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?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, 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. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But 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.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place.
Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” (Matthew 18:21-35 – NRSV)
The parable is found only in Matthew.
“This chapter (18) forms the fourth of Matthew’s great collections of Jesus’ sayings (after 5–7, 10 and 13); there is one more to go (23–25). It is every bit as challenging as the rest. Its central and sharpest point is just this: that Jesus is establishing God’s ‘new covenant’ with Israel and the world. As the prophet Jeremiah saw half a millennium earlier (Jeremiah 31:34), the way of life which will mark out that new covenant is forgiveness. Jesus has already taught his followers to pray for it (6:12), and has specified clearly that if you want forgiveness you’ve got to be prepared to give it (6:14–15). Now he returns to the theme.
“Peter’s question and Jesus’ answer say it all (verses 21–22). If you’re still counting how many times you’ve forgiven someone, you’re not really forgiving them at all, but simply postponing revenge. ‘Seventy times seven’ is a typical bit of Jesus’ teasing. What he means, of course, is ‘don’t even think about counting; just do it’.” (N T Wright, Matthew for Everyone (Part 2: Chapters 16-28), London: SPCK, 2004, 40.)
Henry Wansbrough OSB writes: “The chapter on relations between brethren, is summed up by a parable on forgiveness …. Underlying is the Jewish doctrine of the two measures by which judgement may be exercised, justice or mercy; it is the latter which Jesus constantly demands.” (Henry Wansbrough OSB, “St Matthew” in A New Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, edited by Reginal Fuller et al, 1969, 924.)
We are reminded of the earlier teaching, when the disciples are picking corn on the Sabbath and the religious authorities challenge this – see 12:1-8. Jesus tells the Pharisees: “But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:7-8).
Lord: The Greek word is Kyrios, a very respectful form the address.
church: The Greek word is adelphos, literally meaning “brother”. NRSV endeavours at all times to use inclusive language.
How often?: This is a crucial question in the whole drama. Jesus’ response suggests something like: “Don’t even ask, Peter!” Forgiveness is a theme to which Matthew returns several times – see for example, 6:12 and 7:2. One scholar writes: “Peter has learned that it is important to forgive, so he has made some progress. But surely, he apparently reasons, there must be a limit? How long must one keep on forgiving? He talks about a brother (see on 1:2 for Matthew’s interest in brotherhood) sinning against him, so he is thinking primarily about what happens within the circle of Jesus’ followers (brother can mean “brother-man,” but that does not seem to be the meaning here). This accords with the fact that a few verses back Jesus has been talking about one brother sinning against another (v. 15). Peter asks whether forgiving such offenses seven times is sufficient. There was a rabbinic view that one need forgive only three times: ‘If a man commits a transgression, the first, second and third time he is forgiven, the fourth time he is not forgiven’ (Yoma 86b). Peter more than doubled this quota of forgivenesses. Peter has clearly learned something from Jesus. He understands now that retaliation is not the right path for a disciple; rather, forgiveness is a quality to be prized. But he sees this as something that should be practiced in moderation. Surely forgiving the same person seven times would be enough?” (Leon Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew, Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: W.B. Eerdmans; Inter-Varsity Press, 1992, 471.)
ten thousand talents: The sums of money mentioned are meant to shock. Ten thousand talents is a sum six hundred thousand times one hundred denarii. A hundred denarii represents the wages for about four months casual labour! And so the debtor’s plea – “Give me time and I will repay the whole debt” – is an empty promise. He could never repay this debt. He is in no position to appeal for justice. He needs mercy.
out of pity for him: The Greek word is splanchnizomai meaning “to be moved as to one’s inwards (splanchna), to be moved with compassion, to yearn with compassion” (W E Vine, M F Unger, & W White, Jr., Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Vol. 2), Nashville, TN: T. Nelson, 1996, 117). Matthew generally uses this word in reference to Jesus, describing his attitude to the multitudes and to individuals who are suffering – see 9:36; 14:14; 15:32; 18:27; 20:34.
The forgiven debtor who refuses to forgive is rebuked for his lack of mercy: ‘Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’
In about 1124 St Bernard of Clairvaux wrote a small treatise on humility. In that little classic, Bernard writes that “we all seek truth in ourselves, in our neighbors, and for its own sake” (“The Steps of Humility and Pride” in Bernard of Clairvaux: Selected Works, J. Farina, Ed., G. R. Evans, Translator, (p. 106). New York; Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1987, 106). He goes on to say that there is a proper order that must be observed: “First, Truth himself teaches you that the nature of truth must first be sought in our neighbors before we seek it in itself. After this you will be shown why you ought to seek it in yourself before you seek it in your neighbor. In the list of beatitudes which he gave in the Sermon on the Mount the Lord put the merciful before the pure in heart (Mt 5:7–8). The merciful are quick to see the truth in their neighbors when they feel for them, and unite themselves with them in love so closely that they feel their goods and ills as their own. When the weak suffer, they suffer …. They ‘rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep’ (Rom 12:15). With hearts purified by this brotherly love they delight in the contemplation of truth in itself, for whose love they bear the troubles of others. …. But to have a heart which is sad because of someone else’s wretchedness you must first recognize your neighbor’s mind in your own and understand from your own experience how you can help him” (Ibid).
No psychologist or student of human behaviour ever spoke with greater insight.
The way to the truth of God is via the truth of others. The way to the truth of others is via the truth of your own self. The pathway to mercy for others passes through one’s own pain and brokenness. Mercy is born of facing oneself, experiencing one’s own need for mercy. Once we have done that we will never again judge another. We will seek to reach out to them as brothers and sisters who, like us, are yearning to love and be loved. Their pain will be our pain, their struggle will be our struggle, their delight will be our delight.
Mercy is not an act of our will but of God’s grace. Mercy is always on offer. But it is only discovered when we own our need for it.
The parable of the unforgiving debtor feels harsh. It deals with absurd amounts of money that no one could possible pay back. And it deals with torture. Torture was actually forbidden in Israel. This story unfolds in an extreme environment, one that is calculated to cause disgust and revulsion. This is where lack of mercy will take us. Facing the truth of who and what we are opens the door to mercy. It is the best antidote to the corruption outlined in the parable.