The Depths of True Christian Forgiveness in Light of Matthew 18

As Christians, we know we are supposed to forgive, and that forgiveness is supposed to go deeper than some may suspect.

Now, if you’ve been going to church for any extended period of time, I have no doubt that you’re aware of the parable of the unmerciful servant in Matthew 18. I realized a good summary was almost as long as the passage itself, so I have posted the text below:

Then Peter came and said to Him, ‘”Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.

For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he had begun to settle them, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him.But since he did not have the means to repay, his lord commanded him to be sold, along with his wife and children and all that he had, and repayment to be made. So the slave fell to the ground and prostrated himself before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you everything.’ And the lord of that slave felt compassion and released him and forgave him the debt. But that slave went out and found one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and he seized him and began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay back what you owe.’ So his fellow slave fell to the ground and began to plead with him, saying, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you.’ But he was unwilling and went and threw him in prison until he should pay back what was owed. So when his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were deeply grieved and came and reported to their lord all that had happened. Then summoning him, his lord said to him, ‘You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way that I had mercy on you?’ And his lord, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him.

My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart.” (NASB)

I think we all get the gist of it: A servant (the believer) owe an enormous debt (metaphor for the wrath incurred by sin) to a king (God). The king has mercy on the servant. The servant then, however, will not forgive a far smaller debt (sins against us) of another servant (a fellow believer). The first servant is then rebuked by the king and his forgiveness withdrawn, and that is how God will treat us.Yikes! Discussions of whether or not this means failure to forgive a single person results in damnation aside, it is clear that as forgiven people, we better be willing to forgive!

One thing that is not overlooked is the difference between the debt owed to the king and the debt owed to the unmerciful servant by the other. The unmerciful servant owed an enormous, unpayable debt. To give some perspective, at the normal worker’s wage of 1 denarius, 10,000 talents would take approximately 150,000 years to pay back (Kelly; “18. Parable”). According to some sources, it would take even longer (e.g. Jeramias 164; Jeremias places the value of the debt at 100 million denarii, which would take over 300,000 years, assuming a 6-day workweek). Thus, Edmund Flood calls it a debt of “science-fiction dimension” (16). According to Jeremias, it has great symbolic significance; the talent was the largest measurement, and 10,000 the biggest number used in reckoning (164). In comparison, 100 denarrii is quite small (according to Jeremias’ figure, 1/1 millionth the size of it). A denarii was the average worker’s wage for a day’s labor. Therefore, it would take about 4 months to earn under a 6-day workweek. That is an enormous difference, which is Jesus’ point. How absurd it would be for one to be unwilling to forgive that kind of debt in light of being forgiven one of “science-fiction” dimension”!

What Is Sometimes Overlooked or Misunderstood

Here is what is overlooked: the debt owed to the servant, the 100 denarii, although monumentally smaller than the debt that he owed the king, is still pretty large. It’s still 4 month’s salary. For someone making $50,000 a year today, that’s like being told to forgive a $15,000 debt. That’s huge! It isn’t a matter of huge vs. tiny. It isn’t, as N.T. Wright put it, “about the slave who had been forgiven millions but then dragged a colleague into court to settle a debt of a few pence” (288). The servant was owed a substantial amount of money.

Now, while not every aspect of a parable is necessarily significant, I don’t think that this is coincidence. Had Jesus wanted to make a small amount, He could have had the servant be owed 1 denarii, or even a smaller denomination, something equivalent to a few pents (or cents, for us Americans). What would be the point of choosing this much money? Well, it serves two purposes. It still is incredibly small in comparison to the amount owed, making the greater point that what God has forgiven is way larger than what we have to forgive. Second, by choosing a still sizable sum, and not a tiny amount, Jesus makes the point that the things we forgive are not just little things. The metaphorical debt isn’t a few pennies, but thousands of dollars. We have to forgive one another, even when the other has seriously wronged us, betrayed us, and harmed us. When our brother begs us for forgiveness, even to the point of simply asking for a chance to fix it (as the 2nd servant begged for more time), me must show mercy even when it is huge.

The fact that we should forgive large “debts” from sin is all the more apparent by Jesus’ admonishment to forgive seventy times seven (490) times (or 77, according to some translations) . Peter, in asking if he should forgive seven times, was already suggesting a level of mercy and generosity of spirit that well surpassed the norm. According to Albert Barnes, “The Jews taught that a man was to forgive another three times, but not the fourth. Peter more than doubled this, and asked whether forgiveness was to be exercised to so great an extent” (189). It’s as if Peter were asking, “Lord, should I be not just forgiving, but super forgiving.” That Jesus would then tell him to forgive seventy times over that would boggle the mind, which was precisely the point. It is as if Jesus responded to Peter, “no; you must be not be even super forgiving, but super-duper ridiculously absurdly forgiving!” The whole back drop of the parable is not only on a command to forgive, but to do so into what would appear to the outsider as being to absurdity, like forgiving a debt of 4-month’s salary. After all, we love one by the very nature of being a believer (1 John 4:20), and we forgive in light of how God has forgiven us (Ephesians 4.32)

One might say that what I say undermines the point that what God forgives is way way greater than what w forgive. However, I argue that it makes it all the more meaningful. That which we are to forgive, from our hearts, because we truly care about one another, may be extremely costly and painful. And yet, even then, it is still minuscule in comparison to the level of mercy God has shown to us. The fact that the sun is 1 million times larger than the earth is far more amazing than the fact that it is 5 zillion times the size of an ant (that’s an estimate, of course), because the size of the earth is itself hard to fathom for the human mind.

In short, although this is only a parable, the importance of not only forgiving but also of forgiving even great trespasses is evident from what Jesus said.

Works Cited

“18. Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (Unforgiving Servant)., n.d. Web. 8 Aug. 2012.

Barnes, Albert. Notes on the New Testament: Explanatory and Practical. With Questions for Bible Classes and Sunday Schools. Vol. 1. London: Blackie & Son, n.d. Google Books. Web. 23 Jun. 2012.<>.

Flood, Edmund. More Parables for Now. First USA Edition. Denville, NJ: Dimension Books, 1981. Print. Jeremias, Joachim. Rediscovering the Parables. New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1966. Print.

Kelly, Jack. “The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant.” N.p., n.d. Web. 8 Aug 2012. <>.

New American Standard Bible (NASB). N.p.: Lockman Foundation, 1995. Web. 6 Jun. 2011.

Wright, N.T. Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. New York, NY: HarperOne, 2008. Print.

(Originally published 08/10/2012: Immaterial changes have been made).


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