If you grew up in a religious environment, then you surely were encouraged toward a spirit of forgiveness toward others. Many religious systems emphasize forgiveness—usually as a part of a larger moral code. Even if you’re not an overtly religious person, you’ve probably been encouraged to “be the bigger person” when confronted with the hurtful actions of another.
Jesus likewise encourages limitless forgiveness. But what’s interesting is that in the context of Matthew’s biography of Jesus, we’re not explicitly told how to forgive. Sure, Jesus describes a process of restoration and discipline. But when it comes to forgiveness, Jesus is less concerned with the “how” and much more concerned with the “why.” Why forgive? Jesus’ parable illustrates how the gospel shapes the reason and the way we forgive:
23 “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. 24 When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. 25 And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. (Matthew 18:23-25)
We might pause here just to chew through some cultural background. The system of servitude most likely was patterned after social laws and order established in Egyptian culture under the Ptolemies—or at least Rome likely borrowed from their practices and this became a cultural standard. Under this system, if a servant could not pay, the king had only one option to recoup a loss: sell the debtor into slavery. But all our source material tells us that even the most expensive slave sold for only one talent—and the king could not possibly sell the man 10,000 times.
How much was a talent, you ask? Good question. In his recent commentary on Matthew, Craig Keener helps us understand the math:
- 10,000 talents would have been equivalent to 60-100 million denarii, which would have been the equivalent of 30-100 million days’ wages.
- This means that 10,000 talents would have been worth roughly 1.5—5 billion S. dollars
- For the king to sell the servant, he would still have been at a loss of several billion dollars.
- Keener estimates that the combined resources of Judea, Samaria, and Idumea was around 600 talents. Therefore the man owed the king more money than what was in circulation in the entire country.
However, as Keener also points out, in an agrarian society, there would have been little—if any—need for large numbers. 10,000 was the largest number they had back then, so it’s equally possible that Jesus was exaggerating. He may have even been trying to be a bit humorous in showing the contrast between the debtor and the man we’ll meet in the next few verses.
26 So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. (Matthew 18:26-27)
The king must by this point seem equally crazy to forgive such a massive debt. But it’s also why the forgiven debtor’s next actions seem so appalling:
28 But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. (Matthew 18:28-30)
Let’s do the math again. The debtor had been forgiven several billion dollars. Now, in the system of the Ptolemies, if you were forgiven your debts by a superior, anyone beneath you was required to be released from their debts as well. The debtor probably knew this, but still tried to get some money from his fellow servant. How much was 100 denarii? A lot less than 10,000 talents, that’s for sure. Keener puts it at 0.2 talents, or about 30,000 U.S. dollars. That’s still a lot, but let’s remember that it’s 500,000 times the amount he was forgiven! And while the king had tried to sell the debtor, the debtor now inflicts physical harm on his fellow servant. Maybe—just maybe—it wasn’t really about the money. Maybe it was about feeling in control.
31 When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. 32 Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. 35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” (Matthew 18:31-35)
Can we “monetize” hurt? We may try; we can even sue for “pain and suffering.” But it’s impossible to truly deal with the kinds of hurts we endure. We can cover them over, but the hurt bleeds through every time.
In recent years psychology has taken to calling this “emotional debt.” When someone hurts us, we feel a sense of internal burden. What do we do with that burden? Like the unforgiving debtor, we shift our pain downward—or at least outward. We try and spread it around. But, says traditional religion, we shouldn’t feel as bad as all that. We should forgive; it’s the right thing to do, isn’t it?
In the absence of grace, in the absence of the cross, such forgiveness is impossible, because no one is equipped to deal with this emotional debt. We can forgive, but now we’re forced to pay the debt ourselves. How? When we choose to forgive rather than run someone down, it hurts. When we choose to wish that person success and not failure, it hurts. When we choose to not hold a grudge, it hurts.
On the cross, Jesus absorbed all our debt—spiritual and emotional. This means two things. First, it means that like the unforgiving debtor, I am forgiven the enormous magnitude of debt in the eyes of God. But second, I may look to the cross as a source of justice. If I have been wronged in some way, I may rightly recognize that my offender deserves to pay for what he or she did. The gospel says that instead of God taking the blood from my offender, he offers his own through Jesus. So if I crave justice, if I crave satisfaction, I may look to the cross to find it. But that also means that I no longer look to my offender to make absolute payment for his offense. We’ll talk in the coming days about the role of earthly justice and repentance, but for now we rightly stand before the cross in awe of the mercy extended to both ourselves and others, a mercy that flows down to mingle with our tears and wash clean our pasts so as to clear a way for our futures. Religion makes forgiveness necessary, but it is only the cross that makes forgiveness possible.