Matthew 18:21-35

Poet and author Elizabeth Barrett Browning is probably best known for the words she wrote in a letter to her future husband: “How do I love thee?  Let me count the ways.”  Her father, Edward, was a controlling man who forbid any of his twelve children to marry, and when Elizabeth defied her father’s wishes to marry Robert Browning, her father never spoke to her again.

Elizabeth wrote weekly letters to her father in the hope that they might be reconciled, but for ten years there was no response.  Then one day, after a decade of silence, a box arrived in the mail from her father.  Her excitement quickly turned to anguish, however, when she opened it and found that it contained all of her letters – unopened.  Edward Barrett’s heart was so hardened towards his daughter that he didn’t open a single one of the hundreds of letters she wrote to him.

Unforgiveness does that.  It hardens the heart.  It magnifies the perceived offense to the point where we can no longer appreciate a person’s value because all we see is how they have grieved us.  If forgiveness is one of the most powerful forces for redemption in the Christian faith, unforgiveness is one of the most powerful forces for destruction.  In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus gives us a parable that speaks to us about forgiveness and unforgiveness.[i]

Jesus tells this story in response to Peter’s question, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?  As many as seven times?” (v.21)  Peter thinks he is being generous.  The rabbis of Jesus’ day taught that a person was obliged to forgive three times; Peter raises it to seven.  “No,” Jesus answers, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”[ii]

The story Jesus tells involves a king and one of his servants, who owes him an extraordinary amount of money: ten thousand talents.  The servant, in turn, is owed a smaller amount of money by one of his fellow-servants: one hundred denarii.  To grasp the contrast between these two sums, we need to know that a denarius was a Roman coin with a value equivalent to a day’s labor.  One hundred denarii is still a large sum for a servant to pay off, but it was at least imaginable.  A talent was the most valuable of Roman coins and was worth 6,000 denarii.  Possessing even a single talent was enough for someone to be considered rich.  Ten thousand talents, then, would have been worth 60 million denarii – an unthinkable amount!  We have no idea what this servant could have done to incur such an astronomical debt, but it doesn’t really matter.  The point is the debt is so large it would be impossible for him to ever pay it back![iii]

The king throws his debtor – the one owing 60 million denarii – into prison, where he is bound to spend the rest of his life.  But, after the man pleads with him to have mercy, the king changes his mind.  He not only releases him from prison; he forgives the entire debt!!  The man is set free!

The astounding generosity of the king is meant to illustrate the extravagant mercy and compassion of God, to whom each of us owes a great debt, one which we cannot possibly repay.  Knowing that we cannot pay, God accepts the self-offering of Christ’s life and death upon a cross, and forgives us the entire debt, setting us free.  “In [Christ],”  St. Paul writes to the Ephesians, “we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us” (Eph. 1:7-8)

If we have considered our sinfulness; if we are aware of our countless transgressions against God and against our neighbors in thought, word and deed; if we have realized our need for forgiveness and mercy; then we will begin to appreciate what has been done for us.

Somehow the servant missed this.  No sooner had he been granted complete forgiveness of his entire debt than he turned around to pressure a fellow-servant who owed him a hundred denarii.  Not surprisingly, when the king heard of it, he was enraged!  He arrested the servant whose enormous debt he had just forgiven and sent him back to prison.

Forgiven people should not be unforgiving towards others.  “Be kind to one another,” St. Paul urges the Christians at Ephesus, “tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Eph. 4:32).  Those who have been forgiven much ought to love much, and that love should including forgiving others with the same generosity with which they have been forgiven.

Living in a fallen world means that it is inevitable that we will be sinned against.  Christian faith does not diminish the pain or damage that someone’s sin against us has inflicted.  We need God’s help to work through our anger and bitterness to arrive at the place where forgiveness is possible.   But we need to do this work – it is not an option – because without it, we will be imprisoned by our own unforgiveness, like Edward Barrett, and much to be pitied.

Sometimes forgiveness can only come over time.  Be patient with yourself, but be equally determined to stay on the path towards forgiveness, even if it is an uphill climb.  Our hearts harden when we harbor unforgiveness.  Forgive, then, as God in Christ has forgiven you.

[i] I am indebted to Pastor Allen Snapp of Grace Community Church in Painted Post, New York, for the illustration of Elizabeth Barret Browning’s interactions with her father.

[ii] Other translations have “seventy times seven” rather than “seventy-seven.”  The difference is irrelevant; the point is that it is an extravagant number.

[iii] Value of ancient Roman coins drawn from “GR Coins”:

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