In response to all that Jesus has said about forgiveness, Peter, in Matthew’s gospel, asks how many times one must forgive a brother…seven times? Jesus responds to this seemingly generous view on the part of Peter with the words, “I say to you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Mt 18:22).
Jesus then tells a parable about the unforgiving servant who was forgiven a very large debt and later refused to forgive a much smaller debt that was owed to him. This is truly a remarkable parable that maintains that there are, according to Jesus, lasting consequences to our decision to forgive or not forgive. As repulsive as it might seem to us today, the master in the parable who was owed the great debt was completely within his rights to have the servant, as well as his wife and children, sold in payment of the debt. How else would he recoup his loss? As repulsive as this seems to us today, this would be the just solution for him to be repaid. Realizing what was to happen, the debtor pleads for more time, assuring the man that he will pay him back fully. In a striking gesture, the master abandons the just solution and is moved with compassion, released the servant, and forgave him the loan!
But when the newly released servant is confronted with a similar situation—except the debt was of a much smaller amount—he ignores the pleading of his fellow servant and has him thrown into prison. The other servants are appalled at the actions of the servant who had so recently been forgiven his debt, so they report this to their master. The master is shocked that the servant has chosen to use the standard of justice for this small debt, when he earlier had begged for and received the standard of compassion for his large debt.
If we could rephrase the biblical words, the master says, “Oh, I thought you wanted to use the standard of compassion, for after all, that is what your words asked of me. But I see from your actions with your fellow servant that you want to use the standard of justice, and so that is what I will use with you as well.”
Jesus concludes with words that should shock us all when we think about our tendency to use the standard of justice and to avoid the standard of compassion: “So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives his brother for sister from his heart” (Mt 18:35).