The parable of the unforgiving slave
September 17 2017
Again this week we hear about forgiveness, in fact this parable of the unforgiving slave is a continuation of our gospel reading from last week. This is one of those parables that takes a bit of explanation to understand it in the context of the times in which it was written—kind of like a cultural interpretation.
So, last week, we read from Matthew’s gospel about Jesus telling the disciples how best to respond to those in the church who have sinned against another member of the church.
And Peter now asks Jesus how many times he should forgive someone who sins against him? Perhaps as many as seven times he wonders? Why would Peter use the number 7? Well, seven is considered a very special number, even a sacred or holy number in the bible. Here’s some information I unearthed about the number 7.
The first use of the number 7 in the Bible relates to the creation week in Genesis chapter 1
God spends six days creating the heavens and the earth, and then rests on the seventh day. This is our template for the seven-day week, observed around the world to this day. The seventh day was to be “set apart” for Israel; the Sabbath was a holy day of rest (Deuteronomy 5:12)
Thus, right at the start of the Bible, the number 7 is identified with something being “finished” or “complete.” From then on, that association continues, as 7 is often found in contexts involving completeness or divine perfection. So we see the command for animals to be at least seven days old before being used for sacrifice (Exodus 22:30), the command for leprous Naaman to bathe in the Jordan River seven times to effect complete cleansing (2 Kings 5:10), and the command for Joshua to march around Jericho for seven days (and on the seventh day to make seven circuits) and for seven priests blow seven trumpets outside the city walls (Joshua 6:3–4). In these instances,signifies a completion of some kind: a divine mandate is fulfilled.
(In) the book of Revelation, the number 7 is used there more than fifty times in a variety of contexts: there are seven letters to seven churches in Asia and seven spirits before God’s throne (Revelation 1:4), seven golden lampstands (1:12), seven stars in Christ’s right hand (1:16), seven seals of God’s judgment (5:1), seven angels with seven trumpets (8:2), etc. In all likelihood, the number 7 again represents completeness or totality.
In all, the number 7 is used in the Bible more than seven hundred times. If we also count the words related to seven (terms like sevenfold or seventy or seven hundred), the count is still higher.1
So, it seems Peter’s use of the number 7 is a good number to choose, and probably not a random choice! And Jesus says to Peter, no, not just seven times, but seventy-seven times, or maybe, as the Greek is translated in other bible versions, seventy times seven –either way, still an astounding number of times!
It seems Peter’s getting the gist of this forgiveness, seven times, a holy number, a complete number, so 7 and done! But no, Jesus says, no limit on forgiveness—forgive seventy times seven — wow, that seems like endless forgiveness! Really Jesus? And to illustrate the point, Jesus tells them one of his kingdom of God parables, Matthew is full of these kingdom of God parables, and this one is a story full of hyperbole, wild exaggerations, so as to make the point; what has come to be known as “the parable of the unforgiving slave”.
Now, here’s another of those cultural things. It will help us to understand somewhat how the slave or servant system worked in Jesus’ time. Here is an explanation from a professor of New Testament Studies.
Click on the download pdf at the top of the page to read the full transcript.