Matthew 18:21-35

Matthew 18:21-35     Personally Forgiving Wrong-doers

21 Peter approached Jesus and said,
“Lord, how often do I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me?  
Up to seven times?”
22 Jesus said to him, “Not up to seven times, I tell you, but seventy-seven times”.

Obviously, Jesus presumed that disagreements would be normal in church life.  Clearly, Peter did not have in mind issues that affected the integrity of the whole community, but interpersonal differences and hurts.  Yet, even unresolved hurts between individuals can affect the openness and warmth of any community.

In the culture, seven could be taken to refer to an indefinite, but large, number.  Peter thought that he was being generous.  To make his point strongly and unequivocally, Jesus extended the number to infinity.  Forgiving each other is not a question of keeping the score.  It is a decision that is totally open-ended, an attitude of mind, coming from the inner freedom of the one offended and the ability to love (and so to forgive) unconditionally.  At the same time, fruitful and enjoyable relationships need negotiation – readiness to forgive is not permission to act arbitrarily.

Why is Forgiveness Important?

Consistently, Jesus called for conversion.  He wanted people to change from their otherwise destructive behaviour, as individuals and as members of society.  He knew that people would hurt each other.   He wanted them to realise their wrongdoing and to stop.  He wanted them to relate on the basis of love.  Surprisingly, however, the word “sorry” is rarely, if ever, used in the Gospels.

Yet, over and over again, Jesus urged disciples to forgive.

Why forgive? Unforgiveness destroys open communication and undermines respect, care and love.  But so, too, does the unwillingness to be sorry. Yet Jesus insists on the priority of forgiving.  Careful reflection confirms the priority given to it by Jesus.

  • God is always ready to forgive.
  • Forgiveness is a consequence of freedom and condition for freedom.  Unforgiving persons are not free, but remain emotionally under the influence of those who have wronged them.
  • Those suffering wrong are open to grace – and so are  open to respond to God’s empowerment.  Those doing wrong have closed off from grace.  Theologically, it is easier to forgive than to be sorry.
  • Unforgiveness can easily descend into resentment and ultimately into bitterness –  and destroy peace of mind.  It can easily escalate into revenge.

Excusing.  It is important to distinguish forgiving from excusing.  To excuse is to find extenuating circumstances that lessen or remove personal malice.  People need to excuse what can honestly be excused.  Forgiveness deals with the inexcusable.

What is Forgiveness?  It is more difficult to say what forgiveness is not, than to say what it is. It is the practical shape of Jesus’ earlier teaching about the love of enemies: forgiveness is effectively enemy-love, which in turn calls for the effort to love as unconditionally as possible.  The love in question would be expressed in an openness to try to see the dignity of the offender in the same light as before the offence.  It is not necessarily "felt'.

Those who have done wrong have no need to be protected from the consequences of their wrongdoing.  To remove responsibility for their actions from people can inhibit their growth in maturity.

Forgiveness does not require the denial or the emotional avoidance of the hurt.  To say, for example, “That’s alright. It doesn’t matter” is not true, and it certainly does not necessarily mean “I forgive”.

What sometimes makes forgiveness difficult is that it can look like the surrender of one’s dignity, or compromising the dignity of a loved one.  To forgive can at times seem like colluding in or condoning the offence of the other.

To forgive another need not mean exposing oneself to the possibility of continuing harm.  Those wronged can take effective steps to protect themselves against wrongdoers.

Similarly, forgiveness does not mean the resumption of destructive relationships (or the reasonable possibility of encountering further physical or emotional violence).  Certain relationships suppose reciprocity – which could be dangerous or impossible to reestablish.

The genuine decision to forgive does not remove the hurt felt.  The continuing feeling of hurt can cause recurring and spontaneous feelings of resentment.  (Spontaneous reactions are not morally culpable; they become culpable only when they are deliberately nurtured).  The decision to forgive does not necessarily remove feelings of anger or awkwardness towards offenders.  Reestablishing normal relationships may take time, and may sometimes never happen.

For an offence to be healed, usually it is necessary to allow the hurt to be felt, and to continue being felt, until it loses its destructiveness.  It may always remain a source of unhappiness.

Jesus, who insisted that disciples be ready to forgive, does not withhold his own forgiveness from them when they fail to do so.  Jesus understood the human heart and its struggles.  His desire was always to set hearts free.

The parable that follows had already entered into the community memory and had acquired an allegorical interpretation (readily adopted by Matthew).  It was used to illustrate the way things happen between God and humanity.  Yet, as Jesus told parables, he intended them, not so much to illustrate, as to challenge and to stimulate deeper reflection.

23And so the kingdom of the heavens can be compared to
a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves.

Mention of ordinary kings immediately served to put the hearer on the alert.  Values in God’s Kingdom were quite different from the ways of earthly kingdoms.  Rather than compared, the point would be better understood as “contrasted”.  Even then, the early community’s allegorical interpretation tended to colour the storyline and to determine its details from the beginning.

24 As he began the reckoning, one was brought to him who owed ten thousand talents.  
25 Since he did not have the possibility to repay,
he king ordered that he be sold, along with his wife and children and all he possessed,
to pay it back.  
26 The slave fell to his knees and, prostrate, asked him,
“Master, be patient with me, and I shall repay you everything.”  
27 The slave’s master felt pity for him, let him free and wiped the debt.

A talent was the largest monetary unit in the Near East.  Ten thousand was the highest figure used in counting.  Ten thousand talents was an unthinkably large amount, immensely greater than the normal annual income of client kings (like Herod).  The slave in question was a senior administrator.  There was no way really that such an amount could be amassed by mismanagement, or repaid – the offence was “infinite” – as is sin against God.    The man’s plea was not so much an appeal for time and opportunity, as for pity.

28 Now, as that slave went away,
he found one of his fell-slaves who owed him a hundred denarii.  
He gripped him by the throat and began to choke him, saying,
“Repay what you owe me.”  
29 His fellow slave fell down and appealed to him, saying,
“Be patient with me and I shall repay you.”  
30 He would not agree, but went away
and threw him into prison until he should repay the debt.

A debt of one hundred denarii was not negligible – equal to about three or four months wages for an ordinary labourer.

31 When his fellow-slaves saw what had gone on, they were deeply grieved.  
They went and advised their master of all that had happened.  
32 His master then summoned him and said,
“Wicked slave, I wiped off all that you owed me because you asked me.  
33 Should you not then have had pity on your fellow slave as I had pity on you?”

Those who have been hurt can view their forgiveness as a generous concession.  They can feel morally superior.  The truth is that everyone in the community is in a constant situation of needing to receive forgiveness as well as to give it.  Forgiveness is a constituent element of the Christian community’s flow of life.  In an imperfect world, each disciple is, at the same time, saint and sinner.  The Lord’s Prayer serves as a regular reminder.

In some ways, forgiveness is like a powerful river flowing from the heart of God, that sweeps up everyone and everything in its path.  God’s unconditional, forgiving love washes over sinners, gathers them up and carries them along in the same flow of forgiveness.  For a sinner to refuse forgiveness to another requires that sinner to withdraw from the flow of forgiving love, to swim to the bank, as it were, and to stay there alone, cold and self-absorbed – out of the reach of God’s love.

Scholars differ as to whether Jesus’ original parable finished here with the master’s question (and its unstated but expected affirmative answer), or whether it included the line that followed.

34 In his rage his master then handed him over to the torturers
until he had repaid the whole debt.

This line introduced the idea of punishment, and may have been added by the early community.  It had the effect, perhaps, of distracting from the otherwise open-ended, but challenging, call to keep things in perspective: disciples’ forgiveness of each others’ failings fades to nothing when compared to the infinite forgiveness of God.  The addition to the story did not leave the hearer wondering (as parables were intended to do) but brought the reflection to a conclusion – with a threat.  It served to turn the parable into an allegory and moralized its message.

35 In the same way my Father in the heavens will deal with you
unless you each forgive your brother or sister from your hearts.

Whatever about the disputed line before it, many scholars believe that these last two lines accentuated the moralistic conclusion, and reflected Matthew’s now familiar threatening signature.  They need not be attributed to Jesus, but seen as the work either of the early Christian community, or, more probably, of Matthew himself.

They give rise to real problems:

  • If God were to behave that way, neither God nor God’s Kingdom would indeed be any different from earthly kings and kingdoms – which does not sit well with Jesus’ promise of God’s Kingdom.
  • Again, if God were to behave that way, God would fall short of what Jesus expected of struggling disciples – that they forgive not seven times but seventy-seven times.
  • Threats might bring change of behaviour – but not inner change, the change from the heart.  God appreciates the whole-hearted love of free and responsible men and women, not the abject service of fearful slaves.

Other scholars, however, accept the words as those of Jesus, but interpret them differently.  The believe that Jesus was talking about what happens in this world when people refuse to forgive, and instead retaliate to violence with counter-violence.  Out of profound respect for human freedom God does not in fact intervene in human interactions but allows them to run their inevitable course.  The outcome is the all-too-familiar chaos of life in the world - a mutual torturing.

Yet, whether the story be interpreted as allegory or parable, Jesus was insistent that forgiveness was crucial to life in the Kingdom.  The early Church accurately picked up that message.  The challenge was to find ways to insist on its centrality without restricting the forgiveness of God.

Searching for the Mind of Jesus

It is important always that readers recognise that Scriptural authors wrote from within their own limitations, and that God’s Spirit worked through those limitations, respecting their human dignity, while respecting always the truth.

The challenge for readers is to discern the voice of God behind and within the human words.  The faith of Israel developed only over time.  The insights into truth of the earliest Scriptural writings found expression through the uncultivated and deeply inculturated minds and words of their authors.  The essential truth was expressed through inadequate, fallible and often inaccurate assumptions, images and words. The same applies, to a lesser extent, to the writings of the New Testament.  The task of the hearer, assisted often by the skills of scholars, is to learn to distinguish what is essential from what is time-bound and culturally coloured.    

Individual statements in the Scriptures need to be heard against the background of the writings as a whole. Readers always encounter, not simply the language of a different culture and time, but, together with that, the authors’ limited insights and their capacity to understand and to communicate.

As well, readers approach the truth from their own levels of human and faith development.  Children will hear things differently from mature adults – and their grasp of the essential truth will often be highly coloured by their immaturity.  Various adults will hear things differently. Yet, the same Spirit of God works through both the writer and the hearer.  The truth towards which the Spirit leads people always escapes full understanding.  God and God’s ways will always remain mystery.

Jesus understood this.  His preferred mode of teaching was parable and sometimes shocking challenge.  He did not want his words to be “set in stone and memorised”,  so much as to stimulate constant and on-going reflection as people grew humanly and spiritually.  Faithful disciples realise that they never completely grasp and integrate the insights held out to them by Jesus.  Internalising truth is a never-ending task.

The Gospel of Matthew needs to be read with discernment.

Next >> Matthew 19:1-15