by Joe Slater
When Peter asked Jesus how many times he should forgive a brother who sinned against him, the Lord responded with the parable of the two debtors (Matthew 18:21-35).
One debtor owed the king ten thousand talents (18:24). If Jesus meant for us to think of talents of gold, this would be a staggering sum — in the tens of billions of dollars at today’s prices!
Even if silver talents were meant, this servant was hopelessly in debt. Despite his protest to the contrary, there was no way he was ever going to pay it off, regardless of how much more time he was given (18:26).
His creditor had every right to sell him and his entire family into servitude for the rest of their lives. Fortunately for him, the king had compassion. He required not even a partial payment; he simply forgave the entire debt (18:25, 27).
This drowning-in-debt servant had loaned a hundred denarii to a fellow-servant (18:28). It was a significant sum, to be sure; a denarius was a day’s pay for a common laborer (see Matthew 20:2).
However, even a hundred days’ pay could not hold a candle to the tens of billions of dollars of debt for which the king had forgiven the first servant.
One might reasonably expect that thankfulness would move the forgiven debtor to exercise the same compassion toward his fellow-servant.
Instead, the wretched ingrate had his poor coworker cast into debtor’s prison (18:29, 30). When the king heard of it, he became so furious that he turned the unforgiving servant over to the torturers until the original debt was paid in full, which, of course, it never could be (18:31-34).
Go back to Peter’s original question: “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” (18:21). Jesus corrected Peter as follows: “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven” (18:22).
Clearly, Peter needed to raise his debt ceiling! Seventy times seven was not intended as a mathematical equation yielding a product of four hundred ninety. The point was simply this: as many times as the brother sins and repents, you forgive.
In the parable, the king undoubtedly represents God Himself. Our sins put us hopelessly in debt to God. No matter how hard we work, we can never pay the price for even one sin. “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23a).
God has every right to punish us in Hell eternally. Fortunately for us, Jesus went to the cross and paid the debt for us. By putting our confident trust in him and obeying the gospel, we receive complete forgiveness. God puts no ceiling on how many sins the blood of Christ will wash away.
Anyone who thinks, “I have sinned so much that not even God can forgive me,” simply has a faulty understanding of the grace of God and the blood of Christ.
Since God places no debt ceiling on us, how dare we place such on other people? Jesus said, “If your brother sins against you, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him” (Luke 17:3). That includes even seven times in a single day (17:4).
The complete number seven indicates again the indefinite frequency with which we are to forgive. Love keeps no tally sheet of sins committed (1 Corinthians 13:5).
That is not to say that God is going soft on sin, or that we should. Continuing in sin that grace may abound is not an option (Romans 6:1).
But where there is repentance, forgiveness must follow. That is the way God operates — and are we not grateful that He does? How, then, can we refuse the same compassion to each other? Indeed, we must not!
Do you need to raise your debt ceiling?
Joe Slater is the preacher for the Justin Church of Christ in Justin, Texas.