Forgiving is for Giving
Dr. Jim Denison
Thesis: We must forgive others to receive the forgiveness of God
Americans lead the world in the consumption of aspirin, and in physical problems caused by stress. By the year 2020 depression will likely be the world’s second-most disabling disease, after heart disease. The World Health Organization already ranks depression as first in prevalence among females and fourth overall.
Why are so many people discouraged or depressed? One psychologist said recently that 90% of the problems his clients face can be reduced to two issues: grief over failures of the past or fear of failing in the future. We desperately need to learn to be forgiven, and to forgive. This is the food and shelter of the soul.
Here is the paradox of forgiveness: we are to give what we have received, or we cannot receive it. Jesus’ parable explains why both statements are true. And it shows us the way to give and receive the forgiveness which will liberate your heart from the prison of legalism and bring the joy of grace to your soul.
Ask an honest question
Our text opens with an honest question, and a surprising answer. First Peter’s query: “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?” (Matthew 18.21).
Peter was being generous. The rabbis recommended that we forgive not more than three times (cf. Rabbi Jose ben Jehuda: “”If a man commits an offence once, they forgive him; if he commits an offence a second time, they forgive him; if he commits an offence a third time, they forgive him; the fourth time they do not forgive”; quoted in Barclay 2.193). They deduced the limit of three from the book of Amos, where God repeatedly cites condemnations of the various nations “for three transgressions and for four” (cf. Amos 1.3, “For three sins of Damascus, even for four, I will not turn back my wrath . . .”). It was thought that man could not be more gracious or forgiving than God (Barclay 2.193).
So the fisherman thought he was being gracious, but we wonder what prompted his question. Earlier in Matthew 18 Jesus taught his disciples to go directly to the brother who sins against them (v. 15). Perhaps these words prompted in Peter’s mind an unresolved conflict. We don’t think of him as an abstract philosopher given to speculative inquiry. Probably he had someone in mind for his question.
Whether he did or not, we do. With whom are you at odds today? Who comes to mind first when the subject of forgiveness is mentioned? What person is to be the focus of your response to this parable?
Count the debt you owed
Your first step in forgiving that individual is to realize how much God has forgiven you. Jesus answered Peter’s question: “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18.22). The Greek can be translated as “seventy times seven,” but “seventy-seven” is more likely the correct rendering. (Genesis 4.24 records Lamech’s vow to avenge himself on others “seventy-seven times.” The Hebrew there is clearly “seventy-seven,” as is the Septuagint which translated it into Greek; cf. France 277, Broadus 390.)
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 the king. The king 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 (France 277). And so this would be the largest financial amount Jesus could name. The Attic talent was $1,200 in our currency; the larger Roman was $500; the Hebrew, Assyrian, and Babylonian ran from $1,550 to $2,000. If Jesus had in mind the Hebrew talent, this figure would range from $15 million to $20 million (Lenski 712).
As large as this amount seems, it grows astronomically when compared with typical revenues in the first century. The total income of the province containing Idumaea, Judea and Samaria was only 600 talents; the total revenues of Galilee was only 300 talents (Josephus, Antiquities 11.4). By comparison with incomes of the day, the debtor in Jesus’ parable owed more than America’s entire national debt!
Was such a debt even possible in Jesus’ day? Or are we to take the story as intended fiction? Historians believe that one of the richest Oriental despots could rule such a large province that his finance minister could owe tax returns of this size over time (France 277, Barnes 189, Broadus 391, Keener BBCNT 95). Whether Jesus alluded here to a fact of history or not, the spiritual implication is clear.
In the parable, the king is God. Jesus stated that his parable concerns the “kingdom of heaven” (v. 23), where God is king. Only a king of great power could have such debtors (Bruce 242). And only a king of great grace could forgive such a debt. No human being could or would do what Jesus’ king did. And what he still does.
The king was well within his rights to sell the servant to pay the debt (v. 25). Exodus 22.3: “A thief must certainly make restitution, but if he has nothing, he must be sold to pay for his theft.” It was illegal to sell a man for a sum greater than his debt (Carson 407), but nothing prevented the king from selling the man for a sum less than what he was owed.
In Jesus’ story the king also resolved to sell “his wife and his children” (v. 25). During the time of Nehemiah the people sold their own children to slavery to pay their debts (Nehemiah 5.4-5); a wife of one of the prophets complained to Elisha that her deceased’s husband creditor “is coming to take my two boys as his slaves” (2 Kings 4.1). However, Jewish custom prohibited the sale of women and children (Keener IVPNTC 292), 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.