Forgiveness is not a question of mathematics

At the beginning of the gospel already, Peter wanted to know how often he would have to forgive his neighbour. More often than you think, was the answer of the Son of God to this question. For us Christians today it is crystal clear. Or maybe not?

Jesus not only answered with the famous “seven times seventy” puzzle, but also went on to explain the whole thing with a telling parable built on stark contrasts. There was a king who forgave his servant a massive debt of no less than ten thousand talents, which amounted to about ten thousand bags of silver.

“Therefore the kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. And when he had begun to settle accounts, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents” (Matthew 18: 23–24).

In today’s money that would work out to many millions of dollars. A typical sailing ship in those days cost about one talent. So the debt that was cancelled amounted to a fleet of ten thousand ships! What a deal! Luck was on the servant’s side. Life can be so beautiful. He was finally rid of all his debts!

But this servant was unreasonably severe. He had a fellow servant who owed him money: “But that servant went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and he laid hands on him and took him by the throat, saying, ‘Pay me what you owe!’” (Matthew 18: 28–30)

Stark contrasts indeed. The king forgave all the accumulated debts with a simple gesture, while the so-called unforgiving servant behaved mercilessly and ruthlessly. He refused to cancel even a single denarius of the poor sod’s debt.

Secrets of the kingdom of heaven

Matthew 18 deals with the mysteries of heaven. This is about fundamental things. The context is earthly, the interpretation is not: its focus is on eternal salvation. And Peter, who asked the question about how often one should forgive one’s neighbour, must have stared in disbelief when Jesus told this parable! So much against so little: the king forgives everything, the servant nothing! The pardoned servant refuses to show mercy!

Jesus addresses these thoughts on forgiveness to us Christians. He insists on a comprehensive willingness to forgive. And that, after all, is what we pray in the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” This only has half to do with the idea of a soft comfort zone in the bosom of the merciful God. The whole truth is: forgiveness comes to those who forgive others!

Forgiving is hard

Forgiving one another is not easy. There is so much that can upset us: an offending word that tears open old wounds. We all have our sensitive spot. Some people bear grudges against others throughout their lives for slights they suffered, and in the process become ill themselves. In the midst of a culture of forgiveness, discord, conflict, egoism, and wars have no place! This is all the more true in interpersonal relationships: between spouses, between parents and children, within our congregations, in the church, society, and in politics.

God couples His justice with mercy, while human beings limit themselves to justice. Yet we know only too well that not everything in life can be solved by an act of judgement. The cancellation of the massive debt was an act of mercy, not an act of justice.

Mercy is more than mathematics

Actually, Peter had only asked a short question: “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” I wonder if the parable helped Peter to understand? Are we able to understand better when we pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” Or do we constantly only look at the speck in our sister or brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in our own?

Here is what we can learn.

  • Before God, our debt is so huge that we ourselves cannot repay it. If it had not been for Jesus, our claim to salvation would have resulted in our being spiritually bankrupt. He paid for every sin, and did so by giving His own life on the cross.
  • God does not allow a single sin to enter heaven. But He does allow sinners to enter, namely pardoned sinners. This is our chance as Christians: our faith in Jesus Christ and His absolution of sin and guilt set us free. This freedom is gained by those who free themselves from petty mathematics.

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Peter Johanning
Bible, Divine service