By Paul Koch –
The whole context of Matthew Chapter 18 is centered on knowing who the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven is, and then how we are to treat them, if they are indeed the greatest. It all begins back in verse 1, when the disciples ask our Lord just who is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus shocks them, not by pointing out the one with greatest faith, nor the one with the most resources to be deployed in the spreading of the Word, nor the most pious among the bunch. No, he directs them to little children: to those most in need of care and love and forgiveness. These, he says, are the greatest. The ones that need to be forgiven are the greatest. The ones that cannot do it on their own. He turns our idea of success and greatness on its head. He calls us into a profound relationship with one another where we are to care for the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven.
And then, the follow up question. I mean, if we are to be a people of forgiveness, if we are to go out of our way to proclaim the mercy of God to our brothers and sisters in the faith, especially to the greatest in our midst, how far do we take that? How much forgiveness are we supposed to give? And so, Peter asks this very practical question. After all, no one wants to be taken advantage of. No one wants to be walked all over by another person. So, he asks, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Seven seems like a lot, doesn’t it? I mean if you forgave a person for the same transgression seven times over you would be well on your way to sainthood. But our Lord dwarfs this suggestion by Peter. Seven times. That’s nothing, according to our Lord. He says you are to forgive seventy times seven.
Now you do the math on this and you end up with 490. Four Hundred ninety times you are to forgive an individual transgressor. But who could even keep track of all that? Do you think you would ever even reach that number? You might as well just say you shall always be forgiving, always one more time. And perhaps that is exactly the point he is making. This isn’t a matter of percentages and fractions. And old professor of mine used to say that God, when He gives his gifts, when He gives the freedom of the Gospel, He doesn’t do it by fractions or percentages. Fractions are the way of the law, counting and keeping score is the opposite of forgiveness. When God forgives it is total, complete, it cannot be exhausted or limited. It is this superabundance of His mercy that lies at the heart of our hope. And this radical forgiveness is foundational to your life with each other.
Now to clarify what he is saying, and explain how and why this plays out in your life; our Lord tells a parable. He begins by saying, “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants.” This story, then, is about the active rule and reign of God, the Kingdom of Heaven. Remember the disciple’s question at the beginning of this chapter was, who is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven? This has been answered, and now he gives us an image of how this works. A king sets out to settle his accounts. And one of his servants is brought to him with a huge debt to be paid. He owes ten thousand talents. According to the experts this sum of money would have taken an average day-laborer in our Lord’s day around 60,000,000 days of work to pay off this debt. The whole thing seems absurd. When the king finds out that there is no way he could repay this debt he orders him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. But the amount that he still owed would have guaranteed him roughly a 1000-year prison sentence. To say this debt is big is an understatement. It is completely beyond his ability to ever pay back.
So, what does this servant do? Well, the only thing he can do. He falls on his knees and implores the king saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” Now we know he can’t pay, no matter how much time he has. And of course, the king knows he cannot pay no matter how willing he is. But he responds to his plea in the most surprising way. He has pity on him. Pity on this servant who can never pay off his debt, whose life is in his hands. He releases him from his debt, and sets him free. Can you imagine that freedom? A lifetime of bondage, an inability to restore what was taken, all of it is simply reset and forgiven at the word of the king. It would be like catching that first breath when struggling to reach the surface or unshackling a heavy load that weighed you down.
As we listen to our Lord tell this story, we are rightly shocked by the king’s grace and mercy. But perhaps it doesn’t hit us as too much of a surprise. After all, in this story we find our own story. We find our own lives. For your lives are like this servant. You owe a debt that you cannot pay off. Not in a thousand lifetimes could you make right the wrongs of your life. The sin that haunts you every step, the distrust and idolatry of your hearts. The many times you lived as if you mattered most and your God, why, your God has been put on the back burner. You have hurt and wounded one another. You have failed to help in times of need. You have coveted and lusted and failed in your worship and prayers. How could you ever repay what is owed? You won’t. You can’t.
But by that simple Word, by the proclamation of the King, you have been forgiven. Payment has been made by another your debt is removed from you. Salvation is yours in Christ alone. His life was exchanged for yours. His death for your eternal souls.
But the story doesn’t end here. No, this servant heads off with his newfound freedom and he runs into a brother who owes him a debt. He owes him a hundred denarii. A denarius was equal to a day’s labor. Now to be sure, that is a fairly large debt. But when compared to the debt this man has just been forgiven by the king it is miniscule. In fact, the ratio of the debts is about 600,000 to 1. So, does this newly freed man pass on the generosity? Sadly, no. He takes ahold of that servant and begins to choke him. And when he can’t pay he throws him into prison. He who had been forgiven so much was unforgiving, unloving, unkind to his neighbor. When the king hears about this, he is furious.
“You wicked servant,” he says, “I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” And then the king has him thrown in prison until he can pay off his debt. In other words, he’s never getting out of prison, for he can’t ever repay that debt. And then our Lord lifts his head, he looks you in the eye and says, “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
You see, the forgiveness of Christ is a foundational forgiveness. It is the base upon which you live and breathe and have assurance before God. But that forgiveness isn’t just walled up within you. You who have been shown such mercy, such patience, such kindness from our Lord, you are to hand it on to others. You are to forgive as you have been forgiven. Not once, not seven times but over and over again.
This forgiveness isn’t an emotion. It isn’t how you feel. It is a decision that you make. It doesn’t therefore mean that you will forget. When you’ve been hurt by another, when a transgression has been committed that is so grievous that you can’t seem to see beyond it, you are not going to just forget it. But in Christ, in his love, in his strength you can decide to forgive, to release them from the debt they owe you. And in this action, you proclaim the mercies of God. You proclaim a forgiveness foundational to all that you are, the forgiveness of the King.
This is the life you are called to. This is how you honor and care for the greatest in your midst. There are no fractions, no half-measures with God’s forgiveness. And it begins right here and right now. You are blessed by God to be a blessing to others, forgiven in Christ so that you might forgive one another.