21 At that point Peter got up the nerve to ask, “Master, how many times do I forgive a brother or sister who hurts me? Seven?” 22 Jesus replied, “Seven! Hardly. Try seventy times seven. 23” The kingdom of God is like a king who decided to square accounts with his servants. 24 As he got under way, one servant was brought before him who had run up a debt of a hundred thousand dollars. 25 He couldn’t pay up, so the king ordered the man, along with his wife, children, and goods, to be auctioned off at the slave market. 26 “The poor wretch threw himself at the king’s feet and begged, ‘Give me a chance and I’ll pay it all back.’ 27 Touched by his plea, the king let him off, erasing the debt.
28″ The servant was no sooner out of the room when he came upon one of his fellow servants who owed him ten dollars. He seized him by the throat and demanded, ‘Pay up. Now!’ 29 “The poor wretch threw himself down and begged, ‘Give me a chance and I’ll pay it all back.’ 30 But he wouldn’t do it. He had him arrested and put in jail until the debt was paid. 31 When the other servants saw this going on, they were outraged and brought a detailed report to the king.
32″ The king summoned the man and said, ‘You evil servant! I forgave your entire debt when you begged me for mercy. 33 Shouldn’t you be compelled to be merciful to your fellow servant who asked for mercy?’ 34 The king was furious and put the screws to the man until he paid back his entire debt. 35 And that’s exactly what my Father in heaven is going to do to each one of you who doesn’t forgive unconditionally anyone who asks for mercy.”
When I was attending seminary, the Holy Egos drove me nuts. These were the guys (yes, they were all male, go figure) who wanted the whole class to know that they had the highest theological IQ in the room, including the professor. They would soak up huge amounts of class time in wearisome debates taking issue with the professors, to prove, I suppose, how wise and holy they were; therefore demonstrating how uniquely God had anointed them to proclaim the truth and defend the faith. In this account from Matthew, I recognize the signs of Holy Ego in Peter.
I suspect that he was trying to impress Jesus – and the rest of the class – with his theological IQ. That may be why he raised this question about forgiveness – then provided an answer. “In the spirit of what you are talking about Rabbi, seven times would be about right wouldn’t it?” Anyone even slightly conversant with the New Testament probably thinks that Peter only proved what dough-head he really was. But cut him some slack, because Peter actually showed some theological sparkle here.
In the religious teaching of that day, forgiving someone three times was as far as you needed to go. Based on the book of Amos, it was taught that the extent of God’s forgiveness was four, and since no person is God’s equal, forgiving someone three times was sufficient. Therefore, when Peter suggested a limit of seven, he was actually going over the top! He was exceeding the norm. And since seven was a special number associated with wholeness, completion, and perfection, Peter was really ahead of the pack!
Jesus responded by saying that in God’s realm, forgiving someone even seven times isn’t big enough, the limit is 70 x7. So right here, we have the definitive standard of how many times you need to forgive someone, 490.
But do you really believe Jesus was being so literal? Because if he was, do you really think you could keep track of someone sinning against you 490 times? Even if you could, by number 490, forgiveness would have long since have become an ingrained habit! Jesus’ reply means: “There is no limit to forgiveness – seven times might be a complete number, but it is not complete enough”. Then Jesus tells this story to explain why there can be no limit to forgiveness in God’s realm.
Some Good News
It is difficult to accurately translate the servant’s debt of 10,000 talents into 21st century value. What puts it into perspective is learning that the annual revenue for the entire province of Galilee – a wealthy province – was 600 talents. It would have taken the entire province of Galilee over sixteen years to pay off this man’s debt. In other words, this man’s debt was astronomical. His descendents would be working that debt off for generations.
So the servant begs – for more time, an extension, anything – it’s about to cost him everything. But the king doesn’t grant him an extension – he completely writes off the entire debt, a debt so large that it would have been significant for the king as well. The king could have reduced it or refinanced it, but instead, he canceled it – completely. The servant left a free man.
And that is incredible Good News, because each of us is the servant in that story. Each of us owes God a debt of sin that is beyond our ability to ever make right with God. No matter how hard we work at paying that debt down, we just keep getting deeper. We identify with the words from Romans 7:18-19: “I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. I want to do what is right, but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway.” It’s as if our natural inclination is to ignore God’s terms and instead try to relate to him on our own terms. Or even to think and live as if there is no God. That debt will cost everyone of us everything.
But God wrote the check on that, so to speak, when Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead. God didn’t reduce the debt, or refinance it, God canceled it completely for everyone who chooses to accept the deal. God offers to forgive the full debt of living in rebellion against Him. God has done more than we could ever ask for, more than we had a right to expect.
But look what happens next in the story. This servant meets a fellow servant who owes him a little money. Again, 100 talents is hard to translate into contemporary value, but whatever its value, it was only 1/100th the debt this guy was just released from! Yet he didn’t even grant the mercy of more time that he had originally begged the king for! – let alone granting the kind of mercy he had just received. So when the word got back to the king about this incident, the king was very unhappy, and things turned out worse for the servant than they would have originally.
Peter was thinking big, trying to expand conventional thinking on the limits of forgiveness. But Jesus’ parable says that there are no boundaries to forgiveness where God rules, because there are no debt limits on God’s forgiveness. God freely, completely forgives the debt of sin, a debt so large it is beyond comprehension, utterly un-payable. Therefore, how can God’s people fail to forgive the comparatively small transgressions they encounter from others?
Jesus’ concluding statement forms a sharp contrast with Peter’s question. The issue isn’t how many times you forgive someone before you can give them what they deserve. If you follow Jesus, the issue is forgiving others with the same kind of limitless mercy that God has forgiven you.
If you are a church person, this Good News about God’s limitless forgiveness has probably seeped in to your DNA. But how about the “as I forgive my debtors” part of the Lord’s Prayer? Do you know – really- what it means to do that?
1 Corinthians 13 says: keep no record of wrongs. That is forgiveness. Forgiveness doesn’t hang on to memories of hurt feelings, hold grudges, or think: “I guess I’ll cut you a little slack and see if you can make it up to me – I’ll give you a bit more time to pay down your debt.”
No – forgiveness cancels the record between you and that person, just as God canceled your debt with Him. Don’t be misled by the tough guy idea that it’s possible to forgive, but not forget. True forgiveness forgets, it deletes all the data in the “everything-I-hold-against-you” file. The old Greek word translated in this passage in Matthew as “forgiveness” carried the sense of: to let go, let alone, let be; to disregard; to omit, neglect; to let go, give up a debt, to remit; to give up, keep no longer.
Church can be one of the most miserable and vicious places on earth. Every church I have been involved with has had multiple layers of “issues”, a code word for unresolved hurt feelings between people in the church, as well as between family members. Forgiveness is the balm to heal all those “issues”, but it is so rarely practiced. I had a church leader once who hung on to a letter a church member had sent him that hurt his feeling horribly. Even after the writer of the letter was diagnosed with a terminal illness, he refused for a long time to give up that letter and forgive. I was stunned that a committed follower of Jesus would refuse point blank to even consider forgiving someone. Happily, he removed it from his dresser and destroyed it before she died.
Hurt feelings hurt! Forgiveness is hard, and not something most people are naturally inclined to do. But hey, if God wants his people to so the impossible, then it’s up to God to make it happen! The first step to forgiving someone is talking to God about it. Let God known how hurt you are, how impossible it is to forgive that person, or even to want to forgive. Lay it out there – “the only way forgiveness will happen God is for you to change me.” God likes those kind of challenges!
If you follow Jesus, how full are your “everything-I-hold-against-you files”? Are you holding grudges, or continuing to feed hurt feelings with anyone at church, in your family, a friend, or a neighbor? Don’t let your holy ego get in the way of following Jesus.