Today’s passage in Matthew explains another teaching of Jesus on community relationships. In earlier verses (vv. 15–20) a specific process is outlined for use when one member of the community sins against another. Starting at verse 21, Peter then asks how many times he must forgive a member of the church who sins against him. One rabbinic tradition says three times. Peter was generously offering seven times. Jesus’ answer, involving the holy number seven, implies that forgiveness is beyond counting. There is no scorekeeping. Forgiveness is unlimited.
The parable of the unforgiving servant that follows (vv. 23–35) is full of hyperbole (exaggerations). It is meant to shock the listener. For example, the 10,000 talents owed by the slave represents an impossible amount; a single talent represented many years of wages for a slave. There was no possible way the servant would ever be able to repay the debt. His promise to do so is absurd. The king’s willingness to listen to the slave’s plea and then forgive the entire debt is unbelievable. Who would show such mercy?
Then the story progresses and the forgiven slave confronts another slave who owes him money (a much more reasonable amount, 100 denarii, with one denarius equivalent to one day’s wage). The servant demands payment from his fellow slave who also begs for mercy and extra time to repay the debt. The unforgiving servant refuses and has the slave thrown in prison. When the king is told of this action, he denounces the first slave and sends him to be tortured until the debt is paid. The king says, “Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?” (v. 33).
By sharing this parable, Jesus explains the importance of mercy and forgiveness. We are constantly experiencing God’s mercy and can never repay the debt. Nor is God asking for repayment. It’s about grace. As the body of Christ, we are called to be merciful with one another. Our ability to forgive one another is to be patterned after divine forgiveness.
This forgiveness is different from seeking justice. We might imagine that God’s forgiveness has underpinnings in justice; but in this parable, it is grounded in God’s mercy. Forgiveness is a release, not a denial of the offense. It does not necessarily mean to forget.
What is the cost of an unmerciful, unforgiving heart? One former prisoner of war asked another, “Have you forgiven your captors yet?” The second man responded, “I will never do that!” The first man replied, “Then they still have you in prison, don’t they?”