Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?”
Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” (verses 21-22)
“Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors”(Matthew 6:12).
Peter presumably has been praying this prayer ever since the Sermon on the Mount. If he’d truly embraced it, he would have understood there was a connection between the forgiveness he himself receives from the Father and the forgiveness he extends to others.
But he seems to think there is an outer limit to such grace. The Rabbis of the time suggested that forgiveness should be extended three times for a repeated sin, but that on the fourth occasion forgiveness should be withheld. Peter, seeking to be gracious, extends the limit to seven occurrences. That should do it, shouldn’t it?
No. Not really. Jesus extends the limit further than anyone could reasonably see. Seventy-seven times, he says. He’s not encouraging Peter to meticulously keep track of each offence, counting up higher and higher till he reaches the cut-off. No. He’s simply saying, “Keep forgiving.”
And then he tells a story to illustrate the vast extent of true forgiveness.
A King is settling debts with his servants. One owes him the astronomical sum of ten thousand talents. At the very least, in today’s world, this represents many millions of dollars – perhaps, with inflation, verging on a billion. To put it in context, one commentator points out that King David lavishly contributed this amount to the future building of the Temple, setting aside three thousand talents of gold and seven thousand talents of silver (1 Chronicles 29:4). This is a sum fit for a King, not a servant. How this particular servant ever came to owe such a massive debt is not disclosed, but it is insurmountable. When the King threatens to sell his whole family into slavery to make restitution, the servant vainly pleads for time to pay the debt in full – an entirely impossible hope. But the King takes pity and does what could not be expected. He forgives the debt in full!
Imagine the elation – the sheer relief – that should have carried that servant into each subsequent relationship. But it didn’t. Encountering a fellow servant who owed him one hundred denarii, he immediately threw him into debtors’ prison until he paid what was owed. A denarius represented one full day’s wages, so the debt is not insignificant. But by comparison with the servant’s own forgiven debt, it doesn’t even register.
The King, hearing of this blatant, hard-hearted, unforgiveness, reinstitutes the debt and turns the servant over to the jailers until such time as he pays in full – which will, of course, be never.
“This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart” (verse 35). It’s a sobering message, but it’s exactly what Peter has prayed ever since being given the Lord’s Prayer. Had he not understood?
Have I understood? Have you? Our own debt was massive and unpayable, but in Christ it is fully forgiven, resulting in eternal life. What a gift! We are now obliged to extend that same forgiveness to others.
Have we? Do we currently hold any unforgiven debt in our hands, clutching it to our hearts? Have we given ourselves permission to “make someone pay” for a wrong we have received? Have we left any debtor unforgiven?
Don’t do it. Forgive as you have been forgiven. Otherwise, the reality of your own forgiveness is at stake.
Lord, see if there be any hurtful way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. As I have been forgiven, I choose to forgive. To Jesus’ glory. Amen.
Reflect: Is there anyone you have failed to forgive? Deal with it now.