Peter’s inquiry about forgiveness is couched in language filled with presupposition. The Jewish tradition was to forgive three times. Peter thinks he is onto something with his generous offer to more than double this kindness, but Jesus throws a curveball. How about seventy-seven times, Peter? Or, better yet, just stop counting!
And then, this passage comes apart rather neatly between verses 22 and 23, as Jesus begins to spin a parable, perhaps not exclusively in answer to Peter’s question but full of insights on forgiveness, nonetheless.
The servant owes ten thousand bags of gold… ten thousand talents…
The debt is extraordinary—even hopeless! It’s more than could ever be repaid in many, many lifetimes. The king may want to settle the account, but he must also know it can never actually be settled. Certainly, selling the servant and his family into slavery will not adequately satisfy the amount of money owed. Is there something to be said about the value of a life here? Maybe. But what good is it to the king to destroy the lives of an entire family? There is hyperbole at work, and it’s not one-sided.
The desperate servant makes a ludicrous claim! He asks the king to be patient and he will pay back everything, but everyone involved knows this is a lie. There is nothing he can do to repay the debt… ever. The master takes pity on him, cancels the debt, and lets him go. It’s difficult to discern why.
Strangely, when a fellow servant makes the same plea; this servant who has been forgiven much is unwilling to strike a similar deal. Like the first servant, he asks for patience to repay the debt. Neither asked for forgiveness, yet the master offered it but the ungrateful servant could not even be bothered to wait. For a debt of one-hundred days worth of wages; the servant abuses, demands, and punishes. He has his debtor thrown into prison until the full amount can be repaid. In some ways, it makes sense. This is a reasonable debt that actually can be settled. It’s not hopeless. Perhaps the servant doesn’t even make the connection between the two events, but the other servants do.
Before he knows what is happening, the servant finds himself before the master, yet again, but the compassion has dissolved. The servant’s own lack of mercy has cost him his freedom, forever, because… again, remember… his debt is insurmountable. It will never be paid off.
Jesus says the Kingdom of heaven is like this. Jesus says God forgives according the measure of our forgiveness of others. We often want to wrap this up in clichés—a nice treatise on forgiveness for those who have both been forgiven for, and forgiven, debts that amount to denarii. But I would venture to say there is more to this story, and I think we need to be especially careful about how we interpret this from the perspective of victims of horrific pain, suffered at the hands of others.
This is a hard teaching for people who have been oppressed, abused, and sinned against. Too often, I feel that we approach wounded people by insisting that they forgive those who have harmed them. That is biblical after all, right? But we also project unreal expectations on forgiveness.
There is nothing about this passage that suggests the master forgives the debt and then offers the offensive servant unlimited access to his resources! There is nothing that suggests forgiveness is equal to allowing for perpetual cycles of abuse.
Webster’s definition of forgive is “to give up resentment of or claim to requital.”
This makes sense in light of the forgiveness the master offers. The debt is too large to be repaid, but the master could choose to hold onto the note, even so. He doesn’t, perhaps because he recognizes the infeasibility, the impracticality, or even the nuisance it would be to continue to try to collect. Referring back to verse 23 again, remember that his desire is for the account to be settled, but some things are too big to fix.
A Scriptural definition of forgiveness also allows for rebuke and requires the offender to be repentant. When translated, the original Greek from a parallel passage (Luke 17:3-4), speaks of the offender having a change of mind or purpose, and forgiveness is referred to as a sending away or leaving alone: “If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. 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.”
This is not necessarily restorative but an act of closure and the beginning of healing for the sinned against—just the tip of the iceberg.
Of course, Jesus gives us an example of forgiveness that neither demands nor receives such repentance when, as he is dying, he says, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). I’m not necessarily saying we must hold out for an apology, but there is legitimacy in the discernment of intent. We do have to stop shaming victims into obligations of forgiveness that actually do not allow them to cut ties and let go. Forgiveness from the heart—from the depths of our being—is important, but it comes with guidelines and often with really long timeframes.