Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Forgive somebody seven times? Peter’s proposal (or is it his wishful thinking?) suggests that forgiveness might be as simple as taking a pill: once a day for a week and you are good to go.

Matthew 18:33
"Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?" Image credit: Photo by Lina Trochez on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

September 13, 2020

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Commentary on Matthew 18:21-35

Forgive somebody seven times? Peter’s proposal (or is it his wishful thinking?) suggests that forgiveness might be as simple as taking a pill: once a day for a week and you are good to go.

It is no problem to keep track of the number seven, as if that were all the effort required to forgive a brother or sister who “sins against me.” Seven is a measurable number. Seven seas, seven colors of the rainbow, seven days of the week—even seven loaves to feed a crowd with seven baskets full of leftovers to gather at the end (Matthew 15:32-37)—each of these represents an amount that is easy to trace, even if its referent is something great.

However, Jesus’ response to Peter’s question (including the parable) takes forgiveness out of the “countable” category and places it into the realm of the incalculable. The forgiveness to which Jesus points is beyond one’s capacity to keep tabs, beyond one’s capacity to offer on their own strength or ability. It is God’s compassion and abundant mercy that make forgiveness possible, whether transgressions are large or small.

Forgiven but unforgiving

Like so many of Jesus’ parables, this one trades in hyperbole. A servant of the king owes the monarch 10,000 talents. One talent is about 6,000 denarii (give or take), with each denarius worth a day’s wage for a laborer. Thus, the first servant owes about 60 million denarii, an amount so large that it exceeds the national debt of a small country. No person could repay it, even if they were to sell themselves and their family into servitude for several lifetimes. In an outrageous act of generosity and mercy, the king graciously forgives this unforgivable debt.

The second servant owes 100 denarii. It is a decent amount of money, but like the number seven in Peter’s question, it is measurable—miniscule by comparison to the debt that was forgiven by the king. When the forgiven servant refuses to extend compassion, it is no wonder that the king becomes angry. He has granted his servant a level of forgiveness that exceeds imagination and yet, that servant is unwilling to offer even the smallest mercy to another person.

The parable does not explain the servant’s refusal to forgive. Perhaps he had suffered harm as a result of the second servant not repaying the debt. Or maybe was he paralyzed by his own greed? Afraid to give up the power he held by virtue of the debt? Distracted by the unexpected change that had just taken place in his life? Too caught up in his newly privileged status to concern himself with the plight of others less fortunate?

What keeps us from offering compassion and mercy to others when we have received so much?

Who needs to be forgiven?

It is ironic that Peter is the one who suggests a low cap on the number of times he should forgive, since he is also the one who will need great forgiveness from Jesus.

On the one hand, Matthew and the other Gospel writers portray Peter as a model of faithfulness. He is a leader among the Twelve, the first to follow when called, unafraid to ask questions on behalf of his colleagues. He promises to stick with Jesus no matter what, even if death might be the outcome. On the other hand, he will deny Jesus three times after the arrest and will be nowhere to be found during the crucifixion. At the level of the narrative, of course, Peter is unaware of the magnitude of his imminent failure. Astute readers and listeners, however, will note the irony of his proposal that forgiving someone seven times ought to be sufficient.

Peter’s ignorance of his need provides a caveat for Jesus-followers today. Do we recognize the ways that we harm others, either in our interpersonal interactions or through the systems in which we participate? How might we become as aware of our own capacity to sin against others as we are of the capacities of others to sin against us?

The “torture” of unforgiveness

When the first servant refuses to forgive the much smaller debt, the king locks him up to be tortured until he extends forgiveness. As it appears in a parable, this “torture” is no more literal than is the precise amount of either servant’s debt.

To be sure, many of Matthew’s parables conclude with eschatological warnings of punishment for those who accept God’s gracious gifts but who refuse to walk in God’s ways. Still, this same Gospel is infused with the promise that God’s forgiveness, offered through Jesus the Messiah, extends to all, even to the most sinful of persons.

Nonetheless, the parable speaks a truth that is familiar to many who have experienced injury or trauma at the hands of another: one’s ability to forgive does not always come easily, nor is it necessarily a quick or simple process. At times it is necessary to forgive from a distance. Some wounds are so deep, some “debts” so large, that human forgiveness is next to impossible.

Indeed, there may be circumstances for which the most faithful response is to seek the assistance of a trained counselor or spiritual director to aid in the process of healing. Peter’s question, “How often should I forgive?” and Jesus’ answer “Seventy times seven” (or “seventy-seven times”) suggest that forgiveness may well be a long and difficult process rather than a week-long project.

Even (and especially) when our own efforts fall short, God’s mercy is beyond imagining. This is a truth proclaimed by the parable as well as by the testimony of Jesus’ own life and ministry. On the night when Judas will betray him and Peter and the other disciples will abandon him, Jesus announces to all, “[T]his is the blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28).