by Tony W. Cartledge
Matthew 18:21 — “Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?’”
Do you find it easier to forgive or to bear a grudge? Forgiveness can be hard, especially when the offense is extreme or the offender is callous. Yet, learning to forgive is essential if we are to know peace in this life.
To begin with, we must forgive if we are to cultivate healthy relationships. Even the best of friends may occasionally offend each other, and we are subject to being used or abused by others who advance their self-interests with no concern for ours. People may hurt us intentionally or unintentionally, but it hurts either way. If we are to be reconciled with those who have hurt us, we must learn to forgive.
This is for our benefit as well as the one who has offended us, for harboring hurts and refusing to forgive are like an emotional cancer that can eat away at our soul and make us miserable people, roiling in a bitter stew of unresolved feelings.
Learning to forgive is one of the great secrets of a joyful, flourishing life.
A curious question(vv. 21-22)
Matthew 18 is presented as a discourse in which Jesus talks to his disciples about relationships within the fellowship. The church did not develop as an entity until after Jesus’ resurrection, but the growing community of men and women who followed Jesus would have experienced the same sort of inter-personal issues that would later come up in the early church.
Jesus taught his followers to relate to one another with humility (vv. 1-4), warned against leading others astray (vv. 5-9), and emphasized the importance of seeking and restoring those who were lost (vv. 10-14). In vv. 15-20 we find instructions for dealing with inter-familial conflict, when one member of the community has sinned against another, and today’s text expands on the theme of forgiveness.
Peter was often the foil for Jesus’ parables, the question-raiser who could appear both obtuse and perceptive. Peter was portrayed in the gospels as a temperamental sort who could bear a grudge, so it is not surprising that he would query Jesus on the limits of forgiveness.
How often should a person forgive? Is once enough? Peter wanted to know, so he asked: “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”
Peter may have intended for his suggestion of seven-fold forgiveness to be overly generous. The rabbis held differing opinions about how often someone should be forgiven for the same type of sin, with some teaching that three times was the limit.
Peter’s question may also reflect a teaching of Jesus in Luke 17:3-4, where Jesus insisted that his followers should forgive anyone who asked for forgiveness, even seven times in one day: “And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive” (Luke 17:4).
The Hebrews considered seven to be a number of completion or perfection, largely because of the tradition that God created the world and rested on the seventh day. Thus, forgiving seven times suggests complete forgiveness.
Whether Peter was recalling an earlier teaching or feeling magnanimous, his proposal of forgiving seven times came up short, for Jesus said “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”
There are two ways to look at this. On the one hand, imagine that we are considering multiple offenses. Suppose someone hurts your feelings, but asks for forgiveness. Tomorrow the culprit does it again, but begs pardon. On the third day, he or she is rude yet again. Would you continue to forgive someone who persists in offending you? Jesus’ words suggest that we should.
But consider another scenario. Suppose someone has caused you such pain that it’s very difficult to get past it. You may want to forgive – and you may speak words of forgiveness – but the hurt is so deep that it remains unresolved, and every time you feel the pain or loss the other has inflicted, you feel resentment welling up again. In this case, you may need to consciously express forgiveness multiple times for the same offense – not to the other person each time, but in your own heart.
After a drunken driver killed my 7-year-old daughter in 1994, I found it hard to forgive him for the selfish, thoughtless actions that led to a horrific crash and the death of a loving, promising child. Showing grace was not something that could be done in one fell swoop. Every time I thought of what he had done and the old resentment returned, I had to forgive again. I came to believe that we are called to live with a forgiving spirit at all times. It’s not really about numbers, whether 3 or 7 or 77 or 490; it’s about learning to have such compassion for others that we can take on Jesus’ forgiving nature.
A pointed parable(vv. 23-35)
To illustrate the importance of forgiveness, Jesus told a story that is found only in Matthew. It is a parable played out in three scenes, an obvious analogy based on a hypothetical kingdom: “the kingdom of heaven may be compared to …”
The parable has eschatological implications, beginning with a king who is thereafter referred to as a “lord” over his servants (vv. 27, 32, 34), and who decided to hold a judgment day of sorts in which all debtors will be held accountable. He must have been an incredibly generous king, for one of the servants, Jesus said, owed him 10,000 talents (whether of gold or silver is not stated). This would have been a staggering sum: The talent was the largest unit of currency in use at that time, and 10,000 was the largest number commonly used in arithmetic. The word translated 10,000 is the Greek myriad. As in English, it could also refer to an astronomical but indefinite number.
Even if the servant in question was a governor or some other high official, it is inconceivable that he could have owed so much: Josephus recorded that the total take in taxes from Judea, Idumea, and Samaria in 4 BCE was only 600 talents. Jesus deliberately spoke in hyperbole, exaggerating the numbers for shocking effect. None of his hearers could imagine owing that kind of debt, much less paying it – but they could appreciate the relief that should come from being forgiven such a hopeless amount.
When the servant professed his inability to pay the jillions of dollars he owed, the king ordered that he and his family be sold into slavery – a not uncommon practice in the ancient world. The cash return would be miniscule compared to the amount owed, but would prevent the king from facing a total loss and would impose a penalty on the debtor, sending a message that one should not borrow what one cannot repay.
The thought of his family being sold into slavery sent the debtor into a paroxysm of penitence as he shamelessly begged for more time, though everyone involved knew he could never pay it all (v. 26). Surprisingly, the king took pity on the servant and forgave the entire mind-boggling debt (v. 27).
In Jesus’ telling of the tale, the now-freed debtor departed (did he even express thanks?), and soon met a fellow servant who owed him a hundred denarii. Three months’ wages was not insignificant, but was microscopic in comparison to the amount he had just been forgiven. Incredibly, the ungrateful servant caught his colleague by the neck and harshly demanded immediate payment. When the poor man begged for more time just as the other servant had done, the forgiven man showed no mercy, but had his fellow servant thrown into prison (vv. 28-30).
As one might expect, the churlish servant’s heartless actions were soon reported to his “lord,” who called him in for a tongue-lashing: “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?” (vv. 31-33).
“In anger” Jesus said, the king reinstated the formerly forgiven debt and threw the heartless servant into prison “to be tortured” until the entire debt was paid – something that could never happen (v. 34).
The parable concludes: “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart” (v. 35).
Is it time to take a deep breath? That’s quite a warning. The threat of unending torture is probably just as much hyperbole as the inmate’s staggering debt, but intended to stress the seriousness of the matter. Those who follow Christ have been forgiven of a sin-debt that no amount of good works could repay. Could believers be as callous as the man in the parable and refuse forgiveness toward others?
For believers, forgiveness is not an option. Holding grudges is not only bad for our emotional health, but also for our spiritual health, for our attitude in relationships with others directly affects our relationship with God.
Here’s the bottom line: those who wish to receive forgiveness must learn to forgive – both readily and repeatedly.
Do you feel forgiven? If not, have you wondered why? BT
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