Summary: Here we have both a reminder of just how great God’s love and mercy is and a warning about the need to respond appropriately, to demonstrate by our attitude to others that we’ve truly joined God’s family.
I think we all relate to this story. We empathise with the poor servant who only owes a few dollars and is thrown into gaol by the culprit of the story. We feel the sense of powerlessness of the poorer servant. We feel the outrage of the other servants as they see this injustice being played out. We cheer when the master finds out and justice is finally done.
I wonder though, how often we find ourselves relating to the unmerciful servant? Do we ever wonder whether Jesus is telling this story to warn us?
Do you see how the story starts? Peter has asked Jesus a question. It’s a question that arises from the previous discussion. There’s a danger with a catchy story like this. That is, it’s so easy to take it out of context; to read it as a stand alone event. Because it’s not. Jesus has just finished talking about the question of discipline in the church. What do you do if someone in the church offends someone else? What do you do if someone is doing something that the Church considers sinful? How do you deal with that person? And the answer is that you first gently confront them in the hope that they repent and are restored to fellowship with you. If that doesn’t work you take a couple of witnesses along and only if that fails do you take it to the whole church.
But Peter’s been around for a while and he knows the sort of behaviour you can expect from some people. He says: "Yes, but what if someone sins against me over and over again?" I guess we’ve all experienced this. Someone does something to you, you confront them, and they apologise, They’re really sorry. They didn’t realise. It won’t happen again. And of course it does! The very next week! So you confront them again. And the whole process gets repeated. It doesn’t take long to get sick of this does it? It doesn’t take long before you begin to wonder whether you’re being taken advantage of; whether your kindness is wasted on this good-for-nothing so-and-so.
So Peter asks, "Where do we stop? What’s the limit?" "Can we put a number on it? How about 7 times?" Now notice that he’s understood what Jesus has been saying. He wants to be a frequently forgiving person. But the weakness of his question is the thought that there might be limits on Christian forgiveness. What he’s forgotten is that at the heart of the gospel is the understanding that wherever there’s repentance there will always be forgiveness.
Do you remember that passage from Isaiah 55 we read last week: "6Seek the LORD while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; 7let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. 8For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD." God will abundantly pardon! If we return to the Lord in repentance of course.
So there’s a misconception in Peter’s question which Jesus immediately corrects. "Not seven times but seventy-seven times" or "Seventy times seven" some versions have. That is, forever. More times than you can count. Unlimited forgiveness because that’s what God’s forgiveness is like.
It may be that Jesus is thinking about the early chapters of Genesis where Lamech, the great avenger, boasts that "If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times." Lamech is the great hero of vengeance. We love stories of vengeance don’t we? We love to see the wicked caught out, the con man conned, the murderer punished. It’s one of the great themes of movies and TV shows. Di & I saw the play "The Hypocrite" last week. It’s a modern version of a 400 year old French play by Molière where the main character, Tartuffe is a con artist who in the end receives what Molière describes as poetic justice as everything that he’s stolen is taken away from him. And of course the audience loves it.
But here’s the interesting thing about this parable. The popular media teaches that it’s heroic to take revenge. Jesus teaches that it’s more heroic to conquer revenge, to forgive, even if it costs us dearly; to leave revenge for God’s final judgement. And he shows us in a very graphic way why this is the case. He tells them a parable that illustrates why Jesus expects unlimited forgiveness from us: namely because we’ve been infinitely forgiven.
There’s a king who comes to settle accounts with his servants. So one is brought in who owes him 10,000 talents, Now if it’s a talent of silver it’s about $30 million in today’s terms but if it’s gold it’s more like $300 million. Either way it’s an outrageous amount. Absolutely unpayable. So the king orders him to be sold into a debtor’s prison along with the rest of his family. Well, the servant falls to his knees and begs for time to repay. Now that in itself is a bit of a joke because the amount he owes is roughly 2,000 years pay, so there’s no way he could ever repay what he owes. But still, he begs for mercy and to his amazement his master has pity on him. He forgives the entire debt. Now put yourself in this man’s shoes. He’s been sentenced to be sold into slavery along with his whole family, he owes an unpayable debt and now the king has written it all off. He’s a free man again. He’s asked for patience and the chance to repay the debt and he’s got infinitely more than he asked for: amnesty and a complete remission of the debt. He’s received a forgiveness he didn’t dare to ask for.