Forgiveness and Ethics
In Matthew’s Gospel, Chapter 18:23-35, we hear an unsettling story:
A servant owes a king an insurmountable debt and in order to pay it off, the verdict is that the servant’s wife and children were to be sold. The servant begged for more time, but the king goes a step further and entirely cancels the debt. The same servant then runs into a fellow servant who owes him a fairly small amount of money.
When the fellow servant begs for more time, the servant whose debt had just been cancelled does not reflect the king’s attitude. The unmerciful servant had his debtor thrown in jail until the debt was payed. The other servants heard about this and informed the King.
‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
Jesus prefaces this story with “[T]he kingdom of heaven is like…” in response to Peter’s question of “[H]ow many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me?” and concludes with the statement: “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart”.
What does this parable imply in terms of our forgiveness in light of our ethics?
Interpreting parables can be quite troublesome, especially when it comes to the question of whether or not a parable has multiple meanings or one intended meaning and how much the details of a parable play into intended meaning. For this post, we will just focus on Jesus’ framing of this story as the reality/operation of the Kingdom and its ethical implications.
The parable designates a servant whose debt has been cancelled, which would resonate with Jewish teaching as regarding sins as “debts” before God. The servant is no longer indebted or in penalty. However, his lack of the same ethic towards another causes the King to hand “him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.” However, the implication here is that the amount would be impossible to pay off before one’s death, because the unmerciful servant owed “perhaps more than all the actual coinage in circulation in Egypt at the time”.
Carrying this over into Christian theology can be somewhat problematic, especially if one holds to strict ideas of eternally secure salvation (namely Protestant theology). The implication here is that one’s debt is cancelled, does not display the same ethic to his fellow human and then has the cancellation revoked. In more blatant Christian terms, someone may receive forgiveness from God, then not display Christian ethic and then God revokes that forgiveness. This theme - forgiven/servant status being revoked because of incorrect ethics - sprouts up in other passages in Matthew’s Gospel.
Whether one decides to take this interpretive route or not, the ethical challenge is to reflect God in our human-to-human relationships. Notice that, in the parable, it is not the King who was being directly offended against, but a fellow servant. The King, informed of the ethical inconsistency, steps in and makes a judgement on his ungrateful servant. How we treat others reflects our salvation, regardless of whether you believe you can lose it or are eternally secure. This parable should be taken seriously because this is what the Kingdom of Heaven is like - a reflection of the ethics of God.
 Mark L. Bailey, Bibliotheca Sacra: Guidelines for Interpreting Jesus’ Parables, 155: 617 (1998), pg. 30.
 Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary New Testament, pg. 62 (note on 6:12) and 95 (note on 18:24).
 Ibid. Pg. 95 (note on 18:24)
 Matthew 6:14-15, 24:45-51, 25:1-46