Column: A non-payable debt


Saint Peter, the excitable, knife-wielding, in-your-face apostle, was the first disciple to proclaim Jesus as the Messiah Christ, Son of the living God (Matthew 16:18).

Elsewhere Peter often missed not only the point but also the magnitude of what Jesus was teaching, but he wasn’t afraid to quiz the Lord for clarification.

A good example is Matthew 18:21-35, the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant. After Jesus teaches about “church discipline” in verses 15-19, Peter asks Jesus, “How many times shall I forgive my brother? Up to seven times?”

Jesus tells him “Not seven, but seventy times seven,” and follows with the parable about a servant who, after pleading for mercy, is forgiven a staggeringly large debt by his master. That servant then turns around and duns a fellow servant – who also begs for mercy but is sent to jail – over a comparatively small debt.

On the one hand, it’s the simple lesson that “God has forgiven us generously so we must forgive each other generously.” On the other, as with most parables, there is much more going on.

Discussing this parable in a Bible study recently, we looked at the value of a biblical “denarius” (a day’s wage) and a “talent” (6,000 days wages). After being forgiven a debt of 10,000 talents by the master, the first servant incarcerates the second mercy-pleading servant over a matter of 100 denarii. In today’s money, that’s a man forgiven $2.5 billion not forgiving a neighbor of $10,000.

The question that popped into my mind was, “How could a mere servant run up a $2.5 billion debt?” Well, he can’t, and that’s an often-missed point of this lesson. The parable’s context is sin, grace and forgiveness. It’s useless to think of our sin in terms of “debt” because it is too big to “pay” back to God. Nor should we demand it of others.

Jesus’s point very clearly is not money but magnitude. Our sin “debt” is cosmically big because our sin is cosmically big. God’s forgiveness is cosmically big because his love, grace, mercy and glory are cosmically big.

Our sins are too big a blot on God’s glory to be simply “paid back.” Jesus came into humanity with God’s plan of love, servanthood and forgiveness in order that mankind, created in God’s image, could live eternally, joyously, in God’s Kingdom.

“Forgive us our debts”? Sure. Why? Because that is …

(a) what God did for us through Jesus,

(b) our model of “Christ-likeness” in our dealings with others, and

(c) the only way to restore our perfect, Kingdom relationship, through Christ the Son, with God the Father.

Payback isn’t an option.

Walters ( needs more forgiveness than just “seventy times seven.

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