Forgiveness 101

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. “The servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go. “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded. “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’ “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt.  When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened. “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”

Matthew 18:21-35

If I have forgiven him six times already, and the person comes up to me and slaps me across the face a seventh time and then asks for forgiveness again, I don’t know about you but I would tend to believe he wasn’t really sorry the first six times, and that might have something to do with how willing I am to forgive him this seventh time.

You could call it an extended answer to Peter’s question, or you could look at it as an explanation of the request in the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”  But no matter what you call it or how you look at it, this simple story told by Jesus pierces its way to the center of your heart like a syringe and delivers a full strength dose of what God demands: we are NEVER to hold ANYTHING against ANYONE.

NEVER? ANYTHING? ANYONE? I mean C’mon right?! We are NEVER allowed to hold a grudge? I can’t speak for you, but I think that when we hear a command in scripture like this that sounds so absurd—better yet completely impossible—it’s pretty easy for us to just tune out. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone say something to the effect of, “Oh, you know me! I just have a hard time letting things go...” Or maybe not so focused on themselves, “You know Jack (...you know Jill), they tend to hold onto things for a while...” Maybe it’s our culture—I don’t know—but we aren’t very good at this whole forgiveness thing...and we seem to know it. So much so that it often seems like we’ve written forgiveness off all together. That’s why this morning we’re going to go back to school. We’re going to sit at Jesus feet for Forgiveness 101.

The class begins with a story—a parable—‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The wicked servant didn’t plead for his debt to be forgiven. Instead he arrogantly asked his master to simply put off or delay his judgment until he could pay back all he owed. The servant was oblivious to the size of his debt and his inability to repay. He was deluded into thinking, “Just give me a little more time and I will make it right.”

When you really dig into the details of this parable you see how obnoxious this man really was. The debt of 10,000 talents is an indefinite amount because there were talents of gold, silver and all sorts of things. Of course they all had different values, but regardless of what kind of "talents" Jesus may have in mind, this number is huge! I’ve heard estimates anywhere from just over 10 million dollars to north of 2 billion dollars in today’s economy. In other words, Jesus chose this number to knock some socks off! There was no way that kind of debt could be paid off! Not a chance! And yet, this servant thinks he can do it. But, when he goes and begs, the king has pity on him and cancels the debt. No, we’re not talking about a payment plan or a deal to somehow work down the debt. CANCELED! GONE!

But then this same servant goes out and finds a fellow servant who owes him 100 denarii—rough estimate, we’re talking a few months wages at minimum wage—a few thousand dollars—$2,000 maybe? A significant amount of cash—yes—but compared to millions? Billions? You have got to be kidding me!

The point seems to be clear enough right there, does it not? The king is God, we are the servants. We have an incomprehensibly large debt of sin—God cancels it—we should now go forth into the world and willingly forgive any debt that anyone owes us—including any sin committed against us... The problem comes in when Jesus shares what happens when we DON’T forgive from the heart. “The the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I cancelled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you? In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured until he should pay back all he owed. “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from the heart.

Eternal debtors prison just because I don’t forgive my brother from the heart? The punishment of hell for holding a grudge? Yeah. That is the warning Jesus delivers and we don’t have any business watering it down.  An unwillingness to forgive displaces faith, cancels it out, renders it null and void. To be forgiven and not to be forgiving are two things that can’t coexist in a Christian.

Jesus knows about the part of us that wants to remember what another person has said or done and make them pay for it rather than let it go, but he also wants us to know how serious the consequences are when we forcibly withhold forgiveness.

To flush that out for us, Jesus uses this comparison between a huge debt that could never be paid off and a debt that comparatively was almost nothing.  There’s the sum total of our sinfulness on the one side, and then—bad as it may be—the sin or two or three that someone has committed against us. Both are set on the pans of the scale—first the sin committed against us on one side, then the sum total of our sinfulness on the other. The weight of the sum total of our sinfulness launches the sin committed against us up through the atmosphere, punching another hole in the ozone layer, and off to outer space it goes.

That comparison is how Jesus teaches unlimited forgiveness.  Because of that ratio—because God has forgiven our enormous debt so completely there should never be a time we don’t forgive from the heart, never a time we won’t forgive from the heart.

But how often do we get up to seven?  Aren’t there times when the count doesn’t even make it to one?  We’ve been forgiven an ocean of sin, and then one tiny drop of water—a sin someone else has committed against us—falls on us, and there rises up this screaming monster inside us that’s yelling at the top of its lungs, “Yeah, but… He said this or she said that or they did this or they did that, and I know God’s forgiven me a ton, but…

So Jesus told a story, the true highlight of which is not how unmerciful the servant was but how merciful his master had been.  If he’s teaching Forgiveness 101, Jesus puts his fingers on your temples and gently turns your head to see what the master said in the first place.  “Your unpayable debt has been erased.”

When God’s Word calls on us to forgive from the heart, there’s a phrase that needs to serve almost as a mantra, something you repeat over and over again: “I couldn’t pay it off.” Not “Be patient with me and I will pay back everything... Not “Look at what they did to me!” “I couldn’t pay it off. I couldn’t pay it off.  The sum total of all my sinfulness—I could never have paid it off… But Jesus did!

When the sins of the world were placed on Jesus as he hung on that tree trunk that was converted into his cross, God the Father looked straight at his Son and said, “You wicked, unforgiving, grudge-bearing servant!  Off to the tormenters till you pay the debt to the last penny!” And he did! Jesus DID pay the debt of the world’s sin. One perfect sacrifice—that’s the price God set for the sins of the world and that’s the price Jesus paid! Thanks to Jesus, we will never be tossed into the eternal debtor’s prison known as hell. The debt of our sin has been paid! We’ve been completely forgiven!

But you know what? That cross isn’t only the place where we receive forgiveness—it’s also the place where we are given the ability to forgive as our God forgives—no matter what has happened! “I could never have paid it off,” but Jesus paid it all. God, help me to see how huge my debt was, so that the relatively tiny sins of others are debts that I readily dismiss. 

There was a man who must have stared and stared in awe and wonder at how the Lord had dismissed his colossal debt of sin.  An angry crowd took him outdoors and the rocks began to fall, on his legs, on his chest, on his head.  People were killing him by pelting him with stones and among his dying words were, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”  Stephen had that kind of forgiving heart because he knew how huge his own debt of sin was! (Acts 7:54-60) And he knew Jesus had made it go away.

Forgiveness 101?... When it comes to forgiving others, don’t look at what’s happened to you.  Look at what happened to Jesus for you.  When it’s especially tough to forgive, look and look and look at what happened to Jesus for you and God will make your heart like his, a heart that’s always willing to forgive.

Blessings on the rest of your week!

Pastor Z.