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The Math of Forgiveness

Then Peter came to Him and said, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven” (Matthew 18:21–22, NKJV).

Don’t you just love Peter? Good old impulsive Peter asked the questions everyone else was probably thinking but was too proud or polite to verbalize. Not Peter. He wanted Jesus to get specific about this business of forgiveness and demanded a concrete number from his Master. “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” Peter likely phrased the question with confidence, thinking seven was such a generous offer Jesus would respond, “Wow, Peter! You are a serious forgiveness machine!”

But as so often happened in the Gospels, Jesus didn’t conform to people’s expectations. “Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.’” Follow the math on that: 70 x 7 = 490. Can you imagine 490 offenses? That’s a lot of forgiveness! You might balk at that and object, Would somebody really do the same rotten thing to me 490 times? The point is this: don’t keep track. If you have a tally sheet on your fridge and you’re at 487, you have a problem. Forgiveness is not to be measured or counted but given freely.

To make His case, Jesus told a parable—a fictitious story to make a point. “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants” (Matthew 18:23, ESV). This story is about “the kingdom of heaven,” so Jesus is talking about God’s economy, not the world’s economy. “When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents” (18:24). One talent is roughly equivalent to a thousand weeks of labor—almost twenty years of work. A debt of ten thousand talents was far more than a person could ever repay without winning the Holy Land Lottery. In today’s terms, think of this debt as a trillion dollars, a massive amount of money, more than a person could ever repay.

And what does the king do about that impossible debt? At first, the master ordered that the servant and his family be sold to repay the debt. “So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt” (18:26–27).

Released. Canceled. Forgiven.

An astonishingly generous choice by the king—but the story takes an even more astonishing twist. Just freed from his unpayable debt, the servant marched out and found a fellow servant who owed him one hundred denarii. This servant’s debt was about one hundred days’ wages—a significant amount of money, but nothing compared to what the first servant owed the king. The guy who had been forgiven a trillion dollars seized, choked, threatened, and bullied his friend over four months’ pay!

Déjà vu. The second servant pleaded, “‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you’” (18:29)—an exact echo of the servant’s plea to the king—but the servant refused. Unwilling to forgive, he threw his debtor into prison until he could repay what he owed. The one who had been forgiven refused to forgive.

And we do the same. Our debt to God is utterly unpayable—the spiritual equivalent of trillions of dollars. Just as the king freely forgave the servant, so God freely forgives us. Yet we turn around and withhold forgiveness from others, blind to the size of our own debt. Yes, people hurt us and owe us a debt. Yes, the debt is real—but in relation to what we owe God, it’s nothing.

In God’s economy, here’s the formula: freely receive forgiveness—freely give forgiveness. Most New Testament passages dealing with forgiveness call for it to be unmeasured, instant, unilateral—in other words, free.

Whom do you need to forgive? Yes, that person owes you a debt, but your debt to God dwarfs the debt owed to you. Choose to forgive. Like the merciful king, tell the one who hurt you, “I choose to release you from the pain that resulted when you injured me. You don’t owe me anything. I forgive you.”

The King has set you free. Forgive so that you may live like it, unshackled by unforgiveness.



  • Spend some time reflecting. Describe the spiritual debt you owe God.
  • Look into the mirror of God’s Word in this parable again. In what ways are you like the unforgiving servant?

Father God, Your Word is a mirror, showing me myself and my sin clearly. I owe you everything. My debt is far more than I could ever repay, yet You freely forgave me. I struggle to forgive others from my heart, Lord. I’m sorry. Help me to be merciful, as You’ve shown mercy to me. Help me to forgive others freely, as You have freely forgiven me. Convict me, God, when I greedily hoard Your forgiveness while not forgiving others their relatively minor debts. In the name of Jesus, my merciful Master, who paid my debt in full, amen.

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