Seventy Times Seven

September 20, 2009
日本キリスト教団 頌栄教会牧師 清弘剛生 Pastor Takao Kiyohiro, Shoei Church, Church of Christ, Japan
Translator M.A.F., Indiana, USA
Matthew 18:21-35

Giving Up Getting Even

1. Peter went to Jesus and asked, "Lord, if my brother has sinned against me, how many times should I forgive him? Is it up to seven times?" Then Jesus says the following. "I say to you. Forgive him far more than seven times, but even up to seventy times seven!" Today's passage of scripture begins with this conversation.

2. It is a message about what "if a brother has sinned against me." It is not a message that is general and broad, not what "if somebody has sinned." If it were about "When somebody has sinned, forgive them any number of times without passing judgment," then as you might expect, it might be about "But, how is that right?" Is that for the other person's benefit? Is that justice? Questions of that kind may come up. But, Jesus is not speaking on a general level, but on the particular issue of what "if a brother has sinned against me?"

3. To say "If [a brother] has sinned against me" means, in a word, that it is a situation where "I" have experienced pain [of some kind]. What's more, it is a situation in which "I" have experienced pain in an unfair manner, there being no grounds for me to be going through this. At that moment, do I balance things out and cause a similar pain to the other guy? Or do I give up causing pain back? That's the topic we're getting into. Simply put, it is a message about "Do I get even? Or do I give up getting even?"

4. This subject about "revenge and getting even" sounds a bit way out there, but it may turn out to be very close to home. For example, somebody said something mean to you and you feel hurt by it. Because the person could be as close as "a brother," you should probably think of it as anybody close to you. Matthew is thinking of [this close person] as a fellow church member. In any case though, somebody has hurt you. At that time do you answer back something mean to the other person, do you want to balance things out by hurting the other person back directly? Or, are you more willing to balance things out and hurt the person indirectly by going around crying, "He is a mean person?" Either way, it is a balance sheet that comes by getting even, getting revenge.

5. But we do have another option. It is that of giving up getting even. Indeed, it is not just a relinquishment of revenge. Jesus required even more, that we do more than that. "If someone strikes you on the right cheek on your face, turn your left cheek to [him or her] as well." "Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you!" Not only are we to give up on revenge, but instead we are to show love. We may think that's nonsense! But the truth is revenge cannot change the current state of things, our hostility against the other person. To change the other person, to change the situation, we are to love and not to pay the other guy back. Revenge destroys, love builds up. That is the truth. Peter heard Jesus' other messages, and he wanted to live by them.

6. For that reason, he had this question for Jesus, "Lord, if my brother has sinned against me, how many times should I forgive him? Is it up to seven times?" Peter has every intention to forgive. He has every intention to relinquish revenge and to love. And [he intends to do so] not just once or twice either! [He's ready to do so] even seven times! "Seven" is a number that stands for perfection in the Jewish world. So if [Peter] could do something seven times, [he could] be perfect in that capacity. He must have had no doubts but was completely confident that he would enjoy the praise of Jesus, "You have spoken well, Peter!" However, he got back a surprising message from Jesus' very own mouth. "I say to you. Forgive him far more than seven times, but even up to seventy times seven!" Seventy times seven is four hundred and ninety times, but actually one isn't to count it up like that. In effect, it seems to mean, "Don't keep count, just keep forgiving."

7. Jesus' words sound quite extreme. But, then the Lord gave a parable. It is "The Parable Of The Servant Who Does Not Forgive His Peer." So, let's listen to this parable from Jesus.

The Loan For Ten Thousand Talents

8. "A certain king was willing to settle the money loaned to [his] servants. When he started to settle [his accounts], a servant in debt for ten thousand talents was brought before the king. But, since he could not pay him back, the sire commanded the servant pay him back by selling himself, [his] wife, children, and all [his] possessions. The servant laid himself prostrate, and begged him hard, 'Please won't you wait! I will pay you back in full.'," (verses twenty-three through twenty-six).

9. Ten thousand talents. This is equivalent to sixty million days worth of salary for a laborer. Any way you count it, it is highly unlikely that he could pay a debt of that amount. It is preposterous by any reckoning. The Lord often told preposterous stories like this one. But, if we take them as the words of Jesus, a compelling message will is located within the extremes.

10. What is the Lord trying to say [to us]? First, [he is wanting to tell us] that "Our sins are greater than we could ever imagine." This is a parable of the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God. "The king" is obviously God in this parable. The servants with the debts are us human beings. To begin with, since he was giving a message on sin and forgiveness, the many different sins that we have committed in turning our backs against the will of God are being likened and compared to a debt. And we are being told that that debt of sin goes up to an inconceivably humongous amount.

11. There will certainly be a time or two when we will be troubled by our own sinfulness during the course of our lives. And there may even come a time when we say, "I've been a bad person." But, if I may put words into Jesus' mouth, we cannot understand the [depth] of our sinfulness in the truest sense. Just as with the loan with the ten thousand talents, it defies imagination, it truly does go way beyond our imaginations, [that we cannot understand] how much we have rebelled against God or how many times we have repeatedly done things that are considered evil from God's perspective, whether [we did them] against God or a person. Our imaginations do not extend to how huge the amount of the total sin debt of ours gets. Therefore, we coldly look down on people who seem to be a little more bad than ourselves. With our cold faces we find others guilty.

12. And then the second thing being said in this text is that "God judges righteously." That king asked for the settlement of all accounts. He commanded the servant to "Pay him back by selling himself, [his] wife, children, and all [his] possessions." Was he deliberately making a cruel request? No, he wasn't. The king did not make an excessive request. He was asking for what was due him. To begin with, even if he had sold himself, [his] wife, children, and all possessions, it would still be far short of the ten thousand talents. God judges righteously. God, indeed, can make a fair request for compensation. What in the world would we ever do should we be asked by God to pay everything back to him? What would happen if he had required of us a full compensation?

13. But it is really something other than that that Jesus is wanting to address, which is, that "God's mercy is greater than we could ever imagine." This parable of Jesus leads us to make an amazing discovery. "The servant's king felt compassion and mercy on him, forgave him, and cancelled his debt," (verse twenty-seven). A cancellation of a debt for ten thousand talents! Such an absurdity! Such a thing is not possible! Anybody who heard Jesus on this must have thought that way about it. Yet, Jesus is saying that God's forgiveness is that [way], God's mercy is that [way]. Even though our sins are so great beyond our imaginations, God's mercy is by far even greater than that. The servant at the forefront of this parable finds himself all of a sudden put under the king's totally unbelievable mercy. It is tantamount to being given ten thousand talents not because one deserved it for some reason, but simply because of the one-way grace of God.

The Expectations Of God

14. Having his debt cancelled out by God's astonishing mercy, he stood up in a daze. Just trying to picture him, he had probably lived until that moment always scared stiff over when the time of the settling of [his] account might come. He had probably been living under the pressure of heavy debt, in sorrow and fear, in self-pity and hopelessness. But it wasn't going to be that way any more. As a man who has received mercy he could live within the king's mercy. Having been set free from the fear of punishment, he could live in mercy. He could live not as a mere "servant of the king," but as "the servant of the most merciful and special king above all others." -- Jesus tells Peter, "That is you guys." And he is saying to us as we read this and worship, "You are the servants of a king who is the most merciful above all others. You live in a mercy that defies the imagination."

15. And then the servant goes out. He returns to that place to which he is usually sent after [leaving] the presence of the king. We too are being sent into the places of our daily lives after leaving and being sent from this place of worship. As the king should, he expects that the servant should live as "a servant of the merciful king." Will he not have a number of chances to conduct himself as "the servant of the merciful king?" Will he not have a number of chances to point to the mercifulness of the king with his conduct? In particular, a chance to do that [will come] when he meets a person who has sinned against him, a person who has hurt him.

16. That moment soon comes upon this servant. The text has, "when he meets a peer who owes him a debt of one hundred denarii." It is [his] chance. It is an opportunity afforded him through mercy. It is; because had [the king] not cancelled out the debt of ten thousand talents, he would never had met his peer outside. It is a chance to show mercy for real. The servant has a prime opportunity to hug his peer and say, "You were probably scared stiff about when you would meet me. You were probably afraid over when your debts would be called in. Even though you wanted to pay me back you probably couldn't. You were suffering so much I'm sure. It was so hard for you." The servant has this chance to act this way, doesn't he?

17. But what did the servant do? Instead of hugging him, he chokes him. "He arrests and strangles him, and says, 'Pay back the loan!' The peer lays himself prostrate, and begs him hard, 'Please won't you wait! For I will pay you back.' But, unaccepting, he drags the peer and puts him into jail until he pays back the loan," (verses twenty-eight through thirty). He made a mess of a precious opportunity. The king hears news of this. Then the text says, "The king became angry and handed the servant to the jailor until he completely pays back the money," (verse thirty-four). The text did not say "The king was angry" even when he could not pay back the ten thousand talents. But at this part in the text the king was angry.

18. The anger of the king is over the betrayal of the king's expectations. It is about how much the king had been expecting of him. The text in verse thirty-three says the following. "Just as I have shown you mercy, shouldn't you have shown mercy to your own peer?," (verse thirty-three). This is the one and only thing that the king was desiring from him. The sire did not desire of [the servant] that he make a compensation that would have effected his whole life, but rather he desired that [his subject] live with mercy as a person who had received mercy.

19. Peter said, "Lord, if my brother has sinned against me, how many times should I forgive him? Is it up to seven times?" When you are adding up the numbers, be it three times or seven times, the fact of the matter is you are still accumulating something in your conscious awareness. Someone has just a small loan with you. Then another loan is added. When you're of this conscious awareness like this, whether it is seven times or eight it's all the same. Jesus is telling us to do something entirely different. As servants of the merciful king we will make the best use of every meeting [with others] as an opportunity to express the mercifulness of the king. There will be plenty enough chances for that. Those who live that way do not count the number [of times] when they have forgiven [someone else]. That's what seventy times seven means.