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Jesus and a kneeling woman - Artist unknown

Peter asked Jesus, “How many times should I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”

Jesus answered,

“Not seven times, but seventy-seven times.

The kingdom of heaven is like the king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. At this, the servant fell on his knees before him. “Be patient with me,” he begged, “and I will pay back everything.”

The servant’s master took pity on him, cancelled his debt, and let him go.

But when the servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. 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 him, “Be patient with me and I will pay it back,” but he refused to wait for the man to repay him. Instead, he had the man thrown into prison until he could pay back the debt.

When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened. The master called the servant back in. “You wicked servant,” he said, “I cancelled all your debt because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had on you?”

In anger, his master handed him to the jailer to be tortured until he could pay back all that he owed.

This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

Christ and the good thief (Jesus on the cross) - Titian (1566)What the story means to us today

Forgiven endlessly – and from the heart

Jesus tells a parable of a man who is forgiven but then refuses to forgive another for an even lesser offense. The lesson is two-fold. First, we must be endless in our forgiveness of others (not seven-times, but seventy-seven times). After all, God is endless in his forgiveness of our sins. If God forgives us endlessly, how can we not forgive others in the same manner?

Secondly, and more importantly, the forgiveness must be from the heart. Empty words of forgiveness do not matter. We must forgive and treat the person as if the offense never happened.

Additional thoughts and considerations

Forgiving a “brother” or “sister”

Peter asks, “How many times shall I forgive my brother or sister?” In this instance, he is referring to fellow Christians, his brothers and sisters in faith.

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When someone close to us betrays us, the pain can be unbearable. But Jesus tells us that even when those who are closest to us (our brothers and sisters) harm or hurt us, we are obligated to forgive them completely for their trespass.

Seven vs. seventy-seven

Peter asked Jesus if he should forgive someone up to seven times. In ancient times, the number seven meant completeness or totality. It was used the way we use the number “million” today to express an extremely large or unlimited quantity. Peter was asking, “should I forgive someone an endless number of times?” Jesus’ answer, “not seven but seventy-seven times” tells us that even an endless number of times does not reflect the degree to which a Christian should forgive others.

Why would someone torture a person until he could pay back his debt?

Jesus says the master, in anger, turned the slave over to the prison guards to be tortured. Torture was certainly used for questioning but was likely not used during imprisonment as a further form of punishment. Jesus statement that the servant was put into prison to be tortured was hyperbole intended to stress the severity of punishment imposed on the slave.

Excommunication - Artist UnknownExcommunication and forgiveness

Jesus’ lesson relates to the prior verses regarding sin within the church. In previous verses, Jesus taught how to approach a sinner within the church. Jesus said we should first approach them alone, then in ever larger groups in an effort to help the sinner reject sin. As a final step, if the sinner ultimately refuses to listen, they are to be “treated like you would a pagan or tax collector”. Many will argue that Jesus is saying they should be removed from the church and isolated. However, the verses in this parable show they are to be forgiven endlessly.

The science and history behind the story

“Ten thousand talents” or “ten thousand bags of gold”

Jesus was obviously using an overstatement when he said the servant owed ten thousand talents (some translations say “ten thousand bags of gold”). In Jesus’ day, a talent was a huge sum of money. David spent only 3,000 talents of gold to build the entire temple. 10,000 talents would be an astronomical sum of money.

A gold talent is equal to about 180,000 denarii. A denarius was the usual day’s pay for a worker. Thus, a single gold talent was worth about 180,000 days or 500 years of labor. Ten thousand gold talents would be equal to millions of years of labor pay, an impossible sum to pay back.

Ancient rabbinic teaching says a brother should be forgiven only three times

Peter asked, “How many times shall I forgive my brother of sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Indeed, Peter was being generous. Ancient Rabbinic teaching specified the precise number of times a person should be forgiven. According to their teaching, an offended person needed to forgive a brother only three times. Jesus corrected Jewish misinterpretation of God’s intent by noting that the act of forgiveness is limitless.

Jesus teaching - Artist UnknownBible Text

NIV

21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”

22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. l

23 “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. 25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.

26 “At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ 27 The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.

28 “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.

29 “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’

30 “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.

32 “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ 34 In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

The New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. Print.

The NET Bible

18:21 Then Peter came to him and said, “Lord, how many times must I forgive my brother who sins against me? As many as seven times?” 18:22 Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, I tell you, but seventy-seven times!

18:23 “For this reason, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his slaves. 18:24 As he began settling his accounts, a man who owed ten thousand talents was brought to him. 18:25 Because he was not able to repay it, the lord ordered him to be sold, along with his wife, children, and whatever he possessed, and repayment to be made. 18:26 Then the slave threw himself to the ground before him, saying, ‘Be patient with me, and I will repay you everything.’ 18:27 The lord had compassion on that slave and released him, and forgave him the debt. 18:28 After he went out, that same slave found one of his fellow slaves who owed him one hundred silver coins. So he grabbed him by the throat and started to choke him, saying, ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ 18:29 Then his fellow slave threw himself down and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will repay you.’ 18:30 But he refused. Instead, he went out and threw him in prison until he repaid the debt. 18:31 When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were very upset and went and told their lord everything that had taken place. 18:32 Then his lord called the first slave and said to him, ‘Evil slave! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me! 18:33 Should you not have shown mercy to your fellow slave, just as I showed it to you?’ 18:34 And in anger his lord turned him over to the prison guards to torture him until he repaid all he owed. 18:35 So also my heavenly Father will do to you, if each of you does not forgive your brother from your heart.”

Biblical Studies Press. The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible. Biblical Studies Press, 2006. Print.

Feast in the house of Simon (Jesus eating) - Frans Francken the Younger (1630)New King James Version

21 Then Peter came to Him and said, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?”

22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven. 23 Therefore the kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 And when he had begun to settle accounts, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. 25 But as he was not able to pay, his master commanded that he be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and that payment be made. 26 The servant therefore fell down before him, saying, ‘Master, have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ 27 Then the master of that servant was moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt.

28 “But that servant went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and he laid hands on him and took him by the throat, saying, ‘Pay me what you owe!’ 29 So his fellow servant fell down at his feet and begged him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ 30 And he would not, but went and threw him into prison till he should pay the debt. 31 So when his fellow servants saw what had been done, they were very grieved, and came and told their master all that had been done. 32 Then his master, after he had called him, said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. 33 Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?’ 34 And his master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him.

35 “So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses.”

The New King James Version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1982. Print.

The Message

21 At that point Peter got up the nerve to ask, “Master, how many times do I forgive a brother or sister who hurts me? Seven?”

22 Jesus replied, “Seven! Hardly. Try seventy times seven.

23–25 “The kingdom of God is like a king who decided to square accounts with his servants. As he got under way, one servant was brought before him who had run up a debt of a hundred thousand dollars. He couldn’t pay up, so the king ordered the man, along with his wife, children, and goods, to be auctioned off at the slave market.

26–27 “The poor wretch threw himself at the king’s feet and begged, ‘Give me a chance and I’ll pay it all back.’ Touched by his plea, the king let him off, erasing the debt.

28 “The servant was no sooner out of the room when he came upon one of his fellow servants who owed him ten dollars. He seized him by the throat and demanded, ‘Pay up. Now!’

29–31 “The poor wretch threw himself down and begged, ‘Give me a chance and I’ll pay it all back.’ But he wouldn’t do it. He had him arrested and put in jail until the debt was paid. When the other servants saw this going on, they were outraged and brought a detailed report to the king.

32–35 “The king summoned the man and said, ‘You evil servant! I forgave your entire debt when you begged me for mercy. Shouldn’t you be compelled to be merciful to your fellow servant who asked for mercy?’ The king was furious and put the screws to the man until he paid back his entire debt. And that’s exactly what my Father in heaven is going to do to each one of you who doesn’t forgive unconditionally anyone who asks for mercy.”

Peterson, Eugene H. The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2005. Print.

King James Version

21 Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times? 22 Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven. 23 Therefore is the kingdom of heaven likened unto a certain king, which would take account of his servants. 24 And when he had begun to reckon, one was brought unto him, which owed him ten thousand talents. 25 But forasmuch as he had not to pay, his lord commanded him to be sold, and his wife, and children, and all that he had, and payment to be made. 26 The servant therefore fell down, and worshipped him, saying, Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay thee all. 27 Then the lord of that servant was moved with compassion, and loosed him, and forgave him the debt. 28 But the same servant went out, and found one of his fellowservants, which owed him an hundred pence: and he laid hands on him, and took him by the throat, saying, Pay me that thou owest. 29 And his fellowservant fell down at his feet, and besought him, saying, Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all. 30 And he would not: but went and cast him into prison, till he should pay the debt. 31 So when his fellowservants saw what was done, they were very sorry, and came and told unto their lord all that was done. 32 Then his lord, after that he had called him, said unto him, O thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all that debt, because thou desiredst me: 33 Shouldest not thou also have had compassion on thy fellowservant, even as I had pity on thee? 34 And his lord was wroth, and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due unto him. 35 So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses.

The Holy Bible: King James Version. Electronic Edition of the 1900 Authorized Version. Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009. Print.

Sources: NIV, The Message, The NET Bible, King James Version, NET Bible Notes, Faithlife Study Bible, The Apologetics Study Bible, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, Jamieson, Fausset, Brown Commentary, The Bible Reader’s Companion, Matthew Henry’s Commentary, Holman Concise Bible Commentary, The Bible Exposition Commentary, The Teacher’s Bible Commentary, The Teacher’s Commentary, The Bible Guide, Word Studies in the New Testament, Holman Bible Handbook, Calvin Commentaries, Wiersbe’s Expository Outlines, The New Manner and Customs of the Bible, Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, The Lexham Bible Dictionary, Easton’s Bible Dictionary, Harper’s Bible Dictionary, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, The Archaeological Encyclopedia, Biblical Archaeology Review, The New Bible Dictionary, The Lexham Analytical Lexicon, Glossary of Morpho-Syntactic Database
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