Matthew 13 isn’t the only place where parables about the kingdom of heaven can be found. Jesus tells another one in Matthew 18:23-35 about a king, a forgiven servant and an unforgiven servant. You’ve probably heard this one: the king orders a slave to pay back a huge debt, the slave says he can’t pay so the king is about to have him, his wife and everything they owned sold off but the slave begs for more time and king forgives his debt. This same slave immediately turns around and seeks out one of his own debtors and demands repayment but when this second slave begs his patience, the first slave has him imprisoned. The other slaves see this and report it to the king who orders the unforgiving servant to be tortured until he can pay back his much larger debt. “So will it be with you before my Father in heaven,” Jesus says. We are called to forgive our brothers and sisters from our hearts (Matthew 18:35).
Now, the first thing to note is the context. The immediately preceding two verses are the ones where Peter asks Jesus how much he should forgive, seven times? This feels like a lot sometimes, right? But Jesus says, no, seventy-seven times. Jesus isn’t literally saying that you don’t have to forgive someone their 78th mistake or sin, and He’s doing more than just a play off Peter’s suggestion; seven is used in Scripture as the number of completion. You are to forgive someone not just to completion, like Peter suggests, but “completed completion,” Jesus says, (not surprisingly for anyone who’s read the Beatitudes) upping the ante (“You have heard it said not to murder, but I say to you that anyone who is angry with his brother has murdered him in his heart…). It is “for this reason” – that is, it is because you should forgive someone to completed completion – that the kingdom of heaven is like the king who forgives the slave a huge debt until he learns that this slave was unmerciful towards someone who owed a smaller debt.
We must also note that both the forgiven servant and the unforgiven one ask merely for more time, or that their creditors have patience with them. But the king forgives the debt completely. The forgiven servant doesn’t even grant more time to his debtor. The kingdom of heaven is like the king who wipes the slate clean with his slave when the slave merely asks for more time to repay. Does the king know that this debt is likely too big for him to ever repay? Perhaps. Is the king so well off that even a large debt like what the first slave owes him inconsequential? Maybe. While the debtor/creditor language is a bit problematic for me in relation to humanity and God, the point here is more than the obvious one, that we will be forgiven as we forgive. “Completed completeness” looks in one way like going beyond what is asked: if someone asks for your coat, give them your tunic; if someone asks for more time to pay off a debt, forgive the debt entirely. After all, if our goal is to become more like Jesus, who is the kingdom of heaven, remember, He is kind of notorious for raising the bar.