Listen to the audio of today’s Reflection:

Matthew 18:21-35

The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant

     21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother [or sister] when they sin against me? Up to seven times?”

     22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.

     23 “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. 25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.

     26 “At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ 27 The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.

     28 “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.

     29 “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’

     30 “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.

     32 “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ 34 In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

     35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

A couple of days ago, we based our Reflection on a passage from Paul’s Letter to the Romans in which the apostle wrote that we will be judged righteous by God if we strictly and faithfully obey his laws. But Paul didn’t really believe that anybody met that standard. He believed that nobody is without sin. Except Jesus, of course.

As a matter of fact, in the reading from Romans that’s listed for tomorrow, Paul repeats this very point. He writes, “Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin. As it is written: ‘No one is righteous, not even one.’” And a few verses later, he writes, “No one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.” So Paul understands that we are all guilty of sin, and we have new life in Jesus only because God, in his gracious love, forgives us.

Now in today’s reading from Matthew, Jesus starts from the fact that we all sin, and then he builds on that idea to teach us how his followers are supposed to live as forgiven sinners.

The story is a parable about forgiveness. Peter had asked Jesus how many times we are expected to forgive someone. The teaching of the Jewish rabbis was that we are to forgive someone three times for the same sin. So Peter might have thought he was going beyond the call of duty by offering to forgive someone seven times.

But Peter must have been pretty surprised by what Jesus said: ‘No, you have to forgive him seventy-seven times.’ Some translators say “seventy times seven,” but the actual number is irrelevant. The point Jesus was making is that we’re supposed to forgive more times than we can count, because nobody could actually keep track of forgiving someone that many times.

But really, Jesus wanted to make a larger point, which is that our willingness to forgive others has an impact on our relationship with God. And then to illustrate his point, Jesus tells a parable about a king who forgives a servant, who then refuses to forgive another servant.

To really ‘get’ where Jesus is going with this parable, it’s important to wrap your head around the relative size of the two debts in the story. The first servant owed the king ten thousand talents, which would have been a staggering sum of money in the ancient world. Just for comparison, one historian wrote that the Roman Empire collected a total of six hundred talents of taxes annually from the entire territory of Judea. So the ten-thousand-talent debt the first owed servant was about seventeen years’ tax revenues from the whole region.

The second servant, on the other hand, owed one hundred denarii, which was a fairly small and easily repayable debt. A hundred days’ wages for a typical worker. Maybe the cost of an inexpensive used car loan, in our terms. So the first servant is forgiven a staggering debt, but then refuses to forgive a small one.

Jesus’ point, it seems to me, is that God has forgiven each of us so many sins that we couldn’t count them all if we tried. So for us to refuse to forgive the trivial offenses other people commit against us is ridiculous. And to take the idea another step, risking our relationship with God by refusing to forgive others – that’s really ridiculous.

So you might see why this Reflection starts out by mentioning ideas from Romans before looking at our reading from Matthew – because together, they seem to have something very important to say to us. Paul says that God’s standards of holiness are beyond our ability to obey – that we’re all sinners. So our new life in Jesus comes about, not because of our righteousness, but rather because of God’s gracious forgiveness. And then in Matthew, Jesus says that since we’ve been forgiven so much, it’s ridiculous of us to refuse to forgive others – especially because that could jeopardize our relationship with God.

Christians are sometimes regarded as self-righteous and judgmental by people outside the faith – probably because we sometimes are. But when we are self-righteous and judgmental, that’s a major betrayal of what Jesus and Paul teach us about the life of faith. As people who are dependent on God’s gracious forgiveness, we should be the most forgiving, least self-righteous and least judgmental people in the world.

Let’s pray. Lord, you know how hard it is for us to forgive others who offend us. Let your Spirit work in our hearts daily, reminding us of how much we have been forgiven, guarding us against being self-righteous and judgmental, and transforming us day by day to be more forgiving of others. Amen.

Grace and Peace,