21 Then Peter came to Him and said, “Lord, how many times could my brother sin against me and I forgive him? As many as seven times?”
22 “I tell you, not as many as seven,” Jesus said to him, “but 70 times seven.
23 For this reason, the kingdom of heaven can be compared to a king who wanted to settle accounts with his slaves.
24 When he began to settle accounts, one who owed 10,000 talents was brought before him.
25 Since he had no way to pay it back, his master commanded that he, his wife, his children, and everything he had be sold to pay the debt.
26 At this, the slave fell facedown before him and said, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you everything!’
27 Then the master of that slave had compassion, released him, and forgave him the loan.
28 But that slave went out and found one of his fellow slaves who owed him 100 denarii. He grabbed him, started choking him, and said, ‘Pay what you owe!’
29 At this, his fellow slave fell down and began begging him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’
30 But he wasn’t willing. On the contrary, he went and threw him into prison until he could pay what was owed.
31 When the other slaves saw what had taken place, they were deeply distressed and went and reported to their master everything that had happened.
32 Then, after he had summoned him, his master said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me.
33 ’Shouldn’t you also have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’
34 And his master got angry and handed him over to the jailers until he could pay everything that was owed.
35 So My heavenly Father will also do to you if each of you does not forgive his brother from his heart.”
Jesus is with His disciples and has been teaching them about humility. In Matt. 18:1, the disciples ask Jesus, “Who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And in verses 2-9, He responds by calling over a child and telling His disciples that without childlike faith, no one may enter the kingdom. Further, He says that the one who humbles himself like a child is greatest in the kingdom; humility, not pride or performance, is most highly valued in the kingdom. Jesus is the ultimate example of humility, having set aside His heavenly glory to come to earth as the Suffering Servant. He reminds His disciples that the lost are of great value as He shares the parable of the lost sheep (verses 10-14), and He gives them instruction in the proper way to settle disagreements (verses 15-20). Now He turns His attention to Peter’s question about how many times a disciple should forgive his brother. Jesus responds with the parable of the unmerciful servant.
The central theme of this parable is that Christians take on the character of their Heavenly Father, who is merciful beyond human measure. Forgiveness is not a question of arithmetic; it’s a matter of character. Peter asks, “Lord, how many times could my brother sin against me and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” He thinks he is being more gracious than the law requires. The Jews taught that a person was to forgive another three times, but not four. But Jesus’ response – “70 times seven” – drives home the point that citizens of the kingdom naturally forgive others because much has been forgiven them.
The central character in this parable is the king, who forgives a massive debt. The term is “myriads of talents,” the highest number known in Greek arithmetical notation, according to commentator Adam Clarke. Depending on whether the talents are silver or gold, and whether they are Roman or Jewish coins, estimates of their current value range from $7.5 million to $150 million. In any case, it’s a huge sum of money that one man could never repay.
The king is a picture of our Heavenly Father, who was so moved with compassion toward sinful mankind that He forgave our unfathomable sin debt by paying the price Himself through His only Son (Rom. 5:8).
The unmerciful servant likely is a tax collector. In ancient times, kings often farmed out, or sold for a price, the taxes of particular provinces. This ensured the king a known sum, but gave the tax collector in each province the opportunity to oppress his own people for personal gain. In this case, the servant no doubt was so dishonest that he denied the king his rightful cut. What a picture of the unbeliever! Matthew Henry comments: “He promises payment; Have patience awhile, and I will pay thee all. Note, It is the folly of many who are under convictions of sin, to imagine that they can make God satisfaction for the wrong they have done him … He that had nothing to pay with (v. 25) fancied he could pay all. See how close pride sticks, even to awakened sinners; they are convinced, but not humbled.”
The unpayable debt in this parable illustrates the enormity of our sins, which we are too impoverished to pay. According to Jewish law, debtors could be sold into servitude, along with their wives and children, until a family member redeemed them by paying the debt. But it is doubtful that any family had sufficient funds to pay off the massive debt this servant owed the king (see 2 Kings 4:1).
The forgiveness of the king represents God’s justification, declaring us in right standing with Him as He transfers our sin debt to His Son’s account. Matthew Henry writes, “Every sin we commit is a debt to God…. There is an account kept of these debts … some are more in debt, by reason of sin, than others…. The God of infinite mercy is very ready, out of pure compassion, to forgive the sins of those that humble themselves before him.”
The unmerciful servant, just loosed from his crushing debt, now confronts a fellow servant over what is likely a paltry $12-14 debt and sends him to prison until the debt is paid. This so distresses the other slaves that they go to the king and report what has happened. The king, in turn, summons the unmerciful servant and turns him over to the “jailers/torturers/tormentors.” Albert Barnes comments: “Torments were inflicted on criminals, not on debtors. They were inflicted by stretching the limbs, or pinching the flesh, or taking out the eyes, or taking off the skin while alive, etc. It is not probable that anything of this kind is intended, but only that the servant was punished by imprisonment till the debt should be paid.”
So, does this mean God takes away a believer’s justification if he or she does not forgive others? No. “This is not intended to teach us that God reverses his pardons to any, but that he denies them to those that are unqualified for them…. Those that do not forgive their brother’s trespasses did never truly repent of their own, and therefore that which is taken away is only what they seemed to have. This is intended to teach us, that they shall have judgment without mercy, that have showed no mercy (James 2:13) (Matthew Henry’s Unabridged Commentary).” See also Matt. 6:14-15.
Having been pardoned of a sin debt we could never repay, citizens of the kingdom take on the character of their King and graciously forgive others of their wrongs against us. An unforgiving person demonstrates that he or she is not a true child of the King.