NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Verse 22: Jesus answered, “I tell you, you must forgive them more than seven times. You must continue to forgive them even if they do wrong to you seventy-seven times.”
Here we see that regardless of what Peter had been taught through verbal laws, Jesus gives him a new commandment that supersedes anything said or written before on how often forgiveness is to be offered. This is in line with what Isaiah said on the subject about God’s forgiveness: “Let the wicked person abandon his way and the evil person his thoughts; let him return to Adonai, and He will have mercy on him; let him return to our God, for He will freely forgive. ‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, and your ways are not my ways,’ says Adonai.’”1
It also appears that our Lord may be recalling the words of Lamech, a fourth generation descendant of Enoch, after he admitted to killing a man who wounded him. Lamech tells his two wives: “For I have killed a man for wounding me; And a boy for striking me; If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times.”2 This verse in the King James Version reads: “seventy times seven,” but the earliest Hebrew version of Matthew renders it: “seventy-seven.” The New International Version also has seventy-seven. The Greek however, actually reads: “seventy times seven times seven.” Many scholars believe that rather than an actual number, Jesus was indicating that forgiveness should be offered over and over and over.
Again we must see the figurative lesson here. Jesus’s words were a metaphor for endless forgiveness no matter how often, how many individuals, or for how many instances. Why is this important? Because, if God is willing to continue forgiving us each time we err and commit misdeeds that are contrary to His will and against His word, then how much more should we be willing to do the same for our fellow believer. In the Lord’s Prayer,3 we are told to do this, and John instructed the community of believers on this as well.4 We must always keep in mind that forgiveness does not erase the wrong-doing, but it does allow for the punishment that should be applied to expire. It’s God’s version of the statue of limitations. Recompense can certainly be sought, and should be if possible. But forgiveness takes the sting out of grudges, resentment, bitterness, enmity, ill will, and revenge. But Jesus has more to say on this subject, so He chooses an illustration that is quite effective.
Verses 23-24: God’s kingdom is like a king who decided to collect the money his subjects owed him. So the king began to collect his money. One subject owed him several thousand pounds of silver.
This teaching on forgiveness was so important that Jesus refuses to let it go. So He continues with another parable to emphasize the point of shared forgiveness. It was not known, even in Jesus’ day, that kings made loans to his subjects. In most cases, the money owed represented taxes on property, on harvests, general taxes, etc. This is why the king would be able to forgive the debt so easily. But that wasn’t the main point in Jesus’ parable.
Immediately we must note that Jesus is not saying that the Kingdom of God “is”, but “is like.” This illustrates the power of a parable. It’s like putting an ornate frame around a beautiful painting so that when it is hung on the wall it draws the eyes to its luster and depth. Jesus’ intention here is not to portray a king who loans money and if not paid back in full, the debtor will be thrown in jail. But it is like a kingdom where when forgiven what a person owes to others they in turn forgive those who owe to them. This same principle is found in the Lord’s Prayer. And since Peter had just been talking about forgiveness in light of how forgiveness here on earth is recognized in heaven, Jesus wants him and the other disciples to learn one cardinal truth: forgiveness cannot be earned, it must be given in order to be genuine.
Origen feels that by Jesus using how a king dealt with his subjects and how those subjects then respond in turn to fellow subjects, that He is comparing how our Heavenly Father who is willing to forgive us our debts if we earnestly pray for mercy, but even before such forgiveness is received we must be willing to pass it on to those who come to us for such mercy.5
Chrysostom draws a comparison between sins against humanity and sins against God. This is reasoned by the great debt owed the king and the small debt owed the servant. He also sees that man’s sins against God are much greater in number and more frequent than man’s wrongdoings against his neighbor. Therefore, since God is so willing to forgive a prevailing large debt, should we not be just as willing to forgive a lesser infrequent debt.
I’m sure Jesus was less interested in the exact monetary value of the debt than He was in choosing this amount to contrast the smaller debt in His parable. As a matter of fact, the Arabic version renders it as “sum of talents” without specifying the number. But this collection was not arbitrary, it appears that the king sent out word for the money to be brought in because it was pay up time. We usually see that at the end of the grace period or terms of the loan.
Origen has this to say on the subject: “The moment of beginning the reckoning starts with the household of God, as is it written in Ezekiel: ‘Begin at my sanctuary.’6 This judgment begins as quickly as the twinkling of an eye.7 In thinking of the demanding of accounts, let us not forget what we have said before, that these accounts are spiritually conceived. And the moment of demand begins understandably with those who owe the most. This is why the passage does not begin generally with a reckoning of all accounts but a specific one: one was brought to him. Here is the moment. He is beginning to demand an account of one who owed him ten thousand talents! It reminds us of the prophet Zechariah.’8”9
Verse 25: He was not able to pay the money to his master, the king. So the master ordered that he and everything he owned be sold, even his wife and children. The money would be used to pay the king what the subject owed.
The idea that wives and children could be sold to raise money, was often the case to settle a debt. We read in Nehemiah: “We have to pay the king’s tax on our fields and vineyards. But we cannot afford to pay, so we are borrowing money to pay the tax. We are as good as the others. Our sons are as good as their sons. But we will have to sell our sons and daughters as servants. Some of us have already had to sell our daughters as servants. There is nothing we can do. We have already lost our fields and vineyards. Other people now own them.”10 This demand for payment was more than this man could bear. Perhaps it was because he did not have a good harvest, or bad weather ruined his crops.
Whatever the case, he decided to plead his case. So he gains an audience with the king and implores him to be merciful. His pleas touched the king’s heart and his tax bill was canceled. I’m sure that at this point in Jesus’ story, everyone was impressed by the king’s compassion. It should also provide a lesson for us. Just count up how much the Lord has forgiven you, then compare it to the small lien you may have on your spiritual brother or sister for things they’ve done to hurt you, then the forgiveness they ask for should flow freely and without hesitation from your heart. We see a similar incident was brought to the prophet Elijah.11 We also see a similarity between what Jesus was describing and the event that occurred among the Judeans during a famine.12
Chrysostom has an interesting exposition on this text in a sermon. He says: “His king ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children. Why? Not out of cruelty or inhumanity, for the punishment concerned the steward – his wife was already trapped like a slave to his folly. Rather, this discipline occurred in order to effect his transformation. His purpose is to frighten him by this threat so that he may come to supplication, and not merely that they all be sold. For if the lord had done this with unmitigated punishment in mind, he would not have granted his request, nor would he have bestowed upon him a special favor. He did not dismiss the debt, and he called for an accounting. Why? His teaching purpose was to show him with all justice precisely how much debt he was going to free him from! In this way at least he might in due time become more gentle toward his fellow servant. Yet, even having learned of the weight of his debt and the greatness of the forgiveness, he continued to take his fellow servant by the throat. If the master had not disciplined him beforehand with such attempted medicines, how much worse might his cruelty have been than the shocking extent that it actually turned out to be?”13
We see from this, that oft times there may be problems that develop in our lives that overwhelm us and leave us stunned as to how we are going to cope. This is God’s way of motivating us to come to Him for help in dealing with such dilemmas. The Lord is generous and most often will help us. But it is incumbent upon us then to be of assistance to our fellow believers and neighbors. Many times, God’s children do not get what they want or ask for because God already knows they are selfish and would be unwilling to share with others what He granted them.
This may be illustrated by a certain type of coffeemaker where a cup of cold water is poured into the holding tank and instantly a cup of hot water is dispensed through the coffee grounds to fill the now empty cup with hot coffee. Likewise, whatever we expect from God, even it if is a cup of cold water, we must predisposed to pour it into the lives of others. That way, whatever God puts into our lives as His favor will then flow out of our lives into the lives of others as an unexpected blessing.
1 Isaiah 55:7 – Complete Jewish Bible
2 Genesis 4:23-24
3 Matthew 6:9-13
4 I John 1:9
5 Origen: Commentary on Matthew 14.7
6 Ezekiel 9:7
7 1 Corinthians 15:52
8 See Zechariah 5:7-8
9 Origen: Commentary on Matthew 14:10
10 Nehemiah 5:4-5
11 II Kings 4:1-7
12 Nehemiah 5:1-13
13 Chrysostom: Matthew, Homily 61.3