In Matthew 18:21, Peter asked Jesus, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” Jesus’ response may have been astonishing to Peter at first. “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.”
Jesus knew this was challenging to Peter, as it is a challenge for many people. The temptation is to hold grudges, become untrusting, bitter and hardhearted. This leads to breaks in relationships, even divisions in the church. Peter might have hoped that seven times was adequate, and then he could permanently sever ties with the offending person, but Jesus taught that forgiveness has no limits. Peter’s question may have been burning in his mind for some time, and Jesus wanted to make a lasting impression on him.
The kingdom of heaven is like a man who discovered that he had a servant who owed him 10,000 talents. This is a massive amount of money, perhaps in the millions or billions of dollars. There’s no information given as to how this man became so indentured, or why such an amount was owed. It is necessary to always remember that a parable, though it often contains common, well-known scenarios, can also include exaggerated and even bizarre details for the purpose of stimulating thought and in order to be memorable. Because there was no way that the servant could pay the amount back, the servant was to be sold, him and all he had, plus his wife and children, in order to pay off the debt. The servant begged for leniency and promised to pay everything back. “Then the master of that servant was moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt.”
The lesson could have ended there. It made the point of forgiving an incalculable, inconceivable amount of money out of compassion for someone and their family whose lives could have been radically changed for the worse. But Jesus went on to underscore the argument. That servant who was pardoned of his huge debt went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed him a fraction of the amount he had been forgiven for. He began choking him, demanding, “Pay me what you owe!” The man begged him saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you all.” But he was cast into prison.
When the other servants saw what had been done, they went to the master to report the injustice. The master called the first servant and said, “You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?” The master was furious and had him incarcerated also until he could satisfy his debt, which would be impossible. This second half of the parable definitely had Peter’s attention. Then Jesus used the power punch with His closing statement. “So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses.”
Jesus taught forgiveness on a number of occasions. Early in His ministry, in the well-known Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), He taught his disciples what has come to be known as the Lord’s Prayer. In it are the words, “And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” Immediately He continues teaching, “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matthew 6:14, 15)
The 10,000 talents are like a person’s debt of innumerable sins before God. There is no way it can be paid off. God in His mercy forgives it all. The smaller amount owed by the second servant to the first might represent wrongs that he suffered, but these are insignificant in comparison. Considering all the sins God has forgiven, offering unlimited forgiveness to others seems an appropriate response.
The message of the parable is repeated in the church epistles. “And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:32) “…bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do.” (Colossians 3:13)