GOSPEL, FIRST READING & PSALM TRANSCRIPT (Subscribe or Login for Full Transcript):
It gives us one of the famous stories of Peter coming up to Jesus and asking him, “how many times should I forgive my brother,” which leads Jesus into giving one of his most famous parables, a parable that's unique to the Gospel of Matthew.
It's the parable of the unforgiving servant, or as the Catechism calls it, the parable of the merciless servant.
I like that name and you'll see why in just a minute.
So let’s read through the passage together and then we'll go back and try to put it in its first century Jewish context.
In Matthew 18:21-35 we read these words:
Then Peter came up and said to him, "Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?"
Jesus said to him, "I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.
"Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants.
When he began the reckoning, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents; and as he could not pay, his lord 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, `Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.'
And out of pity for him the lord of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.
But that same servant, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat he said, `Pay what you owe.'
So his fellow servant fell down and besought him, `Have patience with me, and I will pay you.'
He refused and went and put him in prison till 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 lord all that had taken place.
Then his lord summoned him and said to him, `You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you besought me; and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?'
And in anger his lord 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."
That is the end of the Gospel.
As I hope you can see, there is a lot going on here.
This is a very, very rich passage.
So the first point we want to make about these words, in context, is to remember that we've just heard about Jesus's instructions about what to do when a brother sins against you; and how to take it up with him individually, and then take two or three witnesses, and then take it to the Church if he doesn’t repent.
So we just heard that in the previous verses, and in that context Peter basically says “okay, well how often do I have to do that, how many times do I have to forgive?
Do I have to forgive as many as seven times?”
You can see there from Peter's words that he considers seven times to be very, very merciful.
That is a lot of times to forgive someone.
And you can almost hear here an allusion to the Old Testament, which talks about the sevenfold vengeance of Cain in Genesis 4.
So if you remember in Genesis 4, it tells the story of Cain slaying his brother and what God says is that “if anyone tries to take vengeance on Cain, vengeance shall be taken upon him sevenfold [or seven times as much].”
So what Peter is presenting here is like an antithesis, an opposite.
Instead of sevenfold vengeance of Cain in the Old Testament, it's sevenfold forgiveness.
Which is a lot, that is a lot of times to forgive someone.
But Jesus takes it much much further than that by saying “I say to you not just seven times, but seventy times seven times,” which would be 490 times that you would forgive someone.
Why does Jesus say that?
Well two things.
First, there is some debate about exactly how to translate Jesus' words.
Some translations will say 77 times, and other translations will say 70×7 times, which would be 490 times.
Either way, whether it's 77 times or 490 times, it's an exorbitant number of times.
It just goes way beyond what Peter was thinking would be the height of forgiveness, namely to forgive someone as many as seven times.
I'm inclined to the perspective that Jesus is actually saying 490 times, because if you go back again to the Old Testament in Daniel 9, God uses the image of 490 years, or seventy seven’s of years, to describe the time period that it is going to take for Israel’s sin to be atoned for and for the ultimate forgiveness to take place that will come through the death of the Messiah.
That is in Daniel 9:25-27.
So 490, from a Jewish perspective, in light of the book of Daniel, is like the number of ultimate forgiveness.
That's how many times God forgives his people.
He will go even up to 490 times.
So I think that Jesus is alluding to that image from the book of Daniel.
In either case, what Jesus is saying is, in effect, “you have to forgive over and over and over and over and over again.”
Your mercy has to be like God's mercy, an exorbitant mercy, a mercy that forgives over and over and over again.
It's a shockingly gratuitous number of times of forgiveness.
In order to illustrate that exorbitant mercy, Jesus does what he frequently does in the Gospel of Matthew.
He gives the disciples a parable that will illustrate the principle by means of a story.
So in this case, this is the parable of the unforgiving servant.
So what happens in this parable?
Well we have already read it, and so the context here is of a king who is wishing to settle accounts with his servants.
And in this case, the first servant that's brought to him owes him a certain debt.
He owes him a certain amount of money.
Now in the New American Bible that is used in the lectionary in the United States, the translation says that the servant owed the king a “huge amount.”
Now that's a loose translation.
It's accurate, it's true, but it doesn't really get at the heart of it.
So let me be a little more specific here.
In the Revised Standard Version, the literal Greek says that he owed the king “10,000 talents.”
You are probably familiar with the idea of a talent from the parable of the talents.
Talents were gold coins that were worth a lot of money.
And in actuality, one single talent was equal to 6000 denarii.
Now you might think, “well that doesn’t mean anything.”
Well a denarius was a day's wage.
So one talent would equal 6000 day’s wages, and this servant owes 10,000 talents.
That's not just a huge amount of money, that's an almost inconceivable amount of money.
So put into terms of days wages —think about this — if this servant owed 10,000 talents and he worked at a day's wage of one denarius per day, it would take him over 160,000 years to pay off his debt.
So we are only 2000 years removed from Jesus's time, if that servant was working off his debt, he would still have about 150,000 years of working today before he will be finished paying off his debt.
In other words, this guy is never going to be able to pay off 10,000 talents worth of debt.
It is a truly huge amount of debt.
And so he pleads with the king, “please forgive my debt.
Have patience with me, and I'll pay you everything.”
Now this guy is a servant; it’s absurd to think that he would ever have enough time to pay the debt off of 10,000 talents to the King.
In other words, he's asking the king to have patience in the prospect of him paying off the debt, but that is impossible.
He just doesn't have enough time to pay the debt off.
And yet what happens with the king?
The king forgives him.
He just basically wipes the slate clean and forgives the servant this debt that would've taken him 160,000 years to pay off.
The modern-day equivalent might be like $1 trillion, or something like that.
That's his debt.
Now what does he do?
He goes and finds another servant who owes him 100 denarii.
Now remember, a denarius is a day's wage, so he owes him 100 days worth of work.
Now that's a lot of work.
That’s a third of the year's wages.
And so it's not an inconsequential amount of money.
The NAB, the New American Bible, translates it as “a much smaller amount.”
And that's true, but it doesn't really get at the heart of the matter.
The unforgiving servant owed 160,000 years worth of debt.
This guy owes 100 days worth of debt, and does the servant forgive him?
To the contrary, he grabs him by the throat and says “pay what you owe” in anger.
So he turns to his fellow servant and basically demands that he pay what he owe.
But when the fellow servant does what he himself did, namely, falls down and asked for mercy, he refuses him.
The unforgiving servant refuses him, and not just refuses him, he takes him and he puts him in prison until he shall pay the debt off.
Now what’s that about?
Well it’s very important to remember here that in the first century A.D., many of the people in prison were put there because of debt.
If you committed a capital crime, you didn’t go to prison to go to death row or to await the death penalty or something like, they would simply put you to death.
Prison was for people who were in debt and needed to get it paid off.
And what would often happen is you would get thrown into prison until either a family member or a rich relative or you would be in some way able to to scrounge up enough money to pay off the debt.
It was called debtor’s prison.
So what happens here is that this unforgiving servant puts his fellow servant into prison until he should pay off the debt.
Now you can imagine here how the other servants feel when they hear about this, because by this point the story has reached them that the master was so merciful with this servant, and yet this servant has thrown one of their fellow servants into prison until he should pay off this smaller debt — much smaller debt — of just 100 denarii.
So when they find out what happened, they go and they tell the master, and the master summons the servant and basically says “you wicked servant.
I forgave you all of your debt because you besought me.
Should you not have had mercy as I had mercy on you.”
Again, note the contrast here, it's striking.
Not only is there a striking contrast between the amount of debt between the two servants, 160,000 years worth of debt for the one and 100 days worth of debt for the other, there is also a striking contrast between the mercy.
The master’s mercy was exorbitant, it was extravagant, it was unprecedented’ but this servant’s mercy was nonexistent, he had no forgiveness in his heart toward his fellow servant for a much, much smaller debt.
So what happens now to this merciless servant?
The Lord delivers him over to the jailers and the jailers throw him into debtor’s prison until he should pay all his debt.
Which by now you get the full significance of…how long is he going to be imprisoned for?
Well, around 160,000 years, until he should pay off his debt.
And then the punchline comes.
The whole point of the parable is the very last line.
It makes this parable one of the most striking and, in some ways, terrifying of all of Jesus’ parables because he says, “so also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you don't forgive your brother from your heart.”
And that punchline is the clue to the whole parable.
Jesus here isn't really talking about economics in the first century A.D.
He is not talking about us being put into an actual debtor’s prison until we pay off our monetary debt.
He's talking about a spiritual prison whereby we would pay off the debt of sin.
Just like in the Lord's prayer, “Lord forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors,” those who were indebted to us.
He's talking about the fact that unless we show mercy to our brothers and sisters, we too will not be shown mercy by the Father.
This is a very, very striking parable, especially when you consider the ramifications of how long it would take this unforgiving servant, this merciless servant, to pay off his debt.
So what's the point of the parable?
Well go back to the beginning of the story there.
The context here is Peter saying “how often do I need to forgive?”
And the answer is really over and over and over and over again.
And even if you have forgiven 490 times, you're not even going to come close to the mercy and the forgiveness of your heavenly Father, who forgives all of the debts of humanity when we come to him and beg for his mercy, when we ask for forgiveness, when we ask for mercy.
SECOND READING TRANSCRIPT (Subscribe or Login for Full Transcript):
Well, the first thing Paul is saying here is that the goal of our existence, the goal of those who live in Christ, who are Christians, should be Christ Himself. He’s our reason for living. And you can actually see this elsewhere in Paul. In 2 Corinthians 5:14-15, he makes a similar point using similar language. Listen to what he says:
For the love of Christ controls us, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, that those who live might live no longer for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.
So notice...why does Christ die on the cross, according to Paul? It’s not just to atone for human sins. It’s also to give us a model of human selflessness. This is very important. In a previous video, we were looking at Romans 13 and how Paul says that love of neighbor fulfills the law, fulfills the second tablet of the Ten Commandments. And love of neighbor can be defined as choosing the good for the sake of another, for the sake of the other person. Well, the antithesis to that is selfishness, which is: “I choose the good for myself to the detriment of the other person.”
So the human tendency to sin can be boiled down to the human tendency to selfishness. “I want what I want, and if I don’t get what I want, I’ll do X, Y, or Z. I’ll either dishonor my parents or take someone else’s life or take someone else’s spouse or take someone else’s property or lie in order to get what I want.” This is the commandments against adultery and murder and theft and false witness and covetousness. All of them are ultimately rooted in human selfishness. So Paul is saying here that once a person has faith and is baptized and is in Christ, Christ dies for us so that we might no longer live for ourselves but for Him, who loved us and gave Himself for us. So He shows us the ultimate model of selflessness by laying down His life for us on the cross even though He Himself is without sin.
For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
That’s 2 Corinthians 5:21, another saying of Paul. So if we go back to Romans, what he’s saying is:
None of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself.
So this is the ultimate antidote to individualism as well. Christianity should be the ultimate antidote to individualism. Paul is saying, “Yeah, you live, and yes, you’re an individual...but you don’t live for yourself or to yourself. You live—you should live—for Christ, because He lived for you. You should die for Christ because He died for you.” He gives us the model of love when He lays down His life for our sake.
And you can think of Jesus’ words here in the Gospel of John:
Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. (John 15:13)
That’s the ultimate act of selflessness...is to give up your own life for the sake of someone else, for the sake of your friends.
Okay, so Paul is saying here that none of us lives to himself. He doesn’t mean that factually; he means that as a goal, as the ideal. None of us should
live to himself. Because the reality is that:
If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. (Romans 14:8)
So notice the second point here. Not only is Paul calling Christians to selflessness, he’s calling Christians to submission to Christ as the Lord. Now, the Greek word for “Lord”, kyrios
, as I’ve probably mentioned elsewhere, has two connotations. On the one hand, it can be a title for a king or an emperor—like Caesar was called kyrios
in the first century AD. It can be a title for a local lord who is the master of servants. So you can have a kyrios
who is the master and then the servants, the doulos
, the servant...or the diakonos,
ministers who do his bidding.
But it can also be the name for God. So in the ancient Greek translation of the Jewish Scriptures, kyrios
was the name for the Hebrew tetragrammaton. The four letters YMHW, the sacred name of God, would be translated into Greek as kyrios
, because they didn’t pronounce the Hebrew name. It was too sacred to be pronounced.
So when Paul calls Jesus Kyrios,
on the one hand he’s implying His divinity. And I think that’s how most Christian readers, when they read Paul, they think about, “Oh, Christ as the Lord means Christ as God.” And that’s true. But the second—or in this case, the first—definition of kyrios
, the Roman one, also implies…because when Paul calls Jesus kyrios
, he’s also calling him Master or King or Caesar, in the sense of he’s calling Him the ruler of all those who belong to Him…who are in Christ. So he says:
...whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.
...which means we belong to Christ and not to ourselves. Now that’s a really difficult pill for a lot of modern people, even modern Christians, to swallow. We tend to think of ourselves as autonomous beings, a law to ourselves, free thinkers, free deciders. I choose to be a Christian, right? I choose to be a disciple of Jesus. And that’s true; we are free. We’re free agents, so to speak. But once a person is baptized—Paul will make this very clear—you no longer belong to yourself. You belong to Christ. You’re like a member of the Roman empire, so to speak. A person who is a citizen of the Roman empire had to be subservient and obedient to Caesar, because Caesar was Lord. So it was implied...in the lordship of Caesar was implied the obedience of his citizens and obedience of his subjects. They were subject to him.
Paul’s idea of a Christian works on the same principle. I don’t just get to decide for myself what’s right and what’s wrong, what I do and what I don’t do. I actually have to obey my Lord, who is Christ. I live as a member of His kingdom. And in a kingdom, there’s a hierarchical arrangement. The king makes the laws, and the subjects follow the king. The subjects owe allegiance to the king. The subjects owe obedience to the king. And when a person disavows that allegiance or disobeys the king, a person can be cast out of the kingdom. So Christ’s kingdom for Paul is not a democracy. It is a monarchy, and Christ is the Kyrios
, and we are members of the kingdom. And therefore, we don’t only have to believe in the king. “Okay, I believe Jesus is king. Now I’m going to go about my merry way.”
No, we also have to express our allegiance to the king by following the king’s laws and by following the king’s rules. In other words, obedience is implied in faith if Jesus isn’t just the Savior but is the Lord, that He’s the Kyrios
And you can actually hear this to this day. In contemporary, secular, mainstream news media, you might hear a news report where the reporter talks about God...maybe in doing a news report on a religion. But it’d be very rare to have a reporter refer to God as the Lord, because “the Lord” implies not only the deity of the god in question, but it also implies a kind of subservience to that God. So you’ll notice this even just to this day, if someone says “God,” they may or may not believe. They may or may not follow.
But if someone in conversation says “the Lord said this,” it usually implies a subject or subservience or submission to God as God, in obedience to Him. So the same thing is true in the Greek terminology. There are similar implications there. And so what Paul is saying here is that we belong to the Lord. In other words, we are the subjects; He is the king.
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