Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
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!” “The number hebdomēkontakis hepta can be translated also as seventy-seven times. Whether it be 77 or 490 times, the point is that there can be no limits to the willingness to forgive. The numbers allude to Gen 4:24: “If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold” (Daniel J Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2007, 269).
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?’
Forgiveness – a triumph of grace
In today’s Gospel – Matthew 18:21-35 – Peter asks Jesus: “How often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Peter’s question implies limits – admittedly, generous limits, but limits nonetheless. Jesus replies that forgiveness has no limits: “‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times’”. But only God can act without limits. And that’s the point!
Forgiveness is a triumph of grace, not human willpower. God is with us always, everywhere. And where God is, God does and God’s doing is always loving and God’s loving is always liberating. Our part? Get out of the way and let God be God! Make no mistake, getting out of the way is hard work – very hard work. Too often we get in the way, perhaps even thinking we are doing the right thing.
The first three rules of the Christian life are as follows: The first rule is, listen! The second rule is, keep on listening! The third rule is like unto the first two rules, never stop listening! We must assume that God is present and active in every moment, everywhere. We live always in the midst of a wonderful paradox: The limitlessness of God is present through the limits of each moment! Let God’s limitlessness have its way.
What a difference it would make to our lives if, as a matter of routine, we could hear God in the ordinary moments? We would be gradually absorbed into his liberating love at work everywhere. Our presence would become God’s Presence. We would have a front row seat on the many ordinary revelations of God – like, compassion, gentleness, truthfulness, courage and humility. And of course, forgiveness. Limitless forgiveness. And we would be filled with gratitude and joy.
Forgiveness is not our achievement. It is given through facilitation rather than mastery. It comes as grace rather than wilful effort. One of the surest signs that our life in Christ is real, is graciousness. The real disciple is aware of the Presence of God everywhere. This awareness will manifest itself in a graceful and gracious presence. Sin can be recognized in its lack of grace.
The kind of experience that calls for forgiveness is almost certainly going to involve some painful emotions. However, God’s Presence, manifesting itself in forgiveness, can live side by side with emotions such as anger and resentment and – yes – even “hate”. Forgiveness does not require us to deny these painful emotions. An honest and humble acknowledgement of such emotions enables God’s forgiveness to work in both us and the one who has caused the hurt. In God’s Presence, painful emotions will be transformed.
Continually listening for the truth, facing the truth and submitting to the truth, enables us to get out of the way and let God’s forgiving Presence take over the relationship. The real challenge of the Christian life is not what we do but what we allow God to do through us and in us.