Introduction: Vernon Grounds tells the following story of forgiveness:
If somebody killed your child, could you ever forgive him? By God’s grace the raging desire for revenge might eventually die down within our hearts, but most of us would probably prefer never to see that person again nor to help him in any way.
Yet that was not the reaction of Walter Everett, a Methodist pastor in Hartford, Connecticut. When Michael Carlucci was convicted of manslaughter for shooting Everett’s son, the bereaved father set an example that challenges all of us who claim Christ as Savior.
Walter said he forgave Michael because people “won’t be able to understand why Jesus came and what Jesus is all about unless we forgive.” Was that mere rhetoric? Not in the least! Michael became a believer while in jail, and when he was released and wanted to be married, Walter performed the ceremony. (“Because We’re Forgiven,” Our Daily Bread, July 17, 1996)
Now, we may not always see our willingness to forgive someone lead to his salvation, but we should all certainly obey Paul’s command that we “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you” (Eph. 4:32). In fact, that is the essential point of the parable before us today. In our examination of this parable, we will look at 1) the context of the parable, 2) the communication of the parable, and 3) the explanation of the parable.
I. The Context of the Parable (vss. 21-22)
The occasion for the telling of this parable was a question Peter asked Jesus after he had taught about the importance of church discipline in the preceding passage (vss. 15-20). Remember that Jesus gave that teaching in the context of seeking to restore – and thus to forgive – a straying brother. This leads to Peter’s question:
NKJ Matthew 18:21 Then Peter came to Him and said, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?”
D.A. Carson offers help in understanding Peter’s question:
In rabbinic discussion the consensus was that a brother might be forgiven a repeated sin three times; on the fourth, there is no forgiveness. Peter, thinking himself big-hearted, volunteers “seven times” in answer to his own question—a larger figure often used, among other things, as a “round number” (cf. Lev 26:21; Deut 28:25; Ps 79:12; Prov 24:16; Luke 17:4). (EBC, Vol. 8, p.405)
Peter knew by this time that Jesus would expect a righteousness from His disciples that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees (Matt. 5:20), but he hadn’t yet understood by just how much, as Jesus’ answer will show.
NKJ Matthew 18:22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven [ἑβδομηκοντάκις ἑπτά].”
Jesus is apparently alluding to the statement of Lamech in Genesis:
NKJ Genesis 4:24 If Cain shall be avenged sevenfold, then Lamech seventy-sevenfold [LXX = ἑβδομηκοντάκις ἑπτά].
The LXX translates the Hebrew reference to seventy plus seven with a Greek phrase that may also mean seventy times seven. Thus the ESV and NIV translate the phrase as “seventy-seven” – preserving the allusion to Genesis 4:24 in the English text – whereas the NKJV and NASB adopt “seventy times seven” as the preferred translation. But whichever translation one adopts, the point that should not be missed is that it is this precise phrase that is used by Jesus here in Matthew 18. Thus, He is indicating that we should be as zealous in forgiving others as the infamous Lamech was in seeking vengeance.
Jesus is certainly not indicating that we should keep a strict count and forgive a brother only up to 490 times! Rather He is choosing a much bigger symbolic number than Peter has chosen in order to show how limitless our willingness to forgive should be. That this understanding is correct becomes even more apparent in the following parable.
II. The Communication of the Parable (vss. 23-34)
The parable has three scenes, and we will briefly consider each of them.
Scene #1: The Forgiving King (vs. 23-27)
NKJ Matthew 18:23-25 23 Therefore the kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 And when he had begun to settle accounts, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. 25 But as he was not able to pay, his master commanded that he be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and that payment be made.
The ESV Study Bible notes are helpful in understanding the amount of the debt involved here:
In OT times, a talent was a unit of weight equaling about 75 pounds (34 kg). In NT times, it was a unit of monetary reckoning (though not an actual coin), valued at about 6,000 drachmas, the equivalent of about 20 years’ wages for a laborer. (A common laborer earned about one denarius per day.) In approximate modern equivalents, if a laborer earns $15 per hour, at 2,000 hours per year he would earn $30,000 per year, and a talent would equal $600,000 (USD). Hence, “ten thousand talents” hyperbolically represents an incalculable debt—in today’s terms, about $6 billion. (BibleWorks)
Here the main emphasis is on both the greatness of the debt owed and the inability of the man to pay it. Thus the king announces that he will exercise his legal right to obtain whatever payment he can by selling all that the man had and then selling the man himself, along with his family, into slavery.
The man is clearly in a desperate situation, which leads him to the actions described in the next verse.
NKJ Matthew 18:26 The servant therefore fell down before him, saying, “Master, have patience with me, and I will pay you all.”
Here the servant forgets that he will never be able to repay the debt and asks only for patience that he may have more time to repay it. But his master, the king, knows he can never repay, as the next verse shows.
NKJ Matthew 18:27 Then the master of that servant was moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt.
Notice that the master does more for the servant than he asks. The servant has asked for more time to come up with the money, but the master completely forgives the debt. We are told he does this out of compassion for the man and his plight, which is just another way of saying that he showed mercy or grace toward the man, since he gives the man what he does not deserve.
But what will this man’s response to the master’s forgiveness of the debt be? Will he be transformed by it in any way? Will he share his good fortune with others? Sadly, the answer to each of these questions is, “No,” as the next scene demonstrates.
Scene #2: The Unforgiving Servant (vs. 28-30)
NKJ Matthew 18:28-30 But that servant went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and he laid hands on him and took him by the throat, saying, “Pay me what you owe!” 29 So his fellow servant fell down at his feet and begged him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you all.” 30 And he would not, but went and threw him into prison till he should pay the debt.
There a few things worth noting here.
First, notice that the man’s fellow servant asked for patience in the same manner that the man had himself asked for patience. He also fell down at his feet and begged him for patience using the same words that he himself had used before. One would think that these actions would have reminded the man of his own earlier predicament, but it apparently had no affect upon him at all, which leads to the next observation.
Second, observe that the man does not show any compassion or mercy toward his fellow servant. In fact, not only does he not show mercy to the man, he doesn’t even show the patience he had himself asked for from his master. Instead he demands payment right away and demonstrates his ruthlessness by laying his hands on the man, grabbing him by the throat, and then throwing him into debtor’s prison.
Third, notice the difference between the debt that the man had owed the king and the debt owed to the man by his fellow servant. The man had owed ten thousand talents, whereas his fellow servant only owes him a hundred denarii. Thus the servant was forgiven far more than he was asked to forgive, which illustrates well the position of every believer who is asked to forgive another.
The ESV Study Bible notes are again helpful in understanding the amount of the debt involved here:
This was still a large amount (equivalent to about 20 weeks of common labor, or about $12,000 in today’s terms), but compared to the debt that the wicked servant himself owed ($6 billion), it was a relatively small amount. The servant’s unwillingness to forgive even this amount, though having been forgiven his own insurmountable debt, reveals the servant’s true wicked character (v. 32) and that he has not in fact been transformed by the forgiveness that his master has extended to him. (BibleWorks)
This description pretty much hits the nail right on the head and leads us to the next scene in this parable.
Scene #3: The Response of the King to the Unforgiving Servant (vs. 31-34)
NKJ Matthew 18:31-34 So when his fellow servants saw what had been done, they were very grieved, and came and told their master all that had been done. 32 Then his master, after he had called him, said to him, “You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. 33 Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?” 34 And his master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him.
Again there are several points that must be considered here.
First, observe that the king points out what the man’s actions have clearly demonstrated, that he was a “wicked man.” For it is indeed a wicked man who shows no patience or compassion toward another, especially when he himself has been shown such overwhelming compassion!
Second, notice that the king is angry with the man because he had learned nothing from the forgiveness that had been offered to him. The king expected the man to have been changed by the experience and to have demonstrated this change in his relationship to others. But the man showed instead that he had no true comprehension of the mercy that had been extended to him.
Third, notice that, since the man refused to treat others with the grace with which he had been treated, the king decides to treat the man with the strict justice he had demanded of his fellow servant. In other words, since it was justice the man cared most about, it was justice he would receive! He himself would be cast into debtor’s prison, which is indicated here by the assertion that he “delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him.” But he could never repay the debt, so the situation in view here is far more severe than the earlier one in which the man would have been sold into slavery!
But what lesson(s) should we take away from this parable? Jesus will leave us in no doubt, as we will see in our final point.
III. The Explanation of the Parable (vs. 35)
We find the explanation of the parable in verse 35.
NKJ Matthew 18:35 So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses.
There are at least two lessons Jesus would have us take away from this parable:
First, those who are unforgiving of others can expect the same from God. For such a person is wicked and has shown that he has not been changed by an encounter with God’s grace.
Jesus is not saying that we somehow earn God’s forgiveness by being forgiving of others! The point of the parable is the opposite, namely that the debt we owe is one we can never pay. But those of us who have truly understood this and have experienced the forgiveness of God will have been changed by it. And this change will be seen in our relationships with other people. Where this change is not evident, then a true experience of forgiveness is also not evident. Such an understanding of the parable makes sense and fits the context of the rest of Scripture nicely.
Second, notice that Jesus expects us to forgive others “from the heart.” This is the issue. We each need to have a forgiving heart, which is the result of a genuine experience of God’s grace.
Klyne Snodgrass puts the point very well when he writes:
God’s mercy must not be treated cavalierly. Mercy is not effectively received unless it is shown, for God’s mercy transforms. If God’s mercy does not take root in the heart, it is not experienced. Forgiveness not shown is forgiveness not known. (Stories With Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus, p. 72)
Also, if we remember the occasion for telling this parable – Peter’s question about how often we must forgive a brother – we can see another application: Whenever we find ourselves asking when we can quit forgiving others, we see a symptom of a much larger problem. We are either forgetting or failing to appreciate just how much we ourselves have been forgiven by God, and this is a grave sin indeed!
Conclusion: I would like to conclude this teaching with another quote from Klyne Snodgrass:
The instruction of this kingdom parable – as elsewhere in Scripture – is “Do unto others as God has done to you.” The ethic is responsive and reflexive – responding to God’s prior action and reflecting God’s character. (Stories With Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus, p. 72)