Last week, we heard Jesus teach that the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven is the helpless one. Jesus made it clear that the forgiveness of sin is the foundation of the relationship we have with God and the relationships we have with each other … especially the relationship we have with the helpless one who is the greatest in the Kingdom. Forgiveness is how God loves us and how we love each other.
Peter responded to Jesus’ teaching with a question about the forgiveness of sins. Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” (Matthew 18:21) Peter is asking, “How often will my brother sin against me before I no longer love him … before I decide that he is no longer my brother?
Many commentators suggest that the rabbis of the time taught that three times was enough. So, Peter was being generous when he raised the number to seven. Peter had been listening to Jesus. If forgiveness was that important, Peter was willing to raise the level from three to seven.
But even seven was not enough. Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.” (Matthew 18:22) Jesus then told a parable to demonstrate what He meant by seventy-seven times. “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. 24When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. (Matthew 18:23–24)
It is important to know how much ten thousand talents is. One talent is a unit of weight that is somewhere between 80 and 100 pounds. At the current exchange rate, ten thousand talents of silver would be worth something between $230 and $290 million. Ten thousand talents of gold would be worth something between $17 and $22 billion. Either way, this is an incredible debt. This is way beyond the ability of this servant to repay in several lifetimes. This is an important point. There is no way that this servant could ever pay off this debt.
Since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. (Matthew 18:25) Within the context of this parable, Jesus is teaching us about our standing before God. Our sin has burdened us with a debt that is several orders of magnitude beyond our ability to repay. We deserve to be sold into eternal punishment. We are beyond all hope. We are lost forever.
Never the less, when this servant appeared before the king, he tried to convince the king that he could pull it off. The servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ (Matthew 18:26) With these words, Jesus teaches us that our sinful condition is so bad that we don’t even know how bad it is. Despite the reality of our situation, we believe that we can work it off … we can pay back the debt we owe. We are in denial.
Now here is where the parable leaves all earthly kingdoms behind. Out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. (Matthew 18:27) The king took on the debt of the servant. No earthly king would do this. Only our father in Heaven has the resources and the generosity to do this kind of thing. Only our Father in Heaven would send His only-begotten Son to take up our human flesh to pay the debt we owed. Only the Son of God would allow mortal men to beat Him and nail Him to a tree to pay that debt. It is here that Jesus illustrates the perfect loving-kindness that He has for you. You are forgiven.
After Jesus spoke of the incredible forgiveness of the king, He told of the response of the servant. But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii … (Matthew 18:28) A denarius is about a day’s pay. Since they worked about twelve hours a day back then, let’s round that up to a hundred dollars. A hundred denarii would be about $10,000. This is not a small amount, but it is workable. In our day and age, people take out this kind of loan to buy a car. It would be reasonable to expect someone to work off this loan over time. This debt is miniscule in comparison to a debt of ten thousand talents.
But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ (Matthew 18:28) The response of the servant indicates that he does not really believe the generosity of the king. Seizing and choking demonstrate a desperate attitude. He is behaving as though he still needs the money to pay back the king. The king’s generosity is not real to him even though neither he nor his family are in prison.
His fellow servant used almost the same words that he used before the king. His fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ (Matthew 18:29) The big difference is that his fellow servant is asking for time to do something possible. Whereas, in his plea before the king, he himself was asking for time to do something that he could never do.
His fellow servant’s words and actions should have taken his memory back to his time before the king. They should have reminded him of the mercy of the king, but they did not. He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. (Matthew 18:30) Here the unforgiving heart of the servant is a symptom that he does not believe the forgiveness of the king.
When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. (Matthew 18:31) These servants illustrate the grief that the church has when there is conflict in its midst. When there is conflict, the church turns to our Lord in prayer. We remember that the Lord still rules in His church and knows how to deal with our difficulties.
Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ 34And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. (Matthew 18:32–34) The king clearly expected the servant to share the king’s mercy with his fellow servants. Not only has the servant soiled the reputation of his king, but he has also demonstrated that he did not really accept the mercy that the king extended to him when the debt was forgiven.
Jesus concluded His teaching with the meaning of the parable. “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” (Matthew 18:35) Each of us owes God a sin debt that we cannot even comprehend. Never the less, for the sake of the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God forgives that monstrous debt. The sins that our fellow man commit against us pale in comparison to that monstrous debt. The forgiveness of sins that we have from God should overflow in us so that we will sincerely forgive and gladly do good to those who sin against us.
Jesus’ parable makes it clear. Just as there is no end to the forgiveness God has for us, there is to be no end to the forgiveness we have for others. We forgive others indefinitely just as God in Christ forgives us.
There are a few points that we should consider as we meditate on this parable.
To begin with, the life of forgiveness that Jesus illustrates in the parable is impossible unless we first recognize that the mercy in the parable began with the king. That is, we forgive others as a result of the forgiveness, life, and salvation that we have in Jesus Christ. God must first forgive us. Then, and only then, can we forgive others. The life of forgiveness, like all the good works that God works in us, are the result of our salvation. It is NOT the cause of our salvation.
Secondly, our old, sinful nature may fight us on this. Our emotions may not be able to keep up with our faith. Even though the Holy Spirit has worked through our faith to forgive, we may still feel sad, frustrated, betrayed, and so forth. This struggle is not a reason to doubt. Instead, we take comfort in Paul’s words, I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. (Romans 8:18) We shall receive full healing when our Lord takes us into eternity to live with Him.
Thirdly, circumstances sometimes revive the memory of a sin. As fallible human beings, we cannot forgive as God forgives. With God, forgiveness is complete, generous, eternal. Although our memories may embarrass us with the memories of our sins, we can be confident that God has no such problem. Once He forgives a sin, it is forgiven forever. On the other hand, we should not be surprised when we need to forgive the sins of others more than once. The fact that I need to forgive a sin more than once does not mean that I refuse to forgive. It simply means that in my weakness, I need to forgive again.
Finally, we have a resource that the servant in the story did not have. God is not just our king, but Jesus has told us to call Him our Father. As our Father in Heaven, we can come to Him at any time and confess our reluctance to forgive. We can ask Him to forgive us and renew our desire to forgive others as we do in the Lord’s Prayer. Thankfully the source of our forgiveness … the suffering, death, and resurrection of our Lord, Christ Jesus Christ is a never-ending flow of forgiveness, life, and salvation. In Him, we receive the grace and mercy of God forever and ever. Amen
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