21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”
22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.
So Peter asks Jesus about forgiveness. Jesus answers him with an outlandish answer that harkens back to the braggadocio of Lamech (see previous article) and takes a u-turn, heading in the opposite direction. Jesus tells Peter that forgiveness must be done with the same passion as Lamech had for revenge.
A PASSION FOR COMPASSION
To illustrate, Jesus’ parable begins with a king who has a passion for compassion (vss. 26-27). Confronted by a servant debtor who owes him a ridiculous amount the king is ready to cut his losses, write off the debt and sell the debtor and his family off as slaves.
Being sold into slavery was not a sentence without hope. Some day, a kind master may offer an opportunity for the servant to purchase his freedom or he may even set him and his family free once he no longer needed their services. Or, in the case of a Jewish setting, the servant would have served, at most, 49 years or until the next celebration of Jubilee (cf., Leviticus 25).
26 “At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ 27 The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.
Ridiculous debt, total devastation, over-the-top mercy and grace beyond anyone’s expectations. Jesus harkens to what will soon become a cosmically defining moment for all time with a cross on a hill and His own suffering and death for the sake of the lost…and a God who is passionate about forgiving those whose incalculable debt of sin most certainly would otherwise ban them from His presence forever.
AN ABSENCE OF COMPASSION
For the forgiven servant this is his year of Jubilee! There can be little doubt about his exuberance as the servant rejoices over being forgiven such a huge debt. Not only that, he has also been released from his sentence for him and his family to be sold into slavery. What an outlandish gift from the compassionate king!
Jesus’ parable follows the forgiven servant out of the king’s throne room and back into the marketplace. Suddenly, his smiles and rejoicing turn to scowls and murderous rage as he encounters a fellow servant who owes him a much smaller amount, minuscule in comparison to the debt that has just been forgiven. Enraged, the forgiven servant grabs his fellow servant around the neck and starts choking him. “Pay back what you owe me!” he demanded.
Echoing the forgiven servant’s very words before the king, the debtor servant falls to his knees and begins to beg him: ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’ (vs. 29).
Jesus continues: “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt” (vs. 30). The contrast between the king and the forgiven servant could hardly be more stark. Having the man thrown into prison, where he could no longer work to repay his debt, the forgiven servant condemns his fellow servant to prison for the remainder of his life; a hopeless vengeance with no hope of repayment. Lamech’s boasting suddenly finds resonance in a man who wants more than simple revenge; he wants his fellow servant to suffer beyond repayment to utter devastation and ruin.
THE WITHDRAWAL OF THE KING’S COMPASSION
Jesus concludes the parable with the king’s servants observing the forgiven servant’s actions with the one who owed the lesser debt. Outraged themselves they report it to the king who immediately calls in the forgiven servant. The king says to him:
‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’
The king’s sentence matches the one the formerly forgiven servant had meted out to his fellow servant who owed the lesser debt. Only this time the king adds the prospect of torture until his debt was paid in full (vs. 34)…a day which would never, ever come.
Jesus then concludes the parable with a defining statement:
“This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” (vs. 35)
This conclusion ties the entire discussion together. Beginning with the disciples asking whom among them would be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, Jesus hammers home that kingdom citizenship stands or falls based upon one’s passion to forgive as they have been forgiven.
FORGIVENESS: PASS IT ON!