Questions about the Parable of the Unmerciful Debtor

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QUESTION 1

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The story of the "Unmerciful Debtor" is read on the 11th Sunday after Pentecost, and is found in Matthew 18:23-35. What "type" of story is it? Why did Jesus tell these kinds of stories?


 

 

 

 

 

ANSWER 1

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The story of the Unmerciful Debtor is one of many "parables" that Jesus told. A parable is a story that is told to illustrate a moral truth. People remember things better when they are illustrated in a story.


 

QUESTION 2

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In this story a comparison is made - it is the entire reason for the story.

  1. What is this comparison?
  2. What was the immediate reason for the parable (hint: Look at the dialogue that preceded it.)
  3. Describe the compared thing in the light of the story.

     

     

     

     

     

    ANSWER 2

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    The parable of the Unmerciful Debtor is one of several parables that Jesus used to describe the "Kingdom of Heaven". The Lord begins: "Therefore is the kingdom of heaven likened unto a certain king, which would take account of his servants." Matthew 18.23

    He had just finished exhorting the apostles that they must forgive "until seventy times seven" times (in other words, they must always forgive). This seems to be an insurmountable difficulty to some. St John Chrysostom comments:

    "For that He might not seem to any to enjoin great things and hard to bear, by saying, "Seventy times seven," He added this parable, at once both leading them on to what He had said, and putting down him who was priding himself upon this, and showing the act was not grievous, but rather very easy. Therefore let me add, He brought forward His own love to man, that by the comparison, as He saith, thou mightest learn, that though thou forgive seventy times seven, though thou continually pardon thy neighbor for absolutely all his sins, as a drop of water to an endless sea, so much, or rather much more, doth thy love to man come short in comparison of the boundless goodness of God, of which thou standest in need, for that thou art to be judged, and to give an account." (Sermon LXII on Matthew 18)

    The parable underscores our own great debt to God because of our transgressions, and, in comparison, the insignificant debt we are owed by our neighbor, because of his transgressions towards us. The knowledge of our own great debt makes it easier to forgive the paltry debts others owe us.

    The parable says, "the kingdom of heaven is like", but it (like the other "Kingdom" parables) is indicating how to live in order to enter the kingdom of heaven. We must be aware of our great debt to God, and be constantly aware of the enormity of His grace in forgiving us. When a man truly knows himself, he will forgive others readily. A man, who knows how much he is forgiven, forgives. Perhaps the fundamental reason why people harbor resentments, and rages, and hatred towards others is because they are blind concerning their own debt toward God. If we have any sensibility whatsoever, we will realize how much we have done that has angered God, and how much He has forgiven.


     

    QUESTION 3

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    "Therefore is the kingdom of heaven likened unto a certain king, which would take account of his servants. {24} And when he had begun to reckon, one was brought unto him, which owed him ten thousand talents." Matthew 18:23,24

    In order to understand the parable, we must understand all of the "characters" and the symbols.

    1. Who is the "certain king"?
    2. What is the "accounting" that is spoken of? When does it occur?
    3. What does the debt of 10,000 talents represent? There is a subtlety present in the actual number also. Do you know what it is?
    4. The parable actually refers to two time frames, and two accountings. Which?

     

     

     

     

     

    ANSWER 3

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    The parable of the unmerciful debtor illustrates the greatness of God's forgiveness towards us, and our corresponding great responsibility to forgive our neighbor. The "certain King" is God, and the first "accounting" that is spoken of is the one that occurs during this life. The talents that are owned are our sins, a great debt to God that we have no means or ability to repay on our own. The crushing weight of our sins would estrange us from God completely, but, because of His manifold grace, we who are Christians are forgiven all of our debts, and washed clean in the waters of baptism. We are continually cleansed (those who care enough to partake) by frequent confession, the partaking of the holy mysteries, and the "renewing of our minds" by the Holy Spirit. This is all represented by the King's forgiving the 10,000 talent debt.

    After the insubordinate and flagrant conduct of the servant is detailed, a second judgment by the king is shown. This will be the last judgment, at the consummation of all things. The unfortunate servant who forgets himself and the great forgiveness of God towards his sins will be condemned.

    According to Blessed Augustine, the 10,000 talents represent all of our sins: "Therefore let us say, that because the Law is set forth in ten precepts, the ten thousand talents which he owed denote all sins which can be done under the Law."


     

    QUESTION 4

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    "But forasmuch as he had not to pay, his lord commanded him to be sold, and his wife, and children, and all that he had, and payment to be made" Matthew 18.25

    The King does something that appears to be quite harsh to the spiritually undiscerning, but great mercy is hidden in His actions. In order to understand this, we must discern what the wife and children represent. What does the selling of them signify?


     

     

     

     

     

    ANSWER 4

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    St John Chrysostom comments that the order to sell the man's wife and children was meant to awaken the man, and bring him to repentance. Such is the immediately apparent meaning of the verse, but hidden within the king's edict is important spiritual knowledge.

    The selling of the debtor indicates total alienation from God, as Blessed Theophylact tells us. (Blessed Theophylact, Commentary on Matthew 18:24-25) The man's wife indicates his flesh, that is, his body, and his children indicate his evil deeds, "offspring" of the soul and body. Truly our unrepentant sins cause our total loss of all blessedness, and all of our evil deeds follow our soul and body into condemnation. This is a chilling scene!


     

    QUESTION 5

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    "Then the lord of that servant was moved with compassion, and loosed him, and forgave him the debt. {28} But the same servant went out, and found one of his fellowservants, which owed him an hundred pence: and he laid hands on him, and took him by the throat, saying, Pay me that thou owest. " (Mat 18:27-28)

    "Going out" has two meanings. One is strictly practical, and other is a deep and terrible spiritual meaning. What are the two meanings?


     

     

     

     

     

    ANSWER 5

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    The forgiven servant had to "go out" and take leave of His king, and all would have been well with him if he had remembered the great benefactions bestowed upon his unworthy self. Instead, he suffered a great calamity. This was, of course, his great forgetfulness and unthankfulness, which, together with his great greed, turned him into a rapacious beast.

    "Up to this point then this man was good and acceptable; for he confessed, and promised to pay the debt, and fell down before him, and entreated, and condemned his own sins, and knew the greatness of the debt. But the sequel is unworthy of his former deeds. For going out straightway, not after a long time but straightway, having the benefit fresh upon him, he abused to wickedness the gift, even the freedom bestowed on him by his master.1" (St John Chrysostom)

    The servant's "going out" was a departure from God, not because of proximity, because God is everywhere, but because he did not have compassion and the remembrance of God's mercies. His greed made him a stranger to God! St John Chrysostom comments with amazement that the man forgot his benefactor almost immediately: "By saying, as he went out, He shows that it was not after long time, but immediately; while the favor he had received still sounded in his ears, he abused to wickedness the liberty his lord had accorded him."

    May we be delivered from such insensibility! May we not be like the forgetful servant who forgot the great debt he had been forgiven, or the unthankful Jews who were brushing the crumbs of bread off of their beards even as they were trying to entrap their benefactor! We must do everything in our power to always abide in God, and never "go out" from His warm embrace. The calamity of the servant shows us that we must keep in constant remembrance God's mercies towards us, to curb our sinful desires and always abide in God.


     

    QUESTION 6

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    "But the same servant went out, and found one of his fellowservants, which owed him an hundred pence: and he laid hands on him, and took him by the throat, saying, Pay me that thou owest." Matt 18.28

    The difference in magnitude of 10,000 and 100 holds an important spiritual meaning. What is it?


     

     

     

     

     

    ANSWER 6

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    "Seest thou how great the difference between sins against man and against God? As great as between ten thousand talents, and a hundred pence, or rather even much more. And this arises both from the difference of the persons, and the constant succession of our sins. For when a man looks at us, we stand off and shrink from sinning: but when God sees us every day, we do not forbear, but do and speak all things without fear."(St John Chrysostom)


     

    QUESTION 7

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    "So when his fellow servants saw what was done, they were very sorry, and came and told unto their lord all that was done." (18.31 )

    Who are the fellow servants? When did they go to their king? Keep in mind the time frames of the parable.


     

     

     

     

     

    ANSWER 7

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    His fellow servants are the angels. ((Blessed Theophylact). They are appointed by God to watch over us, and protect us, and see what we do. Our actions are not hid from even the angels, much less our God and Creator. The one evil deed mentioned in the parable may be construed to represent the entire life of an unrepentant and unthankful wretch, and at the end of all time, at the last judgment, the angels will bring accusations or praise for all men.


     

    QUESTION 8

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    "And his lord was wroth, and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due unto him." "18.34"

    What is the meaning? Who are the torturers? How long is the servant punished? How can he repay the debt?


     

     

     

     

     

    ANSWER 8

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    It will be a chilling scene at the last judgment. The judgment will by inexorable and unavoidable, and permanent. Those who have not lived in the light of the gospel, and become like Christ will be told: "... Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: {42} For I was an hungered, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: {43} I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not." (Mat 25:41-43) The Lord will even go so far as to completely disown the unrepentant debtor, by saying: "I tell you, I know you not whence ye are; depart from me, all ye workers of iniquity." (Luke 13:27)

    The torturers are the devil and his angels, and the judgment is permanent. The wretch who has wasted his life and the manifold mercies of God bestowed upon him will have no means to make amends, as the time of life in the flesh is the only time for repentance.


     

    QUESTION 9

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    What virtues does this parable teach, and conversely, which sins does it warn against?


     

     

     

     

     

    ANSWER 9

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    The Parable of the Unmerciful Debtor was spoken to awaken us, and make us mindful of the manifold mercies of God. It stirs us to thankfulness, and compassion and forgiveness. On the other hand, it shows the evil result of forgetfulness (concerning the mercy of God), greed, and rapaciousness. Its main intent was to answer the question "How oft should I forgive my brother"? The Lord not only answered this question, but gave us a means and a path to fulfilling it.

    "Bearing in mind all these things, and considering the ten thousand talents, let us at least hence hasten to remit to our neighbors their few and trifling debts. For we too have an account to give of the commandments wherewith we have been trusted, and we are not able to pay all, no not whatever we may do. Therefore God hath given us a way to repayment both ready and easy, and which is able to cancel all these things, I mean, not to be revengeful. " (St John Chrysostom)


     

    QUESTION 10

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    There are other stories which make the same comparison as the parable of the Unmerciful Debtor ("the kingdom of heaven is like...). Cite at least 3.


     

     

     

     

     

    ANSWER 10

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    1. "The kingdom of heaven is likened unto a man which sowed good seed in his field..." (Mat 13:24)
    2. "... The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field: {32} Which indeed is the least of all seeds: but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof." (Mat 13:31-32)
    3. "The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven, which a woman took, and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened." (Mat 13:33)
    4. "... The kingdom of heaven is like unto treasure hid in a field; the which when a man hath found, he hideth, and for joy thereof goeth and selleth all that he hath, and buyeth that field." (Mat 13:44)
    5. "The kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls: {46} Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it. (Mat 13:45-46)
    6. "Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a net, that was cast into the sea, and gathered of every kind: {48} Which, when it was full, they drew to shore, and sat down, and gathered the good into vessels, but cast the bad away." (Mat 13:47-48)

     





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