Matthew 18:21-35: 70 x 7

“Up to seven times,” Peter blurts out, stipulating how many times somebody should absolve another.  The Jewish rabbis of his day said someone met this obligation after forgiving three times (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 86b-87a).  With more than double what these religious men expect, Peter considers himself most charitable.  Why Jesus didn’t mention the offender repented in any way, which makes seven about as far as anyone can take this.

So, Jesus’ reply, “Seventy times seven,” startles him.  Well-versed in Scripture, this brings Lamech into Peter’s mind, where the Greek-language Old Testament used the identical expression in Genesis.  A descendant of Cain, who murdered his brother, Lamech inherited his family’s fallen seed, passing down through the generations.

After killing someone himself, Lamech struts about in his arrogance, “If Cain’s revenge is sevenfold, Lamech’s will be seventy times seven” (Genesis 4:24).  So, Peter now realizes he should respond, not seeking vengeance, but with unbounded forgiveness.

Well, Peter ponders some more.  In Israel’s time of exile, Daniel studied Jeremiah’s prophecies.  After 70 years, he read, Israel will be free from its captivity.  The seventieth year will soon arrive, so Daniel begins to fast and pray.

An angel appears, informing Daniel the Lord also decreed “seventy weeks.”  So, another season of 70 will follow those 70 years.  At the end of this, a term of now 77, which in Greek is the same wording for “seventy times seven,” God will, at last, vanquish sin.  Yes, as Daniel quotes, God will “finish sin, atone for wrongdoing, bring in everlasting righteousness…  and anoint a most-holy One” (Daniel 9:24).

Perplexed, Peter strives to make sense of all this.  Not only does Jesus say to forgive without limit, but God must do this, or all will be for nothing.  The furrowed brow is a dead giveaway.  So, Jesus tells him a parable.

A servant owes his master 10,000 talents of silver.  The typical laborer would need to work 193,000 years—not days, years—to pay off this debt.  How did he wind up owing such a ridiculous amount of money?  From his master.

Not only is this man’s master wealthy, but he’s also generous and, perhaps, foolhardy.  Didn’t he realize lending out such an infinite sum would put his servant beyond his abilities?  Still, so giving is this master, he appears powerless to tell him, “No.”

Such is the way of our Master, as well—rich beyond comprehension.  Each day, we call out to Him, “Give us this day our daily bread,” and He does.  Not only with bread but food and drink of every sort.  Not finished, He also provides health and ability and blesses our endeavors with a measure of wealth.

Still, we are His servants, which means everything we use is His, not ours, and so is on loan.  All He enables us to use are as stewards of His bounty.  Not only for us but also to benefit those He places around us, which is one way we serve Him.

Like all loans, the day of accounting will arrive.  The debts we pile up will require repayment.  Either by recounting what well-being came from those loans, or we will need to pay them back.  Still, what a mess this servant made, for he can’t repay. 

Desperate, the man pleads for patience, hoping his master will allow him space, the freedom to move about, and arrange his life as needed.  All this servant can do is to sell what he owns.  Oh, he won’t come anywhere close to settling his debt.  A lifetime, an eternity, isn’t sufficient to return what he owes.

For some reason, the master’s insides churn with empathy for this indebted servant.  Well, he understands his poverty and debt—and what he deserves.  To squander God’s gifts is a sin, which this foolish servant did.  Still, he frees his servant, providing more than what he asked.

Let’s place ourselves in this story, where we, too, must answer.  After discovering we can’t pay, we may blubber out something like we won’t be unmindful of your goodness.  Like a drunkard, who swears not to drink, we pledge one thing yet do another.  Such buffoons, for we aren’t even deceiving ourselves, let alone God.  All we can do is fall at his feet and plead.  For what?  More generosity!

Like with the senseless servant, God gazes down upon us, spotting our every failure.  Somehow, tenderness once more stirs inside Him.  Oh, how much He gives, including His only Son, to settle our indebtedness.  Does He not weary of this?  Still, He plods on, the next day yet again, and the day to follow!  Despite loan after loan, He keeps showering us with more—of this world’s goods, family, and friends, and on and on.

So, the next turn of events can only strike us in their shock and horror!  The servant exits the debtor’s court with his impossible debt forgiven.  Does this make him a better man?  No, for kindness doesn’t develop from the clemency he received.  Though he did welcome his master’s forgiveness, he nevertheless intends to assert his rights and claims over another.  How can this be, where he is crueler than before?

Amid all his ungrateful squandering and waste, this servant did do one noteworthy thing.  Did he not, at some point, respond to the plight of a fellow servant?  Yes, from all the billions, he lent to another in his need.  Now, this debt-free servant clamors for restitution, wanting back the modest help he provided.  The desire for payback tramples down the unbounded forgiveness given by his master.

Tragic, this tale repeats all too many times.  So often, someone rejoices in the forgiving Gospel but doesn’t reflect or reveal this reality.  Of course, the fault doesn’t lie with the message of divine forgiveness.  No, our Lord’s pardoning Word pulses with benevolence and power to transform lives, so those in His kingdom can live out their innermost change toward others.

Here’s what gives, for mercy is not so much a matter of emotion, but one’s being.  With God being good, kindness and grace naturally overflow from Him.  So also does mercy cascade from someone with a changed heart.  A person’s sin, however, by its evil nature, can expel God’s reign inside him, the life which first sprang forth from God’s forgiveness.  In the parable, this sin is the resentment of an unforgiving spirit, festering in the servant, which he feeds in his foolishness.

Of course, everybody experiences this.  A friend’s in a tight spot, and you do him a favor.  “Oh, I helped him out, so he’ll do the same for me when the time comes.”  A year later, when the time does come, he’s nowhere around!  Now, anger starts to seethe, “I did something for you, and this is how you repay me?  Go to the devil for all I say, for that’s what you deserve!”

Ah, so our motives for helping another aren’t 100% pure, but work done for a wage with a later payment date.  Now, if someone does return the favor, this isn’t bad since this, too, is a blessing.  The ability to do anyone anything worthwhile is itself a gift from God, which we ought to acknowledge in both thankful and faithful stewardship.

Are we learning what we should from the way the Lord treats us?  He doesn’t expect payback, for He is never in our debt, and He needs nothing from us.  So, His goodness to us should inspire our generosity of spirit.  Can anything be more evident?

Each day, God showers us with His mercy, to fill us with salvation because we can’t accomplish this ourselves.  Yes, God’s grace exceeds our sin.  The limits of our language cannot shine forth God’s forgiveness because Jesus pardons a debt surpassing anyone else’s capability to repay or describe.

Nevertheless, ingratitude and entitlement can ruin almost anything.  Now, grudges chafe within, suffocating the life our Lord supplies us.  Inside, angry demands now emerge—on those God calls us to serve, strangling out our joys.  Too soon, the memory and thanksgiving for God’s undeserved blessing dissipate and disappear.  A heart like this expels the rule of Christ, setting oneself on the throne.

The servant’s behavior signals a warning: Don’t do what he did.  Your helpful actions toward others don’t save you.  Though a defiant heart that positions itself above God will close you off from His kingdom.  The parable teaches this.

May whatever you do grow from the giving gifts of God.  In love, He continues to care, blessing you beyond measure.  Though still undeserving, He does this without expecting you to be perfect, on your own, that is.  So, do all your deeds flowing from the joy of Jesus, who meets God’s expectations for you.  Trust in His constant kindness, which He will supply to you in your time of need, as He considers best.  Though you won’t understand everything God does, His ways always work in your favor for the eternity to come.

Now you are free, to fail, if this happens.  Of course, not to choose sin but to live your life and serve others.  Enveloped by His forgiveness, your Lord surrounds you with others in need.  Through your service to them, you can give from His generosity to you. 

The kingdom of heaven is about breathing in and breathing out our breath from God.  In His saving gifts, Jesus comes to us, where we receive Him.  To live as a Christian depends upon the life God provides, to circulate its vital substance.  Not to do this is like eating without releasing the remnants of your food, which kills you in the end.  Need I be any more specific?

To keep what God gives you is to give it to another, like He does, for what you received came as a gift.  The life you lead is one of response, forgiving others as you reside in your heavenly Father’s forgiveness.  So, come and receive more of the forgiveness you always need.  Amen.