Matthew 18:21–35 (NRSV)
21 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?” 22 Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant
23 “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25 and, 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. 26 So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But 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.’ 29 Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 31 When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32 Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35 So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
There was once an acquaintance I knew, we will call him Jeff. Every day he would come in grab a cup of coffee and begin reading the paper. The problem is that the paper was my paper and Jeff never asked if he could read a portion, he just assumed that it was alright to do. Months went by and this continued to happen. I would get to work early and make coffee, he would come in grab a cup of coffee and proceed to read my paper. It annoyed me to no end. I really did not like Jeff. As time went on others would talk about Jeff in such a positive light and I would stew. How could people like such an inconsiderate person as that. What even made it all worse was they began to compare Jeff and me. They began to speak of him in a greater light than they would speak of me. They discussed how Jeff was always so informed and about the stories he had told them about the news he had read in the paper that morning. They would talk and I would stand there with a smile on my face knowing that Jeff would not be so well informed if I did not bring a paper in every morning.
We have all known a Jeff, and just so you know that was a factious story because I rarely get to work early enough to make coffee in a breakroom or read a paper. To be honest I am lucky to get to work with a cup of coffee. But we all know someone like that. Coworkers, people at church, people that sit around us at a sporting event, or at times people that live in the same house. They do things that annoy us, and we begin to feel a bit underappreciated or even worse we feel slighted because of them. This is the type of scenario I begin to think about when I read this passage as well as the passage from last week.
Jesus has just finished teaching about reconciliation or forgiveness. He just finished teaching the disciples how important it is to try everything we can to restore the relationship we have with those around us. To first speak privately about an offence, with the hopes that they will listen and the friendship can be restored. If that would not work to take another with you so that maybe through the counsel of others the relationship can be restore. If that did not work then the matter should be made public so that the community could assist in the restoration of the friendship. And if even the church could not bring restoration then we are to treat them as if they were not part of the community, but as one we encourage to walk with us as we walk with Christ.
The disciples pondered this concept for a while. Forgiveness has always been a significant part of the ethic that they had lived by. Jesus really was not teaching anything new, but he was prompting the disciples to consider the teaching they had already received in light of His teachings. Jesus was teaching that the relationship is most important, not the offence or sin, but the relationship. According to Jesus the relationship and the restoration of relationships is the primary focus of life. To build a kingdom based on forgiveness, justice, and mercy.
Peter considered the words that Jesus spoke. He contemplated the parables and the image that Jesus gave them by bring the child before them to consider who the greatest in the kingdom would be. The disciples followed Jesus because their greatest desire was to be part of this kingdom of which Jesus spoke. They wanted to be as close to God as a human being could be, so they each thought deeply about these teachings and how to implement them in their lives. Peter approaches Jesus and asks, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother who sins against me? As many as seven times?”
We might think that Peter has missed the point, because we have the luxury of reading this account in full where Peter had to live it out second by second. But Peter is showing a sign that he is beginning to understand. The customary practice of that day was that person was to forgive an offense up to three times, and if there was a fourth occurrence of the same offense then the relationship could be cut off. These rabbinical teachers were founded in scripture, in Amos it is spoke of how God forgave various nations three times and on the fourth occurrence he pronounced judgement. And Job speaks of God forgiving twice and even a third time before He begins to judge a person or nation. The teaching of forgiving three times has a clear basis in scripture, each of those places say the word three. Peter is contemplating Jesus words, he is thinking about scripture. He realizes that Jesus’ teachings seem to point greater mercy, greater grace, greater righteousness. The teachings of Jesus encourage us to love our enemies, to walk the extra mile, to be salt and light. Jesus teaches that the mysteries of the universe, the entire meaning of life is found in a mustard seed.
Peter considers all of this. He then considers the opposite of forgiveness which is a curse. Which led him to think about the curse of Cain and the curse that would be applied to those that retaliated against Cain which was seven-fold. In his mind if the curse was seven-fold for the first murder, then in the kingdom of heaven should encourage grace seven-fold.
Peter is beginning to understand. And Jesus recognizes this in Peter, so he replies, “Not seven, but, I tell you, Seventy-seven times.” There is a debate as to if it is seventy-seven, seventy times seven, or even a list of seventy sevens (which would be a very large number). This debate distracts from the core principle of Jesus’ teaching. To forgive even three times means we have not actually forgiven because we remember the past offense. To forgive seven means we are simply letting it stew for longer without really releasing the transgression. If we were to do the math to 490 times all this is really showing is that we are spending more time making lists than we are in restoring the relationship. Jesus is telling Peter, and the others, forgiveness is unlimited.
At this point Jesus shows them what the kingdom of forgiveness is like by telling them a story. There was a king who wanted to settle his accounts with his slaves. The concept here is not slave as in exploited laborers, but servants of court. This would be all officials of the government, which would include patron kings like that of Herod the Great. This king brought in this one servant who owed him ten thousand talents. When we consider that these are not just laborers but political officers, we begin to see that these are not just accounts but taxes. This servant had misplaced ten thousand talents of public funds. I also found that during the reign of Herod the Great the tax burden applied to him to satisfy the empire was nine hundred talents. So the debt owed by this person was over ten times the tax burden of the entire nation of Israel. It was an impossible debt to collect and one that would never be satisfied within the lifetime of this servant. Yet this king had mercy for the servant, and forgave the debt. An entire career of fiscal mismanagement was written off and forgiven.
This servant then left this meeting and found a fellow servant who owed him money as well, one hundred denarii. The denarii was considered a day’s wage. The first servant was forgiven an amount of money that was impossible to repay in a lifetime by a single person and the second was being interigated about a debt that could be paid within a year. The first servant was filled with rage and threw the second into prison until the debt could be repaid.
The king heard about this interaction and again called the first servant to stand before him. Imagine the perplexed emotions that the king felt. He had just forgiven this man a debt that we could not begin to understand, a debt equivalent to the entire life earnings of ten thousand men. A debt that would be equivalent to the federal budget for ten years. How anyone could have a debt to that extent baffles me, yet this king said ok I forgive you, and this guy’s response was to go out to find the first person indebted to him to extort funds. Either this guy was a terrible money manager or just a rotten person. The king then decides that the grace available to him was void. It is void because the servant did not live a lifestyle resembling the king, and could not represent then king to those around him.
He could not represent the king because he did not resemble the king. Think again to Peter’s question. How many times should we forgive a brother? It really is not a question as to how many times we forgive, but are we reflecting Jesus to the people around us? All the annoying things we have done to others, all the times we have offended someone, all the times we have hurt another were forgiven by God when Jesus took the wages of our sin to the cross and died. And we are asking how many times should we forgive. The real question is how can I represent the king to those who have offended me?
Consider that for a moment and remember Jeff, the awful coworker who cannot buy his own paper. In what way would Jesus encourage us to respond? There are many ways. One conceivable way would be to Jeff not to read the portions of the paper you have not yet read. Another possible response would be to offer Jeff a portion before he sat down. But both of those responses are minimal. What would happen if we were to observe Jeff to see how he likes his coffee and prepare it for him to have it there waiting for him when he would walk in. What if we were engage Jeff in a conversation learning about his views on the current events and sharing your own. What if you were to bring in special coffee for him to share. Or maybe even consider another topic he might be interested in that you could discuss. What if you and Jeff started a book club covering various ideas that were coming up within the news. What if instead of focusing on all the terrible things about Jeff and all the wrong Jeff has caused we instead developed a friendship with him?
There are countless options available to us. But which resembles the king in the situation? There are times where friendships are difficult, because people are difficult. We all have different ideas and different opinions. But one thing remains we are all created in the image of God. We all bear that image and because of that we are all cherished by the one who created us. Each person is loved by God and has been extended the very same grace that has been extended to us. Are we representing the King?
Right now, I am sure there are names and faces passing before our mind’s eye. Faces of people who have offended us in the past, faces and names of infamous people of history and we are thinking but what if they did this or that. What if they promote things that are totally contrary to our beliefs? What if they took lives of loved ones or promoted the dehumanization of entire peoples? The very same words were spoken to them as to us as Jesus hung from the tree, “Forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” To follow Christ is not easy, in fact, it would be easier to hold a grudge or to disengage from society in general. Yet that is not what Jesus has called us to do. He tells us to go and make disciples, and by saying that He tells us to build friendships and be his representatives in the world. And as his representatives we are to encourage all we meet to consider or even to enter into a lifestyle of a new kingdom. A kingdom not like that of man, but one built on unity, peace, justice and mercy, mutual benefit and hope. A kingdom that is already present in heaven and one we should reflect on earth. Are we representing the king?