Wednesday Bible Study by Pastor Tim
Light a candle
Read Matthew 18:21-35
God’s Forgiveness Cannot Be Limited
Today’s gospel text follows last Sunday’s reading (Matthew 18:15-20), in which Jesus encourages the reconciliation of broken relationships within the community of disciples. Today’s passage continues the theme of forgiveness within the church, where Jesus promises that he will be present (18:20).
The first part of the reading is Peter’s question about how many times he should forgive a “member of the church who sins against me” (18:21). Seven seems to him like a reasonable, acceptable, countable number.
But Jesus’ response to him—and the parable that follows—suggests that the number of times is uncountable. Not 7 times, but 77 times (18:22). The word for “77” can also be translated as “70 x 7” or 490 times! Jesus is exaggerating the number of times to forgive a member of the church. He takes it out of a reasonable, exact, cut-and-dried process of checking off the forgiveness box, and asks us to consider forgiveness from God’s point-of-view.
Exaggeration is a key part of the story that follows in which Jesus illustrates his point about forgiveness. It is an odd and difficult parable!
Let’s start with a servant who owes the king 10,000 talents (18:24). In our world, that’s about $200 million. It’s so outlandish that we might ask, “How in the world has this servant accumulated that much debt?” The master/king threatens to sell him and his family, but the servant begs and the master experiences compassion and forgives the debt.
The tables are reversed, and the servant is now in the position of having another servant owe him a significantly smaller amount (about $8000 today). The first servant, however, does not take pity. When the master/king hears it, he is enraged and cancels his promise to forgive the debt, and has him tortured because the first servant would not release the smaller debt.
Scholar Eugene Boring thinks that Jesus’ original parable ends at v. 34 to make this point: a domineering king sets a bad example by allowing his servant to get overwhelmed by enormous debt. Matthew, the gospel writer, adds the last sentence (v. 35) many years later as a warning of God’s end-time judgment for those who refuse to forgive others. (Boring, New Interpreter’s Bible, “Matthew,” p. 381)
It is very difficult to see how God is like an enraged king who tortures even scoundrels. Yet the first servant had received a seemingly impossible, incredible gift with the release of a huge debt. How could he not respond by forgiving another servant a much, much smaller amount?
Seminary Professor Audrey West says that the “torture” at the end of the parable is not literal, but a metaphor for our lack of treating others as God has first treated us. It is the “torture” of unforgiveness, when we refuse to let go of old hurts and resentments, and the poison festers within us. Or the “torture” of failing to see how we ourselves have caused pain for others or been part of an oppressive system. (West, workingpreacher.org, “Commentary on Matthew 18:21-35,” Sept. 13, 2020)
Forgiving those who have we hurt us is a central part of discipleship, and yet it is often really hard to do. Sometimes we need years of emotional support, or guided work by a pastor, therapist or spiritual director, for the journey of forgiveness, to release the hurt and pain which we have experienced. Sometimes it is downright impossible for us as human beings to forgive someone who has caused severe trauma or abuse.
Yet Jesus’ words seem to point not at our human effort to count all the times we have forgiven, but rather, God’s unfathomable gift of grace to not count our trespasses. It is Jesus, after all, who announces on the night that Peter and the other disciples abandon him: “This is the blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matthew 26:28)
1) Think of a time when you have been forgiven by someone, and a time when you have been the one forgiving. Which one was easier? Which one was harder? How did the process change your relationship?
2) Think of an example when you have not been able to forgive someone. What is it like to live with this unresolved hurt? What kind of support and care do you need?
3) Do you think it appropriate or helpful to directly compare an angry, torturing king to God? Could this text be Jesus’ way of saying that God’s willingness and action to forgive far exceed any human effort?