The Scripture Passage
21 Then Peter came and said to Him, "Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?"
22 Jesus said to him, "I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.
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 had begun to settle them, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him.
25 "But since he did not have the means to repay, his lord commanded him to be sold, along with his wife and children and all that he had, and repayment to be made.
26 "So the slave fell to the ground and prostrated himself before him, saying, 'Have patience with me and I will repay you everything.'
27 "And the lord of that slave felt compassion and released him and forgave the debt.
28 "But that slave went out and found one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and he seized him and began to choke him, saying, 'Pay back what you owe.'
29 "So his fellow slave fell to the ground and began to plead with him, saying, 'Have patience with me and I will repay you.'
30 "But he was unwilling and went and threw him in prison until he should pay back what was owed.
31 "So when his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were deeply grieved and came and reported to their lord all that had happened.
32 "Then summoning him, his lord said to him, 'You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me.
33 'Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way that I had mercy on you?'
34 "And his lord, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him.
35 "My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart."
The Real World Outside the Parable
You might remember from the last time we were in Matthew that the context for today's passage is that Jesus just finished instructing the disciples on how to correct another believer regarding their sin in a godly manner.
The focus of that seemed to be predominantly on sins against God, so Peter brings up another side of this issue: What are we to do when another believer somehow sins against or offends us?
It's fantastic that Peter's asking that question here, because far too often, if there are two possible answers and we know we won't like one of them, we don't ask so that we can "justifiably" go on doing what we want to do. But tricking ourselves in this way doesn't make it right. Let's look at Jesus's response to Peter...
The inclusion and repetition of the number seven is significant. In the Bible, seven is the number of completion or perfection, so when Peter asks if he should forgive his brother seven times, he's basically saying, "Am I supposed to forgive him over and over again?" But Jesus takes it a step further with his seventy times seven, saying we are to forgive beyond even that - beyond reason, no matter what. There ought to be no limit whatsoever, whether that be number of offenses or the specific type of deed, to what we are willing to forgive.
This does not mean we need to continue allowing ourselves to be taken advantage of or stay in abusive situations, but it does mean that we need to genuinely forgive them from our hearts. This may seem like an absolutely impossible task, yes - but nothing is impossible with God. The most effective way - and, in many cases, the only way - to fully forgive someone is to pray that God will soften your heart and fill you with love for that person. He has an endless supply of love and forgiveness, and if you ask him to enable you to share the same with others, He will not refuse you.
Finally, are we to forgive everyone, or only other beleivers? Well, Peter's question is clearly about other beleivers (evidenced by his use of the word "brother"). But in Jesus's parable, it's not precisely clear if the "fellow slave" is a fellow believer or a fellow human being. However, I point to Romans 5:8b: While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. God was willing to forgive us long before we came to him - so we should extend forgiveness to other believers, too. Matthew 6:14-15 and Mark 11:25 are examples of commands to forgive that do not make any distinction between believers and unbelievers as the recipients of our forgiveness. Furthermore, Luke 6:27 and 1 Peter 3:9 speak about loving our vilest enemies, and forgiveness is obviously a key part of that. Also notice that there is absolutely no stipulation provided about only having to forgive someone if they say they're sorry or change their ways. As recipients of God's ultimate forgiveness, we are to forgive anyone of anything at any time, over and over again - no exceptions.
Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.
- Ephesians 4:32
Inside the Parable
Let's start the fun with a little math (that's probably the first time I've said that in my life!). This slave owed his master 10,000 talents. A talent was equal to more than 15 years worth of pay for a common laborer. I looked up modern numbers for the U.S., and discovered that a person working full-time for minimum wage will make about $15,000 in a year. Multiply that by 15 to get a talent, or $225,000. Multiply that by 10,000, and you discover that the slave in the story owed what we would now call $2,250,000,000.00! The point of this enormous number is that it is HUGE, utterly impossible to pay back! This is just like our sin against God - there is no possible way for we ourselves to make restitution for it.
To understand this parable, it also helps to know that in that time period, temporary slavery was one standard way of paying your debts. If it got to the point where you had a huge debt and it was clear you couldn't pay it back, you, your family, and everything you owned was sold, because you were basically viewed as a thief. In some cases, the monetary value from selling the people and their property did not equal the debt they owed, so the method was partially for monetary justice, but also largely for moral justice - punishment for wrong-doers. In just the same way, we do not even come close to being worth the price paid to cover our eternal debt. And that is the evidence of how deeply He loves us! It reminds me of the opening stanza of the old hymn "How Deep the Father's Love for Us":
How deep the Father's love for us,
How vast beyond all measure
That He should give His only Son
And make a wretch His treasure.
Now, the slave in the parable begs for a chance to repay his master (even though such a sum would be impossible). We know that we cannot possibly repay Christ for what He did for us, but when we make Him our Savior and the Lord of our lives, we are making a promise to genuinely try to live for Him. But, it's not our effort that frees us from sin, but God's forgiveness - Christ taking that debt on Himself.
Let's look at what the fellow slave owed the slave. Denarii is plural of denarius, equal to one day's wages for a laborer. So, to get a number comparable to the math we did above, we take minimum wage ($7.25) times the number of hours worked in a day (8) times 100 (since he owed a hundred denarii), and we arrive at a debt of $5,800. Considering that the first slave owed two and a quarter billion dollars, the second amount barely registers as a speck...it's about 0.000003% of what he owed!
The first slave's hypocrisy and selfishness is evident in him demanding payment after his debt had been forgiven. And, in our case, since we've sworn to try to live for Christ, not forgiving others is going back on our promise!
I want to clarify that that forgiving other does not "earn" us salvation, and neither does a believer trying but struggling to forgive someone mean they're going to hell. Both of those would be a doctrine of works, where we pay our own debt. Rather, Christ has paid it for us, and Christ alone is able to pay it! But, remember that the purpose of salvation is not just to avoid hell, but to become like Christ. If we are genuine in that desire when we accept Christ, He will steadily change our hearts to become more like Him. So, refusing to try to forgive others does not "cost" us our salvation, but it is a piece of evidence that we have a hard heart toward God, meaning either we are only "baby Christians" who still have much to grow spiritually, or that we are not at all sincere in our desire to please God. That latter place is a scary place to be - as verses 33-35 show.
If you have not yet accepted God's forgiveness, do so today! Click here to learn how in English, or here to learn how in another language.
Questions for You
What stories do you have of struggling to forgive someone? What happened after you forgave them? Has someone forgiven you of something you did to them, and how did that make you feel?
Anything else you'd like to add to our study, or questions you'd like to ask?
All images courtesy of Sweet Publishing. Used by permission.