Forgiven to Forgive

Try as we might, it’s difficult to escape the necessity of forgiveness in the Christian life. As we say the Lord’s Prayer, we are confronted again and again with forgiveness. Of course, we want God’s forgiveness and happily pray, “Forgive us our debts,” but then there’s the catch: “As we forgive our debtors.” Unwilling that we should miss the point, Christ reiterates after the prayer, “ For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt. 6:14-15). It’s worth noting that this is the only proposition within the Prayer on which Jesus elaborates. To praise God and to pray for his daily provision must be self-evident, but when it comes to forgiving others, Jesus hammers the point home. He knows us so well.

The necessity of forgiveness appears again and again in the New Testament. From the outset of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches that those who show mercy will receive mercy (Matt. 5:7). In Mark, Christ tells his followers to interrupt their prayers to forgive others so that God will forgive them. Luke records Jesus instructing his disciples, “Forgive, and you will be forgiven” (Luke 17:3). Likewise, Paul calls on the Colossians, “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Col. 3:12-13).

 More than these propositional statements, the parable of the unforgiving servant brings the necessity of forgiveness into sharpest relief. Christ makes clear how essential forgiving others us when he tells the story of a servant who has been forgiven an enormous debt to the king, but then that same servant refuses to grant his fellow servant more time to pay back a much smaller debt. Jesus’s teaching is clear: those who have been forgiven much must forgive.

The Parable – Matthew 18:21-35

Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.

“Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants.  When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made.  So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’  And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.  But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’  So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’  He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt.  When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place.  Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me.  And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’  And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt.  So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”

Question & Answer

This parable arises from a question Peter asks. Jesus has been teaching his disciples on the need to forgive those who sin against you (Matt. 18:15-20). Christ exhorts his followers to forgive  and to be reconciled to one another. Peter asks for more clarification, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” (Matt. 18:21).

In Peter’s question, we see he has begun to grasp what Jesus is teaching. He knows he must forgive, and he knows that he must forgive a great deal. The seven times he suggests is far greater than what was expected in his own day. Rabbinic tradition calls for forgiving a person three times for a fault, but on the fourth transgression no more forgiveness has to be offered. For Peter, then, the seven times he proposes is far more gracious than what the most devout adherent of Judaism would have expected in the first century.

Jesus, however, calls for more. “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.”[1] While Peter more than doubles the expectation to forgive, Christ summons his followers to a higher standard. We must not limit our forgiveness based on the quantity or quality of the sin. Our forgiveness must mirror God’s. Those who have received mercy must show mercy.

We like precision with our numbers. We have come to expect a scientific exactness with our numbers. As I write this, the current weather forecast predicts there is a 4% chance of rain at 5 PM, which increases to 9% at 11 PM, and will reach 18% by tomorrow morning. Or consider, the precision of timing we expect in sports. Michael Phelps won the 100m butterfly at the 2008 Olympic Games by one hundredth of a second. Whether in weather, sports, or in reading the news, we expect our numbers to be exact.

However, to understand the full force of what Jesus means by “seventy-seven,” we need to read numbers like a first-century hearer would. First, we should admit that we actually do not expect all numbers to be exact. When I read that 30,000 Turkish troops are stationed in Cyprus, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that there are actually only 29,673. Second, numbers continue to carry a tremendous amount of symbolism for us. We look for four leaf clovers, consider 7 lucky, and many buildings jump from floor 12 to floor 14. As a basketball fan of a certain age, I see “23” and immediately think of basketball greatness. When the Beatles sang, “Eight days a week is not enough to show I care,” we understand it to be an expression of a complete and undying love.

In the same way that we might speak use the phrase 24/7 to describe completeness or fullness, the number seven was a symbol of completeness in the ancient world. From a biblical perspective the totality found in seven is rooted in the Genesis account of a seven-day creation. Seven is complete. Thus, from Peter’s perspective, after the seventh time of forgiving someone for their sin against you, if they sinned an eighth time, they would show themselves to be completely unrepentant.

Jesus takes Peter’s suggestion of seven and expands it to seventy-seven. What had been a number of totality, Jesus drastically increases. Christ calls on his followers to forgive seventy-seven times not to indicate that one can stop forgiving after the seventy-eighth time but to explain that, for the Christian, forgiveness can never be limited by the quantity or the quality of the sin.

To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.
— C. S. Lewis

Our understanding of Christ’s use of “seventy-seven” as the number of forgiveness also needs to be informed by the rest of Scripture. From the earliest centuries of the church, commentators have sought to understand this number in light of the rest of the canon. Augustine understood seventy-seven to be the number of generations from Adam to Christ, and so Jesus here calls on Christians to imitate the divine forgiveness that covers all generations of people.

Hilary of Poitiers draws a connection to the story of Lamech in Genesis 4. He sees Christ’s escalation of forgiveness from seven to seventy-seven as a reversal of the intensification of Cain’s sevenfold revenge to Lamech’s seventy-sevenfold revenge. Lamech’s song boasts of his conquests – both sexual and violent. He proudly sings of killing a young man for merely striking him, and then he claims, “If Cain’s revenge is sevenfold, then Lamech’s is seventy-seven fold” (Gen. 4:24). Lamech epitomizes the vengeance and violence of humanity that was to be found shortly after their expulsion from Eden. It was this type of vengeance that leads the Lord to tell Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence through them” (Gen. 6:13). Lamech is the picture of the violence of humanity that led to the flood.  

In citing the need to forgive seventy-seven times, Jesus turns the seventy-sevenfold revenge of Lamech on its head. As D. A. Carson explains, “Lamech’s revenge is transformed into a principle of forgiveness.”[2] As early humans rejected God and his rule on earth, vengeance and violence marked their lives. Now, with the coming of Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God, those who follow Christ must be marked by forgiveness. “The unlimited revenge of primitive man has given place to the unlimited forgiveness of Christians.”[3]

While Christ’s call to forgive seventy-seven times points to the need for Christians to practice complete forgiveness, his parable of the unforgiving servant puts the necessity of forgiveness in sharp relief. In what follows, we will examine this call for mercy in three acts: first, the servant before the king (vv. 23-27), second, the servant demands payment from his fellow servant (vv.28-30), and third, the servant reappears before the king (vv. 31-35).

Act One

Matthew records Jesus moving directly to the parable from his answer stating the need to forgive completely. The story of the unforgiving servant, then, serves as an explanation and an elaboration on the answer Christ has already given. Jesus begins, “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants” (v. 23). The scene pictured is a king on his throne in his great hall going through the royal ledger and calling in the debts people owe. The king calling his servants to account parallels God’s judgment of sin. Throughout the biblical literature, debt exemplifies sin.

What is remarkable in this parable is the tremendous debt the servant owes his king. This servant owes his king 10,000 talents. While the precise value of this amount is hard for us to quantify, a few comparison will help us make sense of this number. A talent would be about 75 to 100 pounds of gold. It would take the average first-century laborer twenty years to earn one talent. David gave 3,000 talents of gold and 7,000 talents of silver for the construction of the temple (1 Chrn. 29:4). Similarly, the leaders of Israel contributed 5,000 talents of gold and 10,000 talents of silver to the temple (1 Chrn. 29:7). To bring it up to the first century, Josephus records that the taxes from Palestine for a year were 8,000 talents.[4]  The point here is that the servant owes a vast sum. A talent was the largest unit of currency in the ancient Roman Empire, and 10,000 (myrias) was the largest number for which the Greek language had a particular number.[5] In other words, he owed the largest number expressible of the largest denomination of currency.

How did a servant amass such an incredible amount of debt? Likely, what Jesus has in mind when he speaks of this servant is not a household slave but a high-ranking official in the king’s administration. Whether through a bad investment, financial mismanagement, or embezzlement, the servant who had been entrusted with a great deal of money has now come up short and owes the king an incredible sum. 

The king’s response is to sell the servant, his wife, their children, and all their possessions. The practice of selling debtors into slavery has Old Testament roots and was a common Roman practice, but it is doubtful that the king would have hoped to regain much of what he was owed through this sale.[6] The highest priced slave would have, at most, been bought for a single talent. The king’s motivation would not have been recouping the lost fund but punishing the servant for the loss of this enormous sum.

 For Jesus’s hearers, the idea of a man’s family being sold into slavery for his own debts would not have been foreign to them. The practice even remains common throughout the world today. More common in our own country, while not nearly as severe a consequence, is that debt accrued by one member of a family has long-reaching effects on the rest of the family. Death often proves no deterrent to creditors; they will have their bills paid, if not by the deceased, then by his relatives.

If we move from financial debts to the debt of sin, there is an important lesson for us to note here: my sin affects all those around me. The sin I commit has communal effects. There are no private sins. Sin is first and foremost against God, but when sin mars our relationship with the Lord, it also deteriorates our relationship with others. The sin of our first parents, Adam and Eve, makes this abundantly clear. They move quickly from disobedience to blame. Their sin fractures their relationship with God and with each other.

Likewise, David’s adultery with Bathsheba and his murder of her husband Uriah has far reaching consequences for him and those closest to him. The Lord declares to David, “Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised me and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife” (2 Sam. 12:10). Shortly thereafter, the child conceived from this union dies (2 Sam. 12:18), but the sin continues to infect David and his family. In the next chapter of 2 Samuel, we learn of the rape of David’s daughter Tamar by his son Amnon. David’s response to these horrible events was inaction. We read, “When David heard of all these things, he was very angry” (2 Sam. 13:21), but he takes no action and the author advances the scene two years in two verses. David has two years to bring justice on Amnon but does nothing. David’s neglect of justice is damning. Perhaps, he felt the hypocrisy of condemning his son’s sexual immorality when his own life had been so marked by sexual sin. Whether from guilt, from a fear of acting hypocritically, or from apathy, David does nothing. After two years of injustice, Tamar’s brother Absalom takes matters into his own hands.  Absalom lures Amnon away from the court, fills him with wine, and has his servants kill him. Absalom avenged his sister. This murder is not the end of Absalom’s actions, but he then leads a rebellion against his father. A civil war ensues that will send David into exile, end in Absalom’s death, and kills an untold number of Israelites in the fighting. All of this arose out of David’s sin. On top of his own adultery and murder, a child died, his daughter’s rapist went free and then was brutally murdered, and his son incited a civil war. David’s sin had far reaching consequences.

We all think we have private sins that effect no one else: the spreading of a small bit of gossip, the watching of pornography, or perhaps most relevant to this passage, the holding on to resentment and anger. We convince ourselves that these are private acts that only hurt ourselves (if we are even willing to admit that). But you and I live in community with others. We have family, friends, and if we are Christians, the church, and when we sin, our sin hurts others.

In our own lives, there exist no private sins. All sin has communal effects. Related to forgiveness, an unwillingness to forgive breeds anger, resentment, and bitterness. While these feelings may be directed only toward the one who has harmed you, they infect your other relationships. Perhaps, you have met people who are consumed by hurt from their past. Consider a man fired from his job who cannot move forward. It seems that all his conversations circle back to the injustice he suffered. Few people want to be around him because his life is filled with bitterness and rage from this incident.

Others handle their hurt more quietly, but their lack of forgiveness is just as toxic for their relationships. Think of a woman who had her confidence betrayed by a friend and mentor at church. She refuses to forgive, and while she has never expressed her anger to a soul, she cannot bring herself to trust anyone else in her congregation. The closer the relationships the more damaging the lack of forgiveness becomes. All sin, but especially the bitterness and anger that accompanying a lack of forgiveness, hurts those around us. We need forgiveness, and we must forgive not only for our own sakes but also for those we love.

In the parable, the far-reaching punishment of the servant’s debt forces him to his knees. Hearing that he and his family would be sold into slavery, he falls to the ground and begs for more time to repay the debt. He needs the king’s mercy. The servant has no means to repay the king. His plea for more time to repay the debt is a ludicrous claim made out of desperation. It would take hundreds of lifetimes of work to be able to pay back what was owed. His request is implausible, but it reveals his frantic desire to keep himself and his family out of slavery. At this point, he will do or say anything to avoid this punishment.

Then comes the hinge on which this parable turns: the king shows his servant mercy. “Out of pity for him,” Christ recounts, “the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.” The master showed the servant mercy. He had compassion on him. It was not the hope of repayment, but the sympathy and the kindness of the king that let the servant go free. The servant and his family had their lives back, and the king had forgiven his debt. Clearly, this merciful king pictures our gracious heavenly Father who freely forgives the sins of all those who come to him in repentance and faith. God does not forgive because we can repay our debt to him but because he is filled with compassion for his people.

Act Two

If the parable were to end in verse 27, Jesus would have given us a beautiful picture of the gospel of God’s grace. However, the parable does not stop but continues, and in doing so Christ shows us that the gospel not only transforms our relationship with God but also our relationships with our neighbors. Those who have been forgiven are called to forgive.

In verse 28, the servant who had just been forgiven his massive debt creates a courtroom of his own. “But when the same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’” Like the king earlier, the forgiven servant seeks to settle accounts. We have, in essence, a reenactment of the parable’s first act. Yet, notice the differences in this scene. It is not a king demanding payment of his servant, but one servant demanding payment of another. No longer is there hierarchy involved, but it is a peer to peer relationship. While you might be able to get away with being harsh to a social inferior, you would expect at least some level of courtesy for one of your same standing. Not so with the forgiven servant. Instead, he begins to choke his fellow servant and demands payment. The violence of the demand is striking. He grabs his fellow servant by the throat and requires immediate payment.

I am struck by the foolishness of the first servant’s wrath. How could he ever hope to regain the hundred denarii if his fellow servant were incarcerated? Perhaps at this point, I press the parable too far, for the servant could have had family who was willing to pay or some sort of savings or other investments that could pay the debt. However, what the first servant reveals in his actions is the foolishness of rage. When anger or bitterness is the driving force behind a decision, rarely do we do what is best for us, let alone the others involved. He ended any hope of repayment in order to satisfy his anger.

The forgiven servant’s response is different than the king’s, but the difference in debt owed is what is truly striking. The first servant owed the king 10,000 talents – one talent alone was twenty years’ worth of work for a laborer. In contrast, the first servant is only owed one hundred denarii. A denarius was a day’s wage, and so one hundred of them is worth over three months of work. You too would like to be repaid if someone owed you what you made over the course of three months. It is not an insignificant sum. But, the hundred denarii pale in comparison to the 10,000 talents. The servant was owed a meaningful sum, but it was a pittance compared to what he had just been forgiven.

We should be careful not to too quickly pass over what the forgiven servant was owed. It was a significant sum of money. It would be neither cheap nor easy for the forgiven servant to forgive his fellow servant. That is three months’ wages. To put that in modern terms, the average American monthly income is between $3,500 and $4,000. That means the debts is over $10,000 in today’s terms. No matter how money you make, you would like to have that $10,000 back. To forgive the debt of his fellow servant would have cost him. Forgiveness is never cheap. All forgiveness is costly.

As in the parable, forgiving others will cost us, too. It will be neither cheap nor easy to forgive those who have harmed us. We will have to sacrifice our pride, our pain, our right to feel hurt. It will cost us any notion of personal rights and liberties. We give up the justice we deserve for the sake of the other. We have to lay it all down; we have to pay that price if we would forgive as God in Christ has forgiven us. Forgiveness will cost us.

We must remember that no matter what it costs us to forgive, the price we pay pales in comparison to the price God in Christ paid for us. It cost the king in the parable 10,000 talents, and as Christians, our forgiveness from God was won at the cost of the life of his Son Jesus. Our sin was paid for, we were forgiven, by the shed blood of Jesus Christ.

Implicit in the call to forgive is a recognition of its costliness.

The call to forgive does not cheapen the hurt and the pain that we have felt. It does not discount our own suffering. Implicit in the call to forgive is a recognition of its costliness. The one who teaches that mercy will be shown to the merciful shed his own blood in order that mercy might be shown to the enemies of God. Christ died to win forgiveness for his people. He knows that neither grace nor forgiveness are cheap.

The high cost of forgiveness means that it takes divine aid to forgive. Forgiveness begins with God’s initiative. The king does not expect all his servants to forgive as he has. He only expects the one whom he has forgiven to forgive. The Bible tells us that we only love God because he first loved us, and in this parable we see that we can only forgive others because God first forgave us. Our mercy is in response to his mercy. His mercy transforms. His forgiveness changes our lives. Once we have encountered his grace, we can never be the same.

Throughout the Scriptures, it is clear that grace is not cheap. Grace comes at a cost. God is too holy and too just for sin to go unpunished. Sin is punished by death, and it is only by God’s grace that the death deserved can be transferred to another. The principle that sin leads to death fills the pages of the Old Testament. An animal must be killed to cover Adam and Eve’s sin. The flood comes to cleanse the earth of its violence by killing the violent. The whole system of sacrifice points to the fact that blood must be shed for forgiveness. As the book of Hebrews summarizes, “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sin” (Heb. 9:22). The greater cost of Christ’s sacrifice won a far greater redemption. “If the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God” (Heb. 9:13-14). God the Father paid the price of his Son in order to offer forgiveness to all those who trust in Christ. God’s grace came through the shed blood of his Son. Forgiveness is costly. 

In the parable, the similarities with Act One continue in how the second servant responds. “His fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’” The wording is nearly identical to the first servant’s plea before the king, but there’s a reasonableness to the second servant’s claim. The first would never have been able to recover the vast amount he owed, but the second servant, with time, could possibly repay the hundred denarii. Desperation may fill both servants’ cries for mercies, but the second servant could be expected to repay what he owed.

The forgiven servant is unwilling to wait. He wants his due immediately. Jesus recounts in verse 30 how this first servant responds to the pleas for patience, “He refused and put him in prison until he should pay the debt.” What a contrast to the king’s mercy he has just experienced! There is no grace. There is no patience but only vengeance.

Act Three

Like we as the readers of this parable, the other servants in this kingdom were disturbed by this lack of mercy. They respond to seeing their friend choked and imprisoned for a small debt by reporting to their master the actions of the forgiven servant. In this final act, Jesus explicitly articulates the lesson of the parable: those who are forgiven must forgive. If those who have received mercy will not show mercy, judgment and punishment will be their due.

The king has no patience for this servant whom he had earlier forgiven. “You wicked servant,” he castigates him, “I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me.” The master immediately draws the connection to the servant’s subsequent lack of forgiveness, “And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” The king’s expectation is clear: since the servant had been forgiven, he should have been forgiving to others. As his response makes clear, this was not a trifling matter for the king. He turns the unforgiving servant over to the jailers “until he should pay all his debt.” In other words, he will be in prison for the rest of his life. There is not hope that he can repay that great debt, especially when he is in jail.

Earlier, we discussed the costliness of forgiveness. The king lost money when he forgave his servant, and the servant would have lost money if he had forgiven the debt of his fellow servant. When we consider our own lives, we know that our own forgiveness from God cost him his only Son. When we follow in God’s forgiveness, it costs us as well. This third act reveals that despite the high price of forgiveness, our unwillingness to forgive proves far more costly. The servant’s lack of forgiveness was penny-wise but pound-foolish. He saved the prospect of getting back his hundred denarii, but in the end, it cost him his life.  Our own unwillingness to forgive will prove just as costly.

In some parables, Jesus leaves the primary meaning of his teaching unspoken, but here, Christ does not leave the parable open to interpretation. After describing the punishment the king invokes on the unforgiving servant, Jesus explains, “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” Punishment awaits those who will not forgive as they have been forgiven.

Some find the parable incongruous at this point. How could a king so merciful become so ruthless in his punishment? He goes from forgiving to handing the servant over to the jailers.  Jesus, however, finds no contradiction between the justice and mercy of God. On this point, D. A. Carson helpfully explains, “Jesus sees no incongruity in the actions of the heavenly Father who forgives so bountifully and punishes so ruthlessly, and neither should we. Indeed, it is precisely because he is God of such compassion and mercy that he cannot possibly accept as his those devoid of compassion and mercy.”[7] It is because the Lord so highly values compassion and mercy that those who will be in his kingdom must practice compassion and mercy. This is a kingdom of forgiveness, and so “failure to forgive excludes one from the kingdom, whose pattern is to forgive.”[8]

Mercy and judgment do not contradict each other in God. In fact, it is on the cross of our Lord Jesus that we see love and justice meeting perfectly. We read in Exodus 34:6-7 how the Lord reveals himself as “the Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin but who will by no means clear the guilty.” There seems to be a tension at this point: how can God at once forgive sin but not let the guilty go unpunished? The answer is in the cross. He punishes the sin of his people in Christ and thereby can forgive their iniquities, transgressions, and sins. In him, love and mercy perfectly mesh with justice and righteousness. Sin is punished, but grace is offered to the sinner.

Forgiveness, this parable makes clear, cannot just be received; it must overflow from the forgiven. God’s grace transforms, and so a true encounter with that grace will change us. If we have been forgiven, we will forgive. “Those who receive extraordinary grace should act in accordance with the grace they receive.”[9] Once experienced, forgiveness can never stop with us, and must be passed on to those who wrong us. Chrysostom finds in our willingness to forgive true evidence of our being sanctified, for, he explains, “Nothing makes us so like God as our readiness to forgive the wicked and wrongdoer. For it is God who has made ‘the sun to shine on the evil and on the good.’” If we are being sanctified, being made holy, becoming godly, growing in grace – whatever biblical language you prefer – if we are being transformed into the image of Christ, we will be able, by the power of his Spirit within us, to say with Christ as he did on the cross, “Father forgive them.” If we would be like Christ, we must forgive others.

Nothing makes us so like God as our readiness to forgive the wicked and wrongdoer. For it is God who has made ‘the sun to shine on the evil and on the good.’
— John Chrysostom

Some read this parable and think that receiving God’s forgiveness begins with our forgiving others. We could read this parable as teaching that we have ability to earn our standing before God. Two factors mitigate against this. First, we must remember that the parable teaches God’s initiative in forgiveness.  The king’s forgiveness was not based on the servant’s past record of forgiveness but on his own mercy and kindness. The king first forgives the servant, and then he expects the servant to forgive. Forgiveness received demands forgiveness be given. Second, we must read this parable within its broader canonical context. The rest of Scripture informs our soteriology, teaching us that salvation depends upon God’s grace given to his people through Christ and applied by his Spirit. Redemption is a divine, not human, work.

While on the one hand we must avoid the temptation to legalism this passage presents, we must also be wary of the temptation of antinomianism, too easily breezing over the ethical implications of this parable. Jesus really does tell us that we must forgive. We must forgive as God in Christ has forgiven us.

The main force of the parable is clear: we must forgive. However, as we try to synthesize all of Scripture and set forth a coherent understanding of the Bible, it is helpful to consider how our forgiveness of others relates to God’s forgiveness of us. Concerning Jesus’s teaching in this passage, Ridderbos helpfully warns,

Whoever tries to separate man’s forgiveness from God’s will no longer be able to count on God’s mercy. In so doing he not merely forfeits it, like the servant in the parable. Rather he shows that he never had a part in it. God’s mercy is not something cut and dried that is received only once. It is a persistent power that pervades all of life. If it does not become manifest as such a power, then it was never received at all.[10]

Forgiveness on the human level goes hand-in-hand with the experience of divine forgiveness. The refusal to forgive others does not result in God’s refusal to forgive us; rather our refusal to forgive others reveals our refusal of God’s forgiveness.[11]

We must realize that this is not a qualified forgiveness we can offer. We must fully forgive those who have wronged. C. S. Lewis helpfully elaborates this point:

If you don’t forgive you will not be forgiven. No exceptions to it. He doesn’t say that we are to forgive other people’s sins, provided they are not too frightful, or provided there are extenuating circumstances, or anything of that sort. We are to forgive them all, however spiteful, however mean, however often they are repeated. If we don’t we shall be forgiven none of our own.

We need to wrestle with the exhaustive, and at times exhausting, nature of this forgiveness. If God has forgive us for all of our sins, we must forgive all the wrongdoing we experience. The message of the parable is simple; it is the practice that proves difficult.

Jesus concludes this parable with a stark warning: “And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” Forgiving others is not optional in the Christian life. If we have received God’s forgiveness, we must forgive. As Lewis succinctly states, “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.”

The Parable Practiced

Jesus tells this parable not to entertain but to transform. If we are to be his followers, we must practice the forgiveness he himself practiced. Christ is both the supreme model and the empowerment to forgive others. While being brutally crucified, Jesus prays for those killing him, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). In the midst of the most difficult moment of his life, he forgives those who were brutalizing him. Not just in this moment, but Christ lived his whole life to win forgiveness for his people.

By grace, sinners like you and me are forgiven, but it is also by grace that we are able to live the Christian life. God works by his Word and Spirit to grow us in godliness, to transform us into the image of his Son. We are not left alone to forgive in our own power. Rather, the experience of divine forgiveness changes us and empowers us to forgive others.

When I have been wronged in my own life, rarely can I immediately pray with Jesus, “Father, forgive them.” It is a process for me to grow and become like Christ.  Three principles from Scripture help me, by God’s grace, to be able to forgive others. I am far from the model forgiver and would never claim to have this part of my life figured out, but these principles are driven by Scripture, and I believe they are worth considering.

First, remember our own sin and the grace we have received. In the parable, it seems the servant walks out from the king’s court into the street and immediately suffers from amnesia. He acts as if he has never known what it is to be in debt. It is this utter lack of compassion and empathy from one who has been shown so much grace that horrifies his fellow servants and us as readers. We need to remember our sin and the forgiveness won for us through Christ’s life and work. We do this by reading and meditating on Scripture. We must hold up God’s Word as a mirror to examine our lives. Passages that lay out the ethical demands of the gospel are great for this. 1 Corinthians 13 can be read to help us see how we have been unloving. The fruit of the Spirit from Galatians 5 can highlight where we need to be made more like Christ. The parable we have been examining should call to mind our need to forgive.

We must not, however, stop with where we have fallen short. We must also remember God’s grace. We should consider his bountiful mercy to us in Christ. We should call to mind the extravagant expense of his forgiveness. We should be awed and humbled by what he has done for us. Ephesians 1:7 reminds us that in Christ, “We have redemption, through his blood the forgiveness of sins.” His blood was the price paid for our forgiveness. Forgiveness is a lavish gift that God has poured out on his people at the high cost of Jesus Christ.

Second, remember that God is in control. One of the most powerful examples of forgiveness in Scripture is Joseph. After all he experienced at the hands of his brothers, he forgave them when he had the power to destroy them. How was he able to forgive after all he suffered? He forgave them because he understood that God was orchestrating his life even when his brothers sought to kill him. As his brothers come begging for mercy at their father’s death, Joseph answers their plea, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Gen. 50:20). There is no denying the brother’s guilt. Out of their jealousy they wanted to hurt Joseph. But through his years of suffering, Joseph had learned to view his life from a divine, rather than a human perspective. He saw that God had orchestrated his life in order to save the lives of many, including the very brothers who wanted him dead.

When we realize that God exerts his gracious and sovereign control over all things, we can let go of our bitterness, anger, and desire for vengeance. Such a view of suffering in no way cheapens our own hurt or pain, but it confesses that God is somehow able to use even the most hurtful events in our lives for good.  To answer the question of why we suffer pain and heartache in this life requires much compassion and biblical informed wisdom. Apostle Paul offers a partial answer to why we suffer in 2 Corinthians 1:3-5,

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our afflictions, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.

God comforts us in our afflictions not merely for our own good but also for the good of others. We are to be conduits of his comfort to others. Like Joseph in Egypt, our suffering can bring about good for many others. We can help those who suffer find comfort as we have in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Third, if we would forgive others, we must pray for them. “Love your enemies,” Jesus commands his followers, “and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44). We should pray for our own attitude toward those who have wronged us, asking that God would help us to love and to forgive them. In doing so, we cannot forget that God first loved us when we were his enemies who hated him. We also should pray that God would bless them. If they do not know him, we should ask that he would bring them to saving faith in Jesus Christ. If they are believers, we should pray that they will grow in the grace and the knowledge of our Lord.

Praying good things for those who have wronged us can be amazingly difficult, especially when the emotional or literal wounds are still fresh. It requires supernatural grace to do. It requires God’s work in our lives to empower us to pray for our enemies, but God by his Spirit is transforming his people into the image of his Son, the very one who forgave those who were killing him. If we are to be like him, we must forgive as he forgave.

Praying for God to bless those who have hurt us will radically change our view of that person. It does not happen over night, but as we consistently pray for that person, our own desires begin to align with God. We do not wish for their destruction but for their salvation.

Forgiving others is not easy. It is not easy after suffering a great tragedy, and it is not easy when day after day one is hurt by those closest to you. Of those mundane hurts, Lewis writes, “To forgive the incessant provocations of daily life – to keep on forgiving the bossy mother-in-law, the bullying husband, the nagging wife, the selfish daughter, the deceitful son – How can we do it?” He finds the answer in the Lord’s Prayer, “Only, I think, by remembering where we stand, by meaning our words in our prayers each night, ‘Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those that trespass against us.’ We are offered forgiveness on no other terms. To refuse it is to refuse God’s mercy for ourselves. There is no hint of exceptions and God means what He says.” If we have been forgiven, we must forgive.

[1]Discussion exists on whether it is better to read this number as “seventy-seven” or “seven times seven.” The essential point of the Jesus’s teaching does not change depending on the number. I find “seventy-seven” to be the better reading, especially as it connects with the seventy-seven-fold vengeance of Lamech discussed below.

[2]D.A. Carson, “Matthew,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew - Mark, ed. Tremper Longman III and David E. Garland (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 458.

[3]A. H. M’Neile, The Gospel according to St. Matthew (London: Macmillan, 1915), 268. Quoted in Craig L. Blomberg, Matthew, vol. 22 in The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman, 1992), 281.

[4]Leon Morris, Gospel according to Matthew (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 473.

[5]Blomberg, Matthew, 283.

[6]See, for example: Exodus 21:1-11; 22:2-3; 2 Kings 4:1; Nehemiah 5:5, 8; Amos 2:6; 8:6. 

[7]Carson, “Matthew,” 407.

[8]Carson, “Matthew,” 460.

[9]Morris, Matthew, 476.

[10]H. N. Ridderbos, Matthew (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987), 346. Quoted in Blomberg, Matthew, 285 n. 56.

[11]On this point, see Carson, “Matthew,” 460-1; Blomberg, Matthew, 121.

John D. Morrison