In last week’s post, I talked about the steps to take if someone has done something against you, and more specifically against God’s principles, but isn’t willing to admit he’s wrong. But what if he does realize he is wrong? What if he is sorry and asks forgiveness? What if he has asked for forgiveness a dozen times before, but he keeps asking for forgiveness for similar things? At what point do you stop being patient? At what point do you stop forgiving?
Peter asked Jesus that question in Matthew 18:21. Peter also suggested a possible answer. He suggested that seven would be a good number of times to be willing to forgive someone who has sinned against you. This was actually quite generous on Peter’s part, since Rabbinic teaching held that you should forgive three times, and you needn’t forgive the fourth. So Peter was doing his best to be loving, but Jesus wanted more from him—and from us. Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” (Matthew 18:22) Now, do you think Jesus meant that Peter should get out his scroll (or shard of pottery since they were easier to come by) and keep track of each time he forgave someone? Then stop when he got to 78? I don’t think that’s what Jesus meant. I think the number Jesus gave was significantly larger than the one Peter gave, and even more significantly larger than what the rabbis taught, that His listeners would get the idea: keep on forgiving.
Jesus followed this answer with a parable to reinforce His teaching. (Matthew 18:23-35) Jesus tells the story of a servant who owed a great debt to his master. The master said it was time to collect, but the servant couldn’t pay so he begged for more time. Now, the servant owed 10,000 talents. A talent was the largest unit of money, and ten thousand was the largest number for which the Greek language had a specific word. Jesus’ use of these huge amounts would have had the desired effect on his listeners. There was not enough time in his lifetime for the servant to ever be able to completely repay this debt. His master had mercy on him, and forgave the debt. One would think the servant would be grateful for mercy in the place of justice. He justly deserved, according to the laws of the time, to be sold into slavery, along with his family so that at least some of his debt could be repaid. Instead, he was free to go and owe nothing. But he wasn’t so kind to a fellow servant who owed him 100 denarii. A denarius was equivalent to a day’s wage for a labourer, and 100 days’ worth of income--27.4 percent of a year’s income--was not an insignificant amount. It would have taken some time for that servant to pay back such a debt also. However, since a talent was worth 6,000 times more than a denarius, and the first servant owed 10,000 talents compared to the second servant’s 100 denarii, the amount of debt relief received by the first servant would make up for what was owed by the second servant many, many times.
The debt that was cancelled by the master to the first servant was an enormous act of mercy, and represents God’s act of mercy in giving up His own son to pay the debt that we could never possibly pay. All he asks from us in return is that we forgive the small things that our fellow disciples do to us. Significant, perhaps, but nothing compared to the mercy we have received from God. And he wants us to keep on forgiving them, without keeping a count.