The Unforgiving Servant

By Engr. Carlos V. Cornejo

This is a reflection on the parable of the Unmerciful Servant by a saint of deep interior life in the person of St. John Chrysostom.  This parable follows directly the question raised by Peter to Jesus on how many times should we forgive our neighbor when that neighbor sins against us.  Peter placed a limit of seven, but Jesus replied it should be seventy-seven times, meaning there should be no limit.

“Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants.  As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him.  Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. “At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’  The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.  “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded. “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’ “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt.  When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.  “Then the master called the servant in. ‘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. “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” (Matthew 18:23-35)

First lesson is the disparity of the money owed.  In Jesus time, one talent is equivalent to 20 years of a day’s labor or in today’s terms the minimum wage.  If the daily minimum wage for the Philippines as of year 2021 in Manila is at Php 537 and you multiply it by 10,000 (number of talents) and multiply it again by 20 (number of years) that amount would be around Php 107.4 million.  Whereas the money owed by the fellow servant is just a hundred denarii with one denarius equivalent to a daily’s wage or sum total of Php 5,370 in today’s terms.  This symbolizes the immense difference of the debt of sins we owe to God compared to the sins our neighbor would owe us.  St. John Chrysostom would say, considering the gigantic difference we owe to God for our sins compared to the miniscule offense our neighbor has done to us, we have no reason not to easily forgive our brethren.

Second lesson, according to St. John, the master never really intended to sell the servant and his family as slaves but just to scare the servant and make him beg for mercy because if the master really wanted to sell the slave, he would not have informed the servant of his threat but would have just sold him and his family straight away.  The message here is that God would always give us a warning and chance to repent of our sins not once but repeatedly all throughout our lives up until the last moment of our lives, so much so that if a person is unrepentant to the very end, he or she could not say, there was no exhortation or no considerations given to him or her by God.

Third lesson is the generosity of the master.  Out of justice, the master could have acceded to the request of the slave to give him time to pay his debt but instead he forgave and cancelled it.  The nature of mercy is to go beyond justice.  Justice means to give each one his due or to give what a person deserves.  In this case, out of justice, the master should have been paid fully by the servant in due time.  But the master did not apply the virtue of justice on his servant but the virtue of love.  Love always goes beyond justice.  When God forgives us, He applies love and not justice, because God is love (1 John 4:8) and love goes over and above what our sins deserve.