March 21st, 2018: Matthew 18:21-35
“Lord, when my brother wrongs me,” Peter asks Jesus, “how often must I forgive him? Seven times?” “No,” Jesus replies, “not seven times; I say, seventy times seven times.” The number seven was the number of fullness, for Jews in Jesus’ day. Jesus was saying that the duty of forgiveness was unlimited. Then, as so often, Jesus tells a story to illustrate his teaching.
The story’s opening is ominous. A king, for Jesus’ hearers, was a man with power of life and death over his subjects. The people with whom he intends to settle accounts are officials responsible for collecting the king’s taxes. “One was brought in, who owed a huge amount.” A lifetime was insufficient to pay it. The king’s cruel punishment, ordering not only the man himself but his whole family to be sold into slavery, would have shocked Jesus’ hearers. Then comes a surprise. When the man pleads for time to pay the debt, the king suddenly shows mercy: “Moved with compassion, the master … forgave him the debt.”
No sooner delivered from his desperate plight, the official finds a colleague who owes him “a much smaller amount,” and demands immediate payment in full. The second official’s reaction to the demand that he pay his debt mirrors that of the first. “Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.” The sole difference is that the second official’s debt could easily be paid, given reasonable time. How shocking for those hearing the story for the first time to learn of the first official’s harsh response. Seizing his colleague by the throat and throttling him, he insists that the man be imprisoned until the debt is paid.
In the story’s conclusion the colleagues of the two debtors go and report the injustice to the king. Summoning the first official again, the king reminds him of the unmerited mercy he has received and, in an act of grim irony, grants the man what, in his original desperation, he had requested: time. Now, however, the time will be spent not in repayment but in prison, under torture. This detail would have deeply shocked Jesus’ hearers. In Jewish law torture was unknown.
The story’s lesson is simple: if we are not forgiving toward others, as God is already forgiving toward us, we risk discovering one day that the forgiveness God has extended to us has been canceled. Jesus is telling us, in short, that our treatment of others, here and now — and especially of those who have wronged us — is already determining where, how, and with whom we shall spend eternity.