The Magnanimous King and the Bone Headed Servant (Matt 18:21-35)
Dr. Bill Senyard
In this article, I want to look at one of the most recognized parable about forgiving others in the entire bible, and the most misunderstood: The Magnanimous King and the Bone Headed Servant (Matt 18:21-35).
21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”
22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.
23 “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. 25 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.
26 “At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ 27 The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.
28 “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.
29 “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’
30 “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.
32 “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ 34 In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” [apo ton kardio hupon: from your heart, i.e., in all sincerity, not just words.]Equally translated, “That’s the way God will deal with you…if you do not sincerely forgive your brother from your heart.”
So Jesus says it. 70 x 7. That’s a lot of times. So technically, this could be either 77 times or 490 times. Either way, that’s a lot of times. I am not going to lie, it doesn’t matter if it is 490 or 77, I can’t really do either one.
So here is how we usually teach it. Hurt One, this is on your shoulders, Jesus said so. You have a choice to either be like the Servant and not forgive, or be like the King and forgive freely. You just need to, by faith, in His name, like the Magnanimous King, let it go. Or else, God will be disappointed in you, shake his head in disgust and that’s can’t be good. Choose to forgive the crime, hurt or wound against you. Choose to give up your right to justice (trial), no longer require sorrow or regret or repentance, give up your voice, and zero reparation required, right? If it comes up again in your head, rumination, forgive again, and again, until Jesus returns. If they hurt you again, well you know what to do. It’s the right and Jesus thing to do. Am I close? This teaching has led to lots of shame and denial among God’s beloved children, unnecessarily.
But what if that teaching was well meaning but had a few holes in it. Big holes. Drive-a-truck-through-it-sized-holes? Jesus did command forgiving others, but He didn’t say how.
Let’s start with Jesus’ context to get a better picture. Back in the day, in Israel, for crimes, there was a religious mechanism where the perpetrator and Plaintiff-victim would submit their case to the elders, and an official legal-religious trial before God would take place. After listening to testimony and evidence, the elders would make their decision, and it was binding.
The perpetrator would publicly acknowledge the crime, repent (needs to be heartfelt) and then accept a reparation plan determined by the court. They understood that it was critical for the Hurting-One to get restored for real trust and community to happen again. So, the debt acknowledged, public trial, goat paid to victim, plus coins, and likely a ceremony or party involving both extended families and a public repentance.
It wasn’t just on you, victim. It was a community thing. The perpetrator took a great deal of the responsibility for restoration. It was public, involving both families. It took a village. Then, and only then, the Hurting One would promise to “forgive,” meaning among other things, to treat the perpetrator as if they were restored. Looking to the future, the elders would say, “It is finished!”
To be clear, in context, Jesus is not saying that the victim should just unilaterally and independently forgive the perp apart from a public trial, repentance and reparation. Contrary to the status quo of how we teach this passage. No good rabbi, then or today, would tell a victim to unilaterally forgive an unrepentant perpetrator.
So what did Jesus mean when he said that we should forgive seventy-times seven-times—from the heart? In this Biblical context, I would suggest that he was speaking to that real, all too human victim whose heart was so shredded that even after all of that public community trial, and Perpetrator repentance, they still couldn’t or wouldn’t let it go yet. I’ve been there.
Even after one public trial, or two or three, or 489. No judgment. Real forgiveness is hard. We understand what’s going on in that person’s gut. They are angry, enraged maybe, they feel like they were taken advantage of, ashamed (how could I have let myself be treated that way?), diminished maybe, afraid?
But Jesus is using forgiveness as a platform from which to teach something more profound. Hurting-One, no matter how you slice it, you are being commanded to do something that your heart will desperately fight against. You can’t or won’t do it on your own. It’s brain science. You should forgive like the Magnanimous King, 70×7 times, but you won’t. You do not have the power or muscle group—or “from the heart” desire to forgive.
“Wait, are you saying that Jesus commanded me to do something I can’t do?” Yes and no. Look there is precedent in the Bible. Aren’t we commanded to love our enemies? How’s that going? Husbands, aren’t you supposed to 24-7 love your wife the same way that Jesus loves the church? Not graded according to a curve. How’s that going? Didn’t Jesus say that we were to be perfect, even as God is perfect? God regularly commands us to do things that on our own we just can’t or won’t do. We are regularly put in a position where a faithful follower must run to God humiliated hands up begging Him alone for His intervention and His power. I will show you how in a moment.
Back to Matthew. This is great storytelling. The original audience would have understood it. The servant can’t pay that debt. We are not clear how he could have even incurred such a massive debt. Some have calculated that the amount owed was around $170 million in today’s dollars. But the idea is that it is an unbelievable amount—$100 billion trillion. It is outrageous, absurd. Only a king of outrageous substance and wealth could stomach such a bill. One thing the audience would be thinking is that this guy is dead, one way or another. No human king would put up with this.
In an honor/shame culture, like the mid-East of Jesus’ day, where the most important thing about you is your reputation, your name, your “face”, your status in your tribe, the boneheaded servant is struggling with societal shame. He will now be treated as a leper. His whole family as well. Very scary future, unless the shaming event can be fixed—and quick!
So imagine the King being an ocean, filled with substance and glory. Now imagine that little Boneheaded shamed cup is sitting next to that ocean and somehow, through chronic bad business deals or theft had reduced the level of the ocean by 6 feet. It is ridiculous, unlikely, it is a parable. So, the boneheaded cup shifts to reactionary behavior mode (“give me a few days”). There is no way that he can even begin to refill the ocean; even if he tried for days or weeks, or eternity. It is laughable. I know a guy.
Now the story takes a surprising turn. We would expect the king to say, “Off with his head!” But not this King. It is not anger that manifests from His being, but rather splagchnizomai, often translated “compassion” or “pity.” Biblically, splagchnizomai is innate only to God or metaphorical representations of God. Only God splags. It is what He naturally feels when he sees one of His servants in humiliation and shame (Think prodigal son, and the Good Samaritan). God’s splag is an internal motivation to make people who are shamed into people of honor. This is the miracle of the Gospel—and the heart of God—the essence of forgiveness. The BHS does not have the power to remover shame and fear of shame. Yet the King proclaim Him a person of honor again. That’s the story.
The listeners would expect that a really gracious human King might—just might—give the guy another chance to re-earn honor and get rid of public shame. What might that look like? Some form of probation, docked wages, shipped off to be the caretaker of the King’s holdings in Antarctica for a time? The idea is that he would over the decades try to work his way back to the King’s favor—but until that time, he and his entire family would be shamed pariahs in the court. That would be very magnanimous—off the charts, really. No, not this outrageous King. He immediately and totally pays the debt. He removes all reason for shame, personal and societal.
Notice also, no strings, no probation, no requirements for oversight, no business coach required, or goals for investing success in the future. The servant does not need to be repentant, or righteous, or even loyal to ignite splag—only be helpless, humiliated and ashamed. In fact, there are no obvious requirements that the servant thank the King. Even my young grandson knows to say thank you. The BHS is restored to a place and reputation of honor by a single public proclamation of the King.
But something is still messed up. In an Honor/Shame culture, everyone knows what should happen next. If you have been forgiven so much, you are socially in debt to the one who restored you. You are expected to respond to such a gracious gift in a way that honors the King’s name. If not, there is even more shame and humiliation. One of the ways that could happen is for the BHS to do the same to other people. He should definitely pay it forward.
But he didn’t. He immediately goes and intentionally shames a fellow-servant. Outrageous. His reaction is not reasonable. How can we explain it? This is the same way to explain your reaction to the wound committed against you. His external public shame was removed by the King, but not his inner-shame. This very powerful inner-shame hides in deeply dug neural pathways. A special power is needed to dig it out. This would explain his immediate reactionary, un-splag behavior. It has shame’s fingerprints all over it. But who wants to think about shame? Not me.
Actual Morals of the Story
Now we are at the real moral of the parable. This is not what we have been teaching for decades. Three points.
1) He should pay it forward. But he didn’t, he can’t, he won’t. If anyone should be able to forgive, be motivated to forgive, it would be this guy. But he does not. He can’t, neither can you or I. Forget 70×7, he can’t forgive once. His heart is driven to fix the source of shame on his own. All subconscious. I don’t like it, but there it is.
2) He won’t forgive because He is just not the Magnanimous King. He is the Boneheaded Servant. He does not have splagchnizomai. When splag bubbles up naturally in the brain of the King, reactionary shame-family of emotions erupts in the heart of the forgiven BHS. People who are experiencing shame can’t forgive. They can’t let go. No judgment. It is how we are made. It is brain science.
It gets worse. Shamed people shame others. That is what happened in the parable. If you command a shamed person, someone who has been hurt, dismissed, treated with disrespect, betrayed to forgive others, it will only shame them more. What’s wrong with me that I can’t do this. Jesus must be disappointed in me.
3) Good news. Shame has an enemy. Here is the money moment. So important. How can this all-too-real servant find healing for their subconscious shame? Threat of punishment didn’t work. If you shame or punish a shamed person, you will end up with an enraged shamed person. Commanding them to forgive 7×70 only creates more shame.
OK work with me here. When did the servant likely feel honor, even it is was a little bit? It was in the presence of the King when the King was oozing splagchnizomai all over the servant. If the shamed servant had looked up, he just might have seen eyes of love and honor toward him. It is the experience of the loving, adoring gaze of the King that is transformative—that heals shame.
Here’s the point. In the presence of the king, in his measuring gaze, not only is your debt paid, but you can finally begin to experience honor and significance just a little bit this side of Heaven. How would you feel related to your current situation if you felt your shame being diminished noticeably? You should begin to feel just a little more empathy for the other person—not perfect. But shame prevents it from happening. In the Forgiving Path, in a very short time, people experience a 149% increase in their experience of empathy toward the perp. It’s a miracle.
So there it is. It is so simple and profound that I think that we despise it. Hurt and shamed one. You have been trying so hard to forgive that person who shamed you—but haven’t processed your own hidden shame that you have been likely unaware of. Stop trying to set yourself free from your chains by on your own choosing to forgive 70×7 times. Stop it! It only shames you more.
Instead, run back by faith into the presence of the magnanimous King who feels such amazing splagchnizomai toward you right now, as you are. Just kneel, hold up your empty powerless, shamed hands skyward, look up into His eyes, and be drenched with it. Get splagged. The only power to begin to diminish your shame is this experience of the love and honor that Jesus paid for 2000 years ago. Here is a prayer that we use at Forgiving Path.
God, so how am I supposed to forgive seventy times seven times? Right now, I don’t want to. It’s still not fair, or right, or just. What about me? My loss? My scars? I can’t. I see that now. Now I get the heavenly joke. Unless I am regularly filled with the DNA of the King, Your DNA, by faith, through the Holy Spirit in my inner-being, I will never be able to come anywhere near forgiving the crime committed against me. Not even close. My cup does not have the capacity. And it leaks. Whether I want to admit it or not, I am far more like the boneheaded servant than the ever-full magnanimous King. I desperately need You to make me feel the single absolute forgiveness that Jesus gained for me 2000 years ago. Then make me want to forgive. Give me some of your splagchnizomai, quick. Until that miracle occurs, I certainly am not free. Amen.
Don’t get me wrong. What Jesus said still stands. We are supposed to want to forgive each other. What we have been doing just isn’t working. We just have to do it the right way. That is why, seven years ago, we created the Forgiving Path. We wanted to give hurting Christians a path that checks all of the Biblical boxes related to forgiving others. It is 100% on-line, confidential, inexpensive and can be done on any computer or smart device. It consists of 9 professionally done video stations, each about 10-minutes long. There are very helpful before- and after- self-assessment surveys. You will find out immediately what changes have occurred according to four scientific metrics.
Hundreds have been helped, not perfectly, that’s relegated to Heaven, but it should be noticeable. You don’t need to leave your brain’s desire for justice at the door. Shame-free. Even if you thought you forgave someone years ago, you may be surprised that there is still much to accomplish. No judgment. It means you are human and made in the image of God.
Come and get splagged. Check it out now (www.forgivingpath.com). If you are a counselor, therapist or Christian coach, contact us directly. We want to help you help your patients.