“This is getting old. How many times are we going to have do this? This is crazy!” Hyperventilated moaning spread through the ranks of the exhausted players in our pre-season football workouts even as we gasped for air. We were in gym clothes and helmets only. The swampy South Louisiana heat was blistering our sunburned skin like a slow release of radiation in Chernobyl. After the sixth fifty-yard sprint we were all bent over in stomach cramps, drenched with sweat, reeking with the visible vapors of twenty-four adolescent boys in week-old unwashed gym-clothes. We swatted Boing 787 sized mosquitoes and waited for the inevitable and interminable whistle to do it again.

Coach McDougal had been an offensive lineman at Ole Miss. He was a science teacher at our high school, taught driver education, but lived for this one job: head football coach at a Class Double-B school, the smallest possible athletic program in the State. Before Coach McDougal could blast the next whistle, a group of guys turned to me. “Milton, you go to him.” I was gasping for precious oxygen in the dense jungle air as much as anyone. “You’re nuts. I’m not going,” I wheezed between gulps of air. One boy, an offensive lineman, snorted, “You are the quarterback! Now, go tell Coach that this is just too much!” All of them, bent over, hands on knees, looked at me as one. “Come on. Go! Now! Before he blows that dadburn whistle again!”

The wind-sprints had weakened my will and clouded my better judgment. “Okay.” I knew better than to walk, so I trotted over to Coach McDougal.  He gave me a look that said, “This better be good.” When I got to him, I gave a sort of “A-ten-SHUN!” pose. “Coach?” I thought of how to say it. “What is it, boy?” His words reminded me that he was doing me a favor by not squashing me with his oversize upper torso. “Coach, the fellas are saying that ‘this is enough.’” He asked me by mocking my sentence with a baby-talk-whining-sing-song: “This is enough what?” I was toast. This man was my Sunday School teacher, my coach, and my science teacher. I was out on a limb, a tiny, creaking little twig of a limb. “Coach, well, the boys—your boys, Sir—they, uh, we say that this is enough sprints. It’s too hard.” Oh, how I wish I could relive that moment. I would take those words back right now, bind them in one of those stinking t-shirts and chuck it over the highest cliff on earth. The hulkish, aging offensive lineman grabbed my face-mask with two fingers that were more like two thick arms. He jerked my head so close to his neck-less head that I could see the permanent stains of Red Man chewing tobacco embedded in the creases of stubby skin on his jowls. I shook like a child in the arms of an enraged store clerk who has been defrauded. “Son,” he finally spoke. “Yes, Sir,” I mumbled meekly. “Son, I want you to go to tell them boys something fer me.” “Anything Coach!” And I said it smiling as if to encourage his better angels. “You tell them, boys, that this here is life.” The way Coach McDougal said the word “life,” drawing out one long hideous syllable, made me dread my own future: so awful, so hard, yet to be loved for its very repulsiveness. He continued to hold my head in helmet within inches of his face. “Yes, Sir, I . . .” He cut me off to recapitulate with crisp, monosyllabic elocution: “This-is-life.”

I will never forget that. We all lived, even though my act of foolishness cost us a final two laps around the football field. I tell you that story because as clear as Coach McDougal made his case, our Lord Jesus made His case. “This is life . . .” This is life in the Kingdom: you got to forgive because you have been forgiven. And if you don’t know how to forgive it is because you don’t know about the enormity of offense that God forgave to you.

I do not know if the others, like my fellow high school football players, drafted old Peter to go to the Lord about his teaching on forgiveness. There is an air of “Lord, this seems like a whole lot of forgiveness sprints! A fella could get winded with all that mercy.” So, Peter approaches Jesus after Jesus had taught on seeking reconciliation in the Church. What follows is a lesson lets us know that the matter of going to one’s brother to seek reconciliation is not just about church disputes, but personal forgiveness.[1] Peter asks the Lord Jesus about the extent of forgiveness. “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Peter appears to have asked the question believing that he was being especially generous in his number. Some scribes had taught that the Torah demands three times to forgive. Maimonides (1140-1204 AD) would teach that forgiveness to a person should be two or three times.[2] Peter goes far beyond that number and uses the divine number of completion, the number that is based on the word Sabbath in the Hebrew, the number seven. But Jesus’ response was about like old Coach McDougal pulling me up close to mug to explain, “This is life.” And Jesus tells a story and oh what a story He tells! The parable of the unforgiving servant is a story about life in the Kingdom of God. The story is about the problem that forgiveness can bring.

If we know the magnitude of sin’s offense against God and his grace extended to us, we will naturally possess the deep reservoir of grace to extend to others. If we have been forgiven so great a debt how can we ever put limits of our forgiveness of others?

Now, to be forgiven by God introduces a problem. In fact, it introduces several problems in the text. Let me look at those with you as we unpack the parable.

The first possible problem with forgiveness that this parable reveals is this:

Our sins were greater than we ever imagined.

The parable is built on five major movements and one singular calculation. The movements involve a great king who wished to settle accounts with his servant. The story revolves around one who was brought to the king at the beginning of this process of debt reconciliation. This fellow owed ten thousand “talents.” More on that shortly. The second movement is that the king forgave this man. The third movement is that the servant went out, apparently liberated, but when he encountered a fellow slave who owed him one hundred denarii, the forgiven man denied him mercy, despite the humility of the debtor, and had him thrown into prison for the debt. The fourth movement involves the distress that this caused the other subjects in the kingdom. They brought the news of this atrocity to the king. The king was understandably angry. He had forgiven him of his enormous debt, but the man could not forgive a fellow slave. Thus, the story ends by saying that the king threw the unforgiving servant into prison “until he should pay all his debt.” The fifth movement is the warning that Jesus Christ gives to the disciples, and through His Word, to each of us here today. Now, those are the five movements. The one calculation is this: we must calculate the difference between ten thousand talents and a hundred denarii. This is the foundation on which the rest of the story is built. Okay, let’s get going: For one talent of gold, about forty kilograms, a Greco-Roman weight, and coinage, also used by the Hebrews, was equal to 6,000 denarii.[3]

To discover the value in today’s dollars, we should estimate according to the value of one talent in terms of wages. We know that a day’s wage (at least in Jesus’ parables) for a laborer, then, was one denarius, about 4 grams of Roman silver. Matthew 20: 2. A talent, or 30-40 kilograms of Roman gold, was worth about 6,000 denarii. The ten thousand talents, according to the wages, would be 160,000 days, or 438 years, and if a talent is forty kilos of gold, and a kilogram is 2.2 pounds—but, wait we must convert to Troy Pounds—12 ounces versus 16 ounces—well, that would place the value … Yikes! You begin to see. The calculations are ridiculous.[4] This fellow owed generations of money (quite possible, as Thomas Jefferson left debt to his children, our nation is leaving a fast-growing debt to our great, great grandchildren). Suffice it to say that this servant owed more than he and successive generations could pay. So, we see that the debt that was forgiven was literally incalculable. And that is the point. Now, compare the incalculable to a hundred denarii. It is not insignificant but is closer to just over three months’ wages.[5]

This way of seeing the parable obviously changes everything about the lesson. Yet, nothing leaps from the pages of Sacred Text any more than the magnitude of the debt forgiven. Jesus is saying to Peter and the disciples, as He says to us, our sins are greater than we ever imagined. Our sins are incalculable.

When Menninger wrote, Whatever Happened to Sin? —a book that dealt with the human dynamic of guilt as a positive awareness that can lead to healing of spiritual anguish—there was still a consensus, albeit diminishing, that there was something broken, called sin, haunting humankind. The Bible teaches that us that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. But, even more, the Bible teaches us that the sin is so great that it brought death into creation. We sin because we are sinners. There are accidents because there is sin. There is disease because of the Fall this is not a cause and effect—you have a sickness because you sinned—but, rather, because we live in a world infected by sin. We cannot grasp the glory of grace if we fail to perceive the enormity of sin. It is a stench in the nostrils of a holy God. Sin kills. The Bible says that God does not willingly afflict the children of men. He doesn’t have to. Our sin kills us. It is a “human on human” crime.

My beloved, we cannot speak of a cure of the soul without a confession of sin. Not only that, we must state the magnitude of sin and its consequences which led to death and destruction of the Lord’s own creation, including you and me. Thankfully, mercifully, unimaginably, the Lord God has dealt with sin. For in the death of Christ there was the death of sin. Isaiah prophesied about a light coming into the world to eradicate the darkness of sin. That has now happened with the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. Sin is being snuffed out by mercy and love.

The problem of forgiveness is that we must come to face the abomination of our sin against our own Creator. But is that a problem if it leads to us asking for forgiveness? Is it really a problem if our confession of sin leads to the response of love? “For God so loved the world . . .” speaks to the greatness of a world of sin and the wideness of God’s love to embrace such a world, to offer that love to you today.

If you would allow me, I would like to continue to think in the sense of forgiveness as a problem, for so it was to Peter. “What are the limits of love? What is the extent of mercy?”

Well, here is another problem that we encounter from Jesus’ parable of the unforgiving servant.

God’s mercy is wider than we ever conceived.

It is not just that the debt is incalculable, it is that the king is so quick to forgive. Now, Jesus taught that the servant of the king begged for mercy. Yet, the king forgave. In truth, of course, the parable is intentionally problematic. The amount of the debt far exceeded many kingdoms in Jesus’ day. Not only is the concept of forgiveness incalculable, so is the scale of God’s grace to our sin.

Benjamin Breckenridge Warfield of old Princeton taught on the core truth of John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that whoever believers in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.” He said that the core truth of that famous passage in the Bible is the amazing capacity for God’s love in the face of overwhelming sin.[6]

We cannot put limits on our ability to forgive when we have been forgiven so much. The extraordinary debt of our sin against God is surpassed by the remarkable mercy of a loving Heavenly Father who sent His Son to die on a cross for those who rejected His love.

And this leads us to consider a final thought from the passage: it is that forgiveness is a problem because of this:

Our capacity to forgive is only as great as our gratitude for having been forgiven.

The parable invites us to see the heart of the servant. His unimaginable debt had been paid by the king. Yet, he refused to forgive a very small debt of a fellow servant. Despite the poor man’s pleas, pleas which the servant should have empathized with, he threw his colleague into debtors’ prison. His heart was unmoved by the king’s act of forgiveness to him. In a real way, then, he could never rise higher than his own sense of gratitude.

I went for years in my life as a prodigal son thinking that I had met all of God’s requirements—I was baptized as an infant in a Methodist Church, walked the aisle as a child in a Baptist Church, was confirmed in an Episcopal Church. But when I heard by grace are you saved through faith (Ephesian 2:8,9), the passage destroyed my frame of reference for my relationship with God. I knew that there had to be “Amazing Grace,” but how to access this grace was not clear. I had sought to demonstrate my allegiance to God. But, that is still earning my way to God’s favor. The truth of this parable is that there is no way to calculate God’s mercy. Grace is greater than we ever imagined. For there was no way for the servant ever to repay the king. And there is no way you or I could ever possibly bridge the vast gap between our sin and God’s holiness. So, our King came to us, lived the life we could not live and died the death that should have been ours, to satisfy His own debt repayment.

Isaac Watts, that great master of hymnody, studied Galatians 6:14,

“But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which[a] the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”

He, then, wrote the classic, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross. The final line of his hymn has many times gripped my own soul. It is most fitting for this passage:

“Were the whole realm of nature mine, That were a present far too small; Love so amazing, so divine, Demands my soul, my life, my all.”[7]

Conclusion

There was once a father that had to place his young, adult daughter in a drug rehabilitation residential program. After weeks of working with the young lady, scheduled telephone reports from behavioral specialists to her father, regular prayer in the home, as well as prayer with other concerned believers, and after a long trail of excruciatingly detailed accounts of the young woman’s inability to follow the house rules, show progress, and demonstrate even the desire to change, the chief psychologist had to schedule a special call with the father. The psychologist explained the many incidents of outreach to the young woman. He continued to speak about the great effort made to help the young lady with every means available. The father stopped him. “So, you are saying . . . What?” The psychologist paused to gather his thoughts. He spoke with clipped calculation.  “We have reached the limit of patience.” The senior leader of this rehabilitation unit revealed,” I’m beginning to wonder if I am wasting my time on this young woman. Nothing works.” The father swallowed hard. He tried to make sense of what the psychologist was saying. He uttered words in near-silence: “What does this mean?” The doctor responded,” I’m afraid that this means that your daughter has failed. She has failed to keep her end of the bargain. And if I may say so, it is time for you to use some tough love.” There was silence. Then, there broke loose a clap of rapturous thunder and words filled with the white-light of a nuclear explosion: “My daughter has not failed. My daughter is in the bondage of a power greater than herself. And you tell me that you have reached the limit of your patience? Maybe you have. But I have not reached the limits of my love. Tough love, Sir, is love so tough that is endures through the worst days. Tough love never let’s go. That’s what tough love is to me. My daughter is obviously in the wrong place. I need doctors who have, themselves, been called irredeemable so that they can have the capacity for compassion to redeem my daughter from the bondage of these powers! That is the tough love that I want for my little girl. I am looking for a love that will never let her go.”

How we all want that kind of tough love, a love that will never let us go, never say “I have reached the limits of mercy.” And the “problem with forgiveness” is that you can never really get over it. You become like St. Paul, who only had “one sermon:” the depth of God’s grace to save such a sinner as himself. You become like John Newton, the old slave trader who became a grace preacher and whose ministry inspired the fight for abolition in Great Britain in the seventeenth century through his parishioner William Wilberforce.[8] You could never get over the depth of God’s mercy in the breath of Christ sacrifice. The problem with forgiveness is not a problem at all. It is simply, powerfully, poignantly, and supernaturally that the one forgiven becomes an eternal captive to God’s grace.

What are the limits of your love for others? What are the limits of forgiveness in your heart? The answer to those questions are, according to the Lord Jesus, are evermore attached to your own understanding of the cost of God’s forgiveness to you, for your sins. And what a cost it is: the sinless life and precious blood of the only begotten Son of the Living God, our Savior, Jesus the Lord. The extent of the suffering and death of God by the hand of His own creation met head-on with the heinousness of your sin and mine against this thrice holy God. And Jesus demonstrated the wideness in God’s mercy on the cross and in a way that mortal mind can never conceive. Yet it happened. He happened. Grace happened. Mercy happened. And the Man of Grace is alive forevermore. He is here today. Receive His forgiveness of your sins today. Be reconciled to God through the life and the blood of our God and Savior Jesus Christ.

Forgiveness is only a problem if you don’t forgive.

In the name of the father, and of the son, and of the Holy Spirit.

ENDNOTES

[1] Thus, D.A. Carson: “The issue is not the adjudication of the church, still less the absolute granting of forgiveness by the church (only God and Jesus can forgive sins in so absolute a fashion), but personal forgiveness (cf. 6: 14– 15).” See Carson, D.A. Matthew (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary) (Kindle Locations 14432-14433). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

[2] E.L. Worthington, Forgiving and Reconciling: Bridges to Wholeness and Hope(InterVarsity Press, 2009), 54.

[3] See Saint Bishop of Constantia in Cyprus Epiphanius, Epiphanius’ Treatise on Weights and Measures. The Syriac Version. Edited [and Translated] by James Elmer Dean, Etc (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1935), 45.

[4] It may be more sensible to compare the talent with modern currency in terms of earning power. Carson, D.A., Matthew (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary) (Kindle Locations 17877-17878). Zondervan. Kindle Edition. From the commentary collection, Frank E. Gaebelein, J. D. Douglas, and Dick Polcyn, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary : With the New International Version of the Holy Bible, 12 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Pub. House, 1976).

[5] C.B. Beach and F.M. McMurry, The New Student’s Reference Work for Teachers, Students and Families (F. E. Compton and company, 1919), 1867.

[6] D.A. Carson, Themelios, Volume 42, Issue 1 (WIPF & STOCK PUBL, 2017), 168.

[7] I. Watts, Hymns and Spiritual Songs … Fifth Edition, Corrected and Much Enlarged (1725), 289.

[8] The Abolition of Slave Trade Act was made law in Great Britain on 25 March 1807.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Beach, C.B. and F.M. McMurry. The New Student’s Reference Work for Teachers, Students, and Families. F. E. Compton and company, 1919.

Carson, D.A. Themelios, Volume 42, Issue 1. Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2017.

Epiphanius, Saint Bishop of Constantia in Cyprus. Epiphanius’ Treatise on Weights and Measures. The Syriac Version. Edited [and Translated] by James Elmer Dean, Etc. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1935.

Gaebelein, Frank E., J. D. Douglas, and Dick Polcyn. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: With the New International Version of the Holy Bible. 12 vols. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Pub. House, 1976.

Watts, I. Hymns, and Spiritual Songs … Fifth Edition, Corrected and Much Enlarged. 1725.

Worthington, E.L. Forgiving and Reconciling: Bridges to Wholeness and Hope. InterVarsity Press, 2009.