it down as a general rule, that we ought to forgive others to the uttermost. Peter put the question, “How oft shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? till seven times?” He received for answer, “I say not unto thee till seven times, but until seventy times seven.”
The rule here laid down must of course be interpreted with sober-minded qualification. Our Lord does not mean that offences against the law of the land and the good order of society are to be passed over in silence. He does not mean that we are to allow people to commit thefts and assaults with impunity. All that He means is, that we are to study a general spirit of mercy and forgivingness towards our brethren. ‘We are to bear much, and to put up with much, rather than quarrel. We are to overlook much, and submit to much, rather than have any strife. We are to lay aside everything like malice, revenge, and retaliation…..they are utterly unworthy of a disciple of Christ.’…..
It is clear from this parable that one motive for forgiving others ought to be the recollection that we all need forgiveness at God’s hands ourselves. Day after day we are coming short in many things, “leaving undone what we ought to do, and doing what we ought not to do” Day after day we require mercy and pardon. Our neighbours’ offences against us are mere trifles, compared with our offences against God. Surely it ill becomes poor erring creatures like us to be extreme in marking what is done amiss by our brethren, or slow to forgive it.
Another motive for forgiving others ought to be the recollection of the day of judgment, and the standard by which we shall all be tried in that day. There will be no forgiveness in that day for unforgiving people. Such people would be unfit for heaven. They would not be able to value a dwelling-place to which “mercy” is the only title, and in which “mercy” is the eternal subject of song. Surely if we mean to stand at the right hand, when Jesus sits on the throne of His glory, we must learn, while we are on earth, to forgive.
7. Mercy and Lovingkindess
1. From: An Expository Dictionary of N.T. Words by W. Vine (1940).
ELEOS is the outward manifestation of pity; it assumes need on the part of him who receives it, and resources adequate to meet the need on the part of him who shows it. It is used:—
(a) of God, who is rich in mercy, Eph. 2: 4, and who has provided salvation for all men, Tit. 3: 5, for Jews, Luke 1: 72, and Gentiles, Rom. 15: 9. He is merciful to those who fear him, Luke 1: 50, for they also are compassed with infirmity, and He alone can succour them. Hence they are to pray boldly for mercy, Heb. 4: 16, and if for themselves, it is seemly that they should ask for mercy for one another, Gal. 6: 16; 1Tim. 1: 2. When God brings His salvation to its issue at the Coming of Christ, His people will obtain His mercy, 2 Tim. 1: 16; Jude 21;
(b) of men; for since God is merciful to them, He would have them show mercy to one another, Matt. 9: 13; 12: 7; 23: 23; Luke 10: 37; Jas. 2: 13.
2. Hesed (Chasid or Chesed)
From: Synonyms of the Old Testament by R. Girdlestone (1897).
Nevertheless, the two aspects of mercy, its reception and its exercise, are wonderfully blended in Scripture. The right and wholesome effect of the enjoyment of God’s lovingkindness is the exhibition of the same spirit towards our fellows. God is everywhere described as delighting in mercy — ‘his mercy endureth for ever’ — but He requires that those to whom He shows it should, in their turn and according to their opportunities, ‘love mercy;’ compare Micah 7: 18 with 6: 8.
It is a remarkable fact that the word Chasid, when applied to man, has usually a possessive pronoun affixed to it, so as to indicate that the persons who are exercising this disposition belong in a special sense to God. They are ‘his merciful ones’ (A. V. ‘his saints ‘). Merciful men may be very scarce (Ps. 12: 1; Micah 7: 2), but wherever they are found they are regarded as God’s own. ‘He hath set apart him that is merciful for himself’ (Ps. 4: 3); and He gives His special protection to those that are worthy of the name Chasid (Ps. 32: 6; 37: 28). They show their love to the Lord by hating evil (i.e. evil dealings against their neighbour), and the Lord, in His turn, preserves their souls (Ps. 97: 10). When He comes to judgment He will gather to Himself those who are His merciful ones, and who have made a covenant with Him by sacrifice (Ps. 50: 5), and they shall not only ‘rejoice in glory’ (Ps. 149: 5), but also shall have the honour of executing judgment on the nations. (Ps. 149: 9).
In a word, mercy is the main characteristic of God’s dealings with man, and hence it is to be looked for as the distinguishing mark of every child of God. ‘He that loveth is born of God.’ The ‘godly’ are those who, having received mercy from Him, are exercising it for Him and as His representatives.