September 12, 1999

Matthew 18:21-35

Peter came up to the Lord and asked, "How many times should I forgive someone who does something wrong to me? Is seven times enough?"

Jesus answered: Not just seven times, but seventy-seven [or seventy times seven] times!

   This story will show you what the kingdom of heaven is like:

One day a king decided to call in his officials and ask them to give an account of what they owed him. As he was doing this, one official was brought in who owed him fifty million silver coins. But he didn't have any money to pay what he owed. The king ordered him to be sold, along with his wife and children and all he owned, in order to pay the debt.

The official got down on his knees and began begging, "Have pity on me, and I will pay you every cent I owe!" The king felt sorry for him and let him go free. He even told the official that he did not have to pay back the money.

As the official was leaving, he happened to meet another official, who owed him a hundred silver coins. So he grabbed the man by the throat. He started choking him and said, "Pay me what you owe!"

The man got down on his knees and began begging, "Have pity on me, and I will pay you back." But the first official refused to have pity. Instead, he went and had the other official put in jail until he could pay what he owed.

When some other officials found out what had happened, they felt sorry for the man who had been put in jail. Then they told the king what had happened. The king called the first official back in and said, "You're an evil man! When you begged for mercy, I said you did not have to pay back a cent. Don't you think you should show pity to someone else, as I did to you?" The king was so angry that he ordered the official to be tortured until he could pay back everything he owed. That is how my Father in heaven will treat you, if you don't forgive each of my followers with all your heart. [CEV]


1. Perspective, attitudes, and behaviors all run deep. In the best of situations it is difficult to change. It is obvious that "pity" (or "mercy" or "freedom from debt") was a category that didn't make any sense to the first official. He expected the way the world worked was that you took everyone for all you could. To run up a huge debt and expect to get away with it and to be harder than nails with those in debt to you is not uncommon in the world. The king's pity didn't have any power to change the official because he seems to have expected, one way or another, to get away with his debt with no consequences. When that happened, he simply proceeded to act as he had -- hard toward those who owed him.

2. A key question here is whether or not you understand or experience "mercy" in your life to be a motivator to become more merciful? Yes? That's awfully hard work, isn't it? To be merciful is in some way to run the huge risk that your mercy won't have any effect on the other and they will simply become more unfair than before. They will simply take advantage of you another seven times, or more.

3. In many ways mercy is a litmus test of both sides of the equation. It is a measure of who are your brothers and sisters in Christ -- the merciful are for they shall receive mercy and it will change them. It is a measure of those who are intended to become your brothers and sisters in Christ -- those needing mercy enough that it will eventually overflow from their need of such into the lives of others needing such.

PS - Why didn't the first official appeal to Jesus' injunction to keep forgiving and demand further mercy from the king instead of torture on top of bankruptcy. If you were the king, how would you react to someone appealing for more mercy after it had been extended and hadn't taken root within them? This story doesn't go that far. The question is how to relate Jesus' clear word about forgiving seventy seven times and this story about the kingdom of heaven which has a one-strike-and-you're-out message. Is this a continuum issue or are those the basic choices?

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