Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”
Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”Matthew 18:21-22
At first glance we might look down at Peter’s suggestion of only have to forgive someone seven times when in actuality he was going beyond the religious duties expected of him. Rabbis of that time taught people they only needed to forgive three times until you were free to withhold grace from an individual who hurts or does you wrong.
Having spent time with Jesus, Peter was beginning to understand the radical message of forgiveness Jesus taught. Jesus’ answer of forgiving someone 77 times was not meant to be taken literally as one would actually keep track of the forgiveness they delve out. Rather he is stressing our forgiveness should come quick and has no limits.
Realizing how this new litmus test goes against the grain of our nature, Jesus tells the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:23-35) to put in perspective the grace He is asking us to extend to others compared to the cost God had to endure to restore our relationship with Him.
In the parable the king represents God while we play the servant who was brought in to deal with his debt. The weight of what the servant owed the king was around $2,472,000,000 (The servant owed 10,000 talents. 1 talent equals 6,000 denari. A denari is equivalent to $41.20).
It goes without saying that the servant could never hope to repay this amount of money.
When confronted with his debt, what the servant begs the king for is very significant. Instead of pleading for forgiveness, the servant asks for patience with him, something the king had obviously already generously extended which allowed the debt to rise to the sum it had.
By thinking it was even possible to pay off the debt, the servant showed he still did not understand the hole he currently found himself in. The king would have been justified to punish the debtor by throwing him in jail and not letting him see the light of day for the rest of his days.
Instead the gracious king showed mercy on the servant by not giving him more time to pony up the money, but taking it a step further by cancelling out his debt completely.
Having been pardoned, the servant leaves showing no gratitude for the forgiveness shown him. The unmerciful servant’s eyes were focused instead on finding people who owed him money. The amount owed him by the other servant was significant, but less than what he owed the king. It amounted to around $4,120 (100 denari – a day’s wage for a laborer).
To put it in perspective, his actions would amount to demanding payment for the 50 cents someone borrowed for a soda out of the drink machine after you just had the bank pay off your hefty mortgage of $100,000.
The second servant’s plea is almost identical in wording to what the first servant uttered just a few moments ago in the presence of the king. Instead of being humbled by the grace he experienced, the servant showed no mercy.
The parable is not minimizing the weight of pain we feel when someone sins against us, but is comparing this cost in context of the high price God paid for our forgiveness.
This parable reflects our propensity to run to God’s forgiveness with open arms, yet have clenched fists in dispensing grace to others that wrong us. The old adage that ‘we learn by example’ often does not hold true in regards to this aspect of following the example of Christ.
If we do not extend grace, it demonstrates our lack of understanding God’s forgiveness, which stands as the crux of the gospel. Our message of love and mercy then falls on deaf ears.
- Why do we want to often put limits on our forgiveness much like Peter?
- How difficult is it for you to see the weight of your debt in line with that of the billions of dollars the unmerciful servant owned?
God, help me to never lose sight of the great debt You paid on my behalf. You wiped the slate clean. You paid the ultimate price to restore our relationship. Knowing I’ve been forgiven much, let me love and forgive extravagantly. In Your name, Jesus. Amen.