Ordinary Time 24
7. Unlimited Forgiveness
Then Peter came and said to him, "Lord, if another member of
the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many
as seven times?" 22Jesus said to him, "Not seven times, but, I
tell you, seventy-seven times.
23"For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to
a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24When he
began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was
brought to him; 25and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him
to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his
possessions, and payment to be made. 26So the slave fell on his
knees before him, saying, 'Have patience with me, and I will pay
you everything.' 27And out of pity for him, the lord of that
slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28But that same
slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who
owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he
said, 'Pay what you owe.' 29Then his fellow slave fell down and
pleaded with him, 'Have patience with me, and I will pay you.'
30But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he
would pay the debt. 31When his fellow slaves saw what had
happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and
reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32Then his lord
summoned him and said to him, 'You wicked slave! I forgave you
all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33Should you not have
had mercy on your fellow slave,
as I had mercy on you?' 34And in anger his lord handed him over
to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35So my
heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not
forgive your brother or sister from your heart."
The parable uses the analogy of a reverse comparison. On
the one hand a huge, almost inconceivable debt is forgiven. The
amount of the debt of the first character in the parable is
staggering. To the person hearing the parable it would be
scarcely possible to imagine a debt so monumental, perhaps as
hard as to try to imagine today the size of the national debt in
the United States.
The second character has a relatively trivial debt. It is
more the size one might run up on a credit card. Such a debt
today would hardly bring a person to the court to declare
bankruptcy. Most institutions would be ready to try to work out
some process for repaying the debt a little at a time rather than
have the person go bankrupt.
Such is the scenario which Jesus used to contrast two
situations of forgiveness in the parable.
Context of Matthew 18
Chapter 18 contains another block of teaching material
inserted by Matthew into the general chronology of the Gospel
according to Mark. The chapter is sometimes referred to as the
teachings about the church. It follows immediately after Jesus'
teaching about how to handle disagreements in the church. That
teaching apparently prompted Peter to ask a question about
forgiveness and it became the occasion for Jesus to tell the
parable of the unforgiving servant.
Context of the Lectionary
The First Lesson. (Exodus 14:19-31) The story is told of
the Egyptians following after the Israelites, who were led and
protected by the Lord. When the Egyptians entered into the sea
in pursuit of the Israelites, Moses let the waters return and
engulf the Egyptians. Thus the Israelites were delivered and the
mighty works of God were made manifest.
The Second Lesson. (Romans 14:1-12) Paul deals here with
the issue of judging. He begins with a plea to recognize the
weak in faith and not to use this for an occasion for quarreling
over differences. He then proceeds to the problem of the members
of the church judging one another. He is concerned about the
disruption of the fellowship within the church. The issue is one
of self-righteousness over a question about the significance of
which day is best for worship. He ends by calling the members of
the church to respect each other's convictions, since we all
"will be accountable to God." Paul admonishes the readers not to
preempt the prerogative of God by presuming which person knows
better how to honor God by selecting a particular day to show the
Gospel. (Matthew 18:21-35) The parable tells of the
forgiving king and the unforgiving servant. A contrast is made
between the king who forgives a great debt and the servant who
being forgiven a great debt turns around and refuses to forgive
another who owes him a relatively small debt.
Psalm. (Psalm 114) The psalm observes that Israel was
liberated from Egypt and made a sanctuary. Even the sea and the
mountains responded to this great event. They did so because of
the overwhelming presence of God.
Context of Related Scriptures
Genesis 4:24 Ä The forgiveness of Cain. The mark keeps him
from being punished for the murder of Abel.
Amos 2:6 Ä The Lord's threefold forgiveness for selling
fellow Jews into slavery.
Amos 8:6 Ä A warning to those who sell others into slavery.
Nehemiah 5:4-5 Ä The people's cry against the imposition of
the king's tax which forces them to sell their children into
slavery so they can pay it.
Matthew 5:7 Ä Mercy returned to the merciful.
Matthew 6:14-15 Ä The commentary on forgiveness in the
Matthew 14:14 Ä The compassion of Jesus on the people who
Matthew 20:34 Ä The compassion of Jesus for the blind men of
Luke 7:41-43 Ä A somewhat parallel parable about the
contrast between two persons with debts of varying magnitude.
Ephesians 4:32 Ä Paul's call to forgive one another as
Christ has forgiven us.
Precis of the Parable
The first part of the parable begins with a king who had a
deputy or governor of a district. The amount of income for which
the subordinate was accountable to the king was an astounding
amount. No indication is given as to why the amount was not
available, whether because of the laxness in collecting the taxes
or the misuse of the funds in administration of the district.
The point is the magnanimous action of the king in overlooking
the incompetence or corruption of the official when he pleaded
The pity of the king is contrasted with that of the same
official who proceeds to try to collect on a debt another person
owed him. The official had the slave thrown into prison until
the debt would be paid, probably by other members of his family.
When the king received a report of what the official had
done to a fellow slave, he was outraged. He proceeded to have
the official suffer the consequences he had tried to evade in the
first instance. The analogy of the parable is then applied to
how Christians should relate one to another.
Thesis: Gratitude for divine forgiveness should lead to
readiness to reciprocate to others.
Theme: Failure to forgive has dire consequences.
Key Words of the Parable
1. "Seven Times." (v. 21) Seven was a number that had the
quality of completeness or perfection. Peter no doubt thought he
was proposing considerable generosity when he asked if forgiving
seven times was enough. Most people would think that forgiving
seven times was more than sufficient latitude to offer anyone.
2. "Seventy-seven times." (v. 22) Jesus raises the amount
from seven to a number that would be hard to keep track of. Some
manuscripts even make the exaggeration more extreme by saying
seventy-times seven, or a total of 490 times, ten times more than
the square of the number Peter suggests.
3. "A King." (v. 23) In rabbinical writing a king was often
a protagonist and served as a symbol for God.
4. "Ten Thousand Talents." (v. 24) A worker would have to
work 15 years to earn a talent, according to some authorities.
Others propose it would be the equivalent of $1000. Thus ten
thousand talents would be worth $10,000,000. For that period it
was about as large an amount as could be imagined.
5. "Him to be sold, with ... wife, ... children." (v. 25)
Selling people into slavery, either from greed or to pay a debt,
sometimes occurred, but was condemned by the prophets. (See Amos
2:6, 8:6; Nehemiah 5:4-5.) The sale of wife and children was
probably as much for punishment as for payment of the debt.
6. "The Debt." (v. 27) The amount was probably a loan
though some suggest it may have been taxes collected and owed to
the king by a district governor.
7. "A Hundred Denarii." (v. 28) A denarius in a
subsistence economy that did not depend heavily on cash but
rather engaged more often in barter was a typical wage for a
day's work. One hundred denarii is estimated to be about $20.
8. "Handed him over to be tortured." (v. 34) Torture was
often used either to extract a confession or to force a payment
of a debt. Given the magnitude of the debt in this case, it was
probably understood as a punishment deserved, both for the debt
owed and for his mistreatment of his fellow servant.
9. "Pay his entire debt." (v. 34) The sentence was
tantamount to life imprisonment since he would likely not be able
to pay such a huge debt, especially if in prison where he would
be unable to acquire any wealth.
10. "From your heart." (v. 35) The forgiveness had to be
more than a simple "I'm sorry." It had to be a sincere change of
attitude toward the one who had done the wrong.
1. Unlimited forgiveness. It has been proposed that the
biblical understanding of retaliation and forgiveness developed
progressively. In the original impulse toward wrongdoing,
retaliation was unlimited. In the cases of the violation by
Achan at Ai, the people not only stoned him, but also his sons
and daughters and his oxen, donkeys, and sheep (Joshua 7). And
the same was also done to the inhabitants of Ai when they were
conquered (Joshua 8). In the latter case they practiced ethnic
cleansing! Later "limited retaliation" became the norm in the
principle of equality Ä "an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a
tooth" (Matthew 5:38). Peter in verse 21 was for "limited
forgiveness" within the church when he proposed forgiving seven
times. Jesus instead called for "unlimited forgiveness." Seven
times 70, or 70 times 70, would be understood as infinite
2. Reciprocal Action. In the Lord's Prayer Jesus taught his
disciples to pray "and forgive us our debts, as we also have
forgiven our debtors" (Matthew 6:12). The heart of the parable
is found in verse 35 where the heavenly Father treats everyone as
they have genuinely acted toward brothers and sisters. In
physics a basic law states that for every action there is an
equal but opposite reaction. This parable proposes a different
spiritual law: For every action toward a brother or sister, an
equal action occurs. Lack of forgiveness equals lack of
forgiveness, but forgiveness equals forgiveness.
3. God's Grace is Unlimited. No matter how great our debt,
God's mercy and pity is sufficient to cover it. When we present
ourselves before God with readiness to accept his grace, we can
be assured that it is offered. No matter how grievous our past
debt we can approach the Lord without fear that God seeks our
destruction. Rather God constantly seeks our redemption.
4. The Greater and the Lesser. The human debt before God is
larger than any person can repay. Total obedience to the will of
God is demanded. People assert their will over against God,
incurring an insurmountable debt had they been dealing with a
bookkeeping Lord. The debt which any other person might owe us
for the wrong done to us has to be trivial compared to our debt
in God's sight. If God can forgive us so great a debt, we should
be prepared to forgive the much smaller debt which we might feel
is due us.
5. Breaking the Cycle of Revenge. Gandhi said that if
people practice an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, we
will soon live in a society of the blind and toothless. The
legendary feud of the Hatfields and the McCoys continued a cycle
of revenge from generation to generation, threatening to wipe out
both clans. The massacres in Bosnia and Rwanda demonstrate the
human dis-asters that flow from accumulations of wrongs from
generations past. The cycle of revenge is broken when persons
realize God's forgiveness and break the cycle of revenge by being
offer forgiveness themselves. But the forgiveness has to be
genuine, which means offering more than a formal expression of
it. It means accepting the other party as brothers and sisters.
Should the Christian response not be ethnic cleansing, but the
obliteration of ethnic differences by accepting others as one in
Christ? Should this be done, not because they deserve it or
because they have accepted Christ, but because that is what God
is offering them and inviting them to become? Should we not be
God's agents at the point where we can offer them forgiveness?
1. The Dynamics of Forgiveness. (vv. 18-35)
A. The Recognition of Our Debt. The first step is to
recognize our need for forgiveness.
B. The Acceptance of Forgiveness. We need to accept
forgiveness and forgive ourselves.
C. The Response to Forgiveness. Forgiveness makes us
compassionate and merciful to others who need our forgiveness if
our forgiveness is to be completed.
2. Seventy Times Seven [or Seventy]. (vv. 21-22) A church
leader once said in response to the generosity of a business man,
"I am glad to know such a person who understands spiritual
A. Human Mathematics. Balance sheets have to total up
assets and liabilities, income and expenses so that they balance
each other. Too often human relationships operate on such
bookkeeping of accounts.
B. Spiritual Mathematics. Spiritual accounting responds to
human need rather than to balance sheets.
C. A New Equation. In spiritual equations we do not have to
balance both sides of an equation. We have to balance the
greater of God with the lesser of human reactions.
3. Blessed are the Merciful. (v. 33) The merciful are
happy because they learn that they too receive mercy.
A. Compassion. We enter into the condition of others to the
extent that we understand our own condition.
B. Reversing Normal Psychology. People generally justify
their own actions by external causes which are not their fault
but attribute to others blame for their similar actions as
intentional. Jesus calls us to accept responsibility for our
actions but to understand other's actions compassionately.
C. Enlarging Self. By entering into the experiences of
others and suffering with them even in their failures, we enlarge
4. Face to Face Answers. (v. 35) The reciprocal nature of
human interaction is asserted in this proverb (see Proverbs
A. We See Ourselves in Others. The tendency is to expect of
others the worst actions we find in ourselves.
B. Rising Above Ourselves. Instead of looking at others as
a mirror of ourselves, we need to look at others as God sees
C. Seeing Ourselves in God's Action. We become greater by
looking at the greatest and thereby seeing our fullest
5. Demythologizing Revenge and Forgiveness. (vv. 22, 34-35)
Look at false understandings of revenge and forgiveness. Address
some of the false answers people give to them.
A. Is Revenge Sweet?
B. Is Forgiveness Only a Duty?
C. Is Forgiveness a Sign of Weakness?
Points of Contact or to Ponder
1. Restoring Relationships. Relationships are broken
when a person does wrong to another or one feels wronged by
another. The act sets up a barrier between the persons. Only
forgiveness, whether in some formal act, such as an apology or
request for forgiveness, or in acted out forgiveness, removes the
barrier and restores the relationship. In most instances in life
no formal act of forgiveness takes place. The forgiveness takes
place implicitly in people's acceptance of each other.
Nevertheless, it is dangerous to assume that we are forgiven
without a formal acknowledgement by both parties. Otherwise the
situation may fester and continue to disrupt the relationship.
2. Guilt: True or False. One of the problems people face is
to distinguish between real guilt and a false sense of guilt.
Two aspects of a false sense of guilt may need to be considered.
Sometimes in the course of life and our human interdependence we
may hurt another person when we are not really guilty. An
example might be when we have an auto accident due to a
mechanical failure and someone else is injured or killed. If we
have been responsible in maintaining a safe vehicle and in
driving in a manner regarded as safe, we are not blameworthy for
the accident. Still we may feel guilty. We need to distinguish
between remorse and guilt. In remorse we may be sorry that the
ill happened, but we are not guilty and in need of forgiveness.
Nevertheless, we may face a problem because other persons may
feel we are blameworthy. People may need to seek forgiveness,
not because of real guilt, but because of perceived guilt on the
part of others. In guilt we are to blame for what happened and
3. Intended and Unintended. Intention or the perception of
intention adds to the feeling of being wronged by another person.
How often are we much more ready to forgive or excuse an act that
is unintended. If we are riding a crowded bus and the jerking of
the vehicle causes us to bump another person, it is easily
excused. If, however, we intentionally push a person aside so we
can get through the crowded bus, the action is seen as
intentional. Persons are then more likely to be offended and
less likely to accept our "I'm sorry" even though the bump may be
less than the one described earlier.
4. Guilt Unaware. We may have a problem when we are
unaware of a wrong we have done to another. We all probably have
what are called ethical blind spots. What we have considered to
be acceptable behavior because of our family, social, or cultural
customs may offend someone with a different background. We are
much more aware today than we were years ago of how language may
reflect offensive attitudes that harm other people. Still we may
use language that demeans or insults others when we are unaware
that it does so. What obligation does the person who is offended
or insulted have to raise our consciousness and enable us to be
5. The Privilege of Forgiving. The parable infers that we
have the privilege to be agents of forgiveness. If God has
forgiven us so much of our past guilt, in gratitude we should
become agents of God's mercy and compassion. It is a great
privilege and opportunity to show the nature of God by forgiving
as we have experienced forgiveness. Indeed, have we really known
God's forgiveness of us unless we likewise take the opportunity
to forgive others?
6. Forgiving Institutions. How do you forgive institutions?
Church institutions as much as others often need to be forgiven.
Many churches have split over disputes that occurred in the past.
The occasions or reasons for the disputes or mistakes made may be
years in the past and no longer in the memory of present members.
Still the broken relations continue. Persons carry grudges
against institutional grievances long into the future. How do we
deal with the need for institutions, both sacred and secular, to
be forgiven, especially if the parties to the cause of the
grievance are long gone and present members have no sense of
7. Conditions for Forgiveness. Does forgiveness require
certain conditions for it to be fulfilled? Forgiveness has two
sides: the person needing forgiveness and the person offering
forgiveness. Can we really forgive another unless the other
person repents of the action and regrets the act sufficiently not
to want to do
it again? Sometimes persons ask for forgiveness in advance. How
can they be forgiven if they intend to continue doing the act?
Does forgiveness not sanction continuation of the behavior that
is unacceptable? Can we really forgive another unless we
ourselves have experienced it from another and accepted it from
ourselves? Jesus admonished Peter to forgive seven (or 70) times
seven. Should battered wives and children continue to accept the
abuse of husbands and fathers? Is the offer of forgiveness
conditional on a change of behavior?
1. Getting Back What We Give. A story is told of a family
moving to a new town. They stopped near the town to talk to a
farmer working in a field. They asked him what the people were
like in the town. He in turn asked them how they liked the town
they had left. They said that the people were terrible. They
were leaving because they did not like the town and were looking
for a better place. The farmer told them they should look for
another town since they would find the people in his town just
A while later another family came along and stopped to talk
to the same farmer. They asked what the people were like in his
town. Again he asked how they found the town they left. They
said that the people were wonderful. They hated to leave, but
they found it necessary to do so. He told them they would find
the people in his town the same way and they would probably be
glad to live there.
2. A Forgiving Act. During a time of civil unrest in Russia
a group of men came at night and began removing the roof of a
house that belonged to a family which did not support them.
Hearing the commotion, the man of the house looked out and saw
what they were doing. He went out and said they must be tired
from their work and invited them in for some hot coffee and
bread. They came and ate. Then sheepishly they returned to
their work, only this time they put the tiles back on the roof
and left without further animosity toward the family.
3. An Unforgiving Society. During the hostage crisis in
Iran a group of Americans visited in an attempt to open a
dialogue of reconciliation. In the process they asked the
students who were holding the hostages what the Shah could do to
be forgiven. Could he return his riches to the country? Could
he repent of the evils he had done? The students replied that he
could do nothing to be forgiven. He had to pay his debt to the
society, which obviously meant that he had to be tried and
executed. Some members of the American party felt that was a
difference between their understanding of religion and a
Christian approach which would offer forgiveness upon repentance
and an attempt to make restitution.
4. Forgiveness and Illness. A pastoral counselor told of a
woman who had a severe illness. The doctors thought her illness
was terminal and that they could do nothing to heal her. She
came from a tradition which believed in anointing by oil for
sickness (as found in James 5:14). She requested that the elders
of the church do that. They came but before they anointed her
they inquired about her spiritual condition. They discovered
that she was filled with bitterness about life and certain
people's actions toward her. They first had her confess her
bitterness and resentment of others. Then they did the anointing
as a symbol of her forgiveness. She had a quick and amazing
recovery. The doctors could not understand how she was healed
even though some scar tissue was still evidence of the previous
5. A Cycle of War. After World War I heavy reparations were
demanded of Germany. As a consequence the German economy
suffered and the people felt that they were treated unjustly.
Many historians feel that the high demands of vengeance wreaked
on Germany laid the seeds for World War II. After World War II
no great reparations were demanded. Instead the Marshall Plan
helped western Europe as a whole to recover. Germany responded
by becoming one of the strongest allies of the western powers
which had defeated it. The cycle of war was stopped.
6. Acted Forgiveness. A group of families were engaged
in a housing project where they worked cooperatively. Some of
the young men were assigned to haul some materials from a coal
mining dump to build the roads. To get to the materials they had
to go almost a mile out of the way around a small creek. When
they had the dump truck loaded it was close to time for lunch.
The driver decided that he would just go through the small creek
since it only had about a half foot of water in it. Midway
through the truck got stuck. The young men tried to get it out.
They even unloaded the truck and tried shoveling the materials
under the wheels, but with the water the wheels just spun the
materials out again. By that time the truck was resting on its
differential. Finally one of the men walked about three miles to
get the Quaker project manager to come with the tractor and pull
the truck out. He came and never said a word of anger or
reprimand. After the truck was free and he had returned to the
project, the driver of the truck exclaimed, "If he had only
bawled us out, I could feel better about what we did!" The young
men never tried the shortcut again.
7. A Family Feud in a Congregation. Two families had a
bitter dispute. For years afterward they would never speak to
one another even though two of the participants were brother and
sister. It became an unwritten rule in the church that you could
never put the parents of these two families on the same committee
or board. It not only poisoned the relationships between the two
families, but infected the church. It was a situation which no
one talked about anymore but simply accepted as the way things
were in the congregation.