Commentary on Matthew 18:15-35
The first part of this section (Matthew 18:15-20) is commonly referred to as Matthew’s section on “church discipline,” as it discusses how to deal with a member who has sinned against another member of the church.
The fact that this section is preceded by Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep (Matthew 18:10-14) indicates that the goal of such actions is ultimately to reconcile and restore to the community the one who has gone astray.
Jesus urges his disciples to have honest conversation in private with the offending party. No passive-aggressive behavior, no “triangulation,” just forthright conversation. We know that it is much easier to complain to others about the one who has offended us than to talk to the offending person, but Jesus leaves no room for such self-absorbed grudge-nursing. Restoring a broken relationship must begin with conversation between the parties concerned.
If the offending member refuses to listen, Jesus advises bringing along one or two others as witnesses for further conversation. And if the member still refuses to listen, the matter may be brought before the whole church. It is important to note that this is not a matter reserved only for church leaders, but for the whole community. If the member refuses to listen to the whole assembly of the faithful, then and only then is the member to be treated “as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
In the context of Matthew’s story, a Gentile or tax collector is not someone who is beyond the reach of God’s mercy. In fact, Jesus makes a point of reaching out to sinners such as these. If it becomes necessary to exclude someone from the church for the sake of the integrity and well-being of the community, this is never a final judgment. A community with Jesus as its Lord and judge is one that is always seeking to restore the lost.
But Peter, God bless him, asks the question that perhaps we all would like to ask. Is there no limit to forgiveness? Must we forgive over and over, even if the offending person does not seem to change? “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus responds, “Not seven times, I tell you, but seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:21-22).
Here is the first math problem in this passage. What is translated “seventy-seven times” could also be translated as “seventy times seven,” which would, of course, equal four hundred and ninety. But the precise numbers are not really the point. The number seven symbolizes wholeness or completeness, and so seven times is not a bad guess on Peter’s part. Even so, it does not begin to fathom the depths of God’s mercy. In teaching that we must forgive seventy times seven, Jesus speaks of an endless abundance of forgiveness — forgiveness that is absolute, complete, and beyond calculation.
In order to illustrate the point, Jesus tells a parable about a king who forgave a servant an enormous debt, only to find that the forgiven servant refused to have mercy on a fellow servant who owed him a sum that was paltry by comparison.
And here is the second math problem in this passage. The amount owed to the servant by his fellow servant was one hundred denarii, the equivalent of one hundred day’s wages. This is not a trifling amount for a servant, to be sure, but it pales in comparison to the extravagant amount the servant owed the king — ten thousand talents. A talent was the largest unit of money, the equivalent of 6,000 denarii, and so ten thousand talents would equal 60 million denarii. Figuring a six-day work week, that means that 10,000 talents would be the equivalent of around 200,000 years of wages! This is a debt almost beyond calculation, one that no person could possibly pay in a lifetime, or in many lifetimes.
One wonders why the king was so foolish as to allow such an accumulation of debt in the first place. In any case, when it is clear that the servant cannot pay, he initially orders that the servant and his wife and children be sold as slaves, and all their property sold, in order to repay at least a tiny fraction of the debt. The servant, however, falls on his knees and begs the king, “Have patience with me, and I will repay you everything” (Matthew 18:26). This is a preposterous promise, and the king knows it. There is no way the servant could ever repay such an enormous amount. Yet the servant’s plea moves the king to compassion, so that he not only releases the man, but cancels his entire debt.
The forgiven servant then encounters a fellow servant who owes him one hundred denarii. In a gesture totally at odds with the mercy he has just received, he seizes his fellow servant by the throat and demands: “Pay what you owe.” And even when the fellow servant pleads with him using almost exactly the same words that he himself had used before the king, “Have patience with me, and I will repay you,” the servant refuses and has his fellow servant thrown into prison (Matthew 18:28-30).
The servant’s actions suggest that he has not comprehended the enormity of the debt forgiven him by the king, nor has he realized the intrinsic connection between being forgiven and freely forgiving another. When the king hears about the servant’s actions, he is so outraged that he repeals his forgiveness and throws the servant into prison. “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you,” Jesus tells us, “if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart” (Matthew 18:35).
These are heavy words. We know what Jesus asks of us, and we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” Still it seems so difficult, even impossible, to forgive from the heart. Yet Jesus’ parable illustrates why forgiveness is so important. The alternative to forgiveness is a heart grown hard with resentment; it is alienation from one another, and in the worst case, violence. A world without forgiveness is a world of relational wreckage, the opposite of the wholeness and fullness of life God intends for us.
So how do we forgive from the heart? It helps to remember that to forgive is not to deny the pain or wrongness of an act; it is not to excuse that which is unjust or hurtful, nor is it to tolerate abuse. Remember what Jesus has already said about confronting the one who has wronged you. Yet in confronting our brother or sister, we also come face to face with our own sin and brokenness and realize that we are alike in our utter dependence on God’s grace.
The outrageous numbers that Jesus uses in his parable are there to make a point. In the new math Jesus teaches, it is not really about the numbers. Forgiveness, Jesus tells us, is not a quantifiable commodity. It is a qualitatively different way of life, drawn from the very being of God, whose nature is to be gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and whose ultimate goal is always reconciliation and restoration of community.