Summary: A sermon on the challenge of forgiveness, as taught by Jesus in the parable of the debtors.
Rev. Lin Smalec Salem Church, Waynesboro, PA
Jesus’ Great Teaching Stories
12 February 2006
How many of you struggle with forgiveness? Some of you may not wish to admit it, but it is a very human struggle, isn’t it? When someone hurts us, when someone lets us down or disappoints us, it can be hard to forgive them. And maybe we can be gracious and understanding when it happens once, but when it happens over and over again - well, how can we ever be expected to forgive?
That very normal human struggle is the topic of our parable for this morning. You’ll remember that the great Bible teacher William Barclay said that a parable is “an earthly story with a heavenly meaning.” (2, pg 12). Jesus used parables throughout his ministry to teach spiritual truth. And today’s parable has a strong message for us today.
But first, let’s pray that God would help us understand His Word. Would you pray with me? Father God, open our minds and hearts and souls to the meaning of Your Word for us today. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to You, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
Turn with me to the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 18. Jesus is giving his closest disciples some private teaching, as he often has in the past. Part of Jesus’ teaching is focused on the ways they - and we - are to live together in the Christian family. Let’s look at what Jesus has to say, starting at verse 15 (READ 18:15-20).
Jesus gives a careful, orderly process here for dealing with upsets within the church body. Verse 18 is important - READ. Remember our study last week about the Kingdom of Heaven? Jesus reminds us of that concept here - that what we do in the earthly Kingdom of God has implications in the heavenly Kingdom of God.
Now how many of you are fond of loopholes? Do you know what I mean? Some of us like to search for exceptions or qualifications to the rules and regulations of life. My good buddy Peter is no exception. He listens to what Jesus has just taught about forgiveness and reconciliation, and then he tries to find a loophole. Let’s pick up at verse 21 (READ 18:21-22).
We need to understand the background of Peter’s question. There was a common Jewish teaching that said: “If a person transgresses once, forgive them; if a second time, forgive them; if a third time, forgive them; if a fourth time, DO NOT forgive them.” (2, pg 86) So any good Jew was only required to forgive a person three times. Peter doubled that and added one, so he probably figured he was truly going over and above the expected if he forgave a person seven times. Peter expected an “Atta Boy!” from Jesus!
Instead, Jesus said that we are to forgive not seven times - but how much? Seventy-seven times! For the ancient mind, that was an incredibly large number! The number seven is a number that symbolizes completion and perfection - the world was created, for example, in how many days? Seven! So seventy-seven times, or seventy times seven, as it is translated in some manuscripts, is an especially perfect number to the Jewish people. And to Peter and the other disciples, it would have sounded totally unrealistic - let’s face it, folks, we can barely forgive a person once, never mind seven times - and seventy-seven times? Impossible! Why would we ever want to do such a thing?
Jesus, of course, knows exactly what the disciples are thinking. So he tells a parable to illustrate his point. (READ 18:23-35).
Now what would have immediately leapt out for the disciples was the contrast between the debts of these two men in the story. Because we don’t understand the money of the time, let me try to translate for you. The first man was like, say, Bill Gates - and he owed a bunch of money to the government. In fact, the amount mentioned here, 10,000 talents, would be equivalent to around $10 billion today. We’re talking some big bucks - pretty much unimaginable to you and me! And in all realistic terms, this was a debt so big that it was truly impossible to pay - even for someone like Bill Gates!
The second man, who owed the money to our fictional Bill Gates, was like a person who works for minimum wage. He owed a hundred denarii - well, one denarii was the wage for an average day’s work - so let’s say $50 in today’s money. So the poor man owed $500. Hmmm, let’s see - one owes $10 billion and is forgiven his debt, the other owes $500 and is put in prison. Do you see how this story caught the disciples’ attention?