By Roy Ciampa, Ph. D.
Armstrong Chair of Religion, Samford University
FORGIVE YOUR NEIGHBOR
As long as we live in this fallen world as fallen creatures, we will be in need of forgiveness and will need to be prepared to offer forgiveness to those around us.
Love forgives — and keeps forgiving. (21–22)
Peter asked Jesus how extravagant he had to be in forgiving someone who repeatedly sinned against him. Since seven was the number of perfection and seemed like a large number of times to forgive a repeat offender, Peter guessed seven times might be enough. But Jesus says Peter must radically expand his understanding of God’s mercy and generosity and how we are to reflect that ourselves. He says we must forgive the repeat offender 70 times 7 (or 77 times; the Greek is ambiguous). Clearly, Jesus does not want Peter to take Him literally and keep an extensive record of wrongs (1 Cor. 13:5), but He wants Peter to realize there is no limit to the forgiveness God grants to us and expects of us.
God extends forgiveness to us. (23–27)
To explain His answer, Jesus tells a parable to show why we need to be so extravagant in offering forgiveness. Jesus says we should imagine a king who had a servant (literally a slave) who owed him 10,000 talents. This is like saying the man owed a “gazillion” dollars. The Greek word for 10,000 was used to suggest an extremely large or incalculable number. Ten thousand literal talents would take a typical worker thousands of years to pay off. No slave could ever pay such an enormous debt. Therefore, the man’s wife, children and property were all going to be sold to pay off part of the debt.
Keep in mind this is a parable, and the king is like God in that he was owed a debt that couldn’t possibly be paid. But unlike in the parable, God does not eternally condemn other family members for the sins of their relative. The point is each one of us is like the servant, owing an enormous debt we could not possibly ever repay.
But the man begs for mercy, promising to pay the whole debt (which was not really possible) if the master will be patient. The master has mercy on him and forgives the entire debt.
Like the servant in the story, when we ask God for His mercy, He has compassion on us and frees us from the guilt of our sins.
God expects us to forgive even as He has forgiven us. (28–35)
The servant who had received such extravagant forgiveness goes and finds a colleague who owed him 100 days’ wages (100 denarii) and insists on being paid back immediately. That servant makes the same plea for patience and mercy as the other had made to his master, offering to pay the debt off in time. This debt could actually have been paid off over time, but the servant who had been forgiven so much was unwilling to extend the much smaller forgiveness to his colleague, and he had the man thrown into prison until the debt would be paid.
When the master found out about his servant’s lack of mercy, he wanted to know why the servant hadn’t followed the master’s example. The main point of the parable is found in verse 33: The master’s servant should have shown the same mercy to his fellow servant as the master had shown him.
In response the master rescinded the forgiveness he had extended to the unforgiving servant. Jesus warns the Father will do the same to us, unless we forgive our brothers and sisters from our hearts.
An unforgiving spirit is not an unforgiveable sin, since it may be repented of at any moment. But, as Jesus warns us here and elsewhere (Matt. 6:15), we who need God’s forgiveness cannot afford to withhold forgiveness from others. The mercy we have received leads us to extend mercy to those around us.