Forming Faith Blog

Ridiculous Forgiveness (Matthew 18)

Responding to a question about the limits of forgiveness, Jesus tells an over-the-top parable about a king, slaves, and a boatload of money.

Gold bullion bars. Jesus tells a ridiculous parable about forgiveness.
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Lent: The Ways of the Kingdom

Welcome to Lent. This first Sunday of Lent in the Narrative Lectionary, we start with the theme of forgiveness. Forgiveness is, indeed, a good fit for this penitential season.

For the five Sundays of Lent prior to Palm Sunday, we will be reading parables that teach us more about God’s priorities in the kingdom of heaven, or as we put it in our resources: The Ways of the Kingdom.

Another Parable

We first ran into parables in this Gospel in Matthew 13 with the Parable of the Mustard Seed and others back on the sixth Sunday after Epiphany. Now, the majority of today’s assigned reading is the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant.

As a refresher, a parable is a metaphorical story that uses elements from everyday life that often includes a twist or other strangeness. And that is certainly true of this parable. Jesus tells this parable as a metaphorical response to a question Peter had about the limits of forgiveness. While kings and slaves aren’t elements from everyday life for us, they would be for Jesus’ original audience.

Absolutely Ridiculous

Then we get to the twist, strangeness, and outright ridiculousness of the parable. The first slave (who apparently could have been a regional governor tasked with collecting taxes?) owes the king 10,000 talents. Now, owing someone $10,000 is a huge amount, but a talent wasn’t anywhere close to a dollar. One talent was equal to 6,000 denarii. Now, I’ve seen a number of different ways to calculate any of this, but one states that a family could survive on two denarii a day. In this case, one talent (6,000 denarii) could keep a family for over eight years, so 10,000 talents would last a family for over 82,000 years. This would put that amount somewhere between $1 to 2 billion dollars. That is ridiculous. (We can have a conversation about the morality of the existence of billionaires sometime else.)

Less ridiculous is what the second slave owes the first: one hundred denarii. That would only be enough to sustain a family for fifty days, but that’s still a lot.

Selfishness and Forgiveness

The action of this parable runs on the fuel of selfishness. The king wants his money back. The first slave wants to avoid the suffering of imprisonment. The first slave wants his money back. The second slave wants to avoid the suffering of imprisonment. This level of selfishness is understandable. We want to keep what is ours. And we want to avoid pain. That totally works for me. But we are still focusing on ourselves: possessions and personal experiences.

But is forgiveness itself selfless or selfish? Using the concrete imagery in the parable, the king’s forgiveness cost him a lot of money. He did it out of mercy, concern for the slave and not himself. Of course, unforgiveness causes us mental and emotional harm and forgiveness can release us from that. So we do benefit from forgiving others, though this falls into the category of self-care over selfishness.

God Acts First

All metaphors have limits, and it can be dangerous to try to stretch a metaphor too far. We’ll be able to see that clearly in a few weeks with the Parable of the Wedding Feast. But I do think it’s significant here that the king forgives the first slave before that slave encounters the second slave. The unforgiveness of the first slave is then put in direct comparison to the forgiveness he had already received, something the king points out.

Likewise, God forgives us long before we can offer forgiveness to others. God’s love (and therefore forgiveness) comes first. This is the good news. God’s love for us is not dependent on who we are or what we do. God’s love doesn’t depend on how loving we are to others, on how forgiving we are. Instead, we are called to take God’s love and forgiveness and then respond by loving God and loving others. God’s love comes first.

Are There Limits?

Before this parable, Peter asked Jesus how many times he should forgive someone. Jesus basically answers with “infinity.” But does that truly mean that we must forgive everyone without limit? Yes, but also no.

You can look at forgiveness as having two parts. Externally, forgiveness is about restoring a relationship. Internally, forgiveness is about self-care: releasing hatred, resentment, and related thoughts/emotions/etc. that poison ourselves and our relationships with God and others. So, in terms of self-care, we should not place any limits on forgiveness. We will not succeed due to our human limitations, but forgiveness without limits should be our goal.

However, in terms of the external restoration of relationships, there should indeed be limits. Some relationships should not be restored. Some should just be ended. Jesus is not teaching us that we must be in a relationship with a person who is abusive or even just toxic. In fact, at the beginning of our reading (Matthew 18:15-17), Jesus instructs us to exclude unrepentant offenders from fellowship, ending our relationship with them. He is talking about congregations, but this can be understood in a personal context as well.

Faith Formation Connections

Forgiveness is the bedrock of our relationship with God, for it is what happens when God’s unconditional love encounters human brokenness and sin. And as we try to follow the commandment to love our neighbors…well, love without forgiveness is not true love. So it is a critical thing for us to teach, reteach, and re-emphasize forgiveness for all of our faith formation participants, no matter their age or faith experiences.

But it is also important that people understand that not all relationships can or should be restored. Forgiveness might cost us, but it shouldn’t harm us.

May you have a blessed and holy Lenten season.


Gregory Rawn (Publisher)

Free Resource

During the main Narrative Lectionary year (this year: September 11 to May 28), we provide a free resource download from one of our products to help you in your faith formation ministry. This week, download a free activity “Images of Forgiveness” from our Living the Word: Cross+Gen Education (NL) (Year 1, 2022-2023 or Year 2, 2023-2024) curriculum. This activity can be used intergenerationally or with most age groups individually.

Order Faith Formation Resources

Lent is upon us! Do you have your Spring lessons yet (starting on Lent 1, 2/26/23)? You can order Spring lessons of our Narrative Lectionary and Revised Common Lectionary resources, or one of our Learning Together units! You can download the lessons as soon as your payment is processed.

Are you looking for resources for the 2023-2024 program year? You can now order resources for the Narrative Lectionary, Revised Common Lectionary, and even a new Classroom curriculum for PK-2nd and 3rd-6th (check our blog post for a special discount)!

At Spirit & Truth Publishing, we might just have exactly what you are looking for:

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