This Sunday’s Gospel passage speaks of the parable of the king who took pity on his servant and cancelled his great debt, while the servant turned around and refused to forgive his fellow servant’s much smaller debt. This parable falls within the group of parables that speak about the kingdom of heaven. Jesus tells this parable to His disciples after Peter approaches Him, saying: “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” To which Jesus answers: “I do not say to you seven times, but up to seventy times seven.” (18:21-22), followed by the parable where Jesus makes the comparison between a king’s mercy and a servant’s cruelty.
The parable begins with: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants.” In most parables, the Lord Jesus refers to Himself as a ‘King Man’. The Lord Jesus is the Word of God and the King of Kings, who incarnated (became man) for us. When Christ refers to the servants being asked to settle their accounts, He is referencing the day of judgment, when He will come in glory to judge the living and the dead.
And so, the king begins the reckoning with one particular servant that “was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents” (‘talent’ was a unit of measurement at that time, representing an immense sum of which the value isn’t certain, but perhaps equivalent to the value of half a million gold Liras). This was an enormous debt, even for a whole country, let alone one servant.
From the other side, we read that the servant was owed only 100 denarii by his fellow servant. Jesus was showing the comparison in size between the immense sins we commit towards God and the few minor faults we commit towards each other.
Because the servant could not settle this great debt, his lord “ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made”. At that time, under both Roman and Jewish law, the poor debtors were sold into slavery with their families (Exodus 2:21 and Leviticus 25:39), and this was considered a fair and just punishment. Selling a slave with his wife and children means depriving him of his life, and ensuring separation from his family, and thus depriving him of the joy and love that he enjoyed by being with his family in service of the King. “The sale of his wife and the rest of his family shows the complete and utter separation from the joys of God. For the sale shows quite clearly alienation from God,” writes St. Cyril of Alexandria.
In the face of this ‘just’ ruling, the servant “fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay you everything”. Note that he did not ask the master to release him from the debt, but rather to give him an extension of time to repay the debt.
As a response to the servant’s prostration and supplication, the Bible says: “Then the master of that servant was moved with compassion, released him and forgave him the debt”. The servant asked only for the delay of the debt, but he was given the release and forgiveness of the entire debt. St John Chrysostom comments: “Do you see again how generous he was? The servant asked only for an extension of time, but he gave him more than he asked for, remission and forgiveness of the entire debt. He wanted to give him this from the start, but he did not want the giving to be on his side only. He wanted the servant to learn from it and to ask for mercy, in order that he not be under an illusion of innocence.”
After obtaining release and forgiveness, the servant then goes “as he went out, came upon one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat he said, ‘Pay what you owe’. So here we see a man leaving his master’s presence, immediately after being forgiven and released of a great debt, only to approach his own servant and in complete ignorance of the pardon, he was just given, demand a smaller debt to be paid to him.
The servant owing the smaller debt then reacts in the same way as his master: “He fell down and besought him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you. Give me some time and I’ll pay you back that small amount, a hundred denarii! Which is nothing compared to the large sum that the king forgave you and left you’.”
However, the servant did not forgive his fellow servant, and he refused to give him some time, instead he “went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt”. Do we see the significant difference between sins against each other and sins against God? As much a difference as is between ten thousand talents and a hundred denarii.
The heart of the king was moved with compassion and set aside the servant’s debt of ten thousand talents. But the servant, in his turn, did not have compassion on his debtor, who owed him only a hundred denarii. He showed no mercy, compassion or forgiveness, but cast him into prison until he should pay the debt. This is how the servant creditor behaves towards his fellow servant debtor, and this is how man behaves to man, and such behaviour turns God’s mercy into justice.
When the king learned of the servant’s behaviour, he called him and said to him: “You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you besought me; and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” The king gave the servant a lesson in forgiveness so that he might follow his example and treat others in the same way, and when he failed to do so, the master’s mercy and forgiveness turned into frightful anger and justice. “And in anger, his lord delivered him to the jailers until he should pay all his debt”.
The Evangelical passage ends by saying: “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you if you do not forgive your brother from your heart”. This is the core message of the parable; to forgive our fellow ‘servants’ who have sinned against us.
By this example, we are clearly instructed and advised that if we do not forgive our fellow ‘servants’—that is, the brothers and sisters in Christ who sin against us—the debt of their sins, we will be condemned with like punishment.
The Master began this parable by showing us the power of repentance and His ultimate love for mankind. When the servant fell down in repentance and contrition before his lord and asked for more time, the lord, out of his love and compassion, forgave him the entire debt. Forgiveness begins with repentance and contrition.
The Apostle Paul says in Romans (3:23) “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”. By the holy Cross, the Lord Jesus tore up the dept of our many sins, and “He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world,” (1 John 2: 1-2). He forgives us every day and every hour when we ask Him, with humility and a contrite heart, for forgiveness even when our sins exceed the sand of the sea in numbers. But at the same time, He asks that we forgive with all our hearts our brothers for their minor transgressions towards us.
When our Lord Jesus was dying on the Cross, He demonstrated the greatest lesson, that being the lesson of forgiveness; “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” (Luke 23:34). He also taught His disciples, and to us after them, that whenever we pray the Lord’s Prayer, the prayer that we recite in every service and liturgy, we say: “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” The Lord’s forgiveness of our sins is a free and unconditional gift, but He expects us, His children, to forgive each other so that we may imitate Him and confess Him as a merciful and loving God. Amen.
+ Metropolitan Basilios