Topical Scripture: Matthew 18: 21‒35
A man named Dave Chernosky was asleep in the house in Aspen, Colorado, where he was staying with his twelve-year-old twin children. He heard a commotion in the kitchen and went to investigate. A four-hundred-pound bear was standing in front of the refrigerator. He had opened drawers and cabinets and thrown stuff around the room.
Chernosky was able to coax the bear out into the garage, but the animal became spooked when Chernosky raised the garage door and came back into the house. The bear then struck Chernosky on the side of the head and the back. Doctors later told him that the bear’s claws just missed his eye and carotid artery.
Chernosky was able to scramble away and scream at the bear to leave, which it did.
Let’s make his story relevant to us. You may not be facing four-hundred-pound animals today, but there are bears in your kitchen, nonetheless. Their claws may be words as well as actions. They can hurt you just as deeply as any bear, in ways we can see and in ways we cannot.
One of the great tragedies of this pandemic is that it is taking so much focus from our other problems. Patients are not getting treated for heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and other problems as they should be. The same can be true in our relationships. If you were struggling with your marriage or family, the pandemic probably has not made things better. If you are dealing with people who have hurt you at school or work, the pain probably persists. You may have people from your past whose “claws” still hurt you today.
In our series, “Hope for Hard Times,” let’s look for hope for the relational pain we all feel. Before we turn to this week’s parable, name your “bear.” Name the relationship you most wish could be better, the person you need to forgive or seek forgiveness from. Now, let’s listen as Jesus speaks to the bears in our emotional kitchens with healing truth.
Consider the debt you owe
Our text opens with an honest question, and a surprising answer. Peter asks Jesus: “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” (Matthew 18:21).
Peter was being generous. The rabbis recommended that we forgive not more than three times. So the fisherman thought he was being gracious. Jesus’ answer must have shocked him: “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times” (v. 22). The Greek can be translated as “seventy times seven,” but “seventy-seven” is more likely the correct rendering.
Jesus’ meaning is clear: we are never to stop forgiving. There is to be no limit. No loopholes. No contingencies. But this seems an impossible request, so Jesus showed us why it is not. What follows is the most famous parable on forgiveness in all of literature.
The hero of our story is a king who has vast holdings and is owed a vast debt: “ten thousand talents” (v. 24). A talent was the highest unit of currency in the ancient world, and ten thousand the highest Greek numeral. As a result, this would be the largest financial amount Jesus could name. If Jesus had in mind the Hebrew talent, this figure would range from $15 million to $20 million.
For context, the annual revenue of all of Galilee was only three hundred talents a year. In comparison with incomes of the day, this debtor owed more than America’s entire national debt!
The king was well within his rights to sell the servant to pay the debt: “Anyone who steals must certainly make restitution, but if they have nothing, they must be sold to pay for their theft” (Exodus 22:3 NIV). It was illegal to sell a man for a sum greater than his debt, but nothing prevented the king from selling the man for a sum less than what he was owed.
However, in Jesus’ story the king also resolved to sell “his wife and his children” (v. 25). Jewish custom prohibited the sale of women and children, and Nehemiah condemned such a practice (Nehemiah 5:9). The king’s decision to sell the children to pay the debt indicates that Jesus probably meant a pagan king in the historical context of his parable.
Now the servant “fell on his knees imploring him” (Matthew 18:26a), continuous action in the original Greek, indicating an ongoing act of homage and supplication. “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything” (v. 26b), the man begged. He was foolish to think so. No person could pay back such a huge debt. But still we try. Still we make religion a way to repay the debt we owe to God. Still we worship, and give, and serve out of obligation, to earn the righteousness God can only give.
Here’s the vertical axis of the story: “Out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave the debt” (v. 27).
Think of it: a debt you could never possibly repay, forgiven with a word. Completely cancelled. The slate wiped clean (1 John 1:9). Your sin buried in the depths of the deepest seas (Micah 7:19), where God remembers them no more (Isaiah 43:25).
How much has God forgiven you? Take Peter’s suggestion of seven sins as a start, per day. This comes to 2,555 per year. Over seventy years, a person who sinned at this rate would have committed 178,850 transgressions against God. Be honest—do you sin against God by omission and commission, thought and action, less than seven times a day? More?
To forgive the person with whom you have issues today, first remember how much God has forgiven you. And how much he has forgotten.
Consider the debt you are owed
Now consider the debt this person owes you, in the light of what you owe God. In Jesus’ story the forgiven servant found a fellow servant who owed him a “hundred denarii” (v. 28). A denarius was a silver Roman coin worth about eighteen cents today, the workman’s daily wage in Jesus’ day.
This was a not insignificant debt, as it was equivalent to a man’s salary for one hundred days. But the contrast between the two debts could not be more stark. In fact, the second debt is one six-hundred-thousandth the debt of the first. This is the relation of the debt owed us to the debt we owed God.
At this point the first servant had a choice. He could give to the second the forgiveness given to him. Or he could stand on the rights his king refused and require what his king forgave. He chose poorly: “Seizing him, he began to choke him” (v. 28). This was a legal “citizen’s arrest,” permitted in ancient Israel when a man owed money to another. The second servant repeated to the first the exact words (in Greek) he had spoken to the king: “Have patience with me, and I will pay you” (v. 29).
But the first servant had the second thrown into prison until he repaid his debt (v. 30). He chose law over love. He showed that his heart had not been changed by the forgiveness he had received. He was within his rights, but he was wrong.
You can make the same decision with that person who owes a debt to you. You can refuse to forgive, choosing instead to punish. You have that right. But you’ll be wrong.
In our story the first servant thought his injustice would go unnoticed, but it never does. The other servants were “greatly distressed” (“exceedingly grieved” in the Greek) and told their master “all that had taken place” (v. 31).
Now the master must give to the first servant what that servant gave to the second: “in anger his master delivered him over to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt” (v. 34). Grievous debts were punished in the ancient world with torture in prison. Now the servant who required that he be repaid what he was owed, must repay what he owes.
With this conclusion from Jesus: “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (v. 35). Not just externally but internally. Not just for the moment, but permanently. Not out of obligation but choice. As a commitment of life.
Is this a parable of works righteousness? Is Jesus teaching that we must earn God’s forgiveness by giving it to others? Not at all.
Biblical forgiveness is pardon. It is not excusing what was done to you or pretending it didn’t happen. It is not justifying the behavior or ignoring its consequences. To forgive is to pardon, as when a governor pardons a criminal. The governor does not pretend that the crime did not occur; he or she instead chooses not to punish as the law permits. The sentence, though rightfully imposed, is not carried out.
This is precisely what the king does earlier in the parable. He does not pretend that no debt is owed or excuse the mismanagement or criminality which produced it. He doesn’t ignore the enormous consequences of such a fraudulent act. He doesn’t overlook the debt, but instead chooses not to punish the debtor. This is what God has done for each of us in Christ: “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Now we “have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness” (Romans 6:18 NIV). Now we are commanded to “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32).
To earn forgiveness? No—to receive it. It is a simple fact that forgiveness must find a forgiving heart, as a seed its soil. If I will not forgive your debts against me, I show my heart to be cold, hard, calloused. I see myself as a man owed, a person treated unfairly. I am living within the worldview of legalism, a prison made of laws. Wrongs must be made right, crimes punished, criminals convicted.
In such a worldview, my crimes must be punished as well. If I am unwilling to forgive you, it is likely that I am unwilling to be forgiven by God. I am most probably living in a world of works, where I must pay my debts even while I require you to pay yours.
Even if I am willing to be so hypocritical as to require punishment from you while expecting forgiveness for myself, I cannot experience such pardon from God, for I have not done what I must to receive it. To be forgiven by God I must admit that I am a sinner. I must confess the deep and grievous nature of my sin. I must say with David, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight” (Psalm 51:4a). When I see my sins as God does, their enormous size and horrific nature appalls me and I admit to him, “you are justified in your words and blameless in your judgment” (v. 4b).
When I see my sins in this way, I see your sins in their light. I realize how small are yours and how extreme are mine. I realize how little you owe me and how much I owe the Lord of the universe. And I must forgive you, for I have been forgiven by him.
So, if I will not forgive you, I have not received forgiveness from God. For if he has pardoned me, I must pardon you. If he has forgiven me the national debt, I must forgive you anything you could owe to me. If I will not pardon you, it can only be because I have not been pardoned.
So, name the “bear” in your kitchen, the person who has hurt you. Now give grace to receive it. Receive grace to give it. Choose to pardon the person whose sins hurt you, because you have been pardoned by the One your sins crucified. Forgive not seven times, or seventy-seven times, but every time. Because every sin you confess to God will be forgiven. Start today.
Copernicus, the great astronomer, lay dying. A copy of his great book, The Revolution of the Heavenly Bodies, was placed in his hands. But he was not thinking of his brilliant scientific discoveries or the universal acclaim they won him. His mind was on a far higher plane.
As one of his last acts, he directed that this epitaph be placed on his grave: “O Lord, the faith thou didst give to St. Paul, I cannot ask; the mercy thou didst show to St. Peter, I dare not ask; but Lord, the grace thou didst show unto the dying robber, that, Lord, show to me.”
Every person can come to God under these terms. And every person can give them to others. Even us. Even now.