21 Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times. (Matthew 18:21-22)
One of my kids’ camp sermons last summer was on the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant in Matthew 18. I started the sermon with a game I called “Forgive or Forget It.” I had every kid stand up, and I would tell them a scenario where they would be asked to forgive another person. If they thought it would be easy to forgive, they would stay standing. But if I got to something they didn’t think they could forgive, they would say, “Forget it!” and sit down.
Things started easy: your friend eats a French fry off your plate at lunch. Your brother hogs the PlayStation. Most kids stayed standing. But the scenarios got progressively harder:
Your best friend tells the secret they promised they wouldn’t tell.
Someone gets caught cheating off your paper, and you both get zeroes.
The teacher’s daughter gets the lead in the school play, even though you did better in the audition.
Kids began sitting down. And after the last scenario, “What if the same person did these things to you over and over?”, almost no one was left standing.
I wondered later what it would be like to play the game with grownups. What would be the bridge too far for adults? Betrayal? Adultery? Slander?
The categories might be different, but I am guessing the results would be the same. If the last question was “what if the same person kept doing the same thing over and over,” most of us would throw up our hands and say, “forget it.”
Peter asked Jesus, “How often should I forgive my brother— up to seven times?” For Peter, this was a moment to polish his own halo. The rabbis taught that a person was obligated to forgive someone else up to three times. So Peter’s maybe expecting Jesus to say, “Wow— if you forgive someone more than twice as much as you’re supposed to, way to go! You’re, like, Super Christian!
If that’s what Peter was looking for, he didn’t get it. Jesus says, not seven, but seventy times seven. Then he tells the story of the unmerciful servant.
Sometimes we teach this in a way that trivializes the amount the second servant owes to the first, saying that a hundred denarii was “a few bucks,” or “like a hamburger and a coke.” But if a denarius is a days wage, then this is a significant chunk of change—Almost three and a half month’s salary. Jewelry store salesmen will tell grooms-to-be that three months salary is what you should spend on an engagement ring. Based on the average salary in today’s dollars, a hundred denarii would be as much as $15,000.
Back to the “forgive or forget it” game. If you think about the biggest hurt that’s ever been done to you, that “100 denarii” seems like a big deal. And it is a big deal. As a pastor I’ve heard about a lot of big hurts. Forgiveness is hard.
But the point of the parable is the contrast between what the first servant has been forgiven of and what he is being asked to forgive someone else. A hundred days’ wages is a big debt. But it is paltry in proportion to the debt the first servant was forgiven. One talent was 6000 denarii— over 16 years’ wages. Multiply that by 10000, and you get an error message on your calculator.
It’s too big an amount to comprehend. And that is the point. Forgiveness is really only possible when we reflect on how much we have been forgiven.