Bear with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgive each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. ~Colossians 3:13
Of all the Cross Connections in Scripture, the connection between the cross and forgiveness is probably the most obvious– and the most profound. We’ve already seen a dozen different iterations and nuances of the command to forgive others; this is a critical component of many other Cross Connections. Love gives itself away, even to enemies, which necessarily involves turning the other cheek and extending mercy. The fruit of kindness draws on God’s kindness to us in order to fund costly, unrequited kindness to those who do not respond in kindness to us. Patience is a continual act of forgiveness, even drawing from the same text as our forgiveness Cross Connection.
So in this chapter, rather than rehashing those lessons again (although that might not be a bad idea, since we need to relearn those lessons every day), we will look at forgiveness from a slightly different angle. To see more clearly what forgiveness should look like in our lives, and how it connects back to the cross, we will unpack one parable Jesus told in Matthew 18.
HOW MANY TIMES?
In Matthew 18, beginning in verse 21, Jesus has just given his disciples instructions on how to be reconciled with a brother or sister who sins against you. Peter (good ol’ reckless, big-mouthed, big-hearted, bone-headed Peter), however, wanted some clarification. Perhaps Jesus’ instructions seemed a bit extreme and he was thinking, “Gosh, if I need to pursue reconciliation with this much perseverance, my whole life will be about pursuing reconciliation!” (Which, of course, was exactly Jesus’ point.) So, looking for a loophole, or perhaps some reasonable moderating of Jesus’ command, he asked, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?”
I imagine that, as Peter said this, his chest puffed up a little and he looked around at the other disciples with some condescension (this, of course, would not be totally unlike Peter). You see, in Judaism, forgiving somebody three times was sufficient to show a forgiving spirit. After three times, bitterness or revenge was an acceptable response. So Peter, in volunteering to forgive up to seven times, probably thought he was being generous and super-spiritual. He probably expected to receive a commendation from Jesus, and for Jesus to say something like, “Heavens, no, Peter! Five times ought to do it.” Instead, Jesus’ answer probably made his jaw drop.
Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.” Now, Jesus didn’t mean, “Your number is too low, Peter. Keep count up until seventy-seven times, and then cut that jerk loose.” That’s not what Jesus meant by saying “seventy-seven times.” Rather, Jesus is turning Peter’s question on its head by playing a word game with the number seven. In the Bible, seven is a number signifying completion or fullness. Putting two sevens together intensifies it, making it not just complete but endlessly complete. So for Jesus to tell Peter to forgive seventy-seven times simply means, “Keep forgiving fully and completely, over and over and over again.” In other words, “It’s not about a number, Peter. It’s not about keeping score. It’s about never-ending mercy.”
IMPOSSIBLE DEBT, IMPOSSIBLE MERCY
And then, to illustrate and extend his point farther than Peter had ever dreamed, Jesus told an incredible parable. It’s not as well-known as some of his other stories like the prodigal son or the sower and the seeds, but I think this is the most significant teaching Jesus ever gave on the nature of sin and mercy and the gospel. This parable overflows with deeply profound significance for our lives, both as we ponder how we should treat others, and as we contemplate how God has treated us.
Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.
Let’s pause and consider the full impact of what he is saying. First, as will become clear later in the parable, the king in the story symbolizes God, and the debtor symbolizes you. So, then, this is much more than a story of a king and a servant; it is a picture of our debt before God, the holy King of the universe.
THE TEN THOUSAND TALENT DEBTOR IS YOU
“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents.” In light of Jesus’ intended meaning and the identity of these characters, this realization should sober you: this is a true story, and it’s about you. The ten thousand talent debtor is you. And there really is a King, who really will, one day, settle every account and debt in the universe. And one day (perhaps sooner than later), you will be summoned to stand before this King. Your debt, recorded in heaven, will be read, and payment will be required.
So what is this debt that we owe? Colossians 2:14 describes it as “the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands.” This is the debt of sin that we owe to God. Every act of rebellion, from a lustful glance to an arrogant thought, to hatred and murder, demands payment in the courtroom of heaven. And every moment of our lives– each one being a moment of forbearance, in which we are not required to pay what we owe– our debt is mounting up in the record books of heaven. Ezra 9:6 vividly describes this debt: “Our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has mounted up to the heavens.” Moment by moment, day by day, the debt of unpunished sin that we owe to God continues to spiral upwards. And one day the bank of heaven will call our loan, and we will stand before the King, and he will say, “It is time to pay what you owe.”
This looming reality should make us tremble. If you have ever been in a situation where you were drowning in debt, you know how it overshadows everything else. When you owe $20,000 in credit card bills and have no way to pay the minimum payment, let alone the entire debt, the anxiety and weight can be crushing. How strange it is, then, that we continue to blithely rack up higher and higher bills with the bank of heaven, never stopping to consider that one day, that bill will come due. We obviously don’t have the proper respect and fear of this King (which, of course, is the root cause of all this debt to begin with).
In this story, we see a picture of ourselves standing before the King with an incalculable debt. Jesus said that this particular servant owed the king “ten thousand talents.” Now just to be clear, these are not talents like juggling or singing on key. In the first century, a talent was a monetary unit worth about twenty years’ wages for a typical laborer. Of course, no one carried around talents in their wallet (in Old Testament times, it equalled 75 pounds of gold!), but it was a convenient measure when talking about vast sums of money. For a servant to owe ten thousand talents would have been absolutely absurd. Think about it: one talent was worth twenty years’ wages. That means that ten thousand talents is 200,000 years of wages! This is an absurdly, astronomically, impossibly incalculable debt. To put it into modern terms, if a typical worker earns $50,000 a year, a talent would be about a million dollars… and ten thousand talents would be ten billion dollars. This servant owed the king billions of dollars, an amount that would literally take thousands of lifetimes to repay.
Jesus gave this absurd number so that the story would be shocking. Because, remember: this is a true story, and the servant in the story is you. You don’t just stand before God with a debt of sin that you can negotiate or earn your way out of; you stand before God with an impossible debt that would take a thousand lifetimes to begin paying.
In the story, the king pronounces a just punishment: “Since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made.” This servant’s profligacy had not only ruined him, but had ruined all the lives around him. But even a lifetime of slavery could not begin to pay a thousand lifetimes’ worth of debt.
Throughout the Bible, we are given horrifying glimpses of the reality to which this parable points. All those who stand before God with an impossible, infinite unpaid debt will find out that their profligacy has cost them dearly; a few decades of spiritually spendthrift ways will leave them holding a bill that will take eternity to pay. This is the horrifying and just reason that hell exists: in the end, every account will be settled. “The smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night” (Revelation 14:11). “If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:15).
We are lingering on this awful reality because it is absolutely essential that we come to grips with this truth: you and I are the ten thousand talent debtor, and the punishment described in Revelation 14 and 20 is exactly what you and I deserve. We must know this, and we must feel the holy fear of debt, if the rest of the parable will have its intended effect on us.
TWO WAYS TO PAY
As we keep reading in the parable, it turns out that there are two ways that this debt can be paid, and the tragedy is that most people choose the first way.
And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.
The first way is that you can pay the debt yourself. If you think that sounds like a fool’s errand, you’d be right. How in the world could you ever hope to pay back a thousand lifetimes’ worth of debt?
And yet, that’s exactly what this foolish servant proposes. “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” Oh really? You and what gold mine? The fact that this servant thinks he can pay means he is totally delusional, whether about the actual amount he owes or his own ability to pay.
And yet, isn’t that how so many people approach God? “As long as my good deeds outweigh my bad deeds, God will let me into heaven,” is basically exactly what this man is proposing: I will earn my way out of this hole and back into your good graces. This parable is in the Bible in order to pull that delusional rug out from under us and bring us to our knees. If it is up to us to pay our debt, the only way we will pay is in hell. If you think that your debt against God is something you can pay for by your own good deeds or religious behavior, I’ve got news for you: you will pay for your debt, and you will pay it in hell. If we are to have any hope of being free of our debt, there must be another way for it to be paid.
And the good news of this parable, and of the gospel, is: there is another way for the debt to be paid. Trying to pay it yourself will result in a one-way ticket to hell. But there is somebody who can pay it: the king himself. In response to this servant’s reckless spending and delusional arrogance, the king’s response is baffling: mercy. “And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave the debt.”
With a word, out a heart overflowing with pity and compassion, the king simply releases the man from his thousand lifetimes of debt. The crushing mountain of debt he could never, ever repay, was gone in a moment. How would you respond if you were that servant? Remember… you are that servant.
Think about what this act of mercy cost the king. He just took a ten billion dollar write-down on his net worth. Forgiving the servant’s debt means, ultimately, that the king himself paid it. His treasury was emptied, his kingdom was bankrupted, in order to release this one foolish servant from his debt.
What a picture this is of the King of heaven, and how he deals with foolish servants like us! We owe an infinite debt from our lifetime of foolish, costly, reckless self-serving rebellion. And the King and Judge, against whom we have sinned and to whom we owe an infinite debt, responds by paying the debt for us. We deserve death and hell, and so the King steps off his throne and takes the punishment for us. The record of our debt, with its demands of death and imprisonment, was written over to Jesus’ account. “And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.” Look to the cross and see your ten thousand talent debt nailed there and stamped with the blood-bought seal, “Paid In Full.”
What kind of love is this, that pays the debts of foolish servants, out of the riches of his own extravagant kindness? What kind of love lays down its life to pay a debt it did not owe, so that I could inherit a kingdom and eternal riches I do not deserve? This is love and mercy beyond all reckoning, beyond all fathoming. This is impossible mercy. So how could our response to this mercy be any less than the line of the hymn,
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all
A SHOCKING RESPONSE TO SHOCKING MERCY
That’s why the servant’s response to this impossible mercy is so shocking. As the parable continues, you don’t see any thankfulness on the part of the servant. You don’t see him leaping and dancing and praising God and thanking the king. You don’t see him kneeling down in humble, thankful submission. You don’t see him running out of the gates of the palace to tell everyone how good this king is. In other words, you don’t see any evidence that the king’s mercy has meant anything to him. Rather, what you see is appalling.
But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, “Pay what you owe.” So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. Then his master summoned him and said to him, “You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?”
The moment that the servant, newly freed from his ten billion dollar debt, leaves the palace, he sees another person– a “fellow servant”– who happens to owe him a hundred denarii. Now, a denarius was a coin worth one day’s wage. A hundred denarii, then, is about twenty weeks’ wages– not chump change. In modern terms, we’re talking about $20,000 or so. That’s a lot of money for one servant to owe another servant. It’s not unreasonable to ask to be paid back.
This one detail is just another reason I love this parable. I love Jesus’ tender realism here. Remember, the debt in this story symbolizes the sin you’ve committed against another person. This fellow servant owes $20,000. That is not a small sum. In sin terms, that means he has grievously hurt, wounded, or betrayed this other servant. He is in great debt.
You see, it hurts to be sinned against. Betrayal wounds. Friendships can be destroyed through foolishness, and through willful attack. There are people in your life who have deeply hurt you– perhaps even done unspeakably wrong things to you. To use the imagery of this parable, they owe you a great debt– a debt of thousands and thousands of dollars. To forgive the person who has wronged you would cost you dearly. You might even feel that its unreasonable to be asked to forgive that person. “If you had any idea what they did to me…” you say. And you know what? You’re right. That probably is asking too much. You could withhold forgiveness and be completely fair. They don’t deserve mercy.
Under just about any circumstance, it would be unreasonable to expect that servant to forgive his fellow servant of the $20,000 debt… unless he had just been forgiven billions. And remember: you are that servant.
This is the brilliance of this parable. Jesus turns the tables on us and on all who hold grudges– even well-deserved ones– and calls us to re-evaluate the hurts that others have inflicted on us in light of the massive debt that we have accumulated against God. “That guy owes you thousands and thousands of dollars worth of punishment because of the way he treated you. That is true,” Jesus says to us. “But this is also true: you owe God billions and billions of dollars, a thousand lifetimes of punishment, because of the way you have treated him. And God, at great cost to himself, has paid your debt in full.” Whatever this person owes you, whatever they have done to you, pales in comparison with the great debt you have accumulated with God.
THE NECESSITY OF MERCY
No matter how greatly someone has sinned against you, it pales in comparison with your own debt against God. And if God has forgiven you– if his impossible, extravagant mercy has reached your heart and paid your debt– then your life will be changed, and you will respond to people differently. “Should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had on you?” the king asked the servant. That’s not just a helpful suggestion; it’s an imperative, and an absolutely necessary reality that needs to be evident in your life if you claim that the king has forgiven your debt. Our Cross Connection verse says it just as firmly: “as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” There is no option for a servant, who has been forgiven billions of dollars and thousands of lifetimes of debt, to not respond with mercy toward the comparatively petty debts that others incur with him.
Jesus concludes the parable with this application, sobering in its finality.
And in anger the master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.
What provoked the king to anger? Surprisingly, it wasn’t the servant’s great debt. It wasn’t how he had squandered the king’s riches and was unable to repay. It wasn’t how he foolishly offered to pay the debt himself. No, what provoked the king to fury was that the servant treated his fellow servant so differently than how he himself had been treated by the king.
Why? What did that even have to do with the king? And why would that provoke such a response from the him? Because it showed that the servant utterly scorned the king’s mercy. It revealed how little he prized the treatment he had received, how little he valued the king’s costly forgiveness, and how lightly he viewed his own debt. His lack of mercy exposed his lack of thankfulness and gratitude. It showed that he viewed the king’s extravagant benevolence as something to be abused and taken for granted, not something to be cherished and imitated. And this made a mockery of the king’s mercy. Therefore the king’s wrath was swift and fair: “in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt.”
Jesus’ commentary on this is devastating: “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” Jesus threatens hell and punishment to all who do not gladly and willingly forgive. This is chilling, sobering, frightening– especially for all of us who struggle with a bitter and unforgiving spirit. What does Jesus mean, and what does it mean for us?
THE PROOF OF PRIZING MERCY IS IN PASSING IT ON
First, we should clarify what Jesus doesn’t mean. He doesn’t mean that the way to earn God’s forgiveness is to forgive others. That would contradict the whole point of the parable, which is that the king’s lavish mercy is free and undeserved. The servant tried to negotiate a payment plan with the king, not realizing the folly of what he was doing.Your forgiving spirit will not qualify as a payment plan, any more than any other good deed you could do. Remember it wasn’t the servant’s forgiving spirit that qualified him for mercy. Rather, it was his unforgiving spirit that disqualified him from receiving it.
That’s a crucial difference to see, if we are to uphold and love the gospel’s message of free grace, and if the gospel is to function properly in our lives. The moment you turn the parable around and say that you have to forgive others in order to be forgiven, you’re now making the same foolish offer that the servant made: “I’ll pay you back, God, with my good behavior!”
The point of what Jesus is saying is this: the proof that you really prize God’s mercy is that you gladly and willingly pass it on to others. A forgiving spirit is proof that God’s mercy is precious to you, that you tremble at what your sin cost and the great payment God made, that you are free from all your debt and full of thankfulness and gratitude. An unforgiving spirit is proof that, at the very best, you have a tragically shallow view of how God has treated you, and, at worst, that you are no different from the unforgiving servant who scorned the king’s kindness.
Those whom God has released from their ten thousand talent debt, by nailing it to His Son’s cross, who see how grievous their own sin is and what God’s mercy toward them cost him, will prize that mercy. God’s grace towards them will be precious to their hearts. And Jesus says that the single best way to know whether or not God’s grace is precious to you is whether or not you extend grace to others.
Look back to the icon at the beginning of this chapter. That right angle is a picture of how God intends his mercy to function in our lives. Vertical mercy from God to you is meant to be bent outward at a ninety degree angle into horizontal mercy from you to others. A heart that has been struck by the extravagant cost of God’s mercy will start to function like that right angle, receiving mercy from God and extending it out to others.
Will we do this perfectly? No, of course not; that’s why we need mercy in the first place. But oh, how this parable should spur us on to intentional forgiveness. Both the great cost paid by the king, and his fury at seeing his costly kindness treated so lightly, should lend a weight and urgency and honesty to our own acts of forgiveness. We who have been treated so unexpectedly by God should be marked by unexpected mercy ourselves.
BEING THE TEN THOUSAND TALENT DEBTOR
So how can we become the kind of people Jesus calls us to be in this parable– people marked by unexpected and unending mercy towards others? I think the key starts in seeing ourselves in this story. In order for God’s forgiveness to function in our lives how he intends, we must start seeing ourselves as that ten thousand talent debtor. So in closing, let’s get practical in applying this lesson to ourselves.
If you are struggling to forgive someone, the ultimate issue is not what they did to you, or how bad it was. The ultimate issue is how you see God’s mercy to you, and your sin against God, in relation to that sin against you. The secret is not counting up that hundred denarii that the other person owes you, but seeing that hundred denarii in clear comparison with your ten thousand talent (which, by the way, equals about 60,000,000 denarii) debt against God.
So if you are struggling to forgive somebody, your problem probably lies in one of two places (or perhaps both):
1) you view your sin too lightly- which means you view God too lightly
This doesn’t mean that you should be evaluating, “What’s worse, their pride or my pride?” It’s not about tallying up who is a worse person. But if their arrogance towards you feels like a bigger deal than your pride before a holy God, it means that you have not rightly reckoned your guilt before God. You don’t really believe that you’re a ten thousand debtor. When you are more concerned with what someone has done against you than what you have done against God, that ultimately means that you take yourself more seriously than you take God seriously. In other words, you are acting like your own god.
The remedy to this is two-fold: you need to deepen your understanding of your own sin, and you need to deepen your understanding of God’s holiness and greatness. The Old Testament is a great place to learn this lesson. Camp out in the prophets, especially Isaiah or Jeremiah, and read with an eye for God’s glory and for vivid descriptions of how offensive your sin is, and pray until the Holy Spirit starts to work those realities into your heart.
Another way to deal with this, in the moment when you’re struggling to forgive, is to take a step back and consider the other person’s sin against you in light of all the times you have done that same thing to others and to God. If they just snapped angrily at you, a biblical heart response would be to start by thinking, “Gosh, I have snapped angrily at a lot of people– at my co-worker yesterday, at my wife last week– and even worse, I’ve harbored anger and bitterness in my heart. And worse than that, how often have I gotten frustrated at God’s perfect timing or angrily doubted his goodness to me? Thank you God, for dealing with me with such mercy!” In training yourself to think this way, you are training yourself to think like the ten thousand talent debtor.
2) you view God’s grace too lightly
If your heart hates the idea of “letting someone off the hook,” for what they’ve done to you, it may be an indication that you are not fully grasping just how far God went, and what it cost him, to “let you off the hook.” If you are not living in daily amazement that your ten thousand talent debt has been forgiven, then you will be much more likely to view that hundred denarii offense against you as a big deal.
It is a daily battle for our apathetic, arrogant hearts to be amazed by God’s amazing grace. It takes the daily discipline of fixing your eyes on the cross in Scripture, and meditating and praying on what you see there until its reality starts to burn in your heart. Find gospel passages that unpack how far Jesus has gone to save you, what you’ve been saved from, and the great love of God that pursued a sinner like you. Study them, meditate on them, commit them to memory, and listen to sermons on them. Listen to gospel-centered, cross-exalting worship music until it gets stuck in your head and starts to influence the way you think and feel. And pray, pray, pray, that in all of these pursuits God would open the eyes of your heart to see the cross as beautiful and compelling. Pray and pursue until the Holy Spirit starts making these realities come alive to you.
It will take a lifetime and an eternity to properly and fully grasp all that it means to be the ten thousand talent debtor who stands forgiven before a holy God of love. The invitation of salvation– the invitation of this gracious king– is, “Come and know my mercy more, until it overflows from you to a world who needs to know it too.”
Father, In the face of my countless sins and incalculable debt, your love goes beyond reckoning and your mercy beyond measure. As deep as my sin goes, your grace goes deeper still. Thank you, thank you, for the cross, and for the costly mercy that redeemed this debtor and adopted this unworthy servant to be your child. As I pursue a greater appreciation of all you’ve done for me in Christ, open my eyes by your Spirit and make me into a monument to mercy. Make me a conduit and reflection of the forgiveness that you’ve given to me, so that people will see the reality of the cross in the mercy I extend to them.