Matthew 18:21-35 Forgiveness
21Peter came and said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ 22Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
23‘For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25and, 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. 26The slave fell on his knees before him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” 27Out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt, 28but that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow-slaves who owed him a hundred denarii. Seizing him by the throat, he said, “Pay what you owe.” 29Then his fellow-slave fell down and pleaded with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you,” 30but he refused. Then he went and threw him into prison until he should pay the debt. 31When his fellow-slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32His lord summoned him and said to him, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?” 34and in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he should pay his entire debt. 35So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.’
Text ©The New Revised Standard Version, alt, Used with permission.
How many times should I forgive somebody who sins against me? There is dispute about the response from Jesus, not in the need for forgiveness, but in the number. Some manuscripts suggest seventy-seven times, others seventy times seven. Those who take the scriptures literally would encourage us to have notebooks in which we record each act of forgiveness, and on the 78th occasion (or the 491st) refuse to forgive. That’s a horrible distortion of the message from these few verses. Not only should the forgiveness relate to one type of sin – so not counting ‘you lied to me when you were four years old, and you forgot to buy a loaf of bread for me when you were 30, so I’ve forgiven you twice’ – but the number is not supposed to be taken literally anyway. In the culture of the day seventy-seven would have been a very large number, by which time you would probably have lost count, so best not to even start. The important part of this message is that we should forgive, and forgive, and keep on forgiving, and that we should separate the sin from the sinner. Those who practise this separation on a routine basis can love the sinner while hating the sin – and forgiving someone who has sinned against us does not necessarily mean that the sinner doesn’t have to pay a penalty for the actions. One man who lost the rest of his family in the Port Arthur massacre forgave the man who committed all those murders on that fateful day. The events which led to that forgiveness were far more confronting than those which most of us will ever encounter. Can we do the same?
If we haven’t paid enough attention to the irrelevance of numbers, then the generosity of the king will take us by surprise. Did you think this was about the slave? A ‘talent’ was worth about 6000 denarii – which, by the way, is where the ‘d’ comes from in the old “pounds-shillings-and-pence (£sd)”monetary system – and a denarius was about a day’s pay for a labourer. Hence, this slave owed the king wages he would take over 20 years to earn. How did a slave get to owe so much? The answer is simple: he didn’t. As Jesus told this story it wasn’t the actual number which was important – Jesus had a habit of inflating numbers to make a point – but the relative size of the debt to that owed by the second slave, and the lack of preparedness to forgive someone else, even when we have been forgiven a huge debt. We should put that into the context of our 21st century lives, and ask ourselves if we need to forgive someone’s debt to us. I find it somewhat incredible that someone should be sent to prison until a debt is paid, when being in prison stops the person from earning the money to pay the debt, but that’s how many Australian jurisdictions still work.
Of course, our debt may not be monetary, but in kind. Has someone done something for you, or me, and not been acknowledged for that kindness? I think God would applaud the “Pay it Forward” principle.