September 11, 2005 - Pentecost +17

Matthew 18:21-35

 21 Then Peter asked him, “Lord, how many times must I forgive the offenses of my brother or sister? Seven times?” 22 Jesus answered, “No, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.

The unmerciful servant

 23 This story throws light on the kingdom of heaven. A king decided to settle the accounts of his servants. 24 Among the first was one who owed him ten thousand gold ingots. 25 As the man could not repay the debt, the king commanded that he be sold as a slave with his wife, children and all his goods in payment.

26 The official threw himself at the feet of the king and said, ‘Give me time, and I will pay you back everything.’ 27 The king took pity on him and not only set him free but even canceled his debt.

28 This official then left the king’s presence and he met one of his companions who owed him a hundred pieces of silver. He grabbed him by the neck and almost strangled him, shouting, ‘Pay me what you owe!’ 29 His companion threw himself at his feet and asked him, ‘Give me time, and I will pay everything.’ 30 The other did not agree, but sent him to prison until he had paid all his debt.

31 His companions saw what happened. They were indignant and so they went and reported everything to their lord. 32 Then the lord summoned his official and said, ‘Wicked servant, I forgave you all that you owed when you begged me to do so. 33 Weren’t you bound to have pity on your companion as I had pity on you?’ 34 The lord was now angry, so he handed his servant over to be punished, until he had paid his whole debt.”

35 Jesus added, “So will my heavenly Father do with you unless each of you sincerely forgive your brother or sister.”

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Notes from [The Community Christian Bible

 21. Seventy-seven times. Compare with Genesis 4:24. Forgiveness must replace the thirst for revenge.

This is about the forgiveness of one who returns repentant: see Luke 17:1.


The offenses we suffer from our companions are nothing compared with our offenses against God. While God forgives all, we do not even give others enough breathing space. God does not demand his rights, but we, in demanding them, behave like wicked servants (see Mt 5:43).

This parable goes beyond personal problems. The world needs, above everything else, the forgiveness of God, and those who want a more just society will not achieve it through accusations and hatred.

The parable helps us understand much better another verse in the Bible: Revenge is mine, says the Lord; I will pay each one according to his own conduct. God will not demand an account regarding his own rights, (what we owe him), but regarding the rights of the little ones who, unable to pay, were deprived of them. He will also demand an accounting regarding those who were sorry for their sins but were not forgiven by others.

The fourth Discourse of Matthew’s Gospel ends with this parable on the duty to forgive. The Church has not always been as holy as she should have been. Yet nobody can deny that, at all times, in the Church the mercy of God has been preached and people have learned to forgive.

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Comments by Wesley

1. One question about debt is how it is incurred. Nations have debts as well as individuals, which are self-inflicted and which are imposed by circumstance and systems such as a World Bank? What is a standard way of dealing with self-inflicted debts (such as held by an average American) and what is extraordinary? -- forgive them, declare bankruptcy, debtor's prison? Same questions for imposed debts. Are they the same or different for you? Does it make a difference if the forgiveness is structured for every fifty years (Jubilee) or when it simply piles up to an untenable amount? Can forgiveness be regularly scheduled or is it a hit-and-miss affair, sometimes applied and sometimes not?

2. Regardless of how you see debt relief, there comes the time of connecting how debt dependant we have become, how delightful it is to find release from debt, and how we might pass on gifts received by us to others (equally deserving or not).

Obviously this is about money but it is also about other debts we impose upon others, depending on their skin color, sexual orientation, educational level, cultural language, etc. Can we apply the same distinctions here as we do with finances?

3. The energy in the passage is not about some ideal or theoretical application of forgiveness. Here we find indignancy and outright anger over hypocrisy (receiving one gift and passing on another).

What helps ground us in the midst of the temptation to use our advantage to the disadvantage of someone else is a sense of ongoing forgiveness. Suppose we have had a huge debt forgiven. We can see that as clearing our whole life or we can say thank you and recognize there is still debt in other parts of our life. The road to wholeness does not end with one blessing, it continues into related and perhaps more difficult arenas for debt to be recognized, much less forgiven.

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