READ : Matthew 18:21-35
Do you find it hard to forgive? According to Jesus, the issue is not whether we ought to forgive those who have wronged us; that’s a given. The issue is why we must forgive.
Do you find it hard to forgive? According to Jesus, the issue is not whether we ought to forgive those who have wronged us; that's a given. The issue is why we must forgive.
Have you ever struggled with the choice between doing something you knew you ought to do and doing what you really wanted to do. Imagine, for example, that somebody has hurt you badly and they've done it for a long time, when unexpectedly you find it in your power to hurt them back. What do you do? Actually, that very situation is the plot of Shakespeare's drama, The Merchant of Venice. Shylock, a Jewish moneylender, has long been treated shamefully — literally spat upon — by the Christian businessmen of Venice. When one of these businessmen, Antonio, asks for a loan, Shylock demands as collateral a pound of Antonio's flesh. The loan comes due, Antonio cannot pay, and the case goes to court, where Shylock is asked to show mercy. He replies: “The pound of flesh, which I demand of him, Is dearly bought; 'tis mine and I will have it! . . . I stand for judgment . . . ” We can all understand how Shylock feels; this is his one chance to get even, to pay them back for all those years of hurt. It's what any of us would like to do in his place. But it really isn't what we ought to do, is it?
This tension between what we want to do and what we ought to do is also what lies behind a question Peter asked Jesus one day. “How many times must I forgive my brother?” Forgiveness doesn't come easily to us. Peter's question shows that he viewed the task of forgiving his brother as a duty, but a duty that so went against the grain of his natural inclination that Peter figured there must be a limit to it at some point. Peter wants to determine the extent of his obligation, how long must he go on forgiving, until he reaches the point where he can settle back into the more comfortable and natural attitude of hating his brother or seeking revenge on him.
The rabbis taught that one was obliged to forgive another person three times for an offense. Well, Peter, sensing the spirit of love and mercy which animated the Lord Jesus, realizes he'll have to do better than that, so he raises the limit considerably: “How often will . . . I forgive him? he asks. As many as seven times?” (v. 21). But Jesus' answer stops Peter short. “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven” (v. 22).
Jesus' point is that there is no limit to the number of time we must forgive. It's not like a basketball game where you count up the fouls and then eventually disqualify somebody and kick them out. No, we must forgive and go on forgiving without counting, without keeping score. There never comes a point when we are allowed to stop forgiving and revert to hating. And then, as he so often did to drive home a lesson, Jesus told a story.
It's known as the parable of the Unforgiving Servant, and it comes in Matthew chapter 18:
Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. 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. But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, `Pay what you owe.' So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, `Have patience with me, and I will pay you.' He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. Then his master summoned him and said to him, `You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?' And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.
What a powerful story! But I want you to see how it offers us an ascending series of reasons, each one more powerful than the one before, for why we simply must forgive those who hurt or wrong us.
Here's the first reason: it's simply because we live in a world that's full of injury. It is obvious that the character in the story with whom we are meant to identify is the servant who was both a debtor and a creditor; in other words, who needed both to be forgiven and to forgive. This is the one situation we can know with certainty each one of us is going to experience in life. Every last one of us is involved in debt. Some of it we owe, some of it is owed to us, but the debt of sin and wrongdoing touches us all. From toddlers in the playroom to totterers in the nursing home, we all hurt other people, and we all are hurt by other people. So we all need both to forgive and to be forgiven. The first reason to forgive somebody is simply expressed by the golden rule: forgive others as you would have them forgive you.
The second reason Jesus gives us to forgive is because of the incredibly great mercy that God has already shown to us in forgiving our sins for Christ's sake. Look again at the details of the parable. Jesus uses them in a masterful way to make our unwillingness to forgive seem unforgivable, inexcusable.
- Consider first how much we owe to God, how deeply in debt we are to him (v. 24). The servant, Jesus said, owed the king ten thousand talents, an astronomical sum. It's as if Jesus said the man owed his master a billion dollars. Well, that's the position we stand in relative to God because of our sin. Sin has made us spiritual bankrupts, owing God more than we cannot possibly pay.
- Then consider the fantastic mercy we have received (vv. 26-27). When the time for payment comes and the servant is threatened with the punishment he deserves, he falls on his knees, and like debtors everywhere, he pleads for more time. This is absurd; he couldn't come up with what he owes in his whole lifetime, plus several more besides! But the master takes pity on him and simply forgives the debt. How wonderful! The debtor begs for time to work and he gets grace instead, the slate wiped clean, forgiveness pure and free.
- Then consider the comparative smallness of his brother's servant's debt (v. 28). In contrast to what he owed his master, the amount that was owed to the unforgiving servant was a matter of a few hundred dollars in comparative terms. Jesus is telling us that we need a sense of proportion; when measured next to our sins against God, the sins committed against us, though they're real, are really fairly minor, aren't they?
- Finally, consider his brother's servant's attitude (v. 29). The second servant makes exactly the same plea, using literally the same words, as the first servant made to the king. How could the man refuse, when the request was just what he himself had asked for and been given only moments before?
And now, it seems to me, we come exactly to the point. The sting of this parable depends upon our ability to see the conduct of the unforgiving servant as inexcusable, even ridiculous. Do you remember in the Old Testament how Nathan the prophet confronted King David about his sin? He used the same technique as Jesus, telling a story about a terribly unfair act. And when David the king rose in anger, Nathan hit him right between the eyes: “You are the man!” he said. And that's just how Jesus wants us to read the story of the Unforgiving Servant. If I refuse to forgive my brother or sister, then that ridiculous servant is me. I'm the one! It's simply inexcusable.
But now listen to the most important reason of all for us to forgive those who sin against us. It comes in the punch line of the story. Jesus says: “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart” (v. 35). He couldn't have been plainer. Forgive, or you will not — perhaps I should say you cannot — be forgiven. It's not that we somehow earn God's forgiveness by forgiving others. It's more a matter of our actions reflecting our experience. You see, if you can't find in yourself the mercy to forgive someone else's sins, then it's very possible that you haven't truly experienced the mercy of having your own sins forgiven. You can't be one way toward God and another way toward people: crying out to be forgiven yourself and ignoring the same cries that your neighbor directs to you. That's just hypocrisy. A great preacher of the last century put it like this: “We cannot plead with God to do for us what we will not do for others. Our prayer for forgiveness must, if it is real, influence our whole behavior; and if it is not real it will not be answered” (Alexander Maclaren).
“Forgive us our sins” is a dangerous prayer to make. According to Jesus, we are not allowed to say that unless we also pray, “as we forgive those who sin against us” — pray it not only, but mean it. If you aren't willing to forgive, then you had better not pray the Lord's Prayer. And if you can't pray the Lord' s Prayer, then you had better ask God to change your heart.