This parable that Jesus tells us feels quite removed from the reality in which we find ourselves today. My home country, Norway, is one of the very few countries that still have a king, but the days are long gone when the king of Norway was in the business of collecting unpaid debts. So let’s try to put this parable into a context that perhaps might be easier to relate to.
Imagine a Mafia boss calling one of his employees. “My friend,” he says, “you owe me ten billion dollars. How much money do you have for me?” “You mean right now, sir? Well, you know, I need to shuffle a few things around first. I have to sell my car, I have to liquidate a few things, but just give me a little time, and I’ll pay you everything. I promise. I’ll have your ten billion before you know it. Honest!”
Imagine the look on the Mafia boss’s face... “You know what,” he says, “let’s just forget about the whole thing. As of right now, I am canceling your debt. Go home, take your wife out for a nice meal, enjoy your good fortune!”
The lowly Mafia employee goes on his way, checks into a hospital to make sure he is not on some kind of hallucinatory drug, and it dawns on him: What just happened? My debt of ten billion dollars has been canceled. I thought I was in the Mafia, but I am not. I am in Paradise.
Soon afterwards he runs into one of his old buddies, a guy that owes him 15,000 dollars. That is no small amount, and he wants it back. So he does what he knows best, finds his gun and terrorizes his buddy until he has coughed up the full amount he owed him.
A tragic story, isn’t it? This man had been given the greatest gift of all. His unpayable debt had been canceled; he had been transferred from the Mafia to Paradise. And the first thing he does; he walks right out of Paradise and right back to the Mafia. He was in Paradise, but with his own actions, he recreated his own Mafia. When the Mafia boss catches him for the second time and decides to punish him, he gets what he wanted. He wanted to be in the Mafia; he got it.
The parable that Jesus tells us today is a great illustration of how two things are closely connected: the gift we receive from God, and the new life that we live with God.
The gift of salvation is such a wonderful thing that it is hard to do it justice with a simple description. One of my favorite ways of understanding salvation is to compare it to a bank account. I have used this illustration many times in my sermons. Our life is compared to a heavenly bank account. And because of our sins and our rebellion against God, our account is overdrawn. Now we owe God ten billion dollars, to use the numbers from our text for today. The great news of salvation is, God reverses our fortune. From being ten billion dollars in the red, he puts our account ten billion dollars in the black. That is the grace he has showed us in Jesus Christ. Not only are we back to zero, in Jesus Christ, we have been made righteous, holy, and perfect in God’s sight. It is as if our bank account has gone from minus ten billion to plus ten billion.
This is a great illustration, but it has one weakness. It can make us think of salvation as a possession, as something we have in our possession, and as something that only concerns me and God, just as my bank account is a matter only between me and my bank.
But the Bible has many other ways to describe our salvation. One of the most important ways has to do with relationships. Because of our sin, our relationship with God has been destroyed. This is what the book of Genesis portrays when it tells the story of the fall of Adam and Eve. When God came to the garden after they had eaten of the forbidden fruit, they ran away and hid themselves from him. Their relationship with God was broken. When God asked Adam what he had done, he blamed his wife. It might have worked had he run for public office, but as it was, it was a sad testimony to the broken relationship between him and Eve.
Since our relationships are broken, God’s salvation is the message of reconciliation. Most importantly, we are reconciled to God. God has forgiven us our sins, we are no longer his enemies, we are now his friends. As a direct consequence, our relationships to one another have also been restored. Our grievances towards one another are forgotten, people who could not talk to each other are brought together, enemies have become friends. Reconciliation has taken place.
The apostle Paul expresses this in the famous verse in 2 Cor 5:19: “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” This verse combines the language of relationships, speaking of reconciliation, with the language of accounting, not counting our trespasses against us. In chapter 6, Paul draws his conclusions about what this means for us. That is where Paul makes his appeal to the Corinthians: “We have spoken frankly to you Corinthians; our heart is wide open to you. There is no restriction in our affections, but only in yours. In return—I speak as to children—open wide your hearts also” (6:11-13). When we are reconciled to God, it has consequences for our relationship to one another. “There is no restriction in our affections,” Paul says. “Our heart is wide open to you.” When God has opened his heart to us, we open our hearts to one another.
When you understand salvation from this perspective, it is not so much a gift that we have received as it is a new sphere in which we live. We live in the sphere of reconciliation. And when we look at it that way, we see how our new relationship to God is intimately related to our new relationship to one another. We can actually not have the one without the other.
I can think of no better way of explaining this understanding of salvation than with the parable Jesus tells us today, because this parable so beautifully combines the idea of salvation as a gift and the idea of salvation as a reconciled relationship. Salvation is indeed a great gift; it is the cancellation of a debt of 10,000 talents, roughly ten billion dollars in today’s economy, an unpayable debt. And this gift results in a new relationship. As God has forgiven us, we must forgive one another. As we are reconciled to God, we must be reconciled to one another. As the parable shows us, to deny the new relationship is also to deny the gift.
The man in the parable is a great illustration. If you look at salvation as a gift, he suffered the terrible misfortune of having first received the gift, and then having it taken away from him. But if you look at salvation as a sphere into which we enter, his predicament was that he never entered it. He was offered an entrance into Paradise, but he refused to enter. With his actions, he insisted on living in the Mafia. He insisted on living in hell. The gift could not save him, because he thought of it merely as a gift, as a possession, not a new place to live.
If you will allow me to push the parable perhaps beyond its intention: what good is a gift of ten billion dollars if you have no friends? Then you are just as poor as you were before. But God’s gift makes us truly rich. That is why it cannot be fully understood if we think of it merely as a possession. God’s gift is dynamic. It consists of the kingdom of God, the kingdom of heaven. It is the kingdom of restored relationships. It is the land of forgiveness.
I think most Christians, myself included, take care to fulfill Jesus’ commandment literally. When someone asks for our forgiveness, we forgive them. But that is not the hard part.
Jesus tells this parable as an explanation of his answer to Peter, who has asked about the need for forgiveness. “How often should I forgive another member of the church?” he asked. “As many as seven times?” Jesus’ answer must have blown his mind: “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”
Some Bible translations make Jesus even more radical, they have the number of times we must forgive as seventy times seven. The Greek word in question occurs only in this verse in the New Testament, and nobody knows for sure whether it is supposed to mean seventy-seven or seventy times seven. But either way, Jesus’ point is clear enough: we should forgive again and again without even keeping count.
In a similar text in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus explains “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” (Luke 17:4).
Imagine that someone offends you once, and then apologizes. Gracious as you are, you are quick to say: “Don’t worry about it. It was nothing.” A little while later, the same day, he does the same thing, and he comes and apologizes. Now, you start to wonder: “did you really mean it the first time, when you apologized so sincerely?” But you choose to take the high road, so you tell him: “OK, you really shouldn’t have done it again, but I will forgive you. It’s OK.” No sooner have you forgiven him before he turns around and offends you for the third time. On the same day. Now, you’re like: “are you trying to make fun of me? Who do you think I am?” But perhaps you are mustering your magnanimity to the utmost and decide to forgive him for the third time. What about the fourth time, the fifth time, and the sixth time? “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,” Jesus says.
The point is, it is easy to forgive those we think deserve to be forgiven. If someone sincerely apologizes, forgiveness is usually not hard. But if someone comes seven times the same day, his sincerity is sincerely in doubt. Had be been serious the first time he apologized he would not have been so quick to do the same thing again. Now, he does not deserve to be forgiven anymore. This is the challenge that Jesus puts to us. When God has forgiven us, so completely undeserving as we are, then we should forgive others too, even those who do not deserve it. The point of Jesus’ parable is that no one is less deserving of forgiveness than you and me. We are the ones ten billion dollars in the red. If God can forgive us, shouldn’t we be able to forgive others? Even if they owe us 15,000 dollars? If you look at it in isolation, it is a considerable amount. If I lost that much money, I would be scrambling to recover. But if you look at it in light of the debt we have been forgiven, ten billion, it is nothing at all. If we look at the grievances we have against other people, they may be considerable. It may be hard to forget it and move on. But if you look at it in light of how much God has forgiven us, it is truly nothing.
I think the challenge of forgiving the undeserving often comes in the case of those who do not always ask for our forgiveness. As for me, I have no problem with forgiveness. I mean, if only the one who has offended me will come and ask for forgiveness, I will forgive immediately. If only they will come and admit that they are wrong and I am right, if only they will own up to the fact that they have done something terrible and I have always been beyond reproach, I will certainly forgive them. If only they will say that they have messed up completely, they have been a complete jerk and I am the incarnation of benevolence and generosity, of course I will forgive. It is just that, if that ever happens, there is really nothing to forgive, is there? On such a scenario I will already have received what I feel is my due, and there will be nothing left to forgive.
Genuine forgiveness is always costly. Because it means that we have to forgive those who do not deserve it. It means that we have to forgo the 15,000 dollars.
© Sigurd Grindheim