The concept of social stability as a primary feature of shalom goes back centuries in the Ancient Near East, long before Abraham. A primary element in a ruler’s customary duty to keep that peace was to declare debt forgiveness at special times. We recognize this in the Old Testament Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). The whole idea was to restore things to what they were by default, the natural order. It was well known that some minority of people of power and wealth would often engage in predatory lending so as to profit by seizing property and enslaving the peasantry. These royal declarations of amnesty were popular with the peasants and were often celebrated as festivals.
The concept of debt amnesty often included many types of civil and criminal offense. Modern law tends to draw distinctions that are totally different from the Ancient Near East. Justice then was a different concept with a different aim. There was no State, so there could be no offenses against the State. Everything was personal, and justice was a matter of restoring social balance. Virtually every sin was a sin against some person, and it was typically viewed as carrying penalties of redress and restoration.
Thus, both Jesus and Peter were following the Covenant when discussing forgiveness in terms of debt. The underlying assumption is redress in kind; what one owed depended on the nature of the transgression so as to restore the default order of things prior to the sin. Even the Talmud recognized that one should be quick to forgive and slow to anger. The day before the Day of Atonement was celebrated by reaching out to others and seeking to reduce tensions and restore shalom, or to declare such forgiveness before God in their absence.
So when Jesus mentioned binding and dissolving and seeking redress, it brought to Peter’s mind the Pharisaical teaching of forgiving three times unconditionally for certain minor offenses. Peter thought he was being generous by upping the ante to seven. Jesus said that we should be ready to forgive without counting. Then He told the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant.
In the narrative, we see someone who rules a substantial domain holding a periodic audit of accounts. This is not family members, but people already bound to him by debt or other forms of servitude. A typical element in this scenario is declaring amnesty for debts relatively close to discharge, which is the primary focus on such audits. In the process he comes across a servant with an impossible debt worth 100 million days of labor. There’s no way anyone is going to repay that, and the king was tired of dealing with it. The man and his family and household possessions would be sold and the debt written off.
This servant did the only thing possible at this point and prostrated himself before the king with his hands upraised in abject surrender, also considered an act of worship. He declared his intention to repay this monstrous debt somehow. Instead, the king simply forgave the debt and set him free.
Anyone could see this was just like God forgiving sin. The Curse of the Fall saddled us with an impossible debt of sin against God, and only He can forgive. He does so on terms that include declaring Him Lord with an unlimited claim on our lives. The forgiveness restores us to peace with Him and shalom.
But this same servant was not so gracious when he encountered someone who owed him a substantial amount — 100 days’ wages — but virtually nothing compared to what he was forgiven that very day. He insisted on taking advantage of this debt contract to have the debtor thrown into debtor’s prison. There was in that world no distinction between prison and slavery. This meant that the debtor no longer had the freedom to try to earn a living and squeeze out some extra to repay the debt. He would be forced to lose all his freedom and live on a very poor diet while all of the proceeds of his labor were passed back to his creditor, minus a portion for the professional jailer. This situation continued until the full debt was paid.
When the king found out about this ungrateful act, he castigated the wretch and reinstated the massive debt. And instead of selling the man and his household, he turned the servant over to the very worst form of debt prison, from which he would surely never escape alive.
The lesson was obvious. God expects us to embrace His divine moral character for ourselves. It requires a heart-led commitment to passing on the same forgiveness that He granted us. An awful lot of shalom and cosmic moral balance can be restored by simple tolerance of human fallen nature. Even if you can’t do much for the moral balance of others, you can certainly claim your own shalom by refusing to register a sense of grievance. If someone wants forgiveness, that’s a huge improvement over refusing to ask your pardon. We need to encourage that by making it work well.
The Covenant is not a bludgeon to oppress your brothers and sisters. It’s a frame of reference for seeking God’s divine moral character and demonstrating His mercy. Divine justice is not extracting the last degree of penalty; it is restoring moral order.