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Edward F. Markquart

Series A
Gospel Analysis: Forgiveness: Seven Times Seventy

Matthew 18:21-35

Pastor Edward F. Markquart
Grace Lutheran Church
Des Moines, Washington 98198

The following Bible study is from a larger course entitled, THE LIFE OF CHRIST: A Study in the Four Gospels. This 54 week course for the laity will be available for congregations in 2006.

Basic text for the course: SYNOPSIS OF THE FOUR GOSPELS, Kurt Aland, English Edition, P. 162.

Please read the sermon, POCKETS OF POISON, that is an detailed exposition of this text. Series A Matthew, Pentecost 17,


-Then Peter came up to him and said, ‘Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you seven times but seventy times seven.” Almost every Christian knows this teaching from Jesus. How many times are we to forgive? Seven times? No, “seven times seventy.” These words and truths are deeply imbedded in our Christian memory bank. There is both power and symbolism in that number “seventy times seven.” The number, “seventy times seven,” represents infinity, limitless, unfathomable.

This teaching directly reverses the revenge of Lamech in the Old Testament who wanted revenge seventy times seven. See the footnote under “e,” Genesis 4:24. Jesus’ teaching is an obvious reversal of the law of revenge found in Genesis 4:24 which says “”If Cain is revenged seven fold, truly Lamech seventy-seven fold.”

The Greek word for forgiveness means to “let go.” We are to “let go” of feelings of resentment, rage, wrath, revenge, retaliation, retribution when someone has hurt you/me. We don’t forgive naturally. Rather, the Spirit of Jesus slips into our hearts, minds and spirits and heals us, ever so slowly. Deep forgiveness from the heart is not a rational decision but healing. “I decide that I am not filled with rage.” Like all healings of the heart and mind, they are usually slow, unhurried and gradual.  

Also focus on the Lucan parallel in Luke 17:3-4. The Lucan parallel is most interesting. “Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, "I repent,' you must forgive."

In the Lucan version of this teaching, there is no mention of that memorable number, “seventy times seven.”

In Luke, there is an insistence for repentance preceding forgiveness. There needs to be repentance on the other person’s part, and if there is repentance, you MUST forgive. In Luke 17:4, underline the phrase, “if there is repentance, you must forgive.” Luke’s gospel emphasizes repentance more than the gospels of Mark and Matthew. We recall Luke uniquely saying, “Unless you repent, you too will all perish.” (Luke 13:3, 5)

In Luke, there is insistence about rebuking and correcting the sinner. “If your brother/another disciple sin, you must rebuke the offender.”

Knowing that Luke has a different twist on this story, most Christians are familiar with Matthew’s version. How many times am I to forgive my brother or sister who sin against me? “Seventy seven times.” 

Simply stated, Matthew’s version of this story is classic, both the teaching about “seventy times seven” and the parable about infinite forgiveness. The combination of both the teaching about forgiveness and the parable about forgiveness make for a powerful gospel statement.

-"For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves.  When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made.  So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, "Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.'  And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt.  But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, "Pay what you owe.' Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, "Have patience with me, and I will pay you.' But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, "You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?' And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart."

See the sermon, POCKETS OF POISON, for a detailed exposition of the above text.

This parable is found in only Matthew’s gospel and is logically connected with the Jesus’ prior teaching about forgiveness  (“seven times seventy.”)

There is a concept of infinity in both the teaching and the parable. The two belong together. 

The key lines in the parable are the infinite, unfathomable contrast between 10,000 talents and the 100 denarii. See the footnotes at the bottom of the page of your text. A single talent is equivalent to 15 years of wages. 10,000 talents would be equivalent to 150,000 years of labor. This was and is an unfathomable amount.

A100 denarii would be equivalent to a 100 days wages or one twenty-thousandth of one percent of 10,000 talents. It is equivalent to $30,000,000 to $60 or 1/500,000th of the large debt.

150,000 years of labor;   100 days of labor.

150,000 years of wages; 100 days of wages. 

Get these numbers into your mind.

The extremities of debt are infinite, staggering and unfathomable. Such numbers reflect the sense of seriousness in the spirit and mind of Jesus.

Obviously, this teaching and parable of Jesus is an Aramaic overstatement. The thrust of this teaching/parable is substantially true but not literally true.

The key line in the parable is verse 35, “So also will my heavenly father do to everyone of you, if you do not forgive your brother/sister from the heart.” God’s forgiveness is so infinitely and unfathomably great that such forgiveness inspires us to forgive the people who hurt us in this life.

Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 18:35 is similar to his teaching in Matthew 6:15, Matthew’s version of the Lord’s Prayer: “But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”  We are personally aware that God has persistently forgiven our sins throughout our whole lives. We are aware that some of our sins are deeply held habits that are repeated endless, and that we ask God to forgive our endlessly repeated bad habits. God does. We are invited to have the same attitude towards others’ sins as God has to our sins.

Matthew 18:35 is the last verse of the Galilean section of Jesus’ life. That is, the next verse is a new chapter in Jesus’ life. Matthew 19:1 “When Jesus had finished saying these things, he left Galilee and went to the region of Judea beyond the Jordan.” In the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, there is an enormous transition at this point as Jesus sets “his face to go to Jerusalem.”

In other words, this teaching about “seventy times seven” and this parable about the limitless forgiveness of the king is the last word of the Galilean section. And the last word is a profound parable about grace.   

How does one apply this teaching and parable of Jesus about persistent forgiveness to our own daily lives which are so marked by sin and imperfection? How does this teaching and parable work themselves out in my real world of everyday life?

How does one apply this teaching and parable of Jesus about persistent forgiveness to a world in which warfare between nations and ethnic tribes seems to be a historic inevitability? To quote a recent article by NEWSWEEK magazine: “A Hobbesian view of life is this: the world is a dangerous place; war is the natural state of mankind; enemies lurk. The national-security state must be strong, vigilant and wary. America’s military and intelligence establishments were weakened by defeat in Vietnam and the wave of scandals that followed in Watergate in the ’70s and Iran-contra in the ’80s.”

How does one apply the teaching of Jesus about persistent forgiveness to a world in which it is necessary to have (and use) a strong national defense? Is this teaching of Jesus to be applied only individually/personally and not nationally?

How does one apply this teaching and parable of Jesus about persistent forgiveness to our world in which serious, seemingly irresolvable, conflict between people and within families is a historic inevitability?

DISCUSSION QUESTION: WHAT DO YOU THINK IT MEANS TO FORGIVE SOMEBODY SEVEN TIMES SEVENTY? What does this mean in a realistic world when someone has been abused and raped by their father? When there appears to be no resolution of the conflict on this side of the grave?


 “Peter asked Jesus, “How often should I forgive my brother or sister? Seven times?” Peter thought that he was being rather generous in his question. That is, the morality of the Old Testament and the rabbis who interpreted the Old Testament taught that the maximum forgiveness was three times. Three times and you are out. “Three strikes and you are out.” So by suggesting that forgiveness was seven times, Peter was being generous.

And what was Jesus’ response. “Not seven times, Peter, but seventy-seven times.”  Infinitely. Limitlessly.

The number “seventy seven” or seventy times seven is a very precise number. That is, this number is found only one other time in the Bible and it is in Genesis 4:24 and the story of Cain, the murderer, and Lamech. Cain gets revenge seven times and Lamech gets revenge “seventy-seven times, or seventy times seven.”  How often am I to revenge my brother for murder? “Seventy-seven times.” After the fall of Adam and Eve, the world had become a violent and murderous place, so violent and murderous that God would shortly destroy the world by flood. The story of Lamech symbolizes the cycle of hate, revenge and murder. And Jesus breaks that cycle of hate and revenge. How many times shall I revenge my brother with one more murder? Seventy-seven times? Jesus teaches that we are not to seek revenge, but to forgive our brother and sister seventy-seven times. Matthew 18:22 reverses Genesis 4:24.

Forgiveness trumps revenge in God’s blueprint for life.  

Further, to illustrate his teaching about our infinite need for forgiveness and our need to infinitely forgive, Jesus told a story about a king whose servant owed him ten thousand talents. The generous king forgave his servant some ten thousand talents and that same servant then refused to forgive another servant for merely one hundred denarii. Jesus was using humor and hyperbole and exaggeration to make a point.

In today’s language, ten thousand talents would be equivalent to approximately $25,000,000; one hundred denarii would be equivalent to about $50 or a day’s age. Today, the owner of the business would have lent his employee $25,000,000 and then forgiven the $25,000,00. The amount of money of $25,000,000 was staggering, incomprehensible, beyond our wildest imagination and could in no way be paid back. The employee whose incredible debt of $25,000,000 had just been forgiven then refused to forgive the debt of a fellow employee for a mere $50. The employee was willing to receive a vast amount but was willing to give away only a meageramount. The owner of the company, hearing about the stinginess of the first employee, canceled his original gift of $25,000,000. The parable ends with Jesus’ statement, “And so it will be with you if you do not forgive your brother and sister from the heart.”

So what does this mean for us?

First, God’s forgiveness is overwhelmingly abundant, and there is no way that a human mind can comprehend the magnitude of God’s forgiveness. There is no way to comprehend the height and the depth of God’s forgiveness and there is no way that we could repay God for the enormous debt that God paid for our sin. God persistently forgives us for our temper tantrums, our irritability, our loss of temper, our rage, our robbery, rape, murder, incest, apathy, selfishness, suicide. The list of our sins goes on and on and God repeatedly forgives us for our sins. There is no bottom to the well of God’s forgiveness. This parable tells us about God’s overwhelming and abundant forgiveness.

But the second point in this parable is also true. That is, we are not only inspired, motivate and lifted up to be more forgiving people, but we hear that we are commanded to be forgiving people. There is a threat in this parable, and the threat is not veiled. When you come to the end of the parable, Jesus clearly says, “And God will not forgive you if you do not forgive your brother and sister from the heart.”  The threat from God is clear.

This same threat is found in Matthew’s version of the Lord’s Prayer. We pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Matthew adds at that point, “For if you do not forgive the trespasses of others neither will God forgive you your trespasses.” I sometimes wonder how life would have changed if we had memorized and recited Matthew’s version of the Lord’s Prayer on a daily or weekly basis. “Neither will God forgive you if you do not forgive the sins of others.” Ouch. Briefly turn to Matthew’s version of the Lord’s Prayer on page 56-57 and read again Matthew 6:14-15.

The third point of the parable is also true. God’s Grace reverses human revenge. The number, seventy-seven or seventy times seven, reverses the seventy-seven in Genesis 4:24. In Genesis 4:24, seventy-seven refers to the number of times a person gets revenge. Matthew 18:22 refers to the forgiveness of God. Genesis 4:24 refers to the spirit and actions of Cain and Lamech. Matthew 18:22 intentionally reverses Genesis 4:24.

Sometimes, people interpret this saying about seventy-seven times personally rather than nationally. Sometimes people say that forgiveness is intended to speak to individuals but not to nations. I feel differently about this. I see the cycle of violence and revenge repeated between ethnic groups and nations. We clearly see this escalating cycle of violence and revenge between the Palestinians and the Israelis, between the nations of Pakistan and India, between the USA and Russia during the Cold War. So many nations get into this pattern and cycle of escalating revenge and violence. “You bomb me and I will bomb you back even worse. You kill some of my citizens and I will kill even more of your citizens.” We witness a gradually escalating scale of violence on the ethnic and national and international level.

Sometimes, people can use the language of justice simply as verbal cover-up for revenge. They say, “We want justice” but they really want revenge.

I believe that Jesus’ words of God’s grace of Matthew 18:22 intentionally reverses the cycle of human revenge between individuals, families, clans, tribes, ethnic loyalties, and nations. Today, we see the cycle of revenge especially between people with their ethnic loyalties. In the Balkans, in central Africa, in Ireland, and all over the globe. I believe that Matthew 18:22 speaks to the whole world of human relationships and is not confined to conflicts with individuals, but refers to tribes, clans, ethnicities and nations as well.” End of quotation from a sermon.

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