Summary: Taking seriously the command of Jesus to forgive -- what it means and what it does not mean.
A man was walking on the sidewalk outside a playground with a high wooden fence and heard the children chanting, “Thirteen! Thirteen! Thirteen!” He stopped and, finding a small hole in the fence, he bent over to look in. Just like that, a finger poked him in the eye. And the chanting continued, but now they were saying, “Fourteen! Fourteen! Fourteen!”
Sometimes this thing of Christian fellowship can seem less like a pat on the back and more like a poke in the eye. It is one of the mysteries of Christendom that believers love each other so poorly when the Jesus we claim to follow said it was central to the life of a believer.
In the scripture today, Jesus points to the importance of forgiveness in this business of loving each other. Peter initiates the discussion when he says, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?” The Jewish rabbis taught that you should forgive someone three times, but after that there was no forgiveness. Peter thought he was being large of heart by going beyond the normal bounds of forgiveness, so he was probably shocked when Jesus said, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” And if the truth were told, we are shocked that Jesus demands this kind of forgiveness as well. We often withhold forgiveness after just one offence, let alone seventy-seven times.
And after Jesus made this shocking statement, he told a parable about a man who owed a king millions of dollars. The king threatened to sell he and his whole family into slavery until the debt was paid — which he would never be able to do. Nevertheless, the servant fell to his knees and begged the king for a chance to repay the debt. And then, in what must have been shocking to him, the king cancelled the whole debt and let him go. The point of this part of the parable is to show how God, the King, deals with us. Because of our many sins, which we can never make right, God forgives all our sins, releases us from all our debt, frees us from our guilt and the bondage of our sin. What this amazing act of grace and generosity should do is fill us with gratitude and a resulting grace toward others.
But in a surprising twist to the story, the man meets a friend of his who owes him a few dollars. He forgets all about how he was treated by the king and demands the debt be repaid immediately. The friend falls on his knees and begs (as he had done with the king) and says, “Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.” But the man refuses his friend’s request and has him thrown into prison “until he could repay the debt,” which was impossible, since he could not work in prison. A shocking turn of events. And their fellow servants report the incident to the king.
So the king calls the servant to appear before him and says, “You wicked servant, I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?” And then Jesus ends the parable with these frightening words, “In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”