“God is just” was the accent of last month’s lessons. “Jesus calls for justice and mercy” is the accent of this month’s lessons. Therefore our texts will come from the Gospels—two from Matthew and three from Luke.
Matthew 18 is Jesus’ fourth discourse in the Gospel. The theme of the discourse is taken from the opening verse. It is “Greatness in the Kingdom of Heaven.” Jesus defined greatness in his kingdom in terms of humility (vv. 1-9), reconciliation (vv. 10-20), and forgiveness (vv. 21-35). In this last section on forgiveness Jesus used the upside-down method of teaching we call parables. Typically, this story is known as the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant. It could equally be called The Parable of the Gracious King.
Matthew 18:21, 22
Peter interrupted Jesus in this fourth discourse. What is new? But we would need to understand that preaching in Jesus’ age was much more dialogical than in our age. It was not uncommon for people to ask questions or burst forth with comments during speeches (see Luke 11:27; 12:13, 41; 14:15). As Jesus emphasized greatness in terms of reconciliation (Matthew 18:10-20), he spoke about forgiving fellow believers when they repent of sin. This prompted Peter to ask his question (and make his interruption).
Peter’s question implied that he wanted to draw a line in the sand as to how many times he had to offer forgiveness. He probably felt as if he was being very generous by offering to forgive his brother seven times. The rabbis taught that the maximum number of times a person was required to forgive was three. Jesus’ answer seemed to indicate that forgiveness knows no limits. “Not seven times, but seventy-seven times,” is what is required (older versions say seventy times seven, or 490 times). Since seven is a number of completeness in the Bible (Genesis 2:2), Jesus might be teaching to forgive completely—almost without limit. Or he might be teaching that forgiveness is the opposite of holding grudges and being arrogant as evidenced by Lamech’s remark to his wives (Genesis 4:24). Regardless, this lead line set up the parable.
Things work differently in Jesus’ kingdom when it comes to forgiveness. Jesus compared forgiveness to a king who forgave one of his servants a large amount of money. Since kings, landowners, and fathers all play the God-role in Jesus’ stories, it makes sense to believe that the king is God. Later in the story the king will be called master (vv. 27, 31, 32). In Jesus’ world, if a servant was found to be irresponsible or in a situation where he could not pay his debt, he and his family and his goods were to be sold to pay the debt. In this case the man owed the king/master ten thousand bags of gold (ten thousand talents). This was an unheard of amount in Jesus’ day. The talent was the largest currency in the Roman Empire. A ten-thousand-talent debt was off the realistic charts. But even more shocking was the king’s forgiveness when the servant begged for mercy. There is no way the servant could pay back everything. Verse 27 is stunning. The king/master had pity (compassion) and canceled (forgave; let go; sent away) the debt.
The plot thickened when the servant found a fellow servant who owed him a hundred silver coins (100 days’ wages). The forgiven servant physically abused his fellow servant (even the king/master did not do that) and demanded payment. The reader cannot miss the identical wording of the plea of the fellow servant (see 26 and 29). But the original servant was calloused and disregarded his own forgiveness by the king/master. He had his fellow servant thrown into prison.
Other servants tattled on the forgiven servant. They told the king/master everything that had happened. The king/master in turn confronted the wicked servant, reminded him of his forgiveness, shamed him for not having mercy on his fellow servant, and threw him into jail. The king/master did not snap (the word for “anger” does not mean explode violently but more of a settled justifiable anger), but he did judge the first servant’s shrunken heart.
Some of Jesus’ parables have no ending. The intent is that the hearer will conclude the parable. But this one has a firm tag line. There is no way to miss the intended lesson. We must forgive or we will be judged and spiritually jailed (Matthew 6:14, 15). For those who seek justice in the world, forgiveness should be their default setting.
Dr. Mark Scott teaches Preaching and New Testament at Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Missouri.
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