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Unlimited Forgiveness

Preaching the Parables
Series II, Cycle A
Then Peter came and said to him, "Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?" 22Jesus said to him, "Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. 23"For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, 'Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.' 27And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, 'Pay what you owe.' 29Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, 'Have patience with me, and I will pay you.' 30But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 31When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32Then his lord summoned him and said to him, 'You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?' 34And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart."

The parable uses the analogy of a reverse comparison. On the one hand a huge, almost inconceivable debt is forgiven. The amount of the debt of the first character in the parable is staggering. To the person hearing the parable it would be scarcely possible to imagine a debt so monumental, perhaps as hard as to try to imagine today the size of the national debt in the United States.

The second character has a relatively trivial debt. It is more the size one might run up on a credit card. Such a debt today would hardly bring a person to the court to declare bankruptcy. Most institutions would be ready to try to work out some process for repaying the debt a little at a time rather than have the person go bankrupt.

Such is the scenario which Jesus used to contrast two situations of forgiveness in the parable.


Context of Matthew 18

Chapter 18 contains another block of teaching material inserted by Matthew into the general chronology of the Gospel according to Mark. The chapter is sometimes referred to as the teachings about the church. It follows immediately after Jesus' teaching about how to handle disagreements in the church. That teaching apparently prompted Peter to ask a question about forgiveness and it became the occasion for Jesus to tell the parable of the unforgiving servant.

Context of the Lectionary

The First Lesson. (Exodus 14:19-31) The story is told of the Egyptians following after the Israelites, who were led and protected by the Lord. When the Egyptians entered into the sea in pursuit of the Israelites, Moses let the waters return and engulf the Egyptians. Thus the Israelites were delivered and the mighty works of God were made manifest.

The Second Lesson. (Romans 14:1-12) Paul deals here with the issue of judging. He begins with a plea to recognize the weak in faith and not to use this for an occasion for quarreling over differences. He then proceeds to the problem of the members of the church judging one another. He is concerned about the disruption of the fellowship within the church. The issue is one of self-righteousness over a question about the significance of which day is best for worship. He ends by calling the members of the church to respect each other's convictions, since we all "will be accountable to God." Paul admonishes the readers not to preempt the prerogative of God by presuming which person knows better how to honor God by selecting a particular day to show the honor.

Gospel. (Matthew 18:21-35) The parable tells of the forgiving king and the unforgiving servant. A contrast is made between the king who forgives a great debt and the servant who being forgiven a great debt turns around and refuses to forgive another who owes him a relatively small debt.

Psalm. (Psalm 114) The psalm observes that Israel was liberated from Egypt and made a sanctuary. Even the sea and the mountains responded to this great event. They did so because of the overwhelming presence of God.

Context of Related Scriptures

Genesis 4:24 -- The forgiveness of Cain. The mark keeps him from being punished for the murder of Abel.
Amos 2:6 -- The Lord's threefold forgiveness for selling fellow Jews into slavery.
Amos 8:6 -- A warning to those who sell others into slavery.
Nehemiah 5:4-5 -- The people's cry against the imposition of the king's tax which forces them to sell their children into slavery so they can pay it.
Matthew 5:7 -- Mercy returned to the merciful.
Matthew 6:14-15 -- The commentary on forgiveness in the Lord's Prayer.
Matthew 14:14 -- The compassion of Jesus on the people who were sick.
Matthew 20:34 -- The compassion of Jesus for the blind men of Jericho.
Luke 7:41-43 -- A somewhat parallel parable about the contrast between two persons with debts of varying magnitude.
Ephesians 4:32 -- Paul's call to forgive one another as Christ has forgiven us.

Precis of the Parable

The first part of the parable begins with a king who had a deputy or governor of a district. The amount of income for which the subordinate was accountable to the king was an astounding amount. No indication is given as to why the amount was not available, whether because of the laxness in collecting the taxes or the misuse of the funds in administration of the district. The point is the magnanimous action of the king in overlooking the incompetence or corruption of the official when he pleaded his case.

The pity of the king is contrasted with that of the same official who proceeds to try to collect on a debt another person owed him. The official had the slave thrown into prison until the debt would be paid, probably by other members of his family.

When the king received a report of what the official had done to a fellow slave, he was outraged. He proceeded to have the official suffer the consequences he had tried to evade in the first instance. The analogy of the parable is then applied to how Christians should relate one to another.

Thesis: Gratitude for divine forgiveness should lead to readiness to reciprocate to others.

Theme: Failure to forgive has dire consequences.

Key Words of the Parable

1. "Seven Times." (v. 21) Seven was a number that had the quality of completeness or perfection. Peter no doubt thought he was proposing considerable generosity when he asked if forgiving seven times was enough. Most people would think that forgiving seven times was more than sufficient latitude to offer anyone.

2. "Seventy-seven times." (v. 22) Jesus raises the amount from seven to a number that would be hard to keep track of. Some manuscripts even make the exaggeration more extreme by saying seventy-times seven, or a total of 490 times, ten times more than the square of the number Peter suggests.

3. "A King." (v. 23) In rabbinical writing a king was often a protagonist and served as a symbol for God.

4. "Ten Thousand Talents." (v. 24) A worker would have to work 15 years to earn a talent, according to some authorities. Others propose it would be the equivalent of $1000. Thus ten thousand talents would be worth $10,000,000. For that period it was about as large an amount as could be imagined.

5. "Him to be sold, with ... wife, ... children." (v. 25) Selling people into slavery, either from greed or to pay a debt, sometimes occurred, but was condemned by the prophets. (See Amos 2:6, 8:6; Nehemiah 5:4-5.) The sale of wife and children was probably as much for punishment as for payment of the debt.

6. "The Debt." (v. 27) The amount was probably a loan though some suggest it may have been taxes collected and owed to the king by a district governor.

7. "A Hundred Denarii." (v. 28) A denarius in a subsistence economy that did not depend heavily on cash but rather engaged more often in barter was a typical wage for a day's work. One hundred denarii is estimated to be about $20.

8. "Handed him over to be tortured." (v. 34) Torture was often used either to extract a confession or to force a payment of a debt. Given the magnitude of the debt in this case, it was probably understood as a punishment deserved, both for the debt owed and for his mistreatment of his fellow servant.

9. "Pay his entire debt." (v. 34) The sentence was tantamount to life imprisonment since he would likely not be able to pay such a huge debt, especially if in prison where he would be unable to acquire any wealth.

10. "From your heart." (v. 35) The forgiveness had to be more than a simple "I'm sorry." It had to be a sincere change of attitude toward the one who had done the wrong.



1. Unlimited forgiveness. It has been proposed that the biblical understanding of retaliation and forgiveness developed progressively. In the original impulse toward wrongdoing, retaliation was unlimited. In the cases of the violation by Achan at Ai, the people not only stoned him, but also his sons and daughters and his oxen, donkeys, and sheep (Joshua 7). And the same was also done to the inhabitants of Ai when they were conquered (Joshua 8). In the latter case they practiced ethnic cleansing! Later "limited retaliation" became the norm in the principle of equality -- "an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth" (Matthew 5:38). Peter in verse 21 was for "limited forgiveness" within the church when he proposed forgiving seven times. Jesus instead called for "unlimited forgiveness." Seven times 70, or 70 times 70, would be understood as infinite forgiveness.

2. Reciprocal Action. In the Lord's Prayer Jesus taught his disciples to pray "and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors" (Matthew 6:12). The heart of the parable is found in verse 35 where the heavenly Father treats everyone as they have genuinely acted toward brothers and sisters. In physics a basic law states that for every action there is an equal but opposite reaction. This parable proposes a different spiritual law: For every action toward a brother or sister, an equal action occurs. Lack of forgiveness equals lack of forgiveness, but forgiveness equals forgiveness.

3. God's Grace is Unlimited. No matter how great our debt, God's mercy and pity is sufficient to cover it. When we present ourselves before God with readiness to accept his grace, we can be assured that it is offered. No matter how grievous our past debt we can approach the Lord without fear that God seeks our destruction. Rather God constantly seeks our redemption.

4. The Greater and the Lesser. The human debt before God is larger than any person can repay. Total obedience to the will of God is demanded. People assert their will over against God, incurring an insurmountable debt had they been dealing with a bookkeeping Lord. The debt which any other person might owe us for the wrong done to us has to be trivial compared to our debt in God's sight. If God can forgive us so great a debt, we should be prepared to forgive the much smaller debt which we might feel is due us.

5. Breaking the Cycle of Revenge. Gandhi said that if people practice an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, we will soon live in a society of the blind and toothless. The legendary feud of the Hatfields and the McCoys continued a cycle of revenge from generation to generation, threatening to wipe out both clans. The massacres in Bosnia and Rwanda demonstrate the human dis-asters that flow from accumulations of wrongs from generations past. The cycle of revenge is broken when persons realize God's forgiveness and break the cycle of revenge by being prepared to offer forgiveness themselves. But the forgiveness has to be genuine, which means offering more than a formal expression of it. It means accepting the other party as brothers and sisters. Should the Christian response not be ethnic cleansing, but the obliteration of ethnic differences by accepting others as one in Christ? Should this be done, not because they deserve it or because they have accepted Christ, but because that is what God is offering them and inviting them to become? Should we not be God's agents at the point where we can offer them forgiveness?

Homily Hints

1. The Dynamics of Forgiveness. (vv. 18-35)
A. The Recognition of Our Debt. The first step is to recognize our need for forgiveness.
B. The Acceptance of Forgiveness. We need to accept forgiveness and forgive ourselves.
C. The Response to Forgiveness. Forgiveness makes us compassionate and merciful to others who need our forgiveness if our forgiveness is to be completed.

2. Seventy Times Seven [or Seventy]. (vv. 21-22) A church leader once said in response to the generosity of a business man, "I am glad to know such a person who understands spiritual mathematics."
A. Human Mathematics. Balance sheets have to total up assets and liabilities, income and expenses so that they balance each other. Too often human relationships operate on such bookkeeping of accounts.
B. Spiritual Mathematics. Spiritual accounting responds to human need rather than to balance sheets.
C. A New Equation. In spiritual equations we do not have to balance both sides of an equation. We have to balance the greater of God with the lesser of human reactions.

3. Blessed are the Merciful. (v. 33) The merciful are happy because they learn that they too receive mercy.
A. Compassion. We enter into the condition of others to the extent that we understand our own condition.
B. Reversing Normal Psychology. People generally justify their own actions by external causes which are not their fault but attribute to others blame for their similar actions as intentional. Jesus calls us to accept responsibility for our actions but to understand other's actions compassionately.
C. Enlarging Self. By entering into the experiences of others and suffering with them even in their failures, we enlarge ourselves.

4. Face to Face Answers. (v. 35) The reciprocal nature of human interaction is asserted in this proverb (see Proverbs 27:19).
A. We See Ourselves in Others. The tendency is to expect of others the worst actions we find in ourselves.
B. Rising Above Ourselves. Instead of looking at others as a mirror of ourselves, we need to look at others as God sees them.
C. Seeing Ourselves in God's Action. We become greater by looking at the greatest and thereby seeing our fullest possibilities.

5. Demythologizing Revenge and Forgiveness. (vv. 22, 34-35) Look at false understandings of revenge and forgiveness. Address some of the false answers people give to them.
A. Is Revenge Sweet?
B. Is Forgiveness Only a Duty?
C. Is Forgiveness a Sign of Weakness?


Points of Contact or to Ponder

1. Restoring Relationships. Relationships are broken when a person does wrong to another or one feels wronged by another. The act sets up a barrier between the persons. Only forgiveness, whether in some formal act, such as an apology or request for forgiveness, or in acted out forgiveness, removes the barrier and restores the relationship. In most instances in life no formal act of forgiveness takes place. The forgiveness takes place implicitly in people's acceptance of each other. Nevertheless, it is dangerous to assume that we are forgiven without a formal acknowledgement by both parties. Otherwise the situation may fester and continue to disrupt the relationship.

2. Guilt: True or False. One of the problems people face is to distinguish between real guilt and a false sense of guilt. Two aspects of a false sense of guilt may need to be considered. Sometimes in the course of life and our human interdependence we may hurt another person when we are not really guilty. An example might be when we have an auto accident due to a mechanical failure and someone else is injured or killed. If we have been responsible in maintaining a safe vehicle and in driving in a manner regarded as safe, we are not blameworthy for the accident. Still we may feel guilty. We need to distinguish between remorse and guilt. In remorse we may be sorry that the ill happened, but we are not guilty and in need of forgiveness. Nevertheless, we may face a problem because other persons may feel we are blameworthy. People may need to seek forgiveness, not because of real guilt, but because of perceived guilt on the part of others. In guilt we are to blame for what happened and need forgiveness.

3. Intended and Unintended. Intention or the perception of intention adds to the feeling of being wronged by another person. How often are we much more ready to forgive or excuse an act that is unintended. If we are riding a crowded bus and the jerking of the vehicle causes us to bump another person, it is easily excused. If, however, we intentionally push a person aside so we can get through the crowded bus, the action is seen as intentional. Persons are then more likely to be offended and less likely to accept our "I'm sorry" even though the bump may be less than the one described earlier.

4. Guilt Unaware. We may have a problem when we are unaware of a wrong we have done to another. We all probably have what are called ethical blind spots. What we have considered to be acceptable behavior because of our family, social, or cultural customs may offend someone with a different background. We are much more aware today than we were years ago of how language may reflect offensive attitudes that harm other people. Still we may use language that demeans or insults others when we are unaware that it does so. What obligation does the person who is offended or insulted have to raise our consciousness and enable us to be forgiven?

5. The Privilege of Forgiving. The parable infers that we have the privilege to be agents of forgiveness. If God has forgiven us so much of our past guilt, in gratitude we should become agents of God's mercy and compassion. It is a great privilege and opportunity to show the nature of God by forgiving as we have experienced forgiveness. Indeed, have we really known God's forgiveness of us unless we likewise take the opportunity to forgive others?

6. Forgiving Institutions. How do you forgive institutions? Church institutions as much as others often need to be forgiven. Many churches have split over disputes that occurred in the past. The occasions or reasons for the disputes or mistakes made may be years in the past and no longer in the memory of present members. Still the broken relations continue. Persons carry grudges against institutional grievances long into the future. How do we deal with the need for institutions, both sacred and secular, to be forgiven, especially if the parties to the cause of the grievance are long gone and present members have no sense of personal guilt?

7. Conditions for Forgiveness. Does forgiveness require certain conditions for it to be fulfilled? Forgiveness has two sides: the person needing forgiveness and the person offering forgiveness. Can we really forgive another unless the other person repents of the action and regrets the act sufficiently not to want to do it again? Sometimes persons ask for forgiveness in advance. How can they be forgiven if they intend to continue doing the act? Does forgiveness not sanction continuation of the behavior that is unacceptable? Can we really forgive another unless we ourselves have experienced it from another and accepted it from ourselves? Jesus admonished Peter to forgive seven (or 70) times seven. Should battered wives and children continue to accept the abuse of husbands and fathers? Is the offer of forgiveness conditional on a change of behavior?

Illustrative Materials

1. Getting Back What We Give. A story is told of a family moving to a new town. They stopped near the town to talk to a farmer working in a field. They asked him what the people were like in the town. He in turn asked them how they liked the town they had left. They said that the people were terrible. They were leaving because they did not like the town and were looking for a better place. The farmer told them they should look for another town since they would find the people in his town just the same.

A while later another family came along and stopped to talk to the same farmer. They asked what the people were like in his town. Again he asked how they found the town they left. They said that the people were wonderful. They hated to leave, but they found it necessary to do so. He told them they would find the people in his town the same way and they would probably be glad to live there.

2. A Forgiving Act. During a time of civil unrest in Russia a group of men came at night and began removing the roof of a house that belonged to a family which did not support them. Hearing the commotion, the man of the house looked out and saw what they were doing. He went out and said they must be tired from their work and invited them in for some hot coffee and bread. They came and ate. Then sheepishly they returned to their work, only this time they put the tiles back on the roof and left without further animosity toward the family.

3. An Unforgiving Society. During the hostage crisis in Iran a group of Americans visited in an attempt to open a dialogue of reconciliation. In the process they asked the students who were holding the hostages what the Shah could do to be forgiven. Could he return his riches to the country? Could he repent of the evils he had done? The students replied that he could do nothing to be forgiven. He had to pay his debt to the society, which obviously meant that he had to be tried and executed. Some members of the American party felt that was a difference between their understanding of religion and a Christian approach which would offer forgiveness upon repentance and an attempt to make restitution.

4. Forgiveness and Illness. A pastoral counselor told of a woman who had a severe illness. The doctors thought her illness was terminal and that they could do nothing to heal her. She came from a tradition which believed in anointing by oil for sickness (as found in James 5:14). She requested that the elders of the church do that. They came but before they anointed her they inquired about her spiritual condition. They discovered that she was filled with bitterness about life and certain people's actions toward her. They first had her confess her bitterness and resentment of others. Then they did the anointing as a symbol of her forgiveness. She had a quick and amazing recovery. The doctors could not understand how she was healed even though some scar tissue was still evidence of the previous illness.

5. A Cycle of War. After World War I heavy reparations were demanded of Germany. As a consequence the German economy suffered and the people felt that they were treated unjustly. Many historians feel that the high demands of vengeance wreaked on Germany laid the seeds for World War II. After World War II no great reparations were demanded. Instead the Marshall Plan helped western Europe as a whole to recover. Germany responded by becoming one of the strongest allies of the western powers which had defeated it. The cycle of war was stopped.

6. Acted Forgiveness. A group of families were engaged in a housing project where they worked cooperatively. Some of the young men were assigned to haul some materials from a coal mining dump to build the roads. To get to the materials they had to go almost a mile out of the way around a small creek. When they had the dump truck loaded it was close to time for lunch. The driver decided that he would just go through the small creek since it only had about a half foot of water in it. Midway through the truck got stuck. The young men tried to get it out. They even unloaded the truck and tried shoveling the materials under the wheels, but with the water the wheels just spun the materials out again. By that time the truck was resting on its differential. Finally one of the men walked about three miles to get the Quaker project manager to come with the tractor and pull the truck out. He came and never said a word of anger or reprimand. After the truck was free and he had returned to the project, the driver of the truck exclaimed, "If he had only bawled us out, I could feel better about what we did!" The young men never tried the shortcut again.

7. A Family Feud in a Congregation. Two families had a bitter dispute. For years afterward they would never speak to one another even though two of the participants were brother and sister. It became an unwritten rule in the church that you could never put the parents of these two families on the same committee or board. It not only poisoned the relationships between the two families, but infected the church. It was a situation which no one talked about anymore but simply accepted as the way things were in the congregation.
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