The Joseph story in a nutshell: Joseph is the favorite son of 12 sons. Joseph gets away without doing the work his brothers do. Joseph gets favorable treatment. Joseph interprets dreams.
In one dream, Joseph tells his brothers that one day they will worship him. The last straw. The brothers want to kill Joseph. Instead, they dump him down a well and then sell him into slavery.
The slave traders take Joseph to Egypt. Joseph is imprisoned for something he did not do. There are other prisoners whose dreams Joseph interprets. This gets Pharaoh’s attention because Pharaoh has a dream that is bugging him. Joseph interprets the dream that there will be seven years of plenty then seven years of drought. (Almost sounds like a current story.) Pharaoh is so impressed with the interpretation that Pharaoh appoints Joseph chancellor of Egypt, essentially governing the empire.
The famine and drought also hit Joseph’s family and the brothers, save one, go to buy grain in Egypt. Since Joseph looks like an Egyptian and he was declared dead, the brothers don’t recognize him. Joseph tells them not to return again without the other brother, who is now daddy’s favorite.
They run out of food and though daddy is reluctant to send the new favorite, he has no choice. After all the brothers arrive in Egypt, Joseph reveals himself to them. The dream comes true. Joseph gets permission from Pharaoh for his entire family to settle in Egypt.
When daddy, Jacob, dies, the brothers fear that Joseph will have them killed or worse as an act of revenge for what they did to him. As we heard earlier, the brothers ask for forgiveness, forgiveness is given. Joseph also adds, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.”
Had Joseph taken revenge, the Bible would be a much smaller book. There would be no Exodus. There would be no King David. Only Joseph’s two boys who marry Egyptians and prosper there and disappear into history. Joseph forgives because God forgives and only God can judge.
Now we have Peter asking about forgiveness. Chapter 18 of Matthew begins with disciples approaching Jesus asking, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom?” Jesus’ response is long, beginning with being child-like. Then Jesus talks about obstacles we place in front of the “little ones:” stumbling blocks of sin, despising, losing, and confronting a church member. Then Jesus says, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
Then right after saying that, Peter asks Jesus how many times must he forgive a church member. Peter even helpfully gives Jesus a suggested number times he is required to forgive someone, seven. The rabbis said that one need only be forgiven three times. Peter knows Jesus well enough to know Jesus’ generosity. Seven is a good number, not too high, not too low. And seven is also considered to be a perfect number. So seven times should be a perfect response.
After the Garden of Eden incident, Genesis becomes an account of the highly accelerating effect of sin in the world. It is a violent and lawless world. In Genesis 4, Lamech boasts, “If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.” In other words, if one of Lamech’s people is killed than the tribe of the offender will suffer 77 deaths for every one of Lamech’s.
Jesus’ response is translated differently depending on the English bible one reads. Some say seventy-seven and some say seventy times seven, which is 490. Seventy times seven is probably a more literal translation. In other words, it is a lot. Probably too many times to bother keeping count. This likely surprised Peter. Peter wanted a time when he can write someone off. To Jesus, no one ever deserves to be written off.
To illustrate his point, Jesus tells them the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant.
The reason of the parable is unlimited forgiveness, an example of the kingdom of heaven. A king wanted settle accounts with his slaves. Somehow, the slaves ended up owing the king extraordinary amounts of money. We are not told what interest rate the king charged.
The king began with the slave who, likely, owed the greatest amount of money, 10,000 talents. One talent would pay a laborer for 15 years of work. This slave owed the equivalent of 150,000 years of labor. Obviously, the slave will not be able work off the debt.
The slave didn’t have the 10,000 talents on him. This parable is starting to sound like a stock Hollywood gangster film. The king ordered that the slave and his family and all his possessions to be sold to pay off the debt. Even then, the king would not even be close to being repaid. The slave asked for mercy. The king gave the slave mercy and more. The king forgave all the debt and released the slave from service. The king wrote off a fortune. Perhaps the king did this because he knew he would never get back the money anyway and be rid of a slave who has cost so much money. It would be cheaper to free the slave.
The slave has his life back. He doesn’t have a penny to his name, but he has his family and his freedom. There can be no price tag on his family and his freedom.
Apparently, lending money among slaves was common. The former slave has debtors also. This fellow likely lent out to other slaves the money he received from the king. Maybe he charged lower rates than the king.
The freeman found a slave who owed him 100 denarii. One denarius is what was paid for a day of labor. So this slave owed 100 days of labor. A much smaller amount than 150,000 days of labor. This slave asked for pity. The former slave refused and threw the poor fellow into prison. I never understood the concept of throwing someone in prison to pay a debt. How would one pay a debt from prison?
The other slaves were distressed over this event and reported to the king. The freeman is called a slave once again. The king upbraids the slave for not showing mercy after mercy was shown him. The once again slave is tortured until the debt would be paid. Again, how does one pay a debt while tortured? The assumption must be the person is holding out and needs persuasion to remember where the money is. This slave will never be able to pay such an extraordinary sum. This means that every day this slave will be tortured until he dies.
Then Jesus delivers the bad news. Gospel means good news. But here, Jesus dishes out bad news. If you do not sincerely forgive others, torture will be your fate. Not only does Jesus expect unlimited forgiveness, there are consequences if forgiveness is not given.
Peter likely took into account of what consequences there should be for one who is repeatedly forgiven, but never changes his or her behavior. Would not a community’s moral fiber be compromised by an unrepentant offender?
The parable moves the disciples and us beyond number counting to a change of attitude. The sin of the first slave was not showing the forgiveness that he was shown. Forgiveness is like a bottle of Coke that was loaded with Mentos. Forgiveness overflows. If we don’t forgive, then we have never opened the cap.
Every time we say the Lord’s Prayer, we pray that we be forgiven as we forgive others. That’s what we ask God. How can we be forgiven if we don’t forgive others?
“Can we even believe in the possibility of God’s forgiveness for us, much less receive it, if we are utterly unable to forgive? How could it be that we should truly receive God’s forgiveness without its altering our attitude to others? The thing is impossible.”
Text: Matthew 18:21–35 (NRSV)
 The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Ge 50:19–21). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
 The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Mt 18:20). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
 Shuster, M. (2001). Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A. In R. E. Van Harn (Ed.), The lectionary commentary: theological exegesis for Sunday’s texts, volume three (p. 111). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
Just recently blogged what He said on the topic of forgiveness.
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