Another kingdom parable involving debtors (Mt 18:21-35) begins with an interesting exchange between Peter and Jesus. Peter and the disciples have been observing Jesus’ interaction with the Pharisees regarding His “acceptance” of sinners. They have been listening to His teaching about what life is like among the citizens of His kingdom. They are also learning about a new commandment, “Love one another.” (Jn 13:34). This is all very foreign to their Old Testament trained ears.
The Old Testament they grew up with did not carry the aura of love, acceptance, and forgiveness that Jesus taught. They lived under the idea, clearly expounded in the Old Testament, that obedience to God’s laws brought blessing while disobedience brought a curse. They believed God would reward the righteous and strike down sinners; not accept and forgive them. Jesus’ first century followers understood the implied fairness of eye-for-an-eye, tooth-for-a-tooth. They did not understand the “beautiful unfairness of grace” that Jesus ushered in with the new covenant.
But by the time we come to Matthew chapter 18, the message is starting to sink in to the apostle Peter. “Then Peter came and said to Jesus, ‘Lord how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?’ ” (Mt 18:21). It is as if Peter is saying, “Ok, I think I am starting to get the message here. You are saying, Jesus, that in your kingdom, life together is marked by love and forgiveness, not revenge. I have grown up under this getting even mentality my whole life, even in my religious training, and you are saying to set the eye-for-an-eye aside in favor of forgiveness? Well then let’s take this to the limit. Are you suggesting I be so radical as to forgive my brother more then once? How about something totally outside my normal thinking such as up to seven times?”
Peter expects that his seven times has way overestimated the amount of forgiveness needed, but as is often the case with our Lord, Jesus turns his question upside down and says Peter’s number is, in fact, way too low. “Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.” (Mt 18:22). Jesus then continues, “For this reason the kingdom of heaven can be compared to a certain king who…” (Mt 18:23). Jesus then answers Peter’s question with a powerful kingdom parable; the contents, interpretation, and application of which we will cover next time.