As we forgive them

The unmerciful servant (Matthew 18:21-35)

One day St Peter came up to Jesus with a question he wanted answering.  “Lord”, he asked, “how often must I forgive my brother if he wrongs me?  As often as seven times?” (Jerusalem Bible, Matthew 18:21).  Peter must have thought that his seven times was very generous, but Jesus told him, not seven but seventy times seven, meaning, times without number. And then Jesus explained what he meant by telling Peter and the other Apostles a story, the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant.

A huge debt forgiven

There was once a king whose kingdom was divided up into provinces.  Over each of these provinces he had appointed a governor whose duty was to see that the people paid the taxes and that the money so collected went into the king’s treasury.  One day the king examined the provincial accounts and discovered that a certain governor was short of a huge sum of money – 10,000 talents.  (A labourer would have to work for more than 15 years to earn just one talent). (1)  The governor had evidently been helping himself to the taxes and had spent the money wildly.  So the unhappy man was brought before the king who ordered him to be sold, and his wife and children, and all his property.  It was impossible for the governor ever to pay all he owed: all he could do was to throw himself on the king’s mercy.  So he fell at the king’s feet and asked the king to give him time to pay: “Give me time and I will pay the whole sum”.  Whereupon the king did much more than give him time to pay; he cancelled the whole enormous debt and set the man free (Jerusalem Bible, Matthew 18: 23-27).

Failure to forgive

As the governor went joyfully down the palace steps he came across a man from his province who happened to owe him 100 denarii.  (One denarius was the usual daily wage for a labourer). (2)  The governor seized the poor man by the throat and said, “Pay what you owe me”.  The man fell at his feet and begged for time to pay in the same words the governor himself had been using only a few minutes before: “Give me time and I will pay you” (Jerusalem Bible, Matthew 18:28,29).  But the governor refused and threw him into prison until the money should be paid.

It was not long before the king was told of what had happened, and he lost no time in sending for the governor.  “You wicked servant”, said the king in great anger, “I cancelled all that debt of yours when you appealed to me.  Were you not bound, then, to have pity on your fellow servant just as I had pity on you?” (Jerusalem Bible, Matthew 18:32,33).  And the king handed him over to be tortured in case he had any money hidden away, and to be kept in prison until he had paid all he owed.  And Jesus ended the parable by saying, “And that is how my heavenly Father will deal with you unless you each forgive your brother from your heart” (Jerusalem Bible, Matthew 18:35).  Notice those last words, from your heart.

Importance of forgiving others

Jesus was very insistent that our forgiveness by God depends on our forgiveness of others.  Not only did he put this clause in the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those that trespass against us”, but after he had taught this prayer he added, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (NRSV, Matthew 6.14-15).  The reason why we cannot be forgiven if we ourselves are unforgiving, is that an unforgiving spirit is sinful and separates us from God.

Forgiveness of others

Examples of forgiveness

As always, Jesus sets us the example to follow, and it has ever since been followed by truly Christian men and women.  You will remember that, as Jesus was being nailed to the Cross and his enemies stood gloating over him, he prayed, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (NRSV, Luke 23:34).  And when St Stephen, the first Christian martyr, was being stoned to death he kneeled down and cried with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (NRSV, Acts 7:60). 

And in the First World War an English nurse acted in the same way.  Her name was Nurse Cavell and she had nursed wounded soldiers, both German as well as British, in a hospital in German-occupied Belgium.  The Germans found out that she had been helping British prisoners-of-war to escape, and they sentenced her to be shot.  On the night before she was executed she made her last Communion, and said, “Standing as I do in view of God and eternity, I realise that patriotism is not enough, I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone”. (3)

We must, therefore, be as ready to forgive other people as the father in the parable was ready to forgive the Prodigal Son.  In particular, we must forgive other people before we make our Communion, for it is a sin to bear a grudge. 

Praying for people who have injured us

If someone has injured you or been very nasty to you, and you find it hard to forgive them, the thing you must do, even if you don’t want to, is to remember them in your prayers and to ask God that you may be on friendly terms.  It is impossible to hate anyone you pray for, and if you pray for them you will be able to forgive them.

And remember, when we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”, we are asking God to treat us in exactly the same way as we treat other people, and that is a prayer he will answer.


1. We cannot be forgiven by God if we ourselves are unforgiving, for an unforgiving spirit is sinful and separates us from God.  If anyone is nasty to us, we should be willing to forgive and forget.

2. If we find it difficult to forgive anybody, we should remember them in our prayers.


1. New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, Anglicized Edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press.  Footnote to 18:24.

2. New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, Anglicized Version, Oxford: Oxford University Press.  Footnote to 18:28.

3. Edith Cavell website (1997-2010) Nurse Edith Cavell 1865-1915.  A Norfolk heroine.  Available from:  (Accessed 19 August 2010) (Internet).