Matthew 18:21-35 (EHV)
21 Then Peter came up and asked Jesus, “Lord, how many times must I forgive my brother when he sins against me? As many as seven times?”
22 Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but I tell you as many as seventy-seven times.[a] 23 For this reason the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 When he began to settle them, a man who owed him ten thousand talents[b] was brought to him. 25 Because the man was not able to pay the debt, his master ordered that he be sold, along with his wife, children, and all that he owned to repay the debt.
26 “Then the servant fell down on his knees in front of him, saying, ‘Master, be patient with me, and I will pay you everything!’ 27 The master of that servant had pity on him, released him, and forgave him the debt.
28 “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him one hundred denarii.[c] He grabbed him and began choking him, saying, ‘Pay me what you owe!’
29 “So his fellow servant fell down and begged him, saying, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back!’ 30 But he refused. Instead he went off and threw the man into prison until he could pay back what he owed.
31 “When his fellow servants saw what had happened, they were very distressed. They went and reported to their master everything that had taken place.
32 “Then his master called him in and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt when you begged me to. 33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had mercy on you?’ 34 His master was angry and handed him over to the jailers until he could pay back everything he owed.
35 “This is what my heavenly Father will also do to you unless each one of you forgives his brother from his heart.”
- Or seventy times seven
- Ten thousand talents was an enormous amount equal to sixty million days’ wages. Each talent was worth six thousand denarii. A denarius was one day’s wage.
- This was one hundred days’ wages, since one denarius was equal to one day’s wage.
Dear Heavenly Father, send your Holy Spirit upon us so that we may forgive each other in the same we have been forgiven by you, for the sake of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
I’d like you to imagine or recall a time when someone hurt you.
It could be a bully who picked on you at school. It might be a friend who let you down. It might be someone who embarrassed you or lied about you in front of others. It could be a husband or wife who broke your trust. It could be a child who rejected you or what you taught him or her. It might be a fellow Christian who acted in a such way toward you that you wonder if they’re a Christian at all. It might be a terrifying experience of physical, emotional or spiritual abuse from someone who was once close to you, which has deeply scarred you.
Perhaps you still know this person and they remain part of your life. It could also be that you want nothing to do with them and have dismissed them from your life.
As you think about this person who has hurt you so deeply, how do you respond when you hear the question: “How many times must I forgive my brother or sister when they sin against me?”
Now, you may still be angry with them and figure they don’t deserve your forgiveness.
And it’s true! They don’t deserve your forgiveness. Forgiveness is never deserved. If anyone deserved forgiveness, they wouldn’t need to be forgiven. Forgiveness always costs the giver and not the receiver. Forgiveness therefore is always undeserved and unfair.
It could also be that you haven’t forgiven them because they haven’t repented or said sorry yet. You might be waiting for them to show some kind of sorrow over their words and actions first before you might ever consider forgiving them. You might be waiting for a long time! But do people really have to repent before you’re able to forgive them?
On the other hand, you might reckon you’ve already forgiven the other person. You’re over it. It’s all behind you. You’ve moved on in your life. But have you really?
If you still think about or dwell on what happened, you might not have forgiven them yet.
If you still talk to other people about what this particular person has done to you, you might not have forgiven them yet.
If you still hold this incident against the other person which continues to hinder your relationship with them, you might not have forgiven them yet.
In a world which teaches revenge, restitution, retaliation, retribution, and reprisal, Jesus’ teachings on forgiveness really challenge us! We figure someone has to pay! Someone always has to pay, and it’s not going to be me! We reckon those who hurt us have to make up for everything they’ve done to us, and if they don’t, then we’re going to hold it against them until they do so. We might even consider withholding our forgiveness places us in a powerful position over against the other person. But does it really? Is unforgiveness instead the poison we drink hoping the other person will die?
And, what if they never repent? What if they’re never sorry for what they’ve done? Will you and I continue to be scared of them or angry with them? Will we ever truly be at peace?
More than all this, what about that last statement by Jesus who, just after describing the imprisoning and torture of the unforgiving servant, said that this “is what my heavenly Father will also do to you unless each one of you forgives his brother from his heart”?
Sometimes it’s not about how many times you and I might be able to forgive someone. I might be that we struggle to forgive the other person the first time they hurt us!
So today Jesus tackles the human problem of how we often want to limit, or withhold, our forgiveness. We often refer to this as the ‘Parable of the unforgiving (or unmerciful) servant.’
Firstly, as we listen to Jesus, we soon figure it’s not about how many times we might be expected to forgive. Whether it’s 77 times or 490 times, or whether Jesus is undoing the figure of revenge mentioned by Lamech in Genesis 4:27, it’s not really about the number. It’s not about keeping a tally of how many times you and I might need to forgive someone before we finally get to that magical number when we can stop forgiving someone. There should be no limit to our forgiveness.
To make the point it’s not really about numbers, Jesus uses an illustration with astronomical numbers which are almost impossible to comprehend.
For example, one of the king’s servants had amassed an impossible debt of 10,000 talents.
Now, since we don’t normally use a talent as a unit of currency in Australia, we need to translate this a little.
In this case it helps to understand in Jesus’ day, 1 day’s average wage for a worker was 1 denarius. 1 talent was worth 6,000 denarii. This means, 10,000 talents would be worth 60,000,000 days wages. Remembering most people only work for around 50 years (which equates to around 15,600 days if you worked a six-day working week), this meant this servant had amounted enough debt which would take almost 4,000 lifetimes to ever repay!
In other words, the debt is impossible to ever repay! Even if the king really were to sell the servant, his wife, and his children, the debt still couldn’t be repaid. He’s not just undeserving, but he’s been careless, irresponsible, and reckless to rack up such an impossible debt which could never be repaid.
In desperation he asks the king for patience so he could repay the debt. Remembering the impossibility of repaying this ridiculous financial debt, the request for patience would seem futile and pointless.
Note, there’s no hint of sorrow over the huge debt. No repentance. No change of heart, which becomes even more obvious later. There’s absolutely no reasonable reason the king should do anything except let the servant receive what he deserves for this prodigal debt.
Therefore, when the king forgives and wipes clean the impossible debt, this seems extremely bizarre. The king cancels the servant’s debt for no reason except for his own compassion. The king is compassionate and gracious, slow to get angry and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. There are also no strings attached to this extraordinary act of forgiven debt.
So, it seems this reckless and irresponsible servant gets off scott free! He now has no debt and is free to start again. You’d think this would be a life-changing day for him!
But, no sooner does he go outside, that this freely forgiven servant comes across another servant who owed him 100 denarii – that’s only about 3 months wages. This debt could easily be repaid if the original servant was patient.
And that’s all the second servant asks for – patience. He doesn’t ask for his debt to be cancelled. He promises to repay what he owes, just not right now.
But the original servant, who has been forgiven 4,000 lifetimes of debt wants his 3 months debt paid back right away. He’s not even willing to be patient. He throws the second servant into prison in order that he would repay the debt. Although, how on earth a person is supposed to repay a debt from prison is indeed puzzling!
It just so happens other fellow servants witnessed what happened and reported the original servant’s cruel and unjust behaviour to the king.
In this case, while the king hadn’t attached any strings to his forgiveness to the original servant, he did expect the servant who had received mercy to be merciful to others. The king expected his compassionate act of mercy would rub off on the servant, but it didn’t. The servant’s heart remained selfish and self-seeking. Because the servant wasn’t merciful, he’s handed over to tortuous prison guards in order that his once-forgiven debt would be fully repaid.
And then Jesus says those words to you and me, as Christians who have received the forgiveness and mercy of God, that when we struggle to forgive those around us: “This is what my heavenly Father will also do to you unless each one of you forgives his brother from his heart.”
You could argue the forgiveness of the King was without condition, but it wasn’t without consequences.
Similarly, loving and forgiving your brothers and sisters in Christ isn’t a condition you have to live up to in order to gain God’s grace or mercy. God has already been gracious and merciful to you long before you ever asked for it. Instead, your forgiveness toward those around you is the after-effect and consequence of a believing heart. While a Christian can’t win or earn God’s forgiveness, you can lose it when you refuse to extend the same grace and compassion to your brothers or sisters in Christ.
When you’re struggling to forgive those around you, arguing they need to have a change of heart before you can ever forgive them, Jesus challenges you to consider it’s not the other person’s heart that needs changing. To forgive someone else from your heart means your own heart is the one which needs to be changed first. And the only way your own heart can be changed is to realise the huge debt you’ve already been forgiven by Jesus Christ.
So, hear again the good news of Jesus Christ!
While you were still sinners, Christ died for you.
He didn’t die for you because you’re good people, but because you’ve racked up a huge debt. You see, the wages, or the debt of sin, is death.
Every time you feared, loved, or trusted in something or someone else apart from God, the debt was increased. Every time you neglected to pray to God, or give him thanks, you added to the debt. Every time you angered or dishonoured your parents or teachers or whinged about our parliamentarians, you added to the debt. Every time you told a lie about your neighbour or passed on some gossip unchecked, you increased the debt. Every time you wanted to gain something or someone for yourself because you weren’t content with what God already provided you, the debt got larger.
Despite all this, Jesus paid the full price of that debt of sin through his death. It is finished. Completed. Fully paid for.
He also didn’t suffer and die because you were sorry. In fact, most of the time you may be unaware of how much you offend the people around you. You’re probably also unaware of the depths of your offences toward God. If he had to wait for any of you to be sorry for how you hurt each other or the way you hurt God, Jesus would still be waiting. So, while you were his unrepentant enemies, he died for you and me. Gladly. Willingly. Graciously. Undeservedly.
When you’re struggling to forgive someone, you don’t look for the other person to change. They’re probably not going to anyway. It could be that mercy is the only thing which can change their heart too.
Instead, when you’re struggling to forgive, look to Jesus Christ and what he did for you. He forgave you from his gracious and merciful heart. When your own heart realises and trusts the grace and mercy of Christ, you’ll be more willing to forgive from your heart. Not because you have to, but because your heart has been transformed by God’s grace and mercy.
May God comfort you with the forgiveness which is yours through faith in the words and work of Jesus Christ, who has cleansed and adopted you as God’s own children through baptism, and who offers his own body and blood for the forgiveness of your sin. And by God’s grace, may the forgiveness of Christ help you to forgive those who have hurt you.
And then may the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.