The Gospel lesson of Matthew 18:23-35
At that time, Jesus said to Peter, “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants.
When he began the reckoning, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents; and as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him the lord of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.
But that same servant, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and besought him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison till he should pay the debt.
When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place.
Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you besought me; and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord delivered him to the jailers, till he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
Most of us are aware that in the Lord’s prayer there are two possible translations of Matthew 6:12 in the Lord’s prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive…” or “Forgive us our debts as we have forgiven our debtors.” Sins were considered debts.
The Gospel lesson of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18) can be understood as the King forgiving the servant sins which he committed against his king. The sins by a servant against a king are considered enormous because of the social inequality of the two: the severity of sins was often determined by the social rank of the one offended. Thus in the Kingdom of heaven, our sins will be forgiven us if we ask for forgiveness, but the caveat is we then must be willing to practice forgiveness of our fellow human beings who have sinned against us (become indebted to us). The parable is not so much about forgiving cash debts as about forgiving sins. It fits very well into other lessons Christ offers on the same theme.
St. John Chrysostom gleaning the lessons from the above Gospel reading tells us:
“When we come to the church, we must enter in accordance with God’s liking, having no malice in the soul, nor praying to our detriment when we say ‘Forgive us as we forgive those who trespass against us.’ For this statement is terrible, and he who says it is exclaiming to God something like this: ‘I remitted; Master, you remit. I loosened; you loosen. I forgave; you forgive. If I retained, you retain. If I did not forgive my neighbor, then do not annul my sins. With the measure I used to measure, let me be measured as well.’ ” (St. John Chrysostom, The Fathers of the Church: On Repentance and Almsgiving, pg. 128)