The Spirit of Forgiveness


Matthew 18:21-35

After a pause of several weeks for Palm Sunday and Easter, we return to our studies in the Gospel of Matthew.

Text Comment

v.21     The previous discussion of the sins of Christian brothers left unanswered the practical question:  how many times may a brother – that is, a fellow follower of Jesus – sin, ask forgiveness, and receive it (the process described in vv. 15ff. which we considered last time)? At what point do I conclude that my brother is imposing on my generosity?  At what point do I cease to extend forgiveness when he says he’s sorry?  Peter has learned that it is important to forgive; but surely there must be a limit.  The Jewish rabbis actually discussed this question and recommended that such forgiveness not be extended more than three times.  In the Mishnah (Yoma 86b) we read:  “If a man commits a transgression, the first, second, and third time he is forgiven, the fourth time he is not forgiven.”  Give Peter credit:  his seven times is considerably more generous than that.

v.22     Lest the Lord’s reply be misunderstood, he is not saying that we should extend forgiveness 77 times, not more, not less.  Indeed, there is debate among the Greek scholars whether Matthew’s words are to be read 70 + 7 or 70 x 7.  It matters not.  In either case he is saying that there are no limits on the forgiveness we owe to others.  If seven is the number of completeness and perfection, seventy-seven is that completeness to the nth degree.  Interestingly, some commentators think that the Lord took 77 from Gen. 4:24 where Lamech promises to avenge himself on those who injure him 77 times over.  Kill one of his sons, he will kill 77 of yours.  That is the idea.  Jesus then would be saying that in contrast to Lamech’s limitless spirit of vengeance, Christians should be constrained by a similarly limitless spirit of forgiveness.

Now the Lord illustrates and emphasizes his teaching about forgiveness with a story or parable that answers the question why the followers of Jesus should be so forgiving.

v.24     The talent was the largest unit of currency.  Ten thousand talents would sound to first century ears like a billion dollars sounds to us.  The NEB reads “his debt ran into millions.”

The servants in question would have been government officials of some type who sought to gain from their office and in some way were caught short.  Josephus, for example, tells of a certain Joseph who heard that 8,000 talents was being bid for certain taxing rights and who then countered that bid with a bid of 16,000 talents. [Ant. XII, 175-176]  If a man like that should find himself unable to pay what he bid, he would be caught in precisely that situation described in the Lord’s parable.  He may have bid foolishly high.  Or perhaps drought or economic depression collapsed his revenue.  In any case, he didn’t have the money he owed, not by a long shot.

v.24     “Was brought to him” may indicate that the man was under arrest; at least that he did not come willingly.

v.25     This is not an imaginary outcome.  In the ancient world moneylenders were well protected against default, more so than they are today.  Under Greek, Roman, and Near Eastern law, creditors could bind into either perpetual or temporary slavery those debtors who did not pay up.  [Jeffers, The Greco-Roman World, 24]  It may seem unfair to us that the wife and children were sold as well, but in the thinking of that time, they belonged to him and if he were to be sold it was natural that they would be as well.  All together, of course, they would not realize enough at sale to repay the debt, but the king gets what he can.  But the selling of the man is not only to repay the debt; it is punishment for failing to meet his obligations.

v.26     The man could not appeal to justice, so he pleads for mercy.  It is unlikely that anyone actually thought he could repay such an enormous sum, but he is willing to promise anything to avert the disaster that he and his family are facing.

v.27     The king was more than kind.  He gave the man not what he asked for – time to repay – but instead forgave the debt entirely.  He set no conditions.

v.28     Here “found” suggests not that this man happened to meet this other fellow, but that he went looking for him.  To get some idea of the relative scale of the two debts, remember that there were 6,000 denarii to the talent.  So this second man owed the tiniest fraction of the debt the first man had owed and had been forgiven. It is not simply that he asked for his money, demanded his money; but he did it in a violent, cruel, grasping way.  We can see his eyes bulging and his face getting red with anger.

v.29     Significant to the point of the parable, this man uses precisely the same words in pleading for mercy as the first man did with the king:  “Be patient with me.”  Of course, his promise to repay was a much more realistic one as his debt was a trifle compared to what the first servant had owed.

v.30     Since while in prison he had no way of repaying the debt, the man’s prospects were particularly bleak.  His family would have somehow to raise the money.

v.32     All of us are to listen carefully to the king say “you wicked servant.”

v.33     Notice the king does not say “You should have cancelled the debt,” but “You should have had mercy…”  The Lord, in telling this parable, is concerned with the spirit and the attitude of the heart.

v.34     In other words, his punishment was worse than it would have been if the king had done what he first proposed: sold the man into slavery.

Now there is no mistaking the Lord’s argument as it is developed in the parable of the unmerciful servant.  The unimaginable size of the original debt that was forgiven – the ten thousand talents – makes unforgivable and unthinkable that the smaller debt should not be willingly, promptly, and cheerfully forgiven.  A man shown so much mercy should be the first to extend mercy to others.

We might have expected that the Lord would have put the lesson in more positive terms.  After all, he could have said in v. 35 that he wanted his disciples to be as merciful as the king had been merciful to his servant.  Instead he delivers a threat:  if we are unmerciful, then we cannot complain if the Lord is unmerciful in his treatment of us.  This is not the first time he has put the lesson in such terms.  In the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 6:14, having taught his disciples the model prayer that we call “The Lord’s Prayer,” and which we just prayed together, the Lord picks up on only one petition of that prayer – “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors – to add a comment.  “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.  But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive you your sins.”  The Lord is saying that the spirit that is open to receive forgiveness is, in the nature of the case, the spirit that is open to bestow it.  If one will not forgive it must be because he has not really appreciated or genuinely sought the forgiveness of God.  And if he has not truly sought that forgiveness for himself, or understood what it would be to receive it, then he can hardly expect that God will deal mercifully with him.  Someone who despises God’s forgiveness should not be surprised to find that he does not have it.  To make sure that we get the point, that we do not gloss over it, he puts it in terms of a threat, a warning.  The argument is that if we do not extend forgiveness to others we will not be forgiven ourselves.

That reasoning is, of course, unimpeachable.  We all instinctively understand the crime of that unmerciful servant.  The king’s servants saw what had happened and they couldn’t stand for that man to get away with what he had done.  They had to tell the king how his great mercy to his servant had been repaid.

And, of course, no Christian should have any difficulty translating the parable into his own situation.  God has forgiven your endless sinning against him; he has removed the mountain of sin and guilt that you have piled up; he has taken your selfishness and self-love, your pettiness and stinginess, your impurity and greed, your worldliness, your ingratitude, your sinful anger, your vengeful spirit, and your constant neglect of Him, your maker, and your constant neglect of his calling upon your life; he has taken your debt of ten thousand talents, and he has separated it from you as far as the East is from the West; he has buried it in the deepest sea; he has cast it behind his back; he has trampled it under his feet; and he has remembered it no more.  You have sinned against him repeatedly.  In the very same way you have sinned against him time after time.  You have taken his forgiveness and sinned some more.  And he has forgiven you completely nonetheless.

But now, someone else sins, a brother or sister sins against youYou are not God.  The evil of the sin is not magnified because it has been committed against you; against someone of great majesty and eminence, as our sins are committed against God.  He just sinned against little you.  And what was his sin?

Was he dishonest?  Did he lie to you?  Well, if he did, his lie was only 100 denarii’s worth.  You’ve been lying to God himself ten thousand talents worth.  Think of all the times you have been in this house and have made promises to God in this worship that you did not keep.  Think of all the times, together with this congregation, you have read God’s Law in this worship service, read it so as to promise your obedience to it – read his commands to love one another; read his commands to be honest, pure, content, generous, kind; read his commands to evangelize the lost and to show generosity to the poor – and you have not done what you promised you would.  You lied to God himself.  You lied to him about his own Word and his own Law.  And now, you pipsqueak, you are going to be in a huff because someone lied to you?! How much gall do you have?

Or you feel that someone has not shown you proper respect.  He has not shown a proper deference toward you.  She has not treated you as you believe you ought to be treated.  Well and good.  It is quite possible that her or she has done exactly that and has sinned against God and you in doing so.  But with what respect and deference have you treated your King?  How faithfully have you shown a proper fear of God and reverence for his name?  Is it not the case that you have, times without number, used his name with scarce a thought of the majesty of the one whose name you have just pronounced.  Is it not the case that you have, more times than you could ever count, taken up that name in prayers that are offered with half a mind or less?  And is it not true that far, far too much of the time your life – though you are a Christian – is like the life of the unbeliever in nothing so much as this: that there is no fear of God before your eyes?  And, all of that disrespect for God notwithstanding, you are going to take great umbrage because someone did not give you the respect you feel you deserve?  How much gall do you have? That is the stern rhetorical question of the Lord’s parable of the unmerciful servant.

And we could make the same argument, we could trace the same reasoning if someone stole from you, or someone was cruel to you, or someone was thoughtless of you.  What has anyone ever done to you that you have not done much more and much more seriously to God?

That is the Lord’s implacable and unanswerable argument. And then, after putting the point so sternly at the end – “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother” – he adds those three words that unmask every effort we so naturally make to evade the force of his application.  Of course we get the point.  Of course we understand that we must be merciful ourselves, having been granted so great a mercy by God.  We must forgive our little when God has forgiven so much.  No one can escape the rigorous necessity of the Lord’s logic.

But perhaps there is still some way for us to retain some right to private vengeance, to the nursing of our offended pride, to the satisfaction of making others suffer for our wounds.  We won’t be unforgiving. Oh no! We will certainly forgive.  At least we will say that we forgive.  We will assure ourselves that we forgive.  But we will be righteous also; even loving; concerned for our sinful neighbor’s soul.  We will hold on to his or her sins not for our sake, but for his, for hers.  Perhaps even for God’s sake, for the sake of his righteousness in the church. So we think and so we tell ourselves.

But, just when we have thought of these reasons why our continued anger toward a brother or sister, our harboring of wrongs done, is not unforgiveness but actually a form of righteousness or love, the Lord adds as a thunderclap the last words of this teaching:  from the heart.  No the forgiveness has to come from the heart and if it comes from there, it will be without casuistry, without legal hairsplitting, without the explanations that we otherwise find so necessary to add.  It will be forgiveness pure and simple.  It will be the same casting behind our back and separating as far as the east is from the west and the same trampling under our feet and the same remembering no more as we have received from God.  If it is from the heart, we will be as glad to give it as God delights to show mercy to us.

In Zechariah 7:10, in the midst of commandments to show mercy and compassion to others, we read the Lord says, “In your hearts do not think evil of each other.”  That is the way the Lord sums up the practice of mercy in a believer’s life.  The Lord understands our psychology.  He knows our hearts and the attitudes and spirit that reside there.  He knows how we think and how the heart is the wellspring of life.  So love and forgiveness, to be real, must be found in the heart. That is where it comes from; that is how one knows he truly is merciful and practicing mercy:  when he does not think evil of another in his heart.  This is searching teaching our Savior has given us here.

Several years ago I came across a little volume of Latin letters written in the late 1940s and early 1950s by C.S. Lewis to an Italian priest.  Lewis didn’t know Italian well enough to correspond in that language and the Italian father didn’t know English well enough, so they wrote to one another in Latin.  I have used the book in my Latin classes because Lewis wrote Latin as clearly as he wrote English.  In one letter, dated December 26th, 1951, Lewis disclosed to his Italian friend an experience that he had recently had.

“For a long time I believed that I believed in the forgiveness of sins.  But suddenly, on St. Mark’s day, this truth appeared in my mind in so clear a light that I perceived that never before (and that after many confessions and absolutions) had I believed it with my whole heart.  So great is the difference between mere affirmation by the intellect and that faith, fixed in the very marrow…which the Apostle [called] substance.”  [The Latin Letters of C.S. Lewis, 68-69]

You catch his meaning, don’t you.  He had understood God’s forgiveness; he had even given thanks for it many times.  But he had not fully understood or appreciated what a glorious thing it was to be forgiven so completely so many sins committed against God himself.  The majesty of God’s forgiveness had dawned on him; stirred his heart.  Well, that is something of what the Lord is after here.  It is easy to believe that you believe in the forgiveness of sins.  But there is a way to test your belief, to tell whether you really grasp the concept, the reality, the power, the glory of divine forgiveness.  There is a way to know whether your belief in forgiveness is merely intellectual or is the very substance of your faith.  And that way, Jesus said, is to look to the way in which you forgive others.  Is your forgiveness willing, cheerful, ready, heart-felt, ungrudging, and even grateful.  That is, are you even glad that you have the opportunity to forgive a wrong, because to forgive another is the very best way to love God for his forgiving you and to prove that you understand, really understand what he has done for you in canceling your enormous debt.

One commentator put it this way, reflecting on the last three words of v. 35:  “Forgiveness is qualitative not quantitative.”  [Vincent, Word Studies, i, 105]  That is, forgiveness is a spirit in the heart, it is a spirit of love, of gratitude, of wonder expressing itself toward others.  There is nothing legalistic about it at all.  There is no counting up or measuring involved.  There is only a humble heart, grateful for an immeasurably great gift, expressing itself toward another like sinner.

In the third century Tertullian, the great North African church father, asked, “What is faith?”  And he answered his own question:  “Faith is patience with the lamp lit.”  I thought of that because of the plea that was twice made in the Lord’s parable:  “Be patient with me.”  Faith is patience with the lamp lit.  Patience not in the dark but in the light.  Patience fully aware of what has happened in the past – what Christ has done – and full aware of what is soon to come – what Christ will do.  Faith is patience with the lamp lit.

Someone sins against you.  Will you be patient with that brother or sister?  Well is it dark in your soul or is the lamp lit?  Do you see the great sins, the years of inexcusable sins, that God has swept away by his mercy and remembers no more?  Do you see the future when every believer will be perfect in thought, word, and deed?  Do you see the present clearly, this one life in which to love and serve your Savior by faith, when it counts the most?  Ah, let the lamp be lit, and Christians will be patient with one another, so patient that the world will scratch its head in wonder and confusion that Christians so easily, so cheerfully put up with so much in one another.  And when they ask why, we will tell them about the ten thousand talents and the 100 denarii and about how true Christian faith is patience with the lamp lit.

There is a natural love in this world that is prepared to bear with almost any sin.  Kipling gave expression to it in his verse:

If I were hanged on the highest hill,

I know whose love would follow me still.

If I were drowned in the deepest sea,

I know whose tears would come down to me.

If I were damned of body and soul,

I know whose prayers would make me whole.

Kipling was talking about his mother.  But a mother’s love, wonderful, powerful, impregnable as it is, is only a natural love.  This love, this mercy, that Christ is describing is of a supernatural kind.  It expresses itself not only toward members of our family, but to every Christian, indeed to everyone.  It should be found in every true Christian heart and if it is found there it will be found in every true Christian life.  And its test comes – as the test of all love comes – when it is abused and offended.

You and I ought to love to be sinned against.  We ought to welcome such offenses.  We ought to value them and be grateful for them as almost priceless gifts.  We really should.  Not that we love to see anyone sin, but because we ought to be hungering and thirsting to forgive others and to forgive them over and over again and, by so doing, show the Lord and others that in regard to this greatest reality in the world, the forgiveness of sins, the love and grace and mercy of God in Jesus Christ, we get it.  We really get it!