Never Forget to Forgive

Our reading today from Matthew 18 contains what I think is one of the most ignored commands of Jesus. I’m going to ignore too... except to mention it in passing to set up the parable I want to discuss. By the way, I think we largely ignore the force of the parable as well.  First the ignored statement, “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you” (Matt 18:15). There is a bit of a textual issue as to whether Jesus really says “if you brother or sister sins” of “if they sin against you.” It really doesn't matter; we ignore both. Generally whether a brother or sister hurts us directly with a sin or just sins in a more general way, we tend to talk to everyone except the brother or sister, right? Jesus wants us to go and resolve the issue so that we reclaim the relationship.

That teaching on reconciliation and forgiveness led Peter to ask, “Lord, how many times do I have to do that?” Peter rightly sees that this "make-things-right-and-forgive-the-offender" thing would take a lot of time and effort.  So he wants to get this straight.  He magnanimously and generously offers to forgive someone seven times for an offense. Jesus says to make that number seventy-seven times.  Or maybe seventy times seven times.  In other words, forgive them every time they sincerely ask! Perhaps it was the blank look on the faces of the apostles that led Jesus to tell a parable about our forgiveness.

The story begins with a servant who is brought before the king who owes ten thousands talents of gold. A talent of gold was worth about 20 years of a normal servant's wages, so this guy owes a LOT!  We are  immediately curious about HOW someone could run up that kind of a tab! Well, he couldn't have; Jesus is using hyperbole to make His point . The guy can’t pay his bill and he could never pay his bill, so both he and his family were to be sold as slaves to recoup part of the debt. The servant begs for mercy and promises to work to pay off what he owes (which, of course, he would never be able to do). But the king decides to forgive the entire staggering debt, which is a staggering act of mercy and grace

  • MERCY because servant did not get what he deserved... to be sold as a slave
  • GRACE because he did get what he did not deserve... forgiveness of the debt

So the servant skips out of the king's throne free and clear, but he doesn't skip far.  He immediately finds another servant who owes him some pocket change. OK, it's really more than pocket change; a hundred denarii would be about a three month paycheck. That is a significant amount of money, but it is a manageable debt that could be repaid. But that didn't matter to our forgiven-but-unforgiving servant. He refuses to listen to his own “give me more time” speech and has the servant arrested and thrown into prison.

There is absolutely nothing wrong legally and technically with this servant's actions here. He was justified in expecting that this fellow-servant would pay off his debt. (If you don’t think he was justified in wanting to be repaid, then… can I borrow $100?).   He was justified having the man thrown into debtor's prison; that was what the law dictated. So if he was legally justified, then why is he referred as a “wicked servant?” Because he failed to show forgiveness after he had received greater forgiveness.

  • Because he experienced grace, he was expected to show grace to others.  
  • Because he received mercy, he could no longer follow the letter of law! 
  • Because he was forgiven by the king, he needed to act more like the king.

The parable ends with the revocation of the king’s forgiveness and the imprisonment of the servant (Matt 18:32-34). The problem is when you insist on justice for others rather than giving grace, you get justice instead of grace for yourself. Jesus concludes with this “moral of the story” statement on forgiveness-- "This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart." (Matt 18:35)

Jesus begins by telling us that we are to forgive those who ask our forgiveness each and every time they ask us.  Our willingness to forgive others or our unwillingness to do so directly speaks to how well we understand the debt that we owe to God

  • When we fail to forgive another, we tell God that we have taken His mercy and grace for granted. 
  • When we stress the debt that someone owes to us, we forget the huge debt that we owe to God. 
  • When we demand justice and repayment of the pennies others owe us, we forget that we have been pardoned of gazillion dollar debt that we can never repay. 

Before we treat others with a legalistic and unforgiving heart, Jesus wants us to ask ourselves if this is really how we want God to treat us. If we want grace and forgiveness (and we do), then we’d better get quite practiced in extending grace and forgiveness  to others!  If we don't forgive, then we had better not sin... ever!

For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.
But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.
(Matthew 6:14–15)