Given September 13, 2002
- Ecclesiasticus 27:30-28:7
- Psalm 103 or Psalm 103:1-14
- Romans 14:5-12
- Matthew 18:21-35
Our Gospel reading today is from the book of Matthew. It is towards the end of one of Jesus discourses where Jesus deals with sin and how we should treat one another.
Before our reading, in Matthew 18, Jesus had just finished giving instructions on how to handle those who sin against you. First, you go to them privately and try to work it out. If that does not work you need to take one or two others with you to talk it out. If that does not work then you come before the whole church to deal with the sin. If that doesn’t work you let them go from the church and pray they will come to repentance.
In the middle of this conversation Peter asks a practical question: how many times should you forgive someone who has sinned against you?
Jesus gave instructions on how to deal with fellow siblings who sin against you, but he did not say how many times you are to go through this process with one person – once, twice, three times?
Just like any human who has limits, Peter thought there should be a limit as to how many times you can be wronged. Teachers in Judaism taught it was sufficient to show forgiveness three times. Peter, thinking about the love and mercy Jesus taught, was being generous and asking if 7 would be enough.
Jesus goes even further in his generosity – not seven times, but seventy times seven. If you do the math that comes out to be 490 times.
Jesus is not giving us a limit though – we are not counting every time we forgive someone and then finally at 490 times, “I am sorry Joe, I can’t forgive you anymore, you’re reached your quota.”
If you are counting you are not really forgiving that person. You not loving that person, as the Bible says, “Love keeps no record of wrong.” N.T. Wright says, “If you’re still counting how many times you’ve forgiven someone, you’re not really forgiving them at all, but simply postponing revenge.” And you’re probably waiting for that day.
Jesus then tells a story his disciples illustrating the importance of forgiveness, as it cannot be quantified, it has to be a life-long attitude of forgiveness and reconciliation. The story Jesus tells is this:
“a king who decided to bring his accounts up to date with servants who had borrowed money from him. In the process, one of his debtors was brought in who owed him millions of dollars.”
Millions of dollars is an understatement in this story. The Greek here says, “10,000 talents.” A talent is a weight used for metals and trading in Jesus’ time. According to some commentators, 10,000 talents is about 6 billion dollars in today’s money.
Though, if the talent was measuring gold – a talent was about 75 lbs, or 1,200 ounces. With gold being over $1,900 an ounce, 10,000 talents would be almost 23 billion dollars.
But the point is not the dollar amount. The number 10,000 is the highest number one could write in Greek when Jesus told this story. Also, the talent is the largest measurement of weight for metals. So Jesus is purposely using these extreme numbers in order to illustrate the enormity of the debt this servant had to the king. In fact, Jesus is exaggerating, as at that time, this amount of money would have been more money than existed in the whole country.
“He couldn’t pay, so his master ordered that he be sold—along with his wife, his children, and everything he owned—to pay the debt.”
The enormous debt would not have been paid by selling this servant and family to slavery. Nor would selling the man’s property. Jesus is illustrating the servant’s plight, his utter desperation, the hopelessness of his situation.
So, “the man fell down before his master and begged him, ‘Please, be patient with me, and I will pay it all.’”
Remember these words, “…be patient with me, and I will pay it all.”
“Then his master was filled with pity for him, and he released him and forgave his debt.”
With such an enormous debt it is irrational, and irresponsible to forgive such a debt. Jesus is telling us something here: it is not about the money, rather, the king’s relationship to his servant. It is laughable to think the servant could work long enough to pay this debt. Also, the king would not be able to get his money back by selling the servant, his family, and belongings. It was the king’s pity, and his relationship with the servant, that moved him to forgive this enormous debt.
It is love that forgave.
“But when the man left the king, he went to a fellow servant who owed him a few thousand dollars.”
Here was have another servant, a “fellow servant.” They were of the same position, the same rank, the same profession. Perhaps even family. His fellow servant owed him a “few thousand dollars.” A teeny-tiny fraction of a fraction of the amount he owed to the king.
Losing control of himself he began to choke the man demanding he be paid back now! But his fellow servant begged, “Be patient with me, and I will pay it.” These are the exact words the servant used before the king, the same words that brought pity to the king, and yet, these words did not move the heart of this servant.
The servant had the legal right to drag his fellow servant before the Rome tribunal, and he had the man arrested and imprisoned until he could pay the debt.
“When some of the other servants saw this, they were very
upset. [and rightly so] They went to the king and told him everything that had
happened. Then the king called in the man he had forgiven and said, ‘You
evil servant! I forgave you that tremendous debt because you pleaded with
me. Shouldn’t you have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy
“Then the angry king sent the man to prison to be tortured until he had paid his entire debt.”
The torturers were allowed to scourge, torture, and treat the debtors harshly, not to get the man to pay, or to work him to earn money to pay, but to move the debtors friends and family to pity him and to pay off his debt. The punishment here is severe and worse than being sold into slavery.
Jesus ends his story with a warning to his disciples, and to us: “That’s what my heavenly Father will do to you [speaking of the torture] if you refuse to forgive your brothers and sisters from your heart.”
Forgiveness is what God Does
So, what are we to take from this story? First, I say forgiveness is what God does. His forgiveness is greater than we can possibly fathom. Some equate our debt to be infinite, incalculable just like the servant in our story. A single sin committed against an infinite God would be an infinite debt to God. The large debt forgiven of the servant represents the large indebtedness you had before God, and the depths and the enormity of his forgiveness for you.
In turn, what should we do in response to this forgiveness? Paul says, in Colossians, “God loves you and has chosen you as his own special people. So be gentle, kind, humble, meek, and patient. Put up with each other, and forgive anyone who does you wrong, just as Christ has forgiven you,” (Col. 3:12-13).
From God’s forgiveness we learnt the pattern of forgiveness, no matter the cost, no matter the debt, no matter the wrong. We are to “put up with each other…” How much? David Platt said, “In Christ, we have received extravagant grace…Because we have received extravagant grace in Christ, as Christians, we now extend extravagant grace.”
Forgiveness is Christian
Therefore, to be Christian, a Christ follower, we are to forgive. Forgiveness is Christian. It is not natural for us to forgive – we want justice, we want revenge, we want what is due to us. We want paybacks.
I read a meme that said, “To err is human, to forgive is out of the question.”
Christian, you must forgive – we have no other option. Again David Platt, “We forgive not because we have to, but because in love we are compelled to.”
Because God’s forgiveness is so great, we bear his image by our own forgiveness in the world. We become a light to the world showing the overwhelming love of our God – it may seem foolish, it may seem impractical, but it is who we are nonetheless.
In our story, the other servants saw the actions of the servant. They witnessed his unforgiveness, and no doubt, knew of the generosity of the king, they took their witness to the king and he acted.
What would happen if the world saw our unforgiveness and went to God with their petitions?
The enormity of the forgiveness of God makes our unforgiveness scandalous and evil. Scandalous as God’s forgiveness has the power of transformation, to make you a new person. And yet, the unforgiveness proves you have not allowed his transformation to work in your life. You would be living a lie. Also, it is evil – you are making yourself greater than God. He is able to forgive incalculable debts, debts that he was owed. And yet, you still hang on believe you are owed something, while God is owed nothing. You’ve made yourself a god to the person you’re holding a grudge over, you are demanding payment where God would have forgiven them.
Forgiveness Comes from the Heart
Forgiveness is not a mere thought, but action. It comes from the heart. If forgiveness does not come naturally, how can one come to forgive?
Jesus can take your heart of stone and turn it into a heart of flesh. Jesus can fill that heart with love and forgiveness. We need to look to Jesus to make our hearts tender towards others, to open our hearts towards forgiveness. When our hearts are open, and willing, to forgive others we open ourselves up to God’s love and forgiveness. If our heart remains a stone, nothing will be able to penetrate it. We can pray to God to open our hearts, to soften them, and fill them with love.
A preacher friend of mine once said, “I’ll let you in on a little secret. I hate people…I realized pretty early on that I had a dilemma. Jesus was trying to love people through me, but I naturally feared, disliked, and hated the people he died for. If I was going to love people, his supernatural love was going to need to trump my natural hatred…”
If you have forgiveness in your heart, it will take God’s supernatural forgiveness to break your heart to finally let go and forgive. With Jesus you will be able to forgive the most unlovable, undeserving person in your life. Look to God and his forgiveness!
Imagine being 6 billion dollars in debt – how long will it take to pay that off? Working minimum wage, 8 hours a day, it would take over 200,000 years to pay that debt off, as long as you had no other bills to pay. The enormity of the debt forgiven by the king is the enormity of the forgiveness God has shown you. In fact, it would take you more than a lifetime to pay off that debt, and yet, God forgave you.
The size of God’s forgiveness, the life-long debt forgiven, shows us our forgiveness towards others is a life-long endeavor. We are to continuously give out forgiveness, and seek reconciliation in every situation and conflict. Conflict is unavoidable, you will always have some conflict in your life. How will you react, what will you do?
Abide in Jesus
The warning Jesus gave at the end of his story is dire, but important.
“My heavenly Father will [hand you over to torturers until you’ve paid all your debt] if you refuse to forgive your brothers and sisters from your heart.”
Many equate this to hell, the suffering of those who do not believe. Also, it speaks to the torture unforgiveness brings to you today, not just in the afterlife.
Holding unforgiveness eats you up inside. It turns into bitterness and hatred. Unforgiveness is harming yourself – you think you are causing the other person pain when in reality, your bitterness is eating you up inside – your hatred is killing you. It will grow bigger and bigger until your unforgiveness is controlling your life, your heart, your attitude. It become a way of life for you – your own living hell.
The power of this parable lies in the fact one could find the forgiveness of God has been withheld from them – your guilt will remain due to your unkindness. D.A. Carson says, “Those in the kingdom serve a great king who has invariably forgiven far more than they can ever forgive one another. Therefore, failure to forgive excludes one from the kingdom, whose pattern is to forgive.”
The only solution is to abide in Jesus, allow him to show you love and forgiveness, and then you to may show love and forgiveness to others.
Father, forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.