If you asked a bunch of Bible students to identify the most terrifying passage in the Bible, you would undoubtedly receive a variety of answers. Some might point to some of the difficult passages in the Old Testament which discuss putting whole populations to the sword. Others would turn to the book of Revelation, with its ominous imagery of the Beast and its dire predictions of the future.
Few, I suspect, would pick Matthew 18. And yet, in these seemingly innocuous pages we are given one of the most severe warnings Christ ever uttered - one that places our very salvation on the line.
The story begins innocently enough. Peter (because of course it is Peter) asks Jesus, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Peter’s reason for asking lies in the teaching of the Pharisees, who instructed their followers that they ought to forgive their neighbor up to three times for the same offense. Peter, who apparently paid attention during the Sermon on Mount when Jesus kept “one-upping” the righteousness of the Pharisees, suggests that Jesus’ followers should forgive seven times. After all, that’s more than twice what the Pharisees do! Surely that will be enough.
Jesus, of course, responds that the right number isn’t seven, but seventy times seven (some accounts say 77) - in other words, Jesus tells Peter to just keep forgiving.
This leads Jesus into a story that we know as the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant. In the tale, a servant is brought before his master who owed “ten thousand talents” of gold. At this point, Jesus’ audience likely gasped or snickered - the amount was simply insane. Even the Emperor of Rome would be bankrupted by such a sum; a literal king’s ransom. A servant who owed so much (how did he even GET in that much debt?!) would never be able pay it off - even in a thousand lifetimes. He was doomed - a clean death was really the best he could hope for.
And yet… the master forgives the poor wretch! In a twist that likely left His audience speechless, the master of Jesus’ parable simply writes the debt off and lets the man go as if nothing had happened.
The magnitude of the master’s generosity is only exceeded by the infamy of what the servant did next. Seeing a fellow servant who owed him “a hundred denarii” - a significant sum, but nothing compared with the thousands of talents the master forgave - the unmerciful servant flies into a rage, choking his debtor and throwing him into prison. The master, hearing about this, calls the first servant back and revokes his original offer of clemency and has the man thrown into prison until he pays back the full amount.
It hardly takes a biblical scholar to explain the significance of the story. Nonetheless, in case there was any doubt as to His meaning, Jesus concludes by saying: “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
There are many hard teachings in the Bible, but I know of none more bracing than this - “We will be forgiven only if we forgive.” Those little grudges, that lingering fantasy of revenge for a past offense, or that fury you still cling to over the monstrous injustice done to you - things that we likely write off and regard as “harmless,” in fact conceal a spiritual poison so potent that even Jesus’ sacrifice is not sufficient to cleanse it.
The Lord could not make it any more clear - you can harbor hatred and revenge in your heart, or you can have Him, but not both. There simply isn’t room.