When Jesus told Peter, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Mt.18.22), He did not mean that we do not need to forgive the seventy-eighth time, of course. It was a way of saying that we should never stop forgiving. Then Jesus told this story:
“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.”
A talent was seventy-five pounds, so ten thousand talents would be 750,000 pounds. We do not know whether these were talents of gold or silver, but since Jesus is trying to exaggerate the contrast between this debt and the relatively small debt of the other servant, we may suppose that he was thinking of the more valuable of the two talents. In troy weight there are twelve ounces to a pound. So we are now dealing with 750,000 times 12, or 9 million ounces of gold. Assuming that gold is selling at roughly $1800 an ounce, we come to a figure of $16,200,000,000. That is beyond our comprehension, which is precisely Christ’s point. It was an astronomical debt.
Since the servant was unable to pay, the king was going to have him, his wife, and his children sold into slavery and his goods sold on the market to reclaim as much of the debt as possible. Hearing this, the man fell on his knees and begged, “Be patient with me, and I will pay back everything” (v. 26). He could not, of course, but the king had pity on him and canceled the obligation.
This man then found a fellow servant who owed him money: one hundred denarii. A denarii was a day’s wage for a common laborer, so that was approximately a third of a year’s wages. Assuming (in our terms) that a low wage might be twelve or fifteen thousand dollars per year, the debt was only four or five thousand dollars. That was a significant debt, but it was a pittance compared to the enormous debt incurred by the first servant. When the man with the smaller debt begged for time to repay his obligation, which he could presumably have done, the first servant hardened his heart and had the other man thrown into prison.
Others heard what had happened and told the king. He called the first man in, demanding, “You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt… should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” (vv.32–33). Then, according to Jesus, the king turned him over to the jailers until he should pay back all he owed. The point is obvious: Christians must be limitless in forgiving others since God has been infinitely forgiving with them.
We might wish that Jesus had stopped there, but he had this additional disturbing word: “This is how my heavenly father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart” (v. 35). The statement is troubling because it seems to imply a “works” salvation, that is, if you forgive others (a work), you will be forgiven. But even if it does not teach that, it seems to imply that grace continues by means of works. We may be saved by grace, but if we fail to act rightly, God may cancel his forgiveness and have us thrown into hell anyway. Such an interpretation is unacceptable for several reasons. Therefore, some have tried to work out ways of getting around it.
Some say, “Jesus did not mean what He said.” Some regard the parable as simple hyperbole, an exaggerated statement given for its emotional effect. According to these, Jesus did not mean to say that God would send us to hell if we do not forgive our debtors, but only that forgiveness is an extremely important matter and that we really ought to forgive. We should forgive others just as God has forgiven us, but if we do not, we are not to suppose that we are not saved or that we will lose our salvation.
That approach is a bit childish because it is what children do. When a mother is about to go out and instructs her children what is to be done. When she comes back the rooms are exactly the way they were. “Mom, you did not mean tomorrow?”
Pastor Steve can be reached at PastorSteve@MaranathaBibleChurch.org