Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

117. The Unforgiving Debtor (Matt. 18:21 -35; Luke 17:3,4)*

After his very blunt counsel regarding the resolving of differences between brethren, the brd used the opportunity to emphasize that there is an even better way through such difficulties: Let a man foster in his mind such a spirit of toleration and forgiveness that no offence is felt!

This is no easy solution. Human nature instinctively resents unfair or malicious actions. It is the most natural thing in the world to react badly to bad treatment, either in self-justification or to get one's own back. But Jesus forbad all this in a brief warning that his disciples be ever on the alert against showing or even feeling resentment: "Take heed to yourselves." In such an encounter it is natural enough to train an analytical spot-light on the faults of the offender rather than on one's own almost equally reprehensible reactions. How important, therefore, so to cultivate such a sense of self-awareness as to be able to recognize immediately the storm signals in one's own spirit.

In a very practical down-to-earth fashion, Jesus counselled: "If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him." Once again, the omission, by some of the modern versions, of the words: "against thee," seems hardly to be warranted (note the context). Their inclusion appears to be required by the command to forgive. If the sin is against God or against my brother, what right have / to pronounce absolution?

The rebuke of the sin is, of course, not to be an explosive "telling him off" or "putting him in his place." Any such rebuke is really an infringement of the commandment: "Judge not that ye be not judged." The only valid rebuke springs directly from the Word of God. The ideal reproof is by means of a simple citation of a relevant passage of Holy Scripture, "profitable for reproof, correction, instruction in righteousness." Yet how very rarely is this use made of it!

Forgive seven times?

Evidently Peter was learning. He now took up this point in a spirit of great earnestness: "Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times?" If a fault confessed is to be a fault forgiven (v.15), how often does this go on? No doubt the well-intentioned apostle thought that with a guideline such as this he was setting his standards pretty high. The rabbis were in the habit of quoting the familiar phrase from Amos: "For three transgressions and for four . . ."(1 :3). From this they inferred that the forgiving of three offences was as much as could reasonably be laid on any godly man. Peter went far beyond that, adding the three and the four together.

Judge, then, of his surprise when Jesus screwed even this exceptional standard higher and yet higher: "If he trespass against thee seven times in a day, and seven times in a day turn again to thee, saying, I repent; thou shalt forgive him."

Peter might well have protested at this as beyond the limits of what is reasonable. Forgiving the same individual seven times in the short space of one day! Surely a man who repeats an offence so soon and so frequently is incorrigible. More than this, if his repentance is just as frequent, is it not too facile to be genuine? What wisdom is there in putting a premium on insincerity?

Nevertheless it may be taken as fairly likely that Jesus knew what he was about. He insisted that every possible concession be made to on offending brother. If he say: "I repent," then any inclination to doubt his sincerity must be promptly stifled. Against all lurking suspicion,a man must be taken at his word. To do otherwise is to set oneself up as an infallible judge of motives and mental attitudes. "Judge not, that ye be not judged."

Seventy times seven

Even now Jesus had not finished his underscoring of this cardinal principle of forgiveness: "I say not unto thee, Forgive until seven times; but, until seventy times seven." From which of two very different sources did Jesus quarry this fantastic total?

In the early days of the race, when Lamech's son, Tubal-cain, developed extensive skills in fashioning of brass and iron, Lamech, with the world's first armaments factory to back him up, celebrated this splendid advance in early civilisation with the taunt-song: "I have slain a man for wounding me, and a young man for bruising me. If Cain be avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy and seven fold"(Gen.4 .-22-24], Here the LXX has the exact phrase used by Jesus: "seventy times seven." So whereas this old villain in the line of Cain gloried in his power to take vengeance, the Lord's disciple is to glory in the piling up of forgiveness to a positively unreasonable extent. "Out of Lamech's formula of revenge Jesus makes a formula of forgiveness" (Gundry).

Or, was Jesus aiming at a comparison, and not a contrast? In Daniel 9 a unique prophecy foretells a period of seventy sevens to Messiah the Prince. At the end of this time "Messiah shall be cut off, and shall have nothing." Thus he will "make reconciliation for iniquity." Then, is it possible that Jesus was bidding his disciple go on forgiving until he has matched his Master's atoning work?—and his love covers a multitude of sins (1 Pet. 4:8).

And since no disciple can hope ever to emulate his Lord's patient bearing of contumely and cruelty, endured without any deserving, and for the undeserving, the "seventy times seven" forgiveness must mean: "Go on forgiving all your days."

Indeed this is the conclusion to which any attempt at literal application of the commandment must lead. Long before the 490 total is reached, a man will surely weary of keeping the reckoning (at least, if he does not, it means that he is not really forgiving at all!). Also, before ever the target total is achieved, forgiving must have become such a habit as to have transformed a man's whole outlook on life.

Whilst this commandment to forgive may appear to be one of the most rigorous precepts ever promulgated, it is actually one of the most comforting. For if Jesus lays down such a standard for his disciple to follow, will he not himself be at least equally forgiving?

Thus there is here an indirect assurance of such merciful loving kindness from Jesus as his blowers might hardly consider possible!

A king and his debtor

Jesus now rounded off all that he had to leach on this difficult topic in a parable of tremendous interest and power.

A king, suspecting peculation by officers of his administration, commanded investigation into the state of his national exchequer. Almost at once there was brought to him one whose accounts were wrong to the extent of many millions of pounds. The man had sequestrated the revenues of a province.

Since the modern equivalents of ancient money values, as given in Bible marginal notes and works of reference, are almost all hopelessly astray from reality, it may be of we to diverge from the story for a moment to attempt a more accurate estimate of the money values involved here. The Greek-Roman talent was the equivalent of 6000 denarii (Hast. Bib. Diet.), the coin which in the New Testament is called a penny. This denarius was evidently a normal day's wage for an agricultural labourer (Mt.20:2)-in modern terms (in this year of gracious inflation 1983) equivalent in Britain to £15, at least. Then the ten thousand talents of the parable=60 million denarii=£900million.

This sum was Haman's estimate of the plunder to be had from all the Jews in the Persian empire (Esth.3 :9). It was also a large proportion of the resources set aside by David for the building of the temple (1 Chr.29 :7). So evidently this defaulter had defrauded his king for a considerable period.

There can be no mistake that a rascal who could misappropriate such a massive sum of money deserved drastic punishment. The king's decision was that he and all his family and all his property be sold so that at any rate some payment might be made. The implication is that his living style was nearly as splendid as the king's, or what sort of impression on that enormous debt could such a sale produce? (Ps.44 :12). The Law of Moses provided that a thief be sold as a slave to make repayment (Ex.22 :3). In this instance, as frequently happens, the man's sins dragged others down with him. His wife and children must suffer also.

Even though there was the comfort of a merciful release at jubilee (lev.25 :39/41), the man, utterly horrified at the prospect before him, made an agonized and quite unpractical plea for clemency: "Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay thee all."

What an amazing confidence this scoundrel had in his own powers! How could anyone hope ever to repay such a debt? In the interpretation, what is this but justification by works? That and the unforgiving spirit he was soon to show not infrequently go together! In the parable the word for "debt" really means "a loan'— and how appropriately, for this is most men's attitude to their sins; always, always they mean to pay back one day, there is always some unrealised future when black strains of character will be cleaned up – but of course they never are.

Moved to unexampled mercy and kindness, the king let the man go scot free (Ps.130 :4; Eph.3 :20). The entire debt was remitted, simply on the ground of frank acknowledgment of guilt (Ps.32 :l-5; Lk.15 :21,22)— and, apparently, he was allowed to continue in office, for at the end of the story (v.32) he is still a "servant". With such a happy outcome from a desperate situation the man's reaction would surely be a burst of overflowing thankfulness showing itself in emulation of his master's kindness.

But no!
An unforgiven debtor         :

With such a memory still strong in his mind, this creature went out from the presence of his gracious king (the unforgiving spirit takes a man away from the presence of God!) and forthwith hunted down some minor official in the king's service who owed him an inconsiderable debt compared with his own. Grabbing the man by the throat, with fierce threats he demanded immediate payment. The scene just now enacted in the royal presence took place again, but with a very different outcome. No cancelling of the debt this time! Not even a concession of more time in which to pay (2 Pet.1 :7-9; Tit.3 :3; 1Jn 4:11).

The poor fellow pleased with great persistence, even using by chance the very words which his creditor had just been using to gain mercy from the king, but the echo of that experience did nothing to change this unfeeling ruthlessness. With stubborn rejection of this importunity, and making peremptory exercise of official powers, he had the piteous debtor flung into prison "till he should pay the debt'—and how then could such a thing ever come about? The creditor did this even though there was fair prospect that, given time, such a relatively modest sum would be paid. This unregenerate character would rather have his vengeance than his money!

He was evidently quite shameless about his unfeeling action, for what he did he did openly, so that fellow-servants at the king's court knew about it. Their revulsion of indignant feeling expressed itself in a vivid re-telling of every detail to the king himself.

What ensued was precisely what might be expected.


Brought once again before the throne to answer for his misdeeds, there was now no opportunity for the man to plead his own cause (what plea could he possibly offer?). Instead, there was only bitter upbraiding from the king: "Thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all that debt (even the king thought it an awful lot), because thou besoughtest me. Shouldest not thou also have had mercy on thy fellow-servant, even as I had mercy on thee?" And the man was speechless (cp. 22:12).

It was only now that the king became angry. In cold contempt of such small minded unfeeling selfishness, he commanded that the man be punished—not merely shut up in prison, but handed over to the court specialists in beating and torture (contrast v.25), till his own vast indebtedness should be discharged. The man's case was now hopeless. None, even if some fellow cabinet-minister had the resources to do so, would dream of coming to the rescue of such a wretch. He had forfeited the sympathies of all. Even the mercy of a jubilee release was now denied him.

There is here a feature of the parable which is specially not true to life. In human dealings when a debt is cancelled it is cancelled. But in this instance the debt was, so to sped, regenerated. Men cannot do this, but God can—and He does.

Forgive! Forgive!

So Jesus rounded off this grim conclusion with the solemn warning: "So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts (Eph.4 :31,32) forgive not everyone his brother." Here the unexpected "my heavenly Father", in place of the more usual "your heavenly Father, was doubtless designed lo suggest the estrangement which an unforgiving spirit is bound to create. And that vital phrase "from your hearts," is a pointed reminder that there can never be any kind of substitute for genuine whole-hearted forgiveness. Formal handshake, brief spoken apology, or whatever other outward token of restored fellowship there may be, these are of no consequence at all in the Lord's eyes if bygones be not truly bygones. The man who can "forgive but not forget" has in him no true spirit of reconciliation.

Elsewhere in his teaching Jesus is at pains to stress that except there be forgiveness of one's fellows there can be no forgiveness from
heaven: "For if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses" (Mt.6 :15). In this parable, the
converse of the proposition holds good; "Shouldst not thou have had mercy on thy fellowservant, even as I had mercy on thee?” The one who knows "the calm of sins forgiven" will want to extend the same to his brother, and this all the more readily because of the vast disparity between the mighty "debt" God has forgiven him and the triviality his brother owes to him.

Notes: Mt. 18:21-35

His servants. This word slaves would apply also to high officials; e.g. Naaman (2 Kgs.5 :6). Such a usage served to exalt the majesty and authority of the king.
Talents. The figures given in Ex.38 :25-28 would double the estimate given in the text, and would make one debt 1,200,000 times as big as the other.
Pay me that thou owest. The reading in the best manuscripts: "Pay me, if thou owest," might perhaps imply: "and so it shall be with all my debtors."
Fellowservants. In the interpretation who are these?
Thou wicked servant. It was his lack of compassion that was his wickedness.

I forgave thee . . . because thou desiredst me. Because thou didst beseech me. The man had asked for time, not for cancellation, yet he got it!

Shouldest not thou.. .? Gk: was it not necessary? (morally necessary).
Jas. 2:13 surely refers to this. Cp. also Ps.l8:25,26

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