Matthew 18:21-35. The Wicked Servant Who Could Not Forgive. Seventy-seven times.

With the arrival of this Sunday’s reading, we are still on discourse number four (of five) in the Gospel of Matthew.   Last week, I mentioned that this fourth discourse is essentially another pep talk by Jesus on the necessary virtues of Christian ministry. In verses 21 to 35 of chapter 18,  Jesus emphasizes forgiveness as a key virtue or trait among Christians. To access this passage in the Lectionary, click here for the Catholic, and here for the RCL version. 

Peter the Apostle introduces the question:

“Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive? As many as seven times?”   Jesus answered, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.” 

"The Wicked Servant." Domenico Fetti, 1611. Dresden Gallery.

Why does Peter ask if he ought to forgive “seven times,” and the Lord respond “not seven times but seventy-seven times?”  While exegetes tell us that the number seven is regarded as a whole or complete number, if we were to focus on numerology, we might miss the Old Testament parallel.  Matthew is a man of the faith who loves to allude to Hebrew Scripture. He is, along with Paul, the first Old Testament bible-thumping Christian.   To forgive “seventy-seven times” is to allude to a few different passages regarding sin and forgiveness in the Old Testament.  The passage I find most relevant is a conversation between Cain and the Lord in Genesis 4:13-15:

Cain said to the LORD, “My punishment is greater than I can bear. Behold, thou hast driven me this day away from the ground; and from thy face I shall be hidden; and I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will slay me.” Then the LORD said to him, “Not so! If any one slays Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.” And the LORD put a mark on Cain, lest any who came upon him should kill him.

Just ten verses later, the Book of Genesis recounts that Cain’s great-great grandson Lamech may be avenged “seventy-sevenfold” because Lamech also took the life of another (verse 24).

As I mentioned in last week’s post,  in Matthew 18  Jesus retires the idea that man can justify taking revenge on his brother.  On the other hand, while we are called to forgive, all of humankind is accountable, for the sake of righteousness, to the Lord.  In order to illustrate the point, Jesus tells the disciples of the parable of the wicked servant.

The Wicked Servant

In the parable of the wicked servant, God is played by the “Master,” while the “servant” represents any person or minister of God.  Consider how the Master treats the ungrateful servant who owes an enormous sum, and then how the ungrateful servant treats his peer (Mt 18:27-28):

Moved with compassion the Master of that servant let him go and forgave him the loan. When that servant had left, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a much smaller amount. He seized him and started to choke him, demanding, ‘Pay back what you owe.’

Let’s remember that the Master’s inclination is to be generous, and to forgive.  In this account, when the Master hears of the cruelty and unforgiving nature of the ungrateful servant, he reverses his earlier, and merciful decision.   Jesus then tells us the fate of the ungrateful servant in verses 33-35:

...should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?  And in anger his lord [the Master] delivered him to the jailers, till 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.

It bears repeating that the Master’s initial inclination is to forgive, while it was the ungrateful servant who elected, of his own account, not to forgive.   God’s justice is such that He is merciful to those who show mercy, while he treats the merciless with the same consideration that the merciless treat others.

The Opposite of Forgiveness is Judgment

The theme of forgiveness is fairly important in Matthew’s gospel, as Jesus uses the terms “forgive,” “forgiven,” and “forgiveness” about fifteen times in Matthew alone.   In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus teaches us to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (5:44).  In addition, he advises us to make friends with your accuser, … lest your accuser hand you over to the judge (5:25).

One of the ideas that Jesus wants to convey in the Gospel of Matthew is that no person can be more indebted to us for their sins, than we ourselves are indebted to God. Because God created us, because we are sinners ourselves, and because we stand without merit before God, we are mandated by God’s justice and the divine order to forgive others.  To put it another way, we don’t have the authority to judge because we are not perfect and because we did not create the laws by which creation operates.

The willingness to forgive, and the ability to refrain from judging, are two sides of the same thematic coin in Matthew’s Gospel.  In chapter 7, Jesus counsels against exercising harsh judgment against a brother or sister:

Judge not, that you be not judged.  For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?  Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? 

In the parable of the wicked servant, we are told at verse 24 that the debt the ungrateful servant owes the Master is nearly infinite (μυρίων ταλάντων), yet the Master forgives the ungrateful servant.  In verse 28, the ungrateful servant then turns around and administers his own judgment, which goes against the divine order.  He throttles one of his co-workers for failing to pay back roughly a hundred day’s wage (ἑκατὸν δηνάρια).

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches the crowd to pray the “Our Father,” and immediately reminds us:

For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. 

There is the door of mercy, and the door of judgment…

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