Seven is often referred to as the number of perfection in the Bible. It’s said to represent completeness. And in simple human terms, forgiving someone of a repeated offense seven times seems way beyond gracious. Peter’s inquiry of Jesus in Matthew 18:21—‘shall I forgive seven times?’ feels like a lofty aim. Peter appears ready to go the extra mile—another of those Sermon on the Mount lessons being recalled.
But seventy times seven? Get out your calculator. And a ledger book—I mean, how are you going to keep track of that? Okay, I’ve forgiven him 429 times. Or, wait… was that 430? No? Well, I remember 427 because that was Wednesday. And…”
The point isn’t in the mathematics. (And that’s a great thing for some of us!) To be sure that He is understood, Jesus illustrates with a parable.
There was a king who wanted to settle accounts with those indebted to him. He called in one of his subjects who owed him an incredible amount of money—more money than the man could ever hope to come up with. By all rights, the king could have this man, his wife and children sold as slaves to repay the debt. The man fell on his knees before the king, pleading for mercy. The king took pity on him, and forgave the entire debt—a gesture of the most tremendous mercy imaginable. But. Buts, actually—two of them—and presenting a picture of the harshest contrast.
But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him one hundred denarii. He grabbed him and began to choke him, ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded. His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged, ‘Be patient and I will pay you back.’ But he refused. Instead he went off and had the man thrown into prison.
The story didn’t end there. The king caught word of this servant’s unmerciful action, saying ‘I had mercy on you, shouldn’t you have also shown mercy to your fellow servant?’ And there is meaning in the amounts—the king had forgiven an impossible debt, whereas the servant held his fellow servant jailed for mere pennies. The king reversed his earlier decision. Jesus ends the parable assuring, “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.” He who has been forgiven much ought to be the most forgiving. You’ve received such mercy, you should be extending mercy to others. Your Father is merciful and forgiving without end—you should resemble your Father.