« Obedience: The Wise And Foolish Builders (Matthew 7:24-27) | Main | Unselfishness: The Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) »

Forgiveness: The Unforgiving Debtor (Matthew 18:21-35)

A sign in a church parking lot located in a busy downtown area read as follows: "We forgive those who trespass against us, but we also tow them." Nothing is more difficult than sincere forgiveness; nothing is more common than prolonged resentment and unwillingness to forgive.

Whenever we see civil wars or so-called religious conflicts, we are seeing the incapacity to forgive played out in all-too-human acts of inhumanity. Yet how can one forgive if the offender never asks for forgiveness or, worse still, if the offender unrepentantly continues to offend? What are the limits of a Christian’s willlingness and ability to forgive?

This was the question Peter asked: "Lord, how often am I to forgive my brother if he goes on wronging me? As many as seven times?" Jesus answers Peter with a riddle: "I do not say seven times but seventy times seven" (Matthew 18:21-22, NIV). Nothing Jesus taught could be more radical than this, so he tells a parable to help his disciples make sense of it all.

In the "Parable of the Unforgiving Debtor," Jesus uses exaggeration for ironic effect. First, he tells about a king who has forgiven his vassal an enormously large sum. According to the Antiquities of the Jewish historian Josephus, the total tax revenue for Judea, Idumea, Samaria, Galilee, and Perea for one year amounted to 800 talents. The sum forgiven was 10,000 talents.

Secondly, Jesus exaggerates the mercilessness of this unforgiving man compared with the kindness of the king (10,000 talents was 600,000 times more than the 100 denarii debt). Whereas the king totally cancels this monumental debt, asking no repayment whatsoever, his pitiless vassal seizes his own debtor by the throat to demand repayment. Not only does he refuse to pardon the paltry debt, but he throws the man in prison (cf. towing the car) to be tortured until he comes up with the money.

The point of this parable has nothing to do with the borrowing and lending practices Christians are to follow. It has everything to do with seeing our human affairs from God's perspective. Forgiveness relates directly to mercy. We forgive others because God took pity on us. And if we need more incentive to forgive than following the example of God, Jesus reminds us on more than one occasion that only to the extent we forgive others will we ourselves be forgiven (Matthew 6:12-15; 18:35; Luke 6:37).

Does this parable teach that forgiveness is only for those who ask forgiveness? After all, both debtors begin by asking for time to pay. And didn't the apostle John write that IF we confess, God is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins (1 John 1:9)? It is certainly easier to forgive someone who admits to wrongdoing than to pardon someone who brazenly continues to behave in the same unkind, unjust, or unreasonable manner without any hint of remorse.

Scripture should never be used to accommodate our own human agenda. Although we as resentful people want to believe that forgiveness has its limits, what shall we do with the example of Jesus on the cross (Luke 23:34) or of Stephen as he was stoned to death (Acts 7:60)? Certainly, the executioners of Jesus never asked for forgiveness or showed any regret for their behavior. When Jesus commands non-retaliation in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:38-42), he does not set conditions. Instead he concludes by saying, as the Revised English Bible translates, "There must be no limit to your goodness, as your heavenly Father's goodness knows no bounds" (Matthew 5:48). Forgiveness, Jesus says, like mercy, can have no preordained limits.


1.What is the most difficult situation you have been called upon to forgive? How did you feel and do you still feel about trying to forgive that offense against you?

2.In Romans 12:21, Paul says, "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." Do you know of an instance where someone overcame evil with good?

3.This parable seems to link an unforgiving spirit with ingratitude. What connection, if any, is there between forgiveness and gratitude?

4.Peter's question concerns a "brother." Must we forgive a non-Christian enemy or is our obligation to forgive limited to fellow Christians? Does forgiveness mean you don't sue someone who wrongs you or press charges against someone who assaults you?

5.Are Christians to forgive and forget? If you forgive someone, can you nevertheless remain cool and distant? Can you limit your contact with that other person for fear they may hurt you again?

6.Sometimes it is said that a person is "too proud" to forgive. What relationship do you find between pride and the unwillingness to forgive?

Comments (2)

What a wonderful essay. Thank you.

Nice post. You are correct. I have found when I forgive someone, it's best to forget also. And I try to forgive, even when someone does not seek it. I find bitterness to be a weight I wish not to carry.

By the way, I posted a link to your article. Thanks for sharing.

God Bless,

Lynn E. Sheldon
Modern Day Discipleship|Small Group Study

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on June 9, 2007 10:18 AM.

The previous post in this blog was Obedience: The Wise And Foolish Builders (Matthew 7:24-27).

The next post in this blog is Unselfishness: The Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31).

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

Powered by
Movable Type 3.35