Fresh Eyes On Jesus Parables—The Unmerciful Servant

Day 3 of 4 • This day’s reading


The "Obligation" Excuse

The root excuse: don’t get me wrong; I am so relieved to have my debt canceled! But just because the master was obligated to cancel mine does not obligate me to cancel other people’s debts. The master was obliged to cancel mine, because …

he’s rich. He can afford to forgive my debt. He has plenty of money and won’t go without food if he doesn’t have my money. But the very fact that I couldn’t pay the debt means I don’t know whether I will even have enough money to put groceries on the table unless people who owe me pay me back. So the guy has got to pay up. A couple bucks is a couple bucks!

there’s a certain logic to debt repayment. If it’s impossible to pay, then it might as well be erased. But when a debt is not too large to be repaid, then the obligation should be enforced. Consequently, the master was right not to enforce my debt, because it was unpayable. But I am justified in enforcing the debt of the guy who owes me, because it’s payable.

A person who wants to find a law for everything makes these kinds of excuses. If there’s obligation, then act. If there’s no obligation, then there’s no need to act. Again, this is a very common way we process moral decisions. Peter was coming from this perspective when he asked Jesus how many times he was expected to forgive someone. “Up to seven times?” (Matt. 18:21). How long am I obligated to forgive? Give me a black-and-white rule I can follow.

Jesus’ answer—“seventy-seven times” (v. 22)—along with this elaborate parable reorients the question of forgiveness away from law toward grace. Unfortunately, most of us have not completed that reorientation, and we still function and justify ourselves according to whether we have fulfilled the laws of obligation rather than the law of love.