15 “If another believer sins against you, go privately and point out the offense. If the other person listens and confesses it, you have won that person back. 16 But if you are unsuccessful, take one or two others with you and go back again, so that everything you say may be confirmed by two or three witnesses. 17 If the person still refuses to listen, take your case to the church. Then if he or she won’t accept the church’s decision, treat that person as a pagan or a corrupt tax collector. 18 I tell you the truth, whatever you forbid on earth will be forbidden in heaven, and whatever you permit on earth will be permitted in heaven. 19 I also tell you this: If two of you agree here on earth concerning anything you ask, my Father in heaven will do it for you. 20 For where two or three gather together as my followers, I am there among them.”
21 Then Peter came to him and asked, “Lord, how often should I forgive someone who sins against me? Seven times?”
22 “No, not seven times,” Jesus replied, “but seventy times seven! 23 Therefore, the Kingdom of Heaven can be compared to a king who decided to bring his accounts up to date with servants who had borrowed money from him. 24 In the process, one of his debtors was brought in who owed him millions of dollars. 25 He couldn’t pay, so his master ordered that he be sold—along with his wife, his children, and everything he owned—to pay the debt. 26 But the man fell down before his master and begged him, ‘Please, be patient with me, and I will pay it all.’ 27 Then his master was filled with pity for him, and he released him and forgave his debt. 28 But when the man left the king, he went to a fellow servant who owed him a few thousand dollars. He grabbed him by the throat and demanded instant payment. 29 His fellow servant fell down before him and begged for a little more time. ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it,’ he pleaded. 30 But his creditor wouldn’t wait. He had the man arrested and put in prison until the debt could be paid in full. 31 When some of the other servants saw this, they were very upset. They went to the king and told him everything that had happened. 32 Then the king called in the man he had forgiven and said, ‘You evil servant! I forgave you that tremendous debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Shouldn’t you have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?’ 34 Then the angry king sent the man to prison to be tortured until he had paid his entire debt. 35 That’s what my heavenly Father will do to you if you refuse to forgive your brothers and sisters from your heart.”
I wrote about this passage a few years ago. Many English translations mess up the parable at the end of this chapter by not paying sufficient attention to the amount owed. The NLT does better than most, but using recent census data to put the amounts in terms accurate for us, the servant owed his master about $7.6 billion, while the other servant owed him about $20,000.00. The first amount may as well be infinite, only a miracle of grace gets one out from under that kind of debt. The second amount is quite significant in its own right. We really do sin against each other and cause lasting hurts. Forgiveness is not easy or automatic. But it is necessary. And it can be hard. The community Jesus builds requires confrontation. We have a responsibility not to leave each other in our sins.
In the middle of a very difficult time in a church nearly destroyed by its failure to confront sin, I preached a sermon about this (link below). But even this teaching got misused because we lacked the courage to carry out the full program Jesus lays out here. The procedure Jesus gives here is morally formative and as such requires some level of moral formation to operate well. The less of that a community has, the messier this will be. Which is why most churches do not follow this approach. Cleaner and more efficient for someone at the top to adjudicate conflicts and keep a lid on the mess. Which I suppose works okay (except such an approach does not lead to moral formation, which is not something churches always care about anyway), because following this approach part way is about the worst thing you can do. Of course, when someone at the top judges poorly, or unjustly, or is the one who needs to be confronted, then the more usual approaches fail altogether. In those moments, communities may turn to Matt. 18 for guidance (as ours did), but it can only help if the community has the courage to follow it all the way through. It is a hard path and if you are on it, you have my empathy.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible. New Living Translation copyright© 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.