Matthew 18:21-35 CEB
Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, how many times should I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Should I forgive as many as seven times?”
Jesus said, “Not just seven times, but rather as many as seventy-seven times. Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle accounts, they brought to him a servant who owed him ten thousand bags of gold. Because the servant didn’t have enough to pay it back, the master ordered that he should be sold, along with his wife and children and everything he had, and that the proceeds should be used as payment. But the servant fell down, kneeled before him, and said, ‘Please, be patient with me, and I’ll pay you back.’ The master had compassion on that servant, released him, and forgave the loan.
“When that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him one hundred coins. He grabbed him around the throat and said, ‘Pay me back what you owe me.’
“Then his fellow servant fell down and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I’ll pay you back.’ But he refused. Instead, he threw him into prison until he paid back his debt.
“When his fellow servants saw what happened, they were deeply offended. They came and told their master all that happened. His master called the first servant and said, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you appealed to me. Shouldn’t you also have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?’ His master was furious and handed him over to the guard responsible for punishing prisoners, until he had paid the whole debt.
“My heavenly Father will also do the same to you if you don’t forgive your brother or sister from your heart."
Peter often asks the questions all of us are thinking about but are not quite ready or willing to ask. Matthew 18:21 is no different. After hearing everything Jesus said about forgiveness, Peter asks the question, “‘Lord, how many times should I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me?’” How many times do they have to wrong me before I can say, “Enough is enough!” What are the edges of mercy, God? We’ve talked about repentance and reconciliation, but what about those times and places where nobody repents and no one is interested in reconciling? Matthew’s gospel sees Peter running this question by Jesus, and Jesus responds with extravagant numbers and even a parable about an unforgiving servant. Jesus tells us that our whole lives, our very act of following Christ, are marked by forgiving people, the same people, day after day, time after time, over and over again. We do this because it reminds us that we too need and receive forgiveness again and again from our gracious and merciful God.
You have to love Peter, he always pops up to say what’s on our minds! Jesus just finishes speaking about forgiving our neighbors who wronged us and have repented, and now Peter asks, “Well, how many times do I have to forgive someone who hasn’t repented?” Peter even goes so far as to offer up an answer, “‘Should I forgive as many as seven times?’” Peter assumes he is being pretty generous here as most rabbis at the time would have asked their disciples to forgive no more than three to four times. Jesus is not like most rabbis, however, so he turns around and tells Peter, “‘Not just seven times, but rather as many as seventy-seven times.’” Sometimes, translations will read “seventy times seven.” It doesn’t really matter if Jesus is just talking about 77 or 490 times as that’s not the point as Jesus' parable illustrates.
This parable hones in on the nature of forgiveness, as something we must practice time and time again. Jesus’ parable opens with a servant coming before their king in order to settle accounts. We are told this man owes 10,000 bags of gold or “talents.” Now one talent is equal to 6,000 drachmas, and this would be the equivalent of “the wages of a manual laborer for fifteen years.” To put this into perspective the “annual tax income for all of Herod the Great territories was 900 talents per year” and 10,000 talents would exceed “the taxes for all of Syria, Phoenicia, Judea, and Samaria” at the time. To put this another way, if this servant were to start working immediately as a laborer, it would take “beyond 150,000 years of common labor” to pay this debt back. This servant owes their king more than most kings make in a year and even more than the Roman empire was taxing from the region at the time of Christ. This debt represents an impossible amount of money to pay back and there are only two ways out for the servant: to be condemned or receive mercy.
The servant asks the unaskable, as the servant begs the king for mercy, and even more impossibly, the king forgives the debt. He absolves the servant from ever paying this debt back. After all, that’s the thing about mercy, it is not reserved for when we deserve it. To practice forgiveness is to be merciful because Jesus is saying that this debt is the reality of sin, that we may accrue a debt through sinning against our neighbor that 150,000 years of hard labor could not possibly pay off. Not all sins are equal, however, and sometimes we are less merciful and magnanimous with lesser debts. Look at the servant, he goes from receiving mercy for a debt that could never be repaid to finding “one of his fellow servants who owed him one hundred coins” to make him pay. Instead of mercy for this still sizable but comparatively smaller debt, he throws his fellow servant in prison.
When the king finds out, he is furious! He had shown mercy to his servant, only for his servant to go out and seek judgment against his neighbor! The king questions the servant, asking “‘Shouldn’t you also have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?’” This is not just a question for the servant but for Peter and for all of us today. Peter wants to know the edges of practicing mercy toward his neighbor, but has he considered what it would mean for others to have that same limit toward him? At the end of the story, we end up with a king who reneges on his own forgiveness and throws the servant into prison.
Where this story ends is where I want to pick things up today. I think this story has a lot to say about forgiveness and it may not be what we immediately think! Matthew, in writing his gospel, adds commentary to Jesus’ parable (which probably originally ends on the king’s question), but he instead decides to add that “‘My heavenly Father will also do the same to you if you don’t forgive your brother or sister from your heart.’” Matthew is insinuating that God might renege on God’s forgiveness if we are not forgiving, but I think we need to let the parable stand without assuming that the king is God and we are the servant. I think we can be the king and we can also be the servant. This parable teaches “the awfulness of failing to forgive as God forgives.” God’s mercy asks us to offer forgiveness fully and without conditions when we forgive.
Think of it this way. How many times have you forgiven someone only until they do something else wrong? For example, back in the third grade, our whole grade had to do a family history project. We had to write about our mothers, fathers, grandparents, and siblings. We even included pictures and shared family stories. Now, while working on this assignment, my Mom helped me pick out the images. We got pictures of my dad, pictures of my sister, and even some of my dogs and cat, and grandparents. There was just one person left out of the photos. You probably guessed it, somehow I had managed to leave out a picture of my mother. Now, you might be wondering how I remember this one mistake on this one project from over two decades ago, and I will tell you, my mom won’t let me forget it. What I mean is this, arguments happen in any family, in any relationship, but it is always truly telling what has truly been forgiven by what does and doesn’t come up in the argument.
Often, I think, we have those debts marked in ink, but when we cross them out in forgiving our neighbor, sometimes we do it in pencil. Easy to erase when we decide they don’t deserve that mercy after all. Now, I shared something small, but I have other debts owed to me … no, let’s call them what they really are, wounds. I have scars – barely healed and quick to bleed. I will be the first to say that I have woken up day after day for a long time, not able to wish the best for the person who hurt me. I wanted them to pay. I wanted their 100 golden coins, whether they could afford it or not. I wanted to put my hands around their throats to squeeze them until they knew the depth of my hurt. Those are the days when I said to Jesus, “I have forgiven so many times… I have forgiven until it hurts, and I still hurt, Lord! Let me have my justice! Let me have my judgment!”
And yet, what would a world look like where we cannot forgive? I don’t think we have to look far. There are so many of us who cannot and will not forgive. There are those who forgave once, twice, and even as many as seven times. Now, they will forgive no longer. Friends, I tell you true, those folks think they have their hands around their enemy’s throat, but they have those hands around their own. They are strangling themselves. They are choking out mercy, grace, and compassion. They are killing the part of themselves that looks most like God because they think that by being hard and in the judgment of their neighbor, will make them like God. If we cannot forgive day after day, time after time, and person after person how can we possibly be ready to turn to God for forgiveness? We are too busy trying to be the judge, to be God ourselves.
We forgive because we are forgiven. We are merciful because we have seen mercy. We can love our neighbor instead of seeking payment of our debts because God has paid the debt and given us new life through an empty tomb. Think again of the king’s question, “‘Shouldn’t you also have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?’” Shouldn’t you love because God loves you? Look at all God has done, all that God has sacrificed! Forgiveness is our way of life because it is through forgiveness that the way to life has been opened for us. We are forgiven, so we repent, and so we are reconciled. Every day, we forgive and are forgiven. Every day we are changed. Every day we get closer to that day when we will be reconciled to God and to each other forever, through this costly act called forgiveness. Amen.
 M. Eugene Boring, “Matthew 18:23-35 Commentary,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, ed. Leander E. Keck, vol. 8 (Nashville: Abingdon Press,1995), 382.
 Marjorie J.Thompson, Forgiveness: A Lenten Study (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 46.
 Boring 1995, 383.
Pastor Paul Grossman