March 27 – Matthew 18:21-35

Next week we’ll jump back into the events leading up to the crucifixion, but for now we’ll take another step back in the Gospel of Matthew to look at a story about the Kingdom of Heaven. There Jesus tells a parable about forgiveness, from which we can get some perspective on what it means to belong to Jesus’ Kingdom and what it cost for us to belong in the first place.

In Matthew’s Gospel there’s a noticeable shift once Jesus foretells his death: “From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things.”(16:21) Matthew includes three instances where Jesus announces his upcoming crucifixion: after the first, Peter rebukes Jesus for it (16:22); after the second, the disciples were “greatly distressed” but didn’t say much (17:23); after the third, no one said anything (20:17-19). Though Jesus had yet to set out on the road to Jerusalem here in our passage (that starts in 20:17), the Holy City exerts a gravitational pull from chapters 16 up through 21, so we should read this parable in chapter 18 knowing that the cross is looming in Jesus’ mind.

In chapters 18-20 Jesus is talking about various aspects of the Kingdom of Heaven, and Peter brings up forgiveness. When he suggested forgiving someone up to seven times, he was being generous; Rabbinic Judaism considered forgiving someone three times to be a sufficiently gracious practice of forgiveness, so Peter says this thinking he’s an overachiever. When Jesus sees his bet and raises it, he tosses out a large number not as a legitimate measure, as if we should be keeping track and cut someone off at the 78th offense, but as a marker of the culture of his Kingdom—we should forgive each other so many times we could easily lose count.

The parable of the Unforgiving Servant (v.23-35) illustrates this further. Jesus tells of a wealthy king calling in debts owed him, and we meet one of his servants who owes him an astronomical sum: 10,000 talents. This is another large number that is meant to communicate an incalculably large amount, and various estimates put this in today’s money as $3-6 billions dollars, something like 200,000 years’ worth of wages for a normal laborer, more debt than anyone should ever rack up (note: in Jesus’ day all people below a king were considered his servants, so feasibly this could’ve been a regional ruler under a king who had drained the royal treasury and governed poorly, but Jesus intended the story to be hyperbolic no matter what). Almost unbelievably, the king forgave this servant his debt, something that would’ve seemed like a foolish move, perhaps even downright wrong, to other residents of the kingdom. Everyone, perhaps, except the servant.

Of course, Jesus’ story shows the incongruity of unforgiveness in his kingdom, because rather than skipping off into debt-free bliss the man turned right around and failed to show the kind of monumental forgiveness he had received. In fact, he didn’t even show a fraction of it. The other servant owed him 100 denarii, so about $5800 dollars in today’s money. Compared to what he had been forgiven that was a pittance, something like 0.0002% the amount he had owed the king. Jesus’ parable is incredibly pointed: those who belong to his kingdom have been forgiven an incalculable debt (or offense), so when a professing believer fails to show forgiveness, or puts a ceiling on the amount of forgiveness they’re willing to show, it calls into question whether they are citizens of Jesus’ kingdom in the first place.

Now, we have to be careful here and not make the practice of showing forgiveness a prerequisite to salvation. Many theologians in the Reformation voiced the distinction like this: good works are necessary to salvation, not necessary for salvation. By this they mean that good works can never buy our place in God’s good graces, only faith in the work of Jesus can do that. However, our salvation doesn’t stop there; a genuine faith in Jesus will always be accompanied by good works. Faith alone saves, but the faith that saves is never alone.

So, given the way in which members of God’s kingdom are made citizens in the first place through God’s incalculable mercy, forgiveness is part of his kingdom’s culture and reveals those who belong to God’s family. In particular this is the practice of a similar kind of forgiveness, the kind of head-scratching forgiveness that might look foolish, even downright wrong, to the watching world, the kind of forgiveness that points not to a nice moral practice (ex. “be the change you want to see in the world”) but points to the scandal of the gospel, the almost unbelievable story of a God who was willing to die so that you and I could be forgiven.

Questions for Discussion
• Could someone read Matthew 18:21-35 for us?

• What stood out to you in this passage?

• How does God’s forgiveness towards you free you to forgive others?

• Why do you think forgiveness is such a priority in the Kingdom of God?

• Why do you think Jesus wants his disciples to forgive others “from their heart”?

• What is challenging to you about this passage?

• How do you think this passage connects to Jesus’ death on the cross?

• What’s a specific example of how you want to grow in showing the kind of forgiveness that God has shown you?