“How many times shall I forgive my brother? Seven times, perhaps?” asked Peter of the Lord.
“Not so. I ask that you will forgive him unto seventy times seven”, came the unexpected answer.
I wonder what went through Peter’s mind as he heard of such extravagance. How did he understand the seventy times seven? Did it mean literally 490, and if so, is it right and proper to withhold forgiveness the 491st time? I very much doubt it, because the 70 X 7 expression was common parlance to the people of Israel, just a hyperbolic way of saying, “stop counting, and be prepared always to forgive.”
These words, taken from Matthew 18:21-22, are followed by the parable of the unforgiving servant. It begins with these words, “Therefore the Kingdom of Heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants.” The Lord was speaking of a yet future day, when books are opened, and men’s deeds are taken into account.
Suppose we concentrate on just one part of this parable. There was a servant who owed his master 10,000 talents. How any servant could build up such an enormous debt boggles the mind. What does it amount to in modern terms? Various estimates have been suggested. One I have just seen likens it to £300,000,000. We need not haggle over the exact amount. Clearly the Lord was using hyperbolic language, as with the 70 X 7. But whereas He used the 70 X 7 for us as human beings, He wanted to impress His hearers about the measure of God’s forgiveness. And He did so by saying that the king forgave the servant this monumental debt.
This gives us pause. We stop and gasp. Jesus was saying that there is NO LIMIT to God’s forgiveness. No matter how depraved, how violent, how foul a man can become through a life of self-serving and lack of concern for others, there will always be a window in his dungeon as he pays for his sins, and the light of God’s forgiveness will shine in to him. It may take many years before he recognises the meaning of the light, but God will never board up the window and leave him in utter darkness.
Such is the meaning of this parable. The unforgiving servant treated his fellow-servant abominably, and caused the king’s anger to boil up. Yes, his days were to be spent in what Victorians called a “Debtor’s Prison”, and he would remain there until he had paid the “uttermost farthing”. But this is where a common mistake is frequently found in print. Expositors tend to consign this servant to an everlasting hell. But they fail to realise that the 10,000 factor speaks clearly of an unending possibility of forgiveness, for even the most hardened of sinners.
We may find it difficult, even impossible, to think about forgiveness for the men who gunned down 12 people in Paris this week, and God knows how difficult it is for human beings to forgive in such cases of incorrigible wickedness, but our parable tells us that a time will come, in this life or the next, when these men will seek God’s forgiveness, and it will not be withheld from them.