What is the heart of forgiveness in Matthew 18?

The lectionary gospel reading for Trinity 15 in Year A is Matt 18.21–35. It continues Matthew’s collection of Jesus’ teaching about life in the ekklesia—not the ‘church’ as we would understand it now, but within the community of God, gathered around obedience to Jesus himself.

We might, when reading this in the context of the whole chapter, assume that there is a strong link between this pericope and the one before it, since the shared subject is responding to the question of sin. But the focus here is quite different; as we saw last week, we should read Matt 18.15 as ‘if a brother or sister sins…’ without the additional ‘…against you’, and we noted that the focus is very much more on the concern for and restitution of the one sinner, rather than either the protection of the one sinned against or the holiness of the community. This concern reflects God’s compassion for each of ‘these little ones’ that they might not go astray and be lost.

But at the start of our reading today, in Matt 18.21, the concern shifts away from salvation of the sinner and more towards the protection of the sinned against. It is, perhaps, striking that, over against Jesus’ focus on the other, Peter brings the question sharply back to the concerns of the self—though I wonder if I am reading too much into this. Where the initial questions about communal relationships have been brought by the disciples as a group in Matt 18.1, this question has been brought by Peter as an individual. When we have been wronged, and have a grievance, there is a legitimate question to be asked. Yet the shift from the other to the self is also one that is characteristic of our human nature—and in response Jesus (in a parable unique to Matthew) once more seeks to make God’s forgiveness, rather than our obligation, the heart of the matter.

There is some evidence in the rabbinical literature (b. Yoma 86b–87a) that forgiving someone three times was a reasonable limit to generosity and grace. If so, then Peter extends that to a nice ‘whole’ number of completeness, seven. There is some debate about whether Jesus’ response means ‘seventy times seven’, that is, 490, or ‘seventy-seven times’, since the Greek appears to be an odd construction, reflecting translation from a Hebrew figure of speech. This, then, points to an important antecedent—the boast of Lamech in Gen 4.24: ‘If Cain is avenged sevenfold [compare Gen 4.13] surely Lamech is avenged seventy-seven fold’.

Jesus’ saying therefore contrasts strikingly (‘I tell you…’) with three things. First, it contrasts with practical wisdom—after all, surely we should not continue forgiving someone without limit, else what would the world be like? Yet the previous passage has shown that sin does have consequences, and cannot be ignored—that is not the issue here though. But Jesus’s teaching also contrasts with Peter’s, human, generous extension of practical wisdom. The forgiveness that flows to others from our experience of forgiveness by God is indeed to be as gracious and generous as his.

And, thirdly, this stands in stark contrast with the human desire for vengeance, which is such a destructive force in so many violent and tribal contexts around the world today, as well as destroying the hearts and lives of those who have been wronged.

The disciple must be as extravagant in forgiving as Lamech was in taking vengeance. This is the language of hyperbole, not of calculation. (R T France, NIGTC, p 705).

Some question whether the parable of the unforgiving slave that follows actually goes back to Jesus, or has arisen as a creative development of Jesus’ teaching in the Lord’s Prayer ‘Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors’ (Matt 6.12, expanded on in Matt 6.14–15). If so, then there is an anonymous creative genius, who was not able to think up a striking, vivid and memorable parable, but was able to do so in a way that was entirely typical of Jesus’ teaching in other parts of the gospels.

As with many of Jesus’ other parables in Matthew, this one starts with ‘The kingdom of heaven is like…’ leading straight on to identifying the kingdom with a character at the centre of the parable. As with many other parables, it focuses on an economic context, the other main source of Jesus’ illustrations alongside the field and farming. And, as elsewhere, it includes unreal and hyperbolic amounts of money, so that the account is vivid in its absurdity. Once more, the theme of accountability and judgement forms the climax.

Some English translations soften the starkness of the different social context by calling those involved ‘servants’ rather than ‘slaves’, but the latter is probably the better translation of doulos. Slavery was known and practiced amongst Jews almost as much as in other parts of the Roman Empire.

It was not impossible for slaves to be responsible for significant parts of their master’s estate; we need to be aware that Roman slavery was a quite different institution from later practice, in that it was not based on racial identity, and slaves could rise to become senior managers and stewards with great authority, whilst still not enjoying the status and liberties of free men and women.

But the amount of the debt here is rather absurd. A denarius (Matt 18.28) was believed to be a reasonable amount to pay a labourer for a day’s work, and a ‘talent’, though technically a measure of weight, was usually assumed to be a quantity of silver (not ‘gold’ as in the TNIV), worth six thousand denarii, that is, at least 20 years’ worth of a labourer’s pay—and given the shorter life expectancy, represents a life-time’s earnings. The myria of talents here, ten thousand, is the largest number for which there is a Greek term, and is here put with the largest amount of money. The Living Translation in the 1970s translated it as ‘a million dollars!’ which tried to capture the rhetorical force—which now in our age of billionaires fails to express that this was a quantity beyond any individual’s grasp. The first slave’s offer to repay the debt (Matt 18.26) is completely unrealistic.

The king is ‘moved with compassion’ is Jesus is frequently when confronted by those needing his help (Matt 9.36, 14.14, 20.34). This leads to a response which goes far beyond what the slave has asked, and forgives the debt entirely.

The second half of the story mirrors the first half, but with more vivid directness. The first slave is owed a debt, as was the king, but he seeks to exact this with violence. Even though the debt is comparatively small (a hundred denarii) he was acting within his legal rights by having him imprisoned.

His fellow slave does just what he has done—falling on his knees and begging for forgiveness. (It is worth noting that this is a parable, not a mere allegory, so that we should not press the details of the action too far in seeking parallels in our lives. In other words, this is not merely a story about how we respond when people beg us for forgiveness.)

But what is shocking to the other slaves, who report back to the king, is that the first slave has failed to see the parallel, not just in the action of the other, but in the situation of being in debt and in need of forgiveness. The king’s action has changed his financial situation but it has not yet changed his heart.

The king, however, does not fail to see the parallel, as we can tell from his emphatic ‘all that debt of yours’. If you plan to re-enact this as part of reflection of and teaching on it, make sure you do it with a kind of pantomime exaggeration! The receipt of forgiveness must lead to the offer of forgiveness if it is to complete its real work.

The parable as s depiction of the dynamics of the kingdom of heaven does leave us with some questions.

Are we really slaves to our heavenly master? Well, yes indeed we are in many respects—‘slave’ was Paul’s favourite term of self-description with which he begins all his letters. We have been ‘bought with a price’ (1 Cor 6.20), which is language directly from the slave market, and we are therefore not our own, but belong to our new master. And we were indeed in debt, since we owe everything we have to God; none of us has anything that we have not been given. But we have been bought to be set free, free from sinful self-centredness and self-protection, free to live in forgiveness and generosity rather than living in bitterness, chained to the desire for revenge.

Is God really an all-powerful king, who will punish those who do not live in his grace? Well, in many ways, yes. Despite our anxieties about power dynamics, the metaphor of kingship is hard to avoid in Jesus’ teaching, and the metaphor matters. The question is, what kind of a king is God? Jesus’ answer here is that he is one who, though owed a great debt, is moved with compassion as we turn to him, and forgives our debts at great personal cost. We might complain that there is no mention of the cross here, as there is not in that other great parable of gracious forgiveness, the story of the prodigal son and the forgiving father in Luke 15. Yet it is clear who pays the price in order to make the forgiveness real.

There is an idea floating around that God accepts us as we are, so that we can get on with our lives as they are. But this suggests that acceptance is nothing more or less than we would expect from a reasonable human being, and comes at little or no cost. In this scenario, God is only doing what we might expect. But if God does accept us, then in fact it involves forgiveness at great cost, and that must surely change everything.

And God is also a king who rages at injustice, and will see that justice is done. This, too, is liberating, since it means we are free not to seek personal revenge as an exacting of justice, because we can leave that to God.

I have experienced wrong done to me by others, even to the extent that it has changed my ministry, the course of my life, and meant having to up and leave employment and home and situation. But I have not experienced wrong done to me to the extent of losing a loved one to murderous violence, as others have. We all, therefore, need to be careful in applying this to others; we need first (and even last?) to apply it to ourselves, whatever our situation and experience.

Yet those who have experienced greater wrong can help us understand this parable. We might not be in their situation, but they can offer us an insight into our. I was very moved a few years ago to read of the response of Maureen Greaves, widow Alan Greaves, who was brutally and senselessly murder on Christmas Eve as he was on his way to play the organ for Midnight Communion at St Saviour’s in Sheffield.

“It seems so easy to say I’ve forgiven them, but it’s probably one of the hardest things in my life that I’ve had to do and yet having done it and repeatedly seeking to do it, I’ve found I’ve benefited.

“I’ve not gone to bed with them on my mind, I’ve not gone around with shocking feelings over them, I’ve not gone over and over in my mind the replay of what happened to Alan.”

Mrs Greaves said she hoped both men would find “some sense of true sorrow” for what they had done.

“Perhaps they’ll find while they’re in prison a journey they can go on where they will be able to think of what they’ve done and turn away from such things and start leading better lives.”

It might be that we need to forgive not just 77 times for 77 different sins, but 77 times for the same sin until we truly live in the forgiveness of the king, who is also our compassionate heavenly father.

Join Ian and James as they discuss all these issues here:


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12 thoughts on “What is the heart of forgiveness in Matthew 18?”

  1. Your final comment is something I’ve often thought of, because I don’t find it easy to forgive. It means forgiving that person every single time that old resentment and anger arises. 70×7 indeed, and more. Something else I’ve learned recently about forgiveness, is that it’s a decision, not a feeling. I’ve found this really helpful because forgiveness is a way we walk in, not always a single act. It means going back to that decision to forgive every time the bad memory arises. It’s something we can help each other with, reminding each other that we have chosen to forgive and need to continue to walk in the path of forgiveness.

    • My own observation is that forgiveness is directly linked with time and our attitude to the passing of time. This, in turn is linked to our own particular life narrative. If we have no sense of God and eternity stretching beyond this life, we may view that narrative as a continuing score of our successes/failures, pleasure/sadness, victories/defeats, ambitions realised/thwarted. In that case, each wrong that we have suffered is an indelible black mark on our score card – a blemish on our hope/expectation of a wonderful life. Naturally we’re not going to be happy about that!

      We Christians need constantly to remind ourselves that we are on a journey where looking to the future must always absorb our energy rather than assessing the plusses and minuses of our past. Faith is always about stepping into the future rather than looking back: Jesus was there in our past (for which we give thanks) but he’s standing there in the future, beckoning us onwards. I think this perspective should help to set us free from the bonds which continuing resentment (even when it’s justified) can so easily wrap around us and bring us down.

      I know this may sound like amateur psychology (perhaps it is!) but I do think it’s true that a growing sense of eternity and the grace of God who invites us to share it in his company should help us to see the damage others have done to us in a calmer perspective. I’m not suggesting it’s all solved in a trice once you latch on to some easy mental trick, and we all have our own personality type which cannot readily be reprogrammed even if we wish that it could. But I do think working and growing towards a broader eternal perspective can only be good advice as we wrestle with the setbacks which come our way.

  2. I’m not sure that your case for making sharp division between this and the previous section (on accountability in the church) is persuasive. Why separate what the gospel has joined together?

    And why do you says the ekklesia is not church as we understand it? How does that help us? If this text is not about life in the church of what use is it to us?

    Surely mutual accountability is always needed among the people of God. Jesus isn’t coining a new term – the word is borrowed from the Septuagint meaning the people of God, isn’t it?

    More importantly, if forgiveness within the church is separated from accountability, don’t you just end up with a charter for abuse? Isn’t it just cheap grace to advocate forgiveness without repentance? Your story of forgiveness is very moving, but it does not appear to be a story about forgiveness of the brother or sister in Christ – it seems to relate ordinary criminality. Surely we cannot tolerate criminality in the church?

    Sorry for asking so many questions – they are the same questions I always want to ask whenever I’ve heard a sermon on forgiveness!

  3. This is a complex topic.
    Ian, in your video discussion you mentioned both the difficulty that arises when the offender is no longer alive and the reality that harbouring resentment is like swallowing poison and expecting it to harm the other person.
    In Jesus’s story, both servants ask for forgiveness of their debt. But what if people don’t ask or can’t ask? It seems clear that if someone has wronged us, we must adopt a forgiving attitude, but can we complete the act of forgiving them if they do not want or seek forgiveness?
    Where there is no repentance, it may still be right to overlook an offence. In Proverbs, the prudent overlook an insult (12:16) and it is to one’s glory to overlook an offence (19:11). We are enjoined in Hebrews 12:14-15 to make every effort to live at peace with everyone, and to see to it that no bitter root grows up.
    But compare Luke 17:3-4 – “If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. 4 Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.” What, then, if they don’t repent?
    What is the relationship between the letting go and overlooking of offences, which prevents bitterness, and the requirement of repentance as a condition of forgiveness?
    Can you shed any light on these questions, please?

  4. No one is suggesting criminality should be overlooked. A crime is a “act against the state”, the Crown v perpetrator P. And there is no Statutute of Limitations for serious crimes.
    My O my, how difficult we make it when when seek to avoid the difficult act of the will to forgive.

    • Safeguarding, is not what this scripture and articles are about. It is not about cover-up or condoning crime.
      It is suggested that could amount to a false conflation and would avoid justice according to the law.
      And that also takes little to no account of the higher and ultimmate accountability of the eternal justice according the *law* of God and God”s execution of his justice.
      There can be criminal court convictions and sentence, without any acknowledgement of guilt, yet the victim can continue to habour resentment and bitterness which imprisons and despoils their own lives.

  5. Happy Jack doesn’t see hyperbole, absurdity or humour in this parable.

    Offending against God merits infinite punishment (represented by the amount of talents). A debt we can never repay. But God is love and mercy as well as justice. He paid the debt for us and all we need do is access that forgiveness. The servant begs for mercy and receives it. In turn, we are to forgive others their lesser debts to us and leave the rest to God.

    • Why should offending God merit infinite punishment? How would that be just? Even rebellious Israel was only punished double for her sins (Isaiah 40).

      Does God forgive without repentance? Should the church pronounce forgiveness where there is no repentance? How can there be reconciliation between brothers where there is no repentance? Isn’t reconciliation the larger prize?

      • There seems to be,
        1 an assumption of a moral superiority over the judgements of God, standing in judgement of Him
        2 alongside that, a slim acknowledgement of the Doctrine of God, who He is. And the corollary is not recognising the enormity of our sin against God.
        3 the cost to God for His forgiveness of our sins in Christ Jesus, God the Son.
        4 a great difficulty, and it can be hugely difficult, to personally forgive trespasses, sins.
        5. Not sure that the church’s role is to pronounce the forgiveness of X for personal sins against Y.
        6 There there may never be reconciliation between X and Y. Even if Y told X that he had forgiven Y while not condoning Y’s sin against him, Y could remain in denial and unapologetic and the relationship would remain broken and not reconciled, healed. Enmity could remain, but X will have done his part to seek to effect reconciliation. Even harder is to love our enemies and there is only One exemplar.
        7. Similarly, with God and humanity. Enmity remains even while in Christ he loved us, his enemies , to death, even his own death on a cross, outside the City walls.

      • Paul Burr – I more-or-less agree that ‘punishment’ is the wrong word here. Let us replace ‘offending against God’ by ‘turning one’s back on God’ or ‘rejecting God’. Let us replace ‘punishment’ by ‘eternal separation from God’ – and then we probably have a better idea. If we persistently reject Him then eventually he stops reaching out to us and says, ‘if that’s the way you want it, then that’s the way you’re going to have it’ – and if by ‘infinite punishment’ we mean ‘eternal separation’ then I think ‘merit’ is the wrong word in this context.

        We can also understand ‘repentance’ as turning from selfish self-centred ways and turning towards a desire to be in communion with God and living accordingly – not for self but for Him, that His name be hallowed, that His kingdom come, that His will be done on earth as it is in heaven – when we turn from self to Him and live accordingly, that is repentance.

        No real repentance means that the person who doesn’t repent doesn’t actually want reconciliation, doesn’t want to be in communion, so I think the question of whether or not ‘the church’ pronounces ‘forgiveness’ is purely academic.


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