“Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
On the surface, here is another parable that seems to contradict itself. Jesus starts off by painting a picture of mercy and ends with frightening judgment that seems to undermine the original point.
The parable begins with Peter asking about whether there are any limits to forgiveness. Peter asks, “How often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus completely blows the roof off the limits that Peter wants to impose and says, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times” (18:21-22).
“Seventy-seven” is biblical code language of eternal completeness. In other words, there is no limit to forgiveness inside the Kingdom. God does not merely have mercy, as if it were a commodity to be dispensed when feeling generous, God IS mercy.
To make the point, Jesus goes on to tell the parable about an unforgiving servant. At first the point seems obvious. Give mercy to others as you are given mercy by God. It is a beautiful picture of the Kingdom of God in action.
But the whole darn thing seems to flip right at the end. At the end of the parable, God’s judgment seems to mirror our own. Is Jesus saying forgive others as God forgives you… OR ELSE? Is he suggesting that God wants to be nice, but if you are a jerk then God will be a jerk too? What’s worse, Jesus seems to suggest that God will “torture” you big time if you don’t play according to the rules. What started as a revelation of limitless mercy ends as some kind of spiritual terrorism.
Or so it seems…
The key word in this passage is the phrase “handed him over.” It is a passive verb. The King “handed over (the servant to be tortured.” This phrase is used repeatedly throughout the Gospels referring to Jesus himself. For example, later in Matthew, “The Son of Man is to be handed over for crucifixion” (Matthew 26:2).
The point is that the King is not actively punishing the servant any more than God was punishing Jesus for our sins on the cross (as is commonly taught). That would make the master no different than the servant. Instead, the master releases the servant over to the hell of his own making. In other words, if we opt out of the Kingdom principle of seventy-seven, we are reluctantly handed over to the hell of our own choosing. This process will feel very much as if God is punishing us.
The diabolic logic of tit-for-tat debt-keeping binds us and blinds us. We end up seeing God and the world in the same light. We see God in our own debt-keeping image, and in the end that image tortures us. Of course, this is a hell of our own making and has no basis in reality, but it’s hard to convince someone of that while it is happening. It’s a hellish way to live, which is why Jesus was “handed over” to the crucifixion – to show the world the true end of its diabolic logic. And while being crucified Jesus declares the only way out of the vicious cycle in which we are trapped: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
Therefore, forgive as you have been forgiven.