Scripture Readings: Ex. 14:19-31 and Ps. 114 (or Gen. 50:15-21 and Ps.103:1-7, 8-13) Rom. 14:1-12; Matt. 18:21-35 Sermon by Martin Manuel from Matt. 18:21-35
Immeasurable, Unlimited Forgiveness
Our readings today address God’s justice, judgment and mercy. In justice, God judges our sin and in mercy provides forgiveness. He then invites followers of Jesus, who have received this forgiveness, to participate with Christ in forgiving those who have offended us. Our Gospel reading addresses two points about that forgiveness: 1) its frequency and 2) the relationship between divine and human forgiving. By looking at both, we’ll gain greater appreciation for God’s forgiveness and how we can apply it in our relationships.
The context of today’s Gospel passage includes Jesus instruction concerning offending people (Matt. 18:1-14) and responding to people’s offensive acts (Matt. 18:15-17). The narrative in today’s passage begins with the 12 disciples competing with each other. Perhaps the special trip by three of them to the mountain with Jesus (Matt. 17:1) provoked envy in the others. One of them asks Jesus who among them would be greatest in the kingdom. Jesus replies by pointing to a little child as being typical of his true followers. Like a little child, the person who inherits the kingdom will be humble and trusting.
Jesus then warns his disciples to be extremely careful not to offend such a person, thus causing them to sin. His instruction here seems extreme—gouging out an offending eye, cutting off an offending hand. Jesus was using exaggeration to make a powerful point in the context of a warning about offending his followers. He was noting that people often considered unimportant or unlovable are loved by the Father. In the same discussion, Jesus instructs his disciples concerning how they are to react when someone offends them. His instruction includes confronting the offender for the purpose of defusing the situation and achieving reconciliation. If the response to such efforts is rejection, Jesus explains that separation might be necessary. With this background in mind, let’s look at Matthew 18:21-35 verse-by-verse.
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?” (Matt. 18:21)
Anyone who seeks to be forgiving will encounter this problem—what if the offender, having been forgiven, keeps doing the same offensive thing? This situation certainly draws out instinctive reactions geared toward retaliation! Having experienced this dilemma, Peter wonders when retaliation will be permissible. How tolerant should we be before deciding to break off our relationship with the offender?
Peter’s question suggests that he thought the answer had to do with the number of times the offence occurred. In seeking a limited number of infractions, Peter might have been generous to suggest seven, but he was still taking a legalistic approach. Recalling that Jesus had taught that in prayer we are to express forgiveness of others as we ask for forgiveness for ourselves, he wanted to be obedient. But in the absence of a forgiving heart, he was looking for a legalistic rule that he could follow and thus feel good about, after which he might feel free to wreak havoc on the offender!
Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” (Matt. 18:22)
Jesus did not give Peter the answer he sought. Peter suggested the number seven (the number of completion) as a generous limit. But Jesus confounded Peter’s legalistic reasoning by suggesting an absurdly large number, thus indicating that the number is without limit. Perhaps Jesus chose the number based on Lamech’s boast in Genesis 4:24: “If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times.” Lamech was boasting about taking vengeance, disproportionately greater than the offence, upon someone who would injure him. It was like saying, slap me and I’ll break your jaw! Jesus advocated just the opposite. To explain his response, Jesus told a parable:
Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. (Matt. 18:23)
The king in the parable believed in holding his servants accountable. An important factor in this story is accountability. Jesus chose a story about money and debt to clarify important points about forgiveness. Obviously from the context, more than financial debt was involved. But the point of debt is the clear identification of the offender. The issue between the king and the indebted servant was neither the king’s fault nor even a shared fault between the two. The servant was at fault and owed the king payment.
For reasons not explained, the king decided it was time to settle the matter. The king brought the problem to the attention of the debtor as an offended person confronts the offender. Sometimes an offended person delays or avoids confrontation, continuing to bear the burden of the offender’s debt. Eventually, because the offended person loses patience or the debt grows larger, a crisis erupts, resulting either in a heated confrontation or in some form of discharge of the debt. To wait until a crisis erupts usually is not best.
As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. (Matt. 18:24)
The amount of money referred to here is huge. The word in Greek here translated “bags of gold” is talanton. The KJV translates it as “talents.” According to the New Bible Commentary, “Ten thousand talents combines the largest Greek numeral with the largest unit of currency.” Jesus was not suggesting an actual number; instead, he was describing an unimaginably large amount. In our culture, we might say “a zillion dollars.” The debt was beyond calculation.
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. At this the servant fell on his knees before him. “Be patient with me,” he begged, “and I will pay back everything.” (Matt. 18:25-26)
The debt was so large that everything the servant had, including his life, the lives of his family members, and all their possessions were required in payment. Overwhelmed by the enormity of this, the servant desperately asked the master to indefinitely withhold his anger. As if even he did not comprehend the size of his debt, he promised to pay it back.
The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go. (Matt. 18:27)
Though this sentence is short, it says a mouthful. The master took pity. Understanding the plight of the servant, and hearing his desperate plea, the master was moved. Literally, he felt “deep compassion” for his servant, and in the depth of that feeling he cancelled the debt. What a statement about the power of compassion! In this case, nothing else could have satisfied the enormous debt.
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. (Matt. 18:28)
In Greek, the phrase “silver coins” is denarii. One hundred denarii was equivalent to several months’ wages at the time. Although this was not a negligible amount, it cannot begin to be compared to the size of the debt that had been forgiven. Besides demanding payment, the servant threatened the debtor with violence. In movies, gangsters use such tactics to intimidate their victims into immediate compliance. Today, a call from a collection agency demanding immediate payment “or else” tends to pressure the debtor into swift action. The point is that the man who had received unlimited mercy showed not even a little mercy.
His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, “Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.” But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. (Matt. 18:29-30)
In the same words as the debtor with the immeasurable debt, this debtor, pleading for patience, promised repayment. Yet, he received no mercy. Instead he was put into a position of being incapable of repayment of a payable debt.
When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened. (Matt. 18:31)
To those witnessing this situation, the unforgiving behavior was outrageous. The words of poet Robert Burns seem fitting here:
Oh would some power the gift give us,
To see ourselves as others see us.
It is a strange quirk of human nature that we are virtually blind to ourselves. Everyone else sees, but we don’t. That’s not Jesus’ main point, but it is a related part to which we’ll return.
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 handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. (Matt. 18:32-34)
Jesus refers to this unforgiving behavior as being “wicked.” To the legalistic mind, wickedness is to deliberately break a command—a command against a matter considered particularly evil. But Jesus’ story is not about breaking a particular command in the Law of Moses. Instead, he labels as “wicked” the withholding of mercy. To ignore mercy received, or to be so callous as to be unwilling to consider self in another’s shoes, is as sinful as an overt evil act against another person. The punishment administered to the unforgiving servant—torture in jail—fit the crime, because the unforgiving servant had administered similar punishment.
This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart. (Matt. 18:35)
Jesus was not bluffing in this stern warning. His heavenly Father has forgiven all human sin—in Christ, our debt has been cancelled. That debt was immeasurable, yet the Father forgave it all, extending that forgiveness to each person an unlimited number of times.
In comparison, the debts we humans owe each other are infinitely small. God expects us to do the unnatural for each other because he has done the unnatural for us all. God is looking for a real, heartfelt forgiveness, not a legalistic one.
Forgiveness in our lives
Let’s consider how this Gospel passage applies in our lives today.
Jesus’ answer to Peter’s question showed that forgiveness is a major part of the life of anyone who follows Jesus. It is a daily activity versus a once-in-a-while act. Earlier, Jesus had made this point in the Lord’s Prayer: “Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” To put these two requests together reveals the frequency of God-to-human and human-to-human forgiveness. We need to eat daily, and in relationships, because we are imperfect, we need to be forgiven and to forgive daily.
What we owe God cannot be measured. Thus how many times we are forgiven has no limit. The parable of the unforgiving servant emphasizes not only the importance of human-to-human forgiveness, but also the enormity of the proportion of God-to-human forgiveness.
Overriding our thoughts and the dynamics of our relationships with other people is the reality that we live in the amazing grace of enormous, immeasurable mercy freely granted to us by God our Father through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Dear ones, never consider your sin too great for God to forgive. Never think you’ve sinned one time too many. God’s forgiving grace is immeasurable and unlimited. Confess your sin to him, and trust in him that his grace through the blood of Jesus Christ covers it, enabling you to receive it with gratitude. Then, realize that the same grace is expected from you when you are offended.
Peter asked about forgiving a brother. Most of the time forgiveness is easier when the offender is someone we like. In the parable, Jesus chose servants who worked for the same king. They knew each other, but their relationship was not specified. Forgiving a person in our circle is usually not as easy as forgiving a friend. If the offender is an unknown person or, even worse, an enemy, forgiveness is even more difficult. Nevertheless, as Jesus’ words show, we are expected to forgive.
Let us not rationalize our way into withholding forgiveness because we have no feelings toward the offender. Also, let us not consider a friend’s offence greater than others. Note that in Matthew’s version of the parable, there is no mention of the offending brother’s apology. Is an apology necessary? Is forgiveness contingent on the repentance of the offender? To the offender, an apology is good because it implies personal accountability for the offence. The remorseful offender may follow-up with acts of repentance (such as repaying the debt). But in Jesus’ way of thinking, forgiveness is not contingent on an apology or repentance; instead, it is a response to our being forgiven by God of more and greater offences. Jesus intends that we see ourselves as the servant whose debt was immeasuable.
At the cross, Jesus asked for forgiveness of those who did not realize what they were doing. They had neither apologized nor expressed remorse. They simply were acting out of ignorance, and his compassion toward them moved him to ask God to forgive them. Indeed, compassion for ignorance is another good reason to forgive; nonetheless, whether or not we feel compassion, we have reason to forgive because we have been forgiven.
The offence we experience from someone’s act against us is far less than the sum total of our offences against God. If we have trouble comprehending that fact, it would be helpful for us to spend some time in prayer and reflection so that our inner eyes may be enlightened about the truth concerning the enormity of our sin.
This parable also teaches us that forgiveness must go beyond outward expressions such as words, facial expressions, gestures, or other actions. Jesus spoke of forgiving from the heart. Reading Jesus’ words may convince us of the need to forgive, but reading does not change our hearts. Only the inner work of the Holy Spirit reaches our innermost intentions and motivations. So, it is vital that we open ourselves fully to the Spirit within us, who is there to lead and help. Prayer is a factor. Not only are we to pray for a forgiving heart, but we are to pray for those who have offended us. We may be pleasantly surprised on occasion to feel our hearts warming toward people when we earnestly pray for them and their particular needs.
The parable of the unforgiving servant packs two powerful messages: God’s amazing and unlimited forgiveness toward us, and our corresponding forgiveness of offenders because we have been forgiven. This parable can seem to have a dominant negative message about our failure to forgive. But Jesus intends that the message be to us both reassuring and convicting. We are reassured that the divine forgiveness given us is immeasurable and unlimited, and we are encouraged by that fact to respond, although on a much smaller scale, with immeasurable, unlimited forgiveness toward others. Amen.