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21Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?”
22Jesus 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. 24As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. 25Since 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“The servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ 27The 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 denarii. 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 you back.’
30“But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed 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. 33Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ 34In anger his master turned 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 from your heart.”
Jesus had recently been speaking about how to deal with brothers who sin against you (see Matt. 18:15ff). This must have brought to Peter’s mind a related question: “Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, ‘Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?’” (vs. 21). Some would fault Peter for putting a limit on forgiveness. It is an easy thing for us to fault him, because we already know Jesus’ answer! I think we must give him some credit, for he was suggesting that, in forgiveness, he go beyond what was taught him by the religious leaders of the day. “Jewish rabbis are said to have taught people to bear injury three times and then to regard duty as done; if this is so, Peter’s suggestion of ‘seven times’ was liberal extension and could be regarded as magnanimous” [Griffith Thomas, 272]. Peter was on the right track. Peter was taking for granted that he must forgive his brother, and that he must forgive him much.
“Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times’” (vs. 22). The point in Jesus’ answer is not that we are to keep count of forgiving, count up to seventy-seven, and stop at seventy-eight. No one in their right Christian mind would keep such a count. The point is, of course, to keep forgiving an innumerable number of times. I do think that many of us have problems with this and are not following the teachings of our Lord. Our Lord’s attitude was to seek the best in people, and to be quick to forgive. The attitude of so many of us is to expose the worst in people, and to be quick to condemn. Such an attitude is not a proper Christian attitude. “What a happy world it would be if this rule of our Lord’s was more known and better obeyed! How many of the miseries of mankind are occasioned by disputes, quarrels, lawsuits, and an obstinate tenacity about what men call ‘their rights’!” [Ryle, 230].
Jesus goes on to tell a parable that teaches us Christians, who have been forgiven so much by our Lord, that we should also forgive others, or be guilty of the worst hypocrisy. He begins: “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him” (vss. 23–24). In this parable, the king represents God, and the servant, a Christian forgiven of his sins. “Ten thousand talents” is a huge amount of money. A “talent” was actually a weight, approximately 30 kg. (or around 60 lbs). So the debtor in the parable owed his master 10,000 talents of either gold or silver (which precious metal is not specified in the parable). In either case, the amount that he owed was enormous, into the millions of dollars. It was, effectively, unpayable by one employed as a servant. The servant’s debt, of course, is representative of our debt to God: our sins are so numerous, and God is so holy, we can never repay this debt. “Sacrifice and offering would not do it; our good works are but God’s work in us, and cannot make satisfaction; we are without strength, and cannot help ourselves” [Henry]. We must realize something: Every sin that we commit adds to our debt to God. There is an account kept of these debts, and they must be repayed, or forgiven by God (the creditor), upon His terms.
As was his right, the master in the parable initially set about to punish the servant harshly: “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” (vs. 25). Who would argue against the right that the master had to punish the debtor? Yet, there are many who would argue against God’s right to judge His debtors. When reading the parable, one cannot help but thinking what a fool the servant must have been: to build up such a large debt. We, in thinking this, are condemning ourselves, though. What fools we are to sin so much and build up such a great debt to our loving God!
Naturally, the servant begs for leniency: “The servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’” (vs. 26). The servant was either a fool or a liar, for it was quite impossible, given the enormity of the debt, for him to “pay back everything.” “This servant-debtor thought he only needed patience; but indeed he needed forgiveness! It seems strange that he did not see this, since the debt was so great, and he had nothing wherewith to pay, but was utterly bankrupt: yet it is a well-known fact, that men do not see their true condition before the Lord God, even when they perceive that in many things they come short” [Spurgeon, 256]. The servant asks for “patience”, but the master must already have shown great patience up to this point, given that the debt had built up to such an enormous sum. Our God too shows great patience with us, allowing us ample time to come to repentance. But there will be a time when we will be called to account for our debt of sin. As the writer of Hebrews teaches: “[M]an is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Heb. 9:27).
The master responded to the servant’s plea: “The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go” (vs. 27). Reflecting the nature of God, the master’s mercy exceeded what was asked. Much more than a temporary reprieve of patience to pay off an unpayable debt, the servant was totally forgiven his debt. God is very ready to enact compassion and mercy. Significantly though, “the servant was not forgiven until he came to his lord in humility” [Griffith Thomas, 274].
It is also noteworthy, I believe, that we find here no response of gratitude by the servant to his master for the forgiveness shown him. Instead, “when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you own me!’ he demanded” (vs. 28). We can see right away, from the violence with which he accosts his debtor, that the forgiven servant was not humbled, or affected spiritually in any way by being forgiven. It is as if he did not understand the value of the great mercy he had been shown. Now, the amount owed him, “a hundred denarii”, though not insignificant, was much, much less than what he owed his master. A denari was typically the amount of wages paid for a day’s work. So he was owed, at most, in the thousands of dollars (“a hundred denarii”), while he had owed his master millions of dollars (“ten thousand talents”).
The debtor plead his case: “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back’” (vs. 29). Would not this plea have brought to mind his own to his master? The main difference between the pleas is that the servant’s debtor actually did have a possibility of paying back the debt, whereas the forgiven servant owed so much that there really was no chance that he could repay such a sum.
The forgiven servant showed no mercy: “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt” (vs. 30). This parable is so accurate in its depiction of human nature. We are so ready to accept forgiveness from God. In fact, we act as though somehow God owes us His forgiveness. And then, by our subsequent actions, we demonstrate that we do not fully appreciate all that God has done for us. We are so ready to condemn our brothers, and hold grudges, for the wrongs they do us, rather than forgive them.
We should pay careful attention to the sequel of the forgiven servant’s actions: “When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened. Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed” (vs. 32–34). Jesus brings home the point of the parable: “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart” (vs. 35). If we do not forgive our brothers, we demonstrate that we do not truly understand the forgiveness God has shown us, that we do not truly understand the Gospel message. “Those who receive extraordinary grace should act in accordance with the grace they receive” [Morris, 476]. “This is not intended to teach us that God reverses His pardons to any, but that He denies them to those that are unqualified for them. Though having seemed to be humbled, like Ahab, they thought themselves, and others thought them, in a pardoned state, and they made bold with the comfort of it” [Henry]. We must take to heart the words we say so often as we recite the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Matt. 6:12).