Matthew 18:21-35


Matt. 18:21-35

Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I tell you not up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven. That is why the Kingdom of Heaven can be likened to what happened when a king wished to make a reckoning with his servants. When he began to make a reckoning one debtor was brought to him who owed him 2,400,000 British pounds. Since he was quite unable to pay, his master ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children, and all his possessions, and payment to be made. The servant fell on his face and besought him: `Sir, have patience with me, and I will pay you in full.’ The master of the servant was moved with compassion, and let him go, and forgave him the debt. When that servant went out, he found one of his fellow-servants, who owed him L5. He caught hold of him and seized him by the throat: `Pay what you owe,’ he said.
The fellow-servant fell down and besought him, `Have patience with me, and I will pay you in full.’ But he refused. Rather, he went away and flung him into prison, until he should pay what was due. So, when his fellow-servants saw what had happened, they were very distressed; and they went and informed their master of all that had happened. Then the master summoned him, and said to him, `You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt when you besought me to do so. Ought you not to have had pity on your fellow-servant, as I had pity on you?’ And his master was angry with him and handed him over to the torturers, until he should pay all that was due.

“Even so shall my heavenly Father do to you, if you do not each one forgive his brother from your hearts.”

We owe a very great deal to the fact that Peter had a quick tongue. Again and again he rushed into speech in such a way that his impetuosity drew from Jesus teaching which is immortal. On this occasion Peter thought that he was being very generous. He asked Jesus how often he ought to forgive his brother, and then answered his own question by suggesting that he should forgive seven times.

Peter was not without warrant for this suggestion. It was Rabbinic teaching that a man must forgive his brother three times. Rabbi Jose ben Hanina said, “He who begs forgiveness from his neighbour must not do so more than three times.” Rabbi Jose ben Jehuda said, “If a man commits an offence once, they forgive him; if he commits an offence a second time, they forgive him; if he commits an offence a third time, they forgive him; the fourth time they do not forgive.” The Biblical proof that this was correct was taken from Amos. In the opening chapters of Amos there is a series of condemnations on the various nations for three transgressions and for four (Am.1:3,6,9; Am.1:11,13; Am.2:1,4,6). From this it was deduced that God’s forgiveness extends to three offences and that he visits the sinner with punishment at the fourth. It was not to be thought that a man could be more gracious than God, so forgiveness was limited to three times.

Peter thought that he was going very far, for he takes the Rabbinic three times, multiplies it by two for good measure adds one, and suggests, with eager self-satisfaction, that it will be enough if he forgives seven times. Peter expected to be warmly commended; but Jesus’s answer was that the Christian must forgive seventy times seven. In other words there is no reckonable limit to forgiveness.

Jesus then told the story of the servant forgiven a great debt who went out and dealt mercilessly with a fellow-servant who owed him a debt that was an infinitesimal fraction of what he himself had owed; and who for his mercilessness was utterly condemned. This parable teaches certain lessons which Jesus never tired of teaching.

(i) It teaches that lesson which runs through all the New Testament–a man must forgive in order to be forgiven. He who will not forgive his fellow-men cannot hope that God will forgive him. “Blessed are the merciful,” said Jesus, “for they shall obtain mercy” (Matt. 5:7). No sooner had Jesus taught his men his own prayer, than he went on to expand and explain one petition in it: “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt. 6:14-15). As James had it, “For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy” (Jas.2:13). Divine and human forgiveness go hand in hand.

(ii) Why should that be so? One of the great points in this parable is the contrast between the two debts.

The first servant owed his master 10,000 talents; a talent was the equivalent of 240 British pounds; therefore 10,000 talents is 2,400,000 British pounds. That is an incredible debt. It was more than the total budget of the ordinary province. The total revenue of the province which contained Idumaea, Judaea and Samaria was only 600 talents; the total revenue of even a wealthy province like Galilee was only 300 talents. Here was a debt which was greater than a king’s ransom. It was this that the servant was forgiven.

The debt which a fellow-servant owed him was a trifling thing; it was 100 denarii (GSN1220); a denarius (GSN1220) was worth about 4 pence in value; and therefore the total debt was less than 5 British pounds. It was approximately one five-hundred-thousandth of his own debt.

  1. R. S. Kennedy drew this vivid picture to contrast the debts. Suppose they were paid in sixpences. The 100 denarii debt could be carried in one pocket. The ten thousand talent debt would take to carry it an army of about 8,600 carriers, each carrying a sack of sixpences 60 lbs. in weight; and they would form, at a distance of a yard apart, a line five miles long! The contrast between the debts is staggering. The point is that nothing men can do to us can in any way compare with what we have done to God; and if God has forgiven us the debt we owe to him, we must forgive our fellow-men the debts they owe to us. Nothing that we have to forgive can even faintly or remotely compare with what we have been forgiven.

“Not the labours of my hands
Can fulfil thy law’s demands;
Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears forever flow,
All for sin could not atone.”

We have been forgiven a debt which is beyond all paying–for the sin of man brought about the death of God’s own Son–and, if that is so, we must forgive others as God has forgiven us, or we can hope to find no mercy.

Back to: THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW (Chapters 11-28)

Back to: Barclay’s Commentary

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