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Matthew 18:21-35

Lesson Focus

Receiving great and immeasurable grace requires the giving of great and immeasurable grace.

Lesson Outcomes

Through this lesson, students should:

  1. Understand the importance of unlimited forgiveness in the Christian faith, recognizing that great and immeasurable grace from God should inspire us to offer the same level of grace and forgiveness to others.

  2. Analyze Peter's question about forgiveness and the significance of Jesus recommending forgiveness "seventy-seven times," exploring the concept of limitless forgiveness in contrast to setting a numerical limit.

  3. Reflect on the parable of the Merciful King and the Merciless Servant, recognizing the transformative power of forgiveness and the consequences of failing to extend forgiveness to others, emphasizing the need to forgive because we ourselves have been forgiven.

Catching up on the Story

Jesus has just been speaking about the importance of the unity of the community of faith by way of a parable concerned with going after those who have strayed from the church. He punctuated the segment with a small teaching on how to go about reconciliation. It is the will of God that none, specifically those belonging to the church at one time or another, be lost. Additionally, those who belong to the community of the faith would do well to remember that they are constantly accountable to the community. Now, the narrative moves from unity through reconciliation and the unrelenting chasing after our brothers and sisters to forgiveness.

Peter’s Question

Our passage begins with a question that Peter puts to Jesus. If we are honest with ourselves, we probably ask the same question of others or ourselves when facing people or groups who have repeatedly hurt us. So, it seems that the question may be natural: "How often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”

At the heart of the question is the notion that forgiveness is limited. Peter is trying to discover what that limit is. Peter offers up the number seven.

In the Bible, the number seven is the number of completeness, and perhaps Peter thought that if he had reached that number, his responsibility regarding forgiveness had been met. I don’t think we should be too hard on Peter. How many of us want to forgive after the second or third infraction, let alone the seventh? I believe Peter is trying to be generous.

Jesus, however, blows Peter out of the water by suggesting that forgiveness should extend to the seventy-seventh time.

Early church father John Chrysostom remarks that Jesus’ response is “not setting a number here, but what is infinite and perpetual and forever” (Chrysostom 375).

In other words, forgiveness should be unlimited. Jesus could leave this saying here and move on to another subject. A command from Christ should be enough to stir us toward offering an unlimited forgiveness.

However, Jesus offers a story that helps us see why we should be so extravagant in our offering of forgiveness.

The Merciful King

The story begins with the familiar phrase, “For this reason, the kingdom of heaven may be compared to…” As he has and will do in other places, Jesus is comparing a known world and rule to living in the reign of God.

In other words, Jesus is painting a picture of life as it should and will be when Jesus’ kingdom is fully established. In other places, in Mark and Luke’s Gospel, Jesus will use the phrase “the kingdom of God.” The two phrases are mostly interchangeable.

What is the kingdom of heaven like? It is like a king or ruler who wishes to go through the books to determine the state of his kingdom. This audit reveals that one of the king’s servants owes him a very large amount of money.

It’s to be noted here that the word “servant” does not always denote someone of very lowly status. Rather, it points to a worker in the king's administration. Judging by the size of his debt, he is rather high in the governmental organization.

The amount of money the servant owes is ten thousand talents. This was an exceedingly large sum.

One talent was equal to six thousand denarii. If we do the math, ten thousand talents equal 60 million denarii (Bruner 237). To put this into perspective, the normal wage for a day laborer was around one denarius. Translating the amount into terms we can get our mind around, after all, we hear of transactions in our business world that are in the billions, diminishes from the force of the amount Jesus specifies.

The idea that Jesus is trying to convey is that the amount that the servant owes is infinitely large; it is well beyond his or anyone else’s ability to pay back.

Blomberg states, "The ‘talent’ was the highest known denomination of currency in the ancient Roman Empire, and ten thousand was the highest number for which the Greek language had a particular word (myrias; cf. our myriad).” (Blomberg, 238). Greek-speaking persons could not conceive of a number larger than ten thousand talents.

The king brings the servant into his chamber to discuss with him his debt. The servant finds himself in a rough spot; he and his entire family will be sold into slavery until the debt could be paid.

At this point, both the servant and the hearers of this story realize that neither the man nor his family will ever be free again. There is just no way they will ever pay back the debt. So, the servant begins to call on the mercy of the king. He offers to pay back everything if only the king would have some patience.

Here’s where we get a picture of the kingdom of heaven, as God would have it. The king is moved to pity.

The Greek word translated as “pity” (splagchnizomai) here is more intense. The word itself has to do with the “inward parts” of the person or animal, namely the stomach and intestines, as well as the heart, kidneys, and liver. Matthew uses splagchnizomai in three of his parables to talk about God's divine compassion toward creation (Kittel, Bromley, and Friedrich 553-554).

So, the NRSV’s pity could be conveyed as such, “And out of bowel-shaking feelings of compassion and mercy for the servant, the lord of that slave released him and forgave his debt.”

The first act of the parable is now complete. The servant, who had a great, immeasurable, incomprehensible debt, was forgiven his debt because of the unfathomable grace and mercy of the king.

Now, we could stop right there and go on for days about the nature of the “kingdom of heaven.” Immense and outlandish levels of love and forgiveness characterize the kingdom that Jesus has brought and is bringing. Peter’s question seems silly compared to the king's response toward great debt.

The temptation to stop here and soak in this great grace is profound, but this is not where Jesus ends the story.

Merciless Servant

Act two begins with the newly pardoned servant roaming the streets of his city. Keep in mind that he is a person of standing in the community and kingdom and has persons that are under him.

He sees a man who owes him a debt. It is not an insignificant amount, 100 denarii, but it would take some time to repay. The servant seizes the man by the throat and demands that the man pay what is owed.

Obviously, the grace that the servant has been shown has had little or no effect on him. The words of the second debtor are almost word for word, the same as the servant’s when he spoke to the king.

The second man pleads for patience and mercy. The servant refuses and throws the man into prison until he can repay the debt.

A group of the servant’s coworkers witness the incident and report to the king.

The NRSV says the servants were “greatly distressed,” while the NIV records that the servants were “outraged.” Both translations miss the point a bit.

The Greek word translated as “distressed” and “outraged” carries with it more of a feeling of “sorrow” and “grief.” The servants, who perhaps have heard about the king’s great mercy toward the servant, are saddened and brought to great sorrow and grief because of the servant’s actions. This, too, should be our response when we see a brother or sister who has received great saving grace from God but refuses to pass on that grace and mercy to others.

The king responds by summoning the servant. The king’s response is one of unbelief, calling the servant wicked for his actions.

The payoff line comes in verses 32-33, “I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave as I had mercy on you?”

In anger, the king hands over the servant to be tortured until he pays his unpayable debt. Jesus ends the parable with a warning. This is what will happen to you if you do not forgive your brother or sister.

So What?

What are we to make of this story? What is the kingdom of heaven like? You and I are obviously in great debt to the God of the universe. That’s why we pray the Lord’s Prayer and seek the forgiveness of our debts.

Indeed, we are the servant in the parable who has been forgiven an immeasurable debt because we have sought the mercy of Christ our King. The God of the Universe has been moved to provide us grace, mercy, and forgiveness through the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. Our debt has been paid. We have been forgiven.

As I said earlier, merely settling in and enjoying our freedom and forgiveness would be a mistake. Those who have been forgiven much must extend forgiveness as well. This forgiveness should be extended, not out of some moral obligation or even out of fear that we might be handed over to be tortured until we pay the last penny!

No, this forgiveness should be extended because we have allowed the grace and forgiveness we have received to transform our lives.

How do we allow this grace to transform us?

By routinely acknowledging and recalling our own great debt of sin. If we forget that we are sinners saved by grace, we will have little compassion for those who sin against us.

A warning is in order. It does no good to dwell on our past and present sins. Doing so will only drag us down, but to healthfully consider that we have been forgiven a great debt, that in many cases we still need great forgiveness, causes us to be more indulgent of the sins of others. For the sins of others are our [humanity’s] same sins coming from different faces and names.

Saint John Chrysostom (380) begins to bring his homily on this passage to a close with these words, “Two things therefore doth He here require, both to condemn ourselves for our sins, and to forgive others; and the former for the sake of the latter, that this may become more easy (for he who considers his own sins is more indulgent to his fellow-servant); and not merely to forgive with the lips, but from the heart.”

This is the heart of the matter; we forgive because we have been forgiven. How much do we forgive? The same amount we have been forgiven, which happens to be an insurmountable amount.

Ways to Forgive as God has Forgiven Us…

  1. As you begin each day this week, reflect on the sins for which you have been forgiven. Express your thankfulness to God for the forgiveness you have received.

  2. Spend time each day reflecting on the hurt and pain you have received from others. How have you hurt or inflicted pain on others in similar ways? Seek forgiveness from God and others for those sins.

Discussion Questions

Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly. Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.

  1. Why do you think Peter asks his question in the way he asks it? Do you think Peter is being generous with his plan to forgive seven times? Or do you think he is trying to go the easy route? Why?

  2. Why do you think Jesus recommends forgiving seventy-seven times?

  3. As a group, determine who each character is in Jesus’ parable. What is each character doing? What might their motivations be? How could they have acted differently?

  4. The king in the story is physically moved to compassion toward the servant. Has there ever been a time when you have been physically moved to compassion for another person? What did that feel like? What was the situation that resulted in your being moved toward compassion?