To this day I don’t remember what even started it, but back in the 6th grade me and one of my best friends Steve Frumkin got into an argument, and it escalated, and we decided we would settle it after school with a fist fight. All that day, people chose sides. The way everyone was talking it up, you’d think it was going to be the fight of the century. When the bell rang at 3, everyone headed to the parking lot across the street, Steve with his ‘posse’ and I with mine. Everyone made a circle around us. Steve punched me in the chest and I punched him in the stomach. He started crying and walked away. Everyone started patting me on the back and congratulating me. But I felt miserable – Steve was my friend! So, when I got home, I immediately walked over to his house (two doors down), he was sitting on his front lawn, looking as miserable as I felt. We apologized to each other and then had a good laugh about it. The next day, Steve and I decided to walk to school together, and when we arrived everyone was astonished. We just smiled ear to ear.
Humility, forgiveness and reconciliation are beautiful things.
This morning we observe Shabbat Shuvah – ‘The Sabbath of Repentance’ which falls between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. These days are known in Judaism as Yamim Noraim – ‘The Days of Awe’, because according to the rabbis, it is during these 10 days that a person’s repentance will either prove sufficient or insufficient, and determine their outcome for the year ahead: whether to be inscribed for life or for death.
I stress that this view is rabbinical tradition; it isn’t exactly what Scripture teaches. But the principles of humbling ourselves, admitting our wrongs to God and to one another, making restitution and seeking reconciliation – these are decidedly biblical teachings! And in my opinion, Yeshua’s parable of the king who forgave and the servant who would not forgive is perfect for such a day as this. I invite you to open your Bibles to Matthew chapter 18, and we’ll begin at verse 21.
In context, this parable is one in a series of analogies Yeshua gave in response to the disciples’ arguing with each other as to which of them was the greatest. By use of these parables, Messiah teaches them that God wants men to humble themselves and be reconciled quickly to one another.
Then Peter came to Yeshua and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?”
Now, I’m sure Peter was pleased with himself for coming up with such a lovely standard, since seven is the biblical number of fulfillment and perfection. Evidently, he was trying to curry favor with Yeshua by showing that he was more forgiving than the others. But Yeshua’s reply must have stunned him.
Yeshua answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven.”
There’s a couple of ways you might take this. If you’re a legalist and a minimalist, thinking only in terms of rules, not principles, you might think: “Okay, well that’s 490 times, and that’s a lot, and it’s hard, but it’s still a finite number. So if anyone wrongs me, when they get to 489, they’d better watch out!” Or, if you’re a person of principle, your reaction might be, “Oh, crap, I don’t think I can do this.” And you would be right – in our own strength, forgiveness doesn’t come naturally. And even though seventy times seven is a finite number, it’s pretty clear that Yeshua really means ‘always’.
He then puts it in perspective, by telling a profound and troubling parable.
“Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him.
This isn’t meant to be understood as a slave serving in his master’s home or estate. The parable speaks of a king settling accounts, not merely a land-owner. And kings did not lend money to slaves. This ‘servant’ of the king was most likely a person of importance himself – perhaps the governor of a province; akin to the relationship between Pontius Pilate and Caesar.
The amount of the debt is astonishing! A talent was the equivalent of 6,000 denarii, and a denarius was a silver coin paid for a day’s wage. Therefore, a talent had the value of 6,000 days of work, which works out to about 17 years. Imagine you’re the one with that debt. You work for 17 years, and the King says to you, “Great – you’ve paid off one talent. You now have 9,999 more to go.” Just another 169,983 years of labor. In today’s dollars, we’re talking about a debt of $6.8 billion.
Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. The servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.
The king was never going to recoup that money, and I’m sure he knew it. Even selling the servant and his entire family as slaves and seizing the servant’s estate would scarcely be a drop in the bucket. And the servant knew full well he could never repay that kind of debt. He was asking for time, but I’m sure he knew full well his situation was hopeless.
And what should happen? Mercy of an unimaginable magnitude. The king didn’t merely extend the man’s deadline for repayment (which would have just been forestalling the inevitable), nor did he merely reduce the amount owed. The king cancelled the servant’s debt altogether! Tore up the bill! $6.8 billion worth of debt – forgiven!
“But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded. His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’ But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt.
Now that he’s been forgiven – marvelously, lavishly forgiven, the servant promptly forgets what that feels like and, refusing to learn from the king’s example, he goes and shakes down one of his peers for the money he himself is owed; one hundred denarii. In order to understand the depth of the hypocrisy here and the intent of the parable, let’s review what a denarius was worth.
A denarius was a silver coin paid out for one day’s wages. So the servant was owed roughly the equivalent of four months’ pay. If, for example, you made $36,000/year it would be $12,000. That’s not a trifling amount – but at least it’s possible. So, when his fellow servant pleaded with him to be patient and give him more time to repay it, it was a reasonable request. In fact, his plea was nearly word-for-word the plea the first servant had made to the king. He even fell on his knees as the first servant had done, and begged for mercy.
But his plea fell on deaf ears. The first servant refused, and had the man thrown into ‘debtor’s prison’. And from what we know of debtor’s prison, without an advocate, he would be there a long time, most likely separated from his family.
How callous and ungrateful does someone have to be, to refuse to give any grace, or grant additional time for a $12,000 debt, when they themselves have been forgiven a debt of almost $7,000,000,000? Now before we get righteously indignant and think, “How dare he?” and suppose we would never do such a thing – we are in danger of missing the intent of the parable. Do you remember how King David became indignant when Nathan the prophet told him about a rich man with many flocks and herds stealing and killing the one ewe lamb belonging to his neighbor, only to be told, “You are the man!” This parable hits closer to home than we’d like to imagine.
Such cold-heartedness and hypocrisy by the king’s servant surely wouldn’t go unnoticed, or unreported. And in verses 31-34 we see how it played out.
When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened. Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
Remember that Yeshua began the parable by describing the master as a king, which meant these servants were officials – regional governors who answered to him. They had access to the king. And they were so appalled at the cruelty shown by the one official that they came personally and reported it to their master.
The king was furious, and summoned his servant, confronting him, and calling him ‘wicked’ for having shown no mercy, despite receiving so much mercy himself. And in an act of judicial reversal, the master reinstated the servant’s debt and handed him over to the jailers, just as the servant had done to his fellow servant.
And then Messiah Yeshua spoke these breathtaking words:
“This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”
We are like the first servant, having been forgiven an unimaginable debt, but in our case a debt of sin – a debt impossible for us to repay – impossible even if we had a thousand lifetimes. And because of our sin, we deserve condemnation and to be eternally separated from God our King.
And, along with Jewish people all around the world, we come to Him on the High Holidays, acknowledging our many transgressions, and throwing ourselves at His mercy. We plead with long prayers and many words for the forgiveness of our sins. Like the good and compassionate king of the parable, Adonai hears us and doesn’t merely reduce the penalty of our sin, or extend the payback period (as if we could), but cancels our debt altogether. As the prophet Micah declared, He will again have compassion on us; He will tread our iniquities under foot. Yes, You will cast all their sins into the depths of the sea (Micah 7:19). And as Rabbi Paul wrote in his letter to the Colossian believers, When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Messiah. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the record of debt against us, and taking it away, nailing it to the cross (Colossians 2:13-14).
Every one of us has wronged others. At times it may have been malicious and intentional. At other times it may have come unintentionally, through thoughtlessness. But if we’re going to be honest with ourselves, every one of us has truly wronged other people. We have caused genuine hurt and caused legitimate offense. If there is to be resolution, such sins (that is what they are) necessitate the seeking and granting of forgiveness.
In a world devastated by sin, inevitably there will be offenses, making it necessary for us to apologize, to repent of our wrong, to forgive one another and willingly be reconciled. There will be numerous occasions where we will either need to seek someone’s forgiveness, or else be asked to grant forgiveness; and we had better be ready to do so.
According to the Scriptures, whenever we wrong a fellow human being, we have also wronged God, because that person was made in God’s own image. So every sin is ultimately a sin against God. And when you consider that the gravity of an offense is directly proportional to the stature of the one offended, you can see how dire our situation really was.
Suppose, for instance, you showed up 30 minutes late to lunch with a friend. That isn’t right, but your friend would probably say it’s no big deal. If, however, you showed up 30 minutes late for a meeting with a senator, or the CEO of a large corporation, it would be regarded as a more serious an offense (which isn’t to say they have more intrinsic worth than your friend, but their stature – the demands on their time – make those 30 minutes all the more costly). The consequences would be even greater for failing to show up for a meeting with a president, a prime minister or a king. The greater the stature of the one you offend, the greater the gravity of your offense.
Thus, if every sin is ultimately a sin against an infinite and holy God, your sins, even the slightest of them, are multiplied by infinity. You owe a debt that, humanly speaking could never – not in a thousand lifetimes, be repaid. That’s what this parable conveys. Furthermore, God will not merely look the other way concerning your sin. That would be a violation of His infinite justice. Sin must be dealt with judiciously. Where would that leave you, if God were not gracious and forgiving?
Messiah Yeshua made it clear that God’s forgiveness is conditional. The condition is this: you yourself must forgive others. If you refuse to forgive the person that has wronged you, as Yeshua said, “from your heart” you will not be forgiven. It’s that simple. Whatever that person has done to offend you, it’s less than a drop in the bucket in comparison to the weight of your offenses against the holy, eternal God. The King of Heaven has canceled your ‘billions of dollars’ of sin debt. He has the right and the authority to reinstate it, if you refuse to show mercy to your fellow servants.
Let me raise a practical question: Is there a way to know if you’ve really forgiven someone? To find out, I suggest you ask yourself this: does the thing still make you angry when it comes to mind? Does it still sting when you think about it? That may be a sign that you haven’t yet forgiven that person. Do whatever you need to do to come to that place of forgiveness.
Yeshua didn’t make any exceptions. You simply must forgive. But forgiving someone in your heart – in all sincerity – doesn’t necessarily mean you verbalize it. For example, even if someone refuses to admit that they’ve wronged you, you have to forgive them anyway, from your heart; but you aren’t obligated to tell them you forgive them. In fact, I think it would be a mistake, since first of all they haven’t owned up to it. And, secondly, telling an unrepentant, defiant person you forgive them will probably anger them, making it even harder for them to come to you later and admit it. Don’t make it harder for someone to apologize to you. Know when to speak, and when to remain silent.
In these days leading up to Yom Kippur, know that you still have the opportunity to seek forgiveness and to grant forgiveness, and it’s what the King demands, since He has forgiven you.
The only thing standing in the way is pride.
And if you won’t forgive, you can kiss Yom Kippur goodbye.