Scripture: “Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.”
“Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” Matthew 18:21-35 ESV
[Click here to read the entire chapter.]
Observation: Recapping yesterday’s Daily Focus (click here to read), Jesus addresses those professing believers who sin against us by laying out a four-step process to spur their repentance:
- Personal confrontation: discretely, face-to-face (v.15).
- Witnesses to the confrontation: if they will not listen to you, bring one or two witnesses and address their sin again.
- Involvement of the church: if they still will not listen to you in front of witnesses, then inform the church and have the church body challenge them to repent.
- Treat as an unbeliever: if they still refuse to do the right thing, do not associate with them and let them feel the burden of isolation (for a season) from the support of the church body.
In today’s reading, Peter follows up with a related question regarding how often we must keep forgiving someone who sins against us. He suggests a reasonable number of seven (perhaps drawing on its symbolism as a sign of completion), but Jesus ups the ante to seventy-seven (not to be taken literally but to signify an unlimited number).
Jesus then tells a parable of an unforgiving servant who pleads for mercy to his master to grant him time to pay back his insurmountable debt. The master goes one step further and immediately forgives his entire obligation. But the ungrateful servant then shows no mercy to a fellow servant who owed him a small sum. When news reaches the master, he summons the first servant, calls him out, and throws him into debtor’s prison until he pays back his once-forgiven debt. Jesus concludes with a warning that anyone who refuses to forgive others will face the same consequences from his heavenly Father.
Takeaway: In Jesus’ day, the prevalent rabbinic teaching held that beyond three repeated sins, there is no forgiveness. Jesus bucks this notion by alluding to Lamech’s boast: “If Cain’s revenge is sevenfold, then Lamech’s is seventy-sevenfold” (Genesis 4:24). This refers to Cain crying out to God that his punishment as a wandering fugitive (for killing his brother) puts him at risk of being murdered. God reassured Cain that if anyone took his life, God would invoke vengeance sevenfold on his behalf. The Lord then marked Cain as a warning to would-be assailants (Genesis 4:13-15, click here to read). And five generations later, Lamech makes his arrogant boast of unstoppable and boundless revenge.
In contrast to the above aspect of vengefulness, the Son of God affirms his Father’s infinite mercy. And his parable portrays our loving Father’s inexhaustible compassion and forgiveness toward those who seek his forgiveness for their otherwise unpayable mound of debts (sins). Still, Christ’s parable warns that any who are unmerciful and hardhearted toward others will receive in like kind from their Creator, who metes uncompromising justice.
Our takeaway? We can never repay the Father for the sacrifice of his Son to cover our debts (sins), but the Son has paid the otherwise impossible balance owed through his substitutionary death. Thus, having shown us such extravagant grace (unmerited favor), he requires us to become “merciful servants” who seek the betterment of others by unconditionally forgiving their trespasses against us. Easier said than done? Absolutely! We will only succeed if we deepen our understanding of the depth of our sinful hearts and the height of our Lord’s love and mercy toward us, as evidenced by Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. Thus, we must cooperate with the refining work of the Holy Spirit, who will inspire us to love and forgive our enemies sacrificially.
Prayer: Father God, we thank you and your Son for unconditionally forgiving us at the unfathomable cost of his life. Still, we confess that we struggle to extend mercy and offer forgiveness to those who have hurt our loved ones or us. So would you please help us submit to your Holy Spirit’s sanctifying work that channels divine grace, love, and mercy through us to others? Amen.
Rev. Gordon Green, M.Div., M.A. Counseling