Thought for the day
“The world needs forgiveness; too many people are caught up in resentment and harbour hatred because they are incapable of forgiving. They ruin their own lives and the lives of those around them rather than finding the joy of serenity and peace.” (Pope Francis in Assisi in 2016) His point is that those who do not forgive, who hold on to resentment, hurt themselves almost as much, even if they are unaware of it for a while.
God, always ready to forgive, we thank you for your forgiving love. Give us the grace to show the same love and forgiveness to all. Amen.
Matt 18:21 Then Peter came to Jesus and said, “Lord, how many times must I forgive my brother who sins against me? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, I tell you, but seventy-seven times!
Matt 18:23 “For this reason, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 As he began settling his accounts, a man who owed 10,000 talents was brought to him. 25 Because he was not able to repay it, the lord ordered him to be sold, along with his wife, children, and whatever he possessed, and repayment to be made. 26 Then the slave threw himself to the ground before him, saying, ‘Be patient with me, and I will repay you everything.’ 27 The lord had compassion on that slave and released him, and forgave him the debt. 28 After he went out, that same slave found one of his fellow slaves who owed him 100 silver coins. So he grabbed him by the throat and started to choke him, saying, ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ 29 Then his fellow slave threw himself down and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will repay you.’ 30 But he refused. Instead, he went out and threw him in prison until he repaid the debt. 31 When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were very upset and went and told their lord everything that had taken place. 32 Then his lord called the first slave and said to him, ‘Evil slave! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me! 33 Should you not have shown mercy to your fellow slave, just as I showed it to you?’ 34 And in anger his lord turned him over to the prison guards to torture him until he repaid all he owed. 35 So also my heavenly Father will do to you, if each of you does not forgive your brother from your heart.”
This Gospel is helpful in several ways, contrasting as it does everyday human logic with the logic of God’s forgiveness. First of all, we get a window on life in the early church, with its challenges and emerging structures. Secondly, the problems raised have not gone way — conflict like this is evidently normal. Thirdly, as a result, the passage speaks to us today. Scholars do wonder who is being addressed in this discourse—all disciples or chiefly the leadership? It must be all, but the leadership is in the frame as well. The message is clear: God’s pardon is the foundation for fraternal pardon and, yes, God’s extraordinary pardon obliges extraordinary pardon in return.
For the sake of inclusive language, the NRSV translates “brother” as “member of the church”, thus introducing a later, technical vocabulary, foreign to Matthew. In this Gospel “brother” does mean someone who belongs to the faith community. In the historical context of Matthew, adelphoi includes bothers and sisters. The preceding paragraphs—18:15-20—are about seeking the repentance of another disciple (adelphos) who has sinned. The next question is logical: how often should forgiveness be given?
Kind of writing
Matthew’s Gospel is divided into five books, each containing a narrative followed by a discourse. Our excerpt comes from the Discourse on Church life in Book IV. There are six moments, each with three sub-components.
18:1–4 (1–2, 3, 4)
18:5–9 (5–6, 7, 8–9)
18:10–14 (10, 12–13, 14)
18:15–17 (15–16, 17a, 17b)
18:18–20 (18, 19, 20)
18:21–35 (21–22, 23–34, 35)
Matthew 18:21-35 comprises, therefore, three steps: the introductory question, the “parable” and the generalising conclusion at the end.
The initial exchange is found also in Luke 17:4 but the parable itself is unique to Matthew. A straight allegorical reading of the parable (king = God etc.) yields a difficult (!) understanding of God torturing and punishing to the last penny. Even the didactic parables of Matthew are not so simple. It is not the details which are compared but the processes and results.
Old Testament background
Lamech said to his wives: “Adah and Zillah, hear my voice; you wives of Lamech, listen to what I say: I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.” (Gen 4:23–24)
You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbour, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord. (Lev 19:17–18)
Contrasting Rabbinic traditions do exist. It is likely that these traditions are a reaction to the risk of presumption in the case of “easy” forgiveness. For example,
If a human says, “I will sin and then repent,” God forgives up to three times but no more. (Avot of R. Nathan 40) If a person commits a transgression, that one is forgiven three times but not the fourth. (Talmud b. Yom 86b) If a person sins two or three times, they (others in the people of God) forgive him but not on the fourth occasion. (Tosefta t. Yom 4.13)
New Testament foreground
And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. (Matt 6:12)
For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. (Matt 6:14–15)
Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. (Matt 7:1–2)
Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matt 26:27–28)
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God. (2 Cor 1:2–4)
Verse 21 Peter acts as spokesman and in his mouth the community asks a practical question. Seven retains its note of perfection, perhaps ironically.
Verse 22 Jesus’ reply builds on the number seven and exaggerates it to suggest limitless forgiveness. The allusion to Lamech turns that story on its head.
Verse 23 The king is evidently a Gentile and his “slaves” are high officials of the court. If a Gentile can be so magnanimous…
Verse 24 10,000 was the highest number used in accounting at the time. A talent was the equivalent of 10,000 denarii. According to Josephus, a denarius was a day’s wages. The sum is thus astronomical, impossible and hyperbolic. Even Herod took in “only” 200 talents in annual taxation from Galilee. So, the amount is, by definition, beyond repayment.
Verse 25 The sale would not have come near the amount owed because the highest going rate for a “slave” was about 2,000 denarii (one fifth of a talent). NB the king has become “his lord.”
Verse 26 The plea is completely unrealistic but persuasively abject. As the parable evolves, the servant will get “time”!
Verse 27 Two words are important here. Seized with pity is splagchnistheis, meaning profound compassion from within. Forgave is the same word used for forgiveness of sins at the start. The expression “The lord of that slave” comes up again in Matt 24:50; 25:19, 21, 23, permitting a Messianic reading of the role of lord.
Verse 28 The social inequalities no longer have a role here. The debt is between fellow servants, a word from the early church (Matt 18:28–29, 31, 33; 24:49; Col 1:7; 4:7; Rev 6:11; 19:10; 22:9). The violence foreshadows the later violence of his lord’s reaction.
Verse 29 This time, the amount is not small but in practice realisable, with mercy and patience. Echoing the earlier plea, the fellow servant too asks for time.
Verse 30 In Greek it says simply, “he did not wish.” A debtor in prison would depend on family and friends to raise the amount required for release. NB cf. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny. (Matt 5:25–26)
Verse 31 This perfectly natural reaction is also that of the hearers of the parable.
Verses 32-33 The lord first retells the main story and then draws the obvious conclusion. The phrase “should you not” conceals the Greek dei or “it is necessary.” It echoes both Gospel “must” of Jesus’ destiny and the “must” of discipleship. The central vision of mercy and forgiveness, so important in this Gospel, comes to the fore. It all started with the first Beatitude: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. (Matt 5:7; cf. Matt 9:27; 15:22; 17:15; 18:33; 20:30-31; for the noun mercy, see Matt 9:13; 12:7; 23:23).
Verse 34 The opening word in Greek —orgistheis, seized with anger—consciously echoes the earlier seized with compassion in v. 27. Once again, the amount to be raised is impossible—but at least the servant got the time he asked for earlier on!!
Verse 35 The teaching is generalised and anticipates the judgment parables in Matthew 23-25. It is initially a warning. But there is something deeper. God’s grace is a gift which we can never, ever earn. We can, however, lose it. Matthew teaches that if forgiveness does not become part of who we are, we become in a way incapable of receiving it even from God.
Pointers for prayer
1. Jesus surprised Peter by telling him he needed to forgive seventy-seven times. Perhaps you have known the truth of this when something reminds you of a past hurt and you find your need in your heart to forgive again the person who hurt you. What was this like for you? How has a capacity to have a forgiving heart helped you?
2. Sometimes we need to forgive ourselves for things we regret about past behaviour. What happens to you when you cannot do this? How has your ability to forgive yourself for past mistakes influenced your attitude towards yourself now?
3. Are there people whose ability to forgive has inspired you? Recall them and the forgiveness they showed and give thanks for their example.
O God most high, you are slow to anger and rich in compassion.
Keep alive in us the memory of your mercy, that our angers may be calmed and our resentments dispelled. May we discover the forgiveness promised to those who forgive and become a people rich in mercy. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.