Mercy beyond imagining

Today we conclude the 18th chapter of Matthew. This fourth block of teaching centres around life in the community. It began with the question of who is the greatest in this new covenant community and culminates in this over-the-top story of abundant grace and mercy.

Peter the impetuous again provides the fodder for the teaching – how often must I forgive someone who sins against me? In suggesting ‘seven’ as the answer, he was being overly generous. The common Rabbinic teaching was that a person should forgive another three times:

Rabbi Jose ben Hanina said: ‘He who begs forgiveness from his neighbour must not do so more than three times.’ Rabbi Jose ben Jehuda said: ‘If a man commits an offence once, they forgive him; if he commits an offence a second time, they forgive him; if he commits an offence a third time, they forgive him; the fourth time they do not forgive.’ The biblical proof that this was correct was taken from Amos. In the opening chapters of Amos, there is a series of condemnations on the various nations for three transgressions and for four (Amos 1:3, 6, 9, 11, 13; 2:1, 4, 6). From this, it was deduced that God’s forgiveness extends to three offences and that he visits the sinner with punishment at the fourth. It was not to be thought that people could be more gracious than God, so forgiveness was limited to three times.

Barclay, William. The Gospel of Matthew. Third Ed. The New Daily Study Bible. Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press, 2001.

So, suggesting 7 times was doubling the standard teaching and adding one. Simon Peter perhaps hoped to finally win the praise that he was overdue. Instead, Jesus demonstrates that in the kingdom of God, the way of mercy must leave behind all counting and keeping score.

The parable that he tells is over-the-top with unbelievably huge numbers. The entire GDP of the whole of Israel during the bountiful days of King Herod was only 900 talents. A talent was equal to life-time wages of a labourer – 6000 days. So a modern approximate might be around $1.44 million. A myriad of talents would be worth some $14.4 billion. In contrast, the sum owed by the other servant is a massively smaller amount of 100 days of labour – $24,000 using the same scale. Not an amount to be left on the street as we pass by – but hardly comparable to the greater sum. The story is clearly making the point that the difference between the two amounts is immeasurable.

For us, the question is clear: will we continue to count the cost and keep the score? Or will we allow the amazing grace that has been so generously poured out upon us to slowly soften our hearts and draw us into the forgiving flow of God’s love?

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Sunday 24, Year A.

Matthew 18:21-35.

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