The Forgiveness Challenge


Matthew 18:21-35

The debt incurred by the first servant in this parable is so unimaginably and so ridiculously absurd that it is impossible to calculate it in normal human terms. It is big, really big; it is a debt so large that it would take thousands and thousands of life-times to pay it back. And since most of us get only one life-time in which to conduct our worldly business, it is an enormous debt that is completely unpayable. For those of you who are curious, and who may be mathematicians, based on the average salary of servants in first century Palestine, it would take one hundred and fifty thousand years for this servant to repay his debt, only if he gave over every cent of his income for every single one of those one hundred and fifty thousand years. As Jesus sets up this parable, then, he is intentionally establishing the debt in his listeners minds as a debt that is not only completely unimaginable but also completely unpayable. It is so huge that it could never be paid, not even a tiny fraction of it. There is nothing that the servant can do to get himself back into the good graces of his master. The servant is lost, swirling about in a sea of impossibilities.

Practical people want to know, however, how in the world did this servant incur such an impossibly and unimaginably huge debt? How could one man, in less than one lifetime saddle himself with a debt so big that it would take him 150,000 years to pay it back? None of us can even imagine getting ourselves that far in debt, because long before that happened, our credit line would run out. Well, for those of us who are practical people, we’ll just have to forget about that part of our ponderings for a while, because this is a parable. It is not a story about anyone real, and Jesus can tell it anyway he wants. Jesus doesn’t tell us how the debt was incurred, it’s actually not important to the parable. What’s important to the parable is that the debt was so huge that there was no question in anybody’s mind that it was completely impossible to pay, in spite of the fact that the groveling, but ignorant servant thinks that he ought to have at least the opportunity to try to pay it back. There’s lots of well-intentioned delusion in his thought process here, but that is also very obvious.

Now where did this parable come from? Why did Jesus tell it? Jesus told it in response to Peter’s question in verse 21. In spite of his sometimes erratic and impulsive nature, Peter is often portrayed in the Scriptures as being a very deep thinker. Jesus has most recently been teaching about the nature of forgiveness and the importance of the restoration of broken relationships. And Peter has been listening and pondering, mulling things over, and he’s getting a good sense of this business of the nature and the necessity of forgiveness and restoration, and he wants to delve into matters a little more deeply. He wants to know if there are reasonable limits when it comes forgiving others and maintaining relationships. And so he asks, how often should I have to forgive? Surely there are parameters, forgiveness is not cheap business, it’s costly work, so what’s the limit? Now Peter is no slough in these matters, he’s a learner, he’s a discoverer, and he already knows that most of the rabbis of his time have already set what seems to be a reasonable limit on the number of times that a person should forgive someone else. And he knows that that limit is three times. But he also suspects that life in the emerging Kingdom of God demands a greater commitment to forgiveness, and so he is willing to more than double the already established reasonable limit of three times, to seven times.

But Jesus replies that life in the Kingdom of God is even more demanding than that, that there is no longer any reasonable limit, and that forgiveness is, essentially, to be limitless. And so he tells the parable about the servant who has this impossibly huge debt forgiven, canceled, and completely erased.

The point of the parable, of course, is that the master of the servant put a higher value on the relationship with his servant than he did on the debt owed by the servant. The master’s love for the servant outweighed and overshadowed the enormity of the servant’s debt. In the master’s heart, the servant was more important than the debt owed. And that’s critically important, because in the parable, you and I are the servant with the impossibly huge debt, and the master, or the king, as Jesus calls him, is God.

The trouble is, it’s hard for us to comprehend sometimes that we have incurred a debt with God that is impossible for us to pay. God is pure and holy and righteous, and we are not. We are sinners. Like the servant we are lost. And yet, like the servant, we have trouble grasping the enormity of our debt. The servant, grovelling about on his hands and knees somehow imagines that he can find a way to pay his debt. He somehow imagines that the debt is not so huge that he cannot somehow manage it. But it is all in his imagination. Even if it will take him 150,000 years to pay his debt, he will try.

And that’s where we stand with God. Our sin-debt with God separates us not just for a mere one hundred and fifty thousand years from God, but rather for an entire eternity. But in our imaginations, in our devilish imaginations, we want to believe that things are not really all that desperate. Our sin-debt can’t be that big. We haven’t been that sinful, we’ve been quite good, actually, surely we’ve not gotten ourselves into the same mess that this servant has gotten himself into…there must be something that we can do to get ourselves back into the good graces of God. Surely things will balance out in the end, won’t everything be OK?

And the answer from the parable is no, it won’t. Everything will not be OK. There is nothing that we can do to eliminate or to even reduce our sin-debt with God. There is nothing that we can do to gain God’s favor. All is lost, we are doomed.

There is something that God can do, however, something that God has already done, in fact. God has forgiven, eliminated, and erased our sin-debt totally. And that’s because God’s love for us far outweighs and far overshadows the debt load of our sin. The loving relationship that God wishes to establish with us is more important to God than the debt of sin that stands between us and God. We are of more value to God than any amount of sin-debt that we owe, however large or however small that debt maybe in our imaginations.

God has forgiven all. God has provided a means of rescue for us in the person of Jesus Christ. On the cross, Jesus took upon himself the punishment that we deserved, and he died the death that would have been our ultimate lot. All that is required of us is that we receive that forgiveness, and acknowledge that our only hope of salvation is in Jesus Christ.

And that’s where the servant in this parable blew it completely. He has become very stupid. He has failed to realize the significance of the awesome miracle that has just taken place in his life. Nothing has changed for him. He’s free, and he’s forgiven, but he doesn’t get it. And so he goes out and he seizes a fellow servant violently by the throat. This servant owes him a debt that is completely payable. It is a mere pittance compared to the enormous debt that he has just been forgiven. It amounts to about a third of a year’s salary. Most people incur these kinds of debts quite normally, and have no difficulty paying them back. The second servant will have no trouble paying this debt.

And so the servant pleads for the opportunity to pay it back. But the first servant will show no mercy. Payment is due. Why was there no mercy, why was there no compassion, why was there no love? There was none of that, because the first servant had spurned the free gift of forgiveness that had so recently been offered him. The first servant did not appreciate or even recognize the master’s love for him, and so he saw no need to behave in a loving and forgiving way toward others.

In God’s kingdom then, if we are to live in it, we must first of all begin to grasp the enormity of God’s love for us. We will never, in this life, completely comprehend the vastness and the wonder of God’s great love for us, because it is so huge and so awesome that our finite minds cannot contain it all.

But we can understand enough of it to know that we have been forgiven a debt that is beyond our ability to comprehend or even to imagine. We know that we have been shown mercy and grace and compassion that is free and limitless, and so therefore, we ought to be willing to forgive one another. We know also that our forgiveness of one another ought to be free and limitless. We are of immense value to God. How much then, ought we to be of value to one another?

We live in a rotten, broken world. About that there is no question. The world is full of angry people who refuse to forgive, and who seek vengeance instead. But more important than living in this world, we also live in the Kingdom of God. Forgiving one another is one of the ways that we live above this fallen and broken world. Let us then, forgive one another as we have been forgiven, and let us do it from the heart, as God has done it.

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