The Parable of the Unforgiving Debtor

Posted by Thaddaeus

Matthew 18: 21-25

Peter approached Jesus and asked him, “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.  That is why the kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who decided to settle accounts with his servants.  When he began the accounting, a debtor was brought before him who owed him a huge amount.  Since he had no way of paying it back, his master ordered him to be sold, along with his wife, his children, and all his property, in payment of the debt.  At that, the servant fell down, did him homage, and said, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back in full.’  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.’  Falling to his knees, his fellow servant begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’  But he refused.  Instead, he had the fellow servant put in prison until he paid back the debt.  Now when his fellow servants saw what had happened, they were deeply disturbed, and went to their master and reported the whole affair.  His master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant!  I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to.  Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant, as I had pity on you?’  Then in anger his master handed him over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt.   So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives your brother from your heart.”


Background:  In the Old Testament, God forgives Israel’s enemies three times, then punishes them.  Therefore, ancient Jewish rabbis taught that it was unnecessary to forgive injuries more than three times.  Peter’s question about how many, advances the concept of seven times; more than double the then-standard.  His question shows that he and the disciples are still thinking in the limited terms of the law; rather, than the unlimited terms of grace.  Jesus says not seven times, but seventy times seven times (490 times).  By this Jesus means that there are no limits on forgiveness, except we must forgive others who sin against us.  There is no other prescription offered in the New Testament.  C.S. Lewis writes, “Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until he has something to forgive.”  Indeed it is, but how we forgive is how God will deal with us unless we forgive our brothers and sisters whole-heartedly.


The Parable of the Unforgiving Debtor:  The parable is about two debtors: one who owes a huge amount (Lit., 10,000 talents) and another who owes a small amount (Lit., 100 denarii).  Denariis and talents are ancient units of measure.  A denarii is the equivalent of a laborer’s daily wage, about $15 dollars, or  1/6000th of a talent.  By comparison, 10,000 talents would be worth almost $900 million, a debt so great as to, literally, be unpayable.  Jesus uses an amount that is deliberately enormous in order to show that the punishment would have been endless.  This is the type of endless punishment due as result of  original sin we inherit from our first parents – Adam and Eve.  Through Baptism, we receive the greatest forgiveness possible.  Through Baptism we are reconciled with God and have the possibility of eternal life.  Eternal life depends, in part, on how well we forgive the comparably small offences done to us.