Matthew 18:21-35 (NIV) 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?”
Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.
“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. 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.
“The servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.
“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.
“His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’ “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 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.
“This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”
Jesus was very big on forgiving others. He had already explained in the prayer that He had taught His disciples that God would forgive their sins only to the extent that they forgave the sins of others (cf. Matthew 6:9-15).
But now Peter is asking for more specifics. How many times must a brother be forgiven who repeatedly sins against me? In other words, how many repeat offenses does it take for God to determine that they have been forgiven enough, and are unredeemable enough not to require any more? To Peter, seven times seemed to be on the extreme end of generous. If someone sins against me an eighth time or more, he felt that they should lose the right to further forgiveness.
But Jesus had a far different take. Not seven times, but seventy-seven times (or, as in some translations, seventy times seven times)! This was not Jesus’ invitation to Peter to start putting tick marks in a record book somewhere to tell when he could start to withhold forgiveness. Instead, He was telling him that there is no limit. The people of God’s kingdom must ALWAYS forgive others, purely because they have been forgiven themselves by God. And, to illustrate the point, Jesus told the parable of the unmerciful servant.
The debt that this servant owed to the king was completely unpayable – today it would be considered billions of dollars. Because of his inability to pay, the man was doomed to be sold (along with all he had) to recompense the king for a bit of the debt. But, moved by the servant’s repentance and pleading, the king instead cancels the whole debt, setting the servant free.
But that servant’s subsequent dealings with a fellow servant who owed him the equivalent of a few hundred dollars was scandalous. Instead of offering the same mercy and forgiveness that he himself had received for an unimaginably larger debt, he withheld forgiveness, and had the fellow servant thrown into jail until the debt was paid, a fact that quickly became known to the king.
The king’s response was immediate, and fierce. This ungrateful servant had been forgiven billions; how could he not forgive hundreds? He had no gratitude for what had been done for him, and without his being worthy of such mercy at all. Instead, he was willing to receive his own forgiveness of such a heinous debt, and then close up his heart to his fellow servant who needed his forgiveness.
The kings final judgment was that this unmerciful servant should be thrown into jail and tortured “until he should pay back all he owed.” The king basically rescinded his forgiveness, and reinstated the whole multi-billion dollar debt on the unhappy servant.
The application is clear: all people of the kingdom have been forgiven a debt of sin against the Almighty God that is unimaginably huge. The forgiveness is granted, not based on the worth of the person asking, but on God’s own mercy and grace. Compared to what has been forgiven, symbolized by a debt of billions of dollars, no amount of sin against me even matters. Whether one time, or seven, or seventy-seven, or seventy times seven, or even more, it is completely insignificant by comparison. And if forgiveness is withheld, then God will revoke the forgiveness that He originally extended, and the full load of sin will be back on my own shoulders.
This view goes against a lot of popular theology, but the parable is clear, and Jesus closing statement shows it even more clearly: “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.” We must always forgive our brothers from the heart, or the consequences will be horrendous.
Father, it is so easy for us to forget how much we have been forgiven. And if we do that, it is easy for us to refuse to extend the needed forgiveness to others. Instead, we make it all about us – feeling a deep need to be made whole when we are wronged, instead of taking Jesus as our model as well as our Savior. Help us to not throw away our own forgiveness over wrongs that we refuse to forgive. Instead, help us to forgive the hundreds owed to us by others as freely and as fully as we have been forgiven our billions. Amen.