FORGIVE SEVEN TIMES?
ILLUSTRATION OF THE UNMERCIFUL SLAVE
Peter has heard Jesus’ advice on how to handle a difficulty between brothers by trying to settle it one-on-one. Yet, Peter seems to want to quantify the number of times one should make such an effort.
Peter asks: “Lord, how many times is my brother to sin against me and am I to forgive him? Up to seven times?” Some religious leaders teach that one should grant forgiveness up to three times. So Peter may feel that he would be very generous if he forgave a brother “up to seven times.”
However, the idea of keeping such a record of wrongs is not in the spirit of Jesus’ teaching. So he corrects Peter: “I say to you, not up to seven times, but up to 77 times.” (Matthew 18:22) That, in other words, means indefinitely. There should be no limit to the number of times Peter forgives his brother.
Jesus then tells Peter and the others an illustration to impress on them their obligation to be forgiving. It is about a slave who fails to imitate his merciful master. The king wants to settle accounts with his slaves. One slave who owes the enormous debt of 10,000 talents [60,000,000 denarii] is brought to him. There is no possible way he can pay that debt. So the king orders that the slave, his wife, and his children be sold and payment be made. At that, the slave falls down at his master’s feet and begs: “Be patient with me, and I will pay back everything to you.”
The king is moved with pity and mercifully cancels the slave’s huge debt. Once the king has done so, this slave goes and finds a fellow slave who owes him 100 denarii. He grabs the other slave and begins choking him, saying: “Pay back whatever you owe.” But that fellow slave falls at the feet of the slave to whom he is in debt, begging: “Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.” (Matthew 18:28, 29) However, the slave whose debt the king forgave does not imitate his master. He has his fellow slave, who owes much less, thrown into prison until he can pay what he owes.
Jesus then relates that other slaves who see this unmerciful treatment go and tell the master, who angrily summons the slave and says: “Wicked slave, I canceled all that debt for you when you pleaded with me. Should you not also have shown mercy to your fellow slave as I showed mercy to you?” The angry king delivers the unmerciful slave over to the jailers until he repays all that he owes. Jesus concludes: “My heavenly Father will also deal with you in the same way if each of you does not forgive your brother from your heart.”
What a lesson that should teach us about forgiveness! God has forgiven us a large debt of sin. Whatever transgression a Christian brother commits against us is small in comparison. And Jehovah forgives us not once but thousands of times. Can we not forgive our brother a number of times, even if we have a cause for complaint? As Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount, God will “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”
Consider how we can imitate Jehovah’s readiness to forgive.