Forgive Early and Often

| Matthew 18:21-35

Life Impact: You will be challenged to forgive others without limit because of the limitless forgiveness you have received from God.

Debt Forgiven: Matthew 18:21-27.

[21]  Then Peter came and said to Him, "Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?" [22]  Jesus said to him, "I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven. [23]  For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. [24]  When he had begun to settle them, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. [25]  But since he did not have the means to repay, his lord commanded him to be sold, along with his wife and children and all that he had, and repayment to be made. [26]  So the slave fell to the ground and prostrated himself before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you everything.’ [27]  And the lord of that slave felt compassion and released him and forgave him the debt.”   [NASU]

[21-22]  Peter often is the leader in approaching Jesus and on this occasion in putting a question to Him. Matthew is the only gospel writer to record this incident. Peter uses the respectful form of address, Lord, and inquires about the frequency of forgiveness required in a disciple. Peter has learned that it is important to forgive, so he has made some progress. But surely, he apparently reasons, there must be a limit? How long must one keep on forgiving? He talks about a brother sinning against him, so he is thinking primarily about what happens within the circle of Jesus’ followers. This accords with the fact that a few verses back Jesus has been talking about one brother sinning against another [15]. Peter asks whether forgiving such offenses seven times is sufficient. There was a rabbinic view that one need forgive only three times. Thus Peter more than doubled this quota of forgiveness. Peter has clearly learned something from Jesus. He understands now that retaliation is not the right path for a disciple; rather, forgiveness is a quality to be prized. But he sees this as something that should be practiced in moderation. Surely forgiving the same person seven times would be enough. Jesus is not concerned with a petty forgiveness that calculates how many offenses can be disregarded before retaliation becomes acceptable. For Him forgiveness is wholehearted and constant. He rejects Peter’s seven times with emphasis by the use of the strong adversative, but. No satisfactory line of conduct for the believer is to be found along the path of calculating numbers of offenses. For Peter’s seven times Jesus substitutes seventy times seven. This is a way of saying that for Jesus’ followers forgiveness is to be unlimited. For them forgiveness is a way of life. Bearing in mind what they have been forgiven, they cannot withhold forgiveness from any who sin against them.

[23]  Jesus underlines His teaching with a parable. For this reason brings out an implication of the preceding. Forgiveness is important in a sinful world where all people are sinners, in the first place because we are all in need of being forgiven, and in the second, because people keep on sinning against us so that we ourselves are constantly confronted with situations in which the followers of Jesus are required to forgive. Because of His teaching on forgiveness and to bring out something of its basis, Jesus compares the kingdom to a king who wished to settle accounts. A king would have many officials who handled money in the various departments of state. This king decided it was time to see how they had managed the money that had been entrusted to them. The word rendered slaves was commonly applied to those who served the king. These people would not have been slaves in our sense of the term, but responsible officials in high office.

[24-25]  A certain debtor was brought before the king. That he was brought may indicate a certain unwillingness on the part of the man in question, or even that he had already been arrested. He owed the king the money indicating that this was a legal obligation. A talent represented a large sum of money. It was actually a measure of weight, the largest weight in use among the Jews. When used for amounts of money, it was gold or silver or copper that was weighed, So ten thousand talents represented a huge sum of money. The man must have been a high official on special service to have been entrusted with such an amount. Evidently the venture on which the man had been engaged had failed dismally, and on the day of reckoning he did not have the means to repay. There is no information about the enterprise in which he had been engaged and on which he had had such spectacular losses. There is no indication as to whether the failure had been due to incompetence or dishonesty. The point of the parable lies elsewhere: it is the absence of the money and not the reason for its absence that matters for this story. The king commanded that the servant and his family be sold into slavery. It is unlikely that the proceeds of the sale would come anywhere near meeting the liability involved in the ten thousand talents that were missing. The point is that the man was being punished for his offense, not that he was fully reimbursing the king for what he had lost. The sale was a gesture, not a settlement. To us it seems unfair that the wife and the children should be sold too; but in the thinking of the time they belonged to the man, and if he was to be sold it was natural that they should be sold as well. The man had run up a huge debt; he must pay a huge penalty.

[26-27]  All this spelled disaster for the unfortunate debtor. With such a huge debt hanging over his head and with all his assets lost to him there was no chance of his ever being free again. Everything was lost. Justice was of no use to him, so he wholeheartedly went for mercy. He fell down before the king and begged for the king to have patience so that he could repay everything. One who was bankrupt would never succeed in repaying a debt of the magnitude of that with which the man was faced. But his plight was desperate; he was ready to promise anything. The king was a compassionate man, and Jesus employs a verb (felt compassion) that indicates that he was deeply moved in his pity. The king is here called the lord of that slave, a title that brings out the fact that he had the right to dispose of the defaulter as he chose. But as his initial anger drove him to harshness, so now his compassion led him to act forgivingly. He did more than the man asked. The debtor had requested no more than time to pay, but the king gave him complete freedom. The king released him and forgave him the debt. The king set no conditions. The man had asked for forbearance and volunteered to repay the debt even though it was so large that there was no possibility of his ever doing so. But the king ignored all this. He freely forgave. That was all. There were no conditions and no hesitation. It was an act of pure grace.

Heart Hardened: Matthew 18:28-30.

[28]  "But that slave went out and found one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and he seized him and began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay back what you owe.’ [29]  So his fellow slave fell to the ground and began to plead with him, saying, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you.’ [30]  But he was unwilling and went and threw him in prison until he should pay back what was owed.”    [NASU]

[28]  But just as the servant of the king had owed money, so money was owed to him. After being released by the king, the servant went out and found a fellow servant who owed him a hundred denarii. Whereas the debt he had just been forgiven was so large that its extent could scarcely be computed, this debt was certainly small enough to be understood. A denarii was the wage an ordinary laborer was paid for a day’s work. The wages for a hundred days’ work cannot be said to be insignificant, but clearly, compared to the first man’s debt, this man’s was a mere trifle. But the man to whom the money was owed was most anxious to get his money back; he was greedy and grasping as well as extravagant. He laid hands on the debtor and indeed began to choke him, to enforce his demand for repayment.

[29-30]  The fellow servant’s actions are the same as the original servant before the king in verse 26. Plead is the word of one taking a lowly place and asking for a favor. Whereas the first man’s undertaking was one that he could not possibly have fulfilled, this man’s was more realistic. It was not impossible that in due course he would be able to raise the money. But whereas the petition was to all intents and purposes identical with the earlier request, the response is diametrically opposite. But is adversative; it introduces a matter contrary to what we might expect. The verb, he was unwilling, is in the imperfect tense pointing to continuous action; he continued in his opposition to the petition and his will was set against clemency. Far from forgiving, he did the very opposite. He threw (the verb indicates vigorous action) his fellow servant in prison. Since the unfortunate man was to be there until he repaid the debt and since in prison he had no opportunity to earn the necessary money, his outlook was bleak. Jesus is depicting for us a horrible example of an unforgiving, though forgiven, man. It is the height of ingratitude and injustice.

Forgiveness Expected: Matthew 18:31-35.

[31]  "So when his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were deeply grieved and came and reported to their lord all that had happened. [32]  Then summoning him, his lord said to him, ‘You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. [33]  Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way that I had mercy on you?’ [34]  And his lord, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him. [35]  My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart."    [NASU]

[31]  Attention moves to the other servants of the king, here described as the fellow slaves of the man just thrown into jail. They were deeply grieved. The imprisoned man may or may not have been popular; but there was no doubting that he had been treated very poorly. So these servants went to the king or lord. They explained to him all that had happened; they left him in no doubt but made a clear and full explanation of the whole situation.

[32-34]  Then is a frequent word in Matthew, indicating that what follows came next in sequence. His lord is another reminder of the relationship in which the king stood to him. You wicked slave leaves no doubt as to the king’s opinion of his conduct. Wicked with its connotation of evil is a very fitting term to apply to this harsh and unforgiving man. The word order in the Greek is “all that debt I forgave you,” which puts the emphasis on all: all that immense amount. And the man had done no more than appeal to his lord. He had said he would repay, but he had in fact repaid nothing, and everyone knew that it was impossible for him to repay everything as he had said he would. He had been the recipient of extraordinary grace. And those who receive extraordinary grace should act in accordance with the grace they receive. The king asks whether the servant ought not to have had mercy on his fellow servant. The form of the question in the Greek shows that the king sees it as necessary that the forgiven man act like a forgiven man, namely in forgiving others. The king refers to mercy as the attitude that should have guided the thinking and the actions of a man who had been the recipient of such great mercy. The forgiven servant should have learned from his experience of receiving mercy how important it is to show mercy to others. His failure to learn this lesson greatly upsets the king. Not surprisingly the king was moved with anger, and equally unsurprisingly he took action against the man who refused to forgive. He handed him over to the torturers (a word found only here in the New Testament). The root of the word is connected with torture, and an angry king would not hesitate to employ torture to punish someone with whom he was very angry. The man was to remain there until his entire debt was discharged. He would not be freed if a token amount was paid, this means that he would never get out.

[35]  Jesus does not always make an application of the truth taught in His parables, but on this occasion He does. The severity we discern in the punishment of the man in the parable is all that unforgiving sinners can look for from the hand of God. God might, of course, be more merciful than the king, but that is not the point. The point is that the man deserved no more; any unforgiving sinner, by the fact that he refuses to forgive, is inviting God to withhold forgiveness from him. Jesus refers to God here as my heavenly Father, stressing His special relationship to God and at the same time something of the majesty of God. The certainty that God will be our final Judge underlies the statement that He will do to the unforgiving as they have done to others. The lesson that is driven home is that the followers of Jesus must each (the word is important; there are no exceptions) forgive. And the final expression brings home the truth that we must forgive wholeheartedly, not grudgingly. It is easy to skimp on forgiveness, refraining from outward evidence of an unforgiving heart but nursing up a grudge against one who has offended us. Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors [Matt. 6:12] is a prayer that we must pray with due searching of heart.

Questions for Discussion:

1.          What is Peter’s concern when he comes to Jesus and asks his question? How does Jesus answer Peter? What does seventy times seven mean?

2.          To illustrate His teaching on forgiveness, Jesus tells a story about a king’s servant who becomes an object of the king’s mercy. What is Jesus’ point in the parable?

3.          Meditate on how you have seen and tasted Christ’s mercy in your life. What does your treatment of others say about you? Is there someone to whom you need to extend forgiveness and mercy?


Matthew, D.A. Carson, EBC, Zondervan.

The Gospel according to Matthew, Leon Morris, Pillar NTC, Eerdmans.