The Grace to Forgive Matthew 18:21-31
Our lesson for today is “set-up” (it’s predicated) by a simple question from Peter... a question we’ve all asked or considered: “Lord, how many times? How often should I forgive those who sin against me?” It’s a great question, right? It makes us uncomfortable... and it’s unsettling to say the least! But it’s a great question.
Peter obviously wanted to be a person who lived his faith... a person who pleased God by his actions and attitude. And he knew (Peter knew) that forgiveness plays a major role in faithfulness.
But Peter was still Peter... and assuming he knew the answer already... Peter answered his own question! “How many times should I forgive? Up to seven times?”
Of course, Peter’s words show how well he knew the Jewish teachings/traditions regarding forgiveness. The Jews had relied on the words of the prophet Amos in answering this question... and setting the standard, or limits, of forgiveness.
Amos repeatedly wrote: “for three sins of Israel, even for four, I will not turn back my wrath.” So the thought developed... and tradition held... that if a person sins once against another, he must be forgiven. If they sin a second time, they’re to be forgiven. If they sin a third time, they must be forgiven. But, not the fourth time! You get three gimmies and you’re done! No forgiveness after the third time. You’ve tapped out! And Peter knew this... so he generously answered: “How about up to seven times, Jesus?” Yeah, that oughta’ do... double the standard … plus one!
But Jesus was about to destroy the old traditional way of thinking. Jesus said, “Not up to seven times, but seventy-seven times.”
Wow. Jesus’ number blew the generosity of Peter’s answer out of the water! Jesus’ number is 11-times Peter’s! And it’s over 25-times the accepted standard of the day!
We might wonder why 77? That seems to be pretty random! But, in the Bible, the number 7 is thought of as a perfect number... the number of completion... as in seven days God created the world. And so, two seven’s would be double completion... or something that’s beyond whole. Something that can’t be measured... something that has no limits. Forgiveness is limitless.
Of course, Jesus took the opportunity to tell a parable... a story... about how things work in the Kingdom of God... and why putting limits on forgiveness is not an option. It’s a story with three parts...
First... there’s a king who wanted to settle up accounts with his servants. But one of his servants didn’t have enough money to pay back what he owed! And what he owed, was HUGE... 10,000 talents (or the equivalent of millions of dollars in today’s money). So the servant begged the king to be patient with him and the king actually granted his request. Not only does the king take pity on his servant; he cancelled the debt and let him go!
Of course, Jesus, was trying to teach us something about the kingdom of heaven here. He was trying to teach Peter, the disciples, his followers, the Church… US... that in the Kingdom of Heaven, God is the King. It’s God who wants to settle accounts with his servants... US. And our debt is our sinfulness... our brokenness... our propensity to do wrong. Somehow our account must be settled. Our debt has to be paid... the price for disobedience to God, the King, who commanded his creation “not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Genesis 3:17) must be paid.
Only, there’s a problem. There’s no way we could ever hope to repay such a debt on our own. “10,000 Talents” is analogous to a debt so big, it simply can’t be repaid.
So, the King provided a way out: His Son, Jesus Christ, whose death on the cross paid our debt in full. You know this, and I know this... it’s a story as old as the Faith itself! All we have to do, all we have left to do, is get on our knees. Ask the King to be patient with us. Repent. Ask for help, for forgiveness. And, receive. Receive God’s limitless forgiveness for our immeasurable debt. Seventy-seven times.
However, limitless forgiveness for an immeasurable debt comes with responsibility. This we learn in the second part of Jesus’ parable.
Here we see the same forgiven servant and one of his fellow servants. Again, accounts need to be settled. Again, the debtor begs for patience. But this time, there’s no patience shown. The forgiven servant refuses to forgive a fellow servant who owed a measly hundred denarii. Instead, he has the debtor thrown in prison!
Wait a minute, we think. This doesn’t make any sense! Shouldn’t the servant have known better? A forgiven servant refusing to forgive another servant doesn’t make sense.
But remember, Jesus is talking about the kingdom of heaven, His followers, the Church... US.
Is it true? Can those who are forgiven refuse to forgive others? Can Christians be so unChristian? Of course, the truth is... we all know the answer to that question. Because not only have others refused to forgive us, but we’ve refused to forgive them. We can all relate.
Forgiveness isn’t easy... never has been. But it’s also not optional. As forgiven servants of the King of Kings, we’re called to forgive. No matter how hard. No matter how long it takes. No matter what it does to our pride, our ego. “Forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another... forgive just as the Lord forgave you.” (Colossians 3:13)
Some stories of forgiveness amaze me. We’ve all heard about parents forgiving the drunk-driver who killed their child. We’ve watched documentaries about Jews during WWII who were held captive... forced to watch as others were killed by the Nazis - yet somehow, they’re able to forgive.
Such forgiveness amazes us... because we wonder... could we ever hope to be that forgiving? Honestly... I don’t know if I could. BUT large, huge, life changing things aside... we tend to lack forgiveness when it comes to much smaller things... someone slights us, or calls us names (something minor)... and we hold a grudge. We fail to forgive.
And that brings us to the final part of Jesus’ parable. God’s Word is clear... if we don’t forgive... If we refuse to forgive... There’s a price to pay... and that price... is torture. Our lack of forgiveness torments us.
Philip Yancey (a Christian author who has written several book) said: “I really wish these words were not in the Bible. But they are, from the lips of Christ himself... by denying forgiveness to others, we are in effect determining them unworthy of God’s forgiveness, and thus so are we. In some mysterious way, divine forgiveness depends on us.”
Earlier, in Matthew 6, Jesus himself said: “If you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:14-15). Forgiveness depends on us...
Again... forgiveness is not optional. In your life... and mine... forgiving others is a mandated necessity, commanded by God himself. Of course, it’s easy to say: “we forgive because God forgave us.” But, that doesn’t make it any easier to actually forgive, does it?
The fact of the matter is... we need help. We need lots of help forgiving others.
We need grace, as in the grace of Christ, which is truly sufficient to meet our needs. And the Good News is Jesus never leaves us hanging. In the final verse of our Lesson, Jesus says “forgive your brother [or sister] from your heart.”
And that’s the key to forgiveness. Our hearts have to be right... our hearts have to reflect the love, grace and mercy of Christ... as we “lean not on our own understanding” and we trust the Grace of Christ is truly, wholly, sufficient. Christ will help us forgive... Amen.