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What is forgiveness?

August 4, 2009

If there are many teachers in the Church today like Jesus, I seem to be missing them.  For if Jesus did anything in his teaching, he showed the difficulty in living the Christian life rather than passing out the cotton candy and suggesting it is just a big party so enjoy.  He made it more difficult to follow Him, not less.

You need an example?  Look no further than Matthew 18:21-35.

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.

Lots to unpack here. And it really isn’t difficult to understand, but I wonder how many of us feel the force of the warning contained here?  In the words of R. V. G. Tasker, “This parable . . . has no mystery about it.  It emphasizes in no uncertain manner both the urgency of the duty of forgiveness, and the heinousness and serious consequences of the failure to discharge it.”

1. The parable teaches once again the disciple’s responsibility to be an unending fountain of unfathomable forgiveness.  The rabbis taught in Jesus’ day that forgiving someone 3 times was enough.  Thus Peter likely thinks he is already going the extra mile by suggesting he do so 7 times.

“I tell you, [Peter] not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”  Now whether the original text here is to be translated “77 times” or “70×7” is not germane to Jesus’ point.  He is not saying to Peter there is a definite number of times to forgive others and then you are released from any further forgiveness of them.  Does anyone really think that Jesus is calling for us to keep record of how many times we forgive someone, whether 77 times or 490 times?  No, this is figurative language to drive home the point:  Christ’s call on forgiveness is that it is to be limitless.

That brings us to the heart of the parable in vv. 23-27 where we learn what forgiveness is.

The main characters of our story are a King and a particular servant of his who owed him a ton of money.  How much is 10,000 talents?  Well, the annual tribute (taxation) owed to Herod the Great and his successors usually came in around 600 talents for all of Judea, Samaria and Idumea.  In some sense, this man in the parable owes the king more money than existed in circulation at that time!

Knowing that Jesus is going to apply this to our sin-debt before God, I am struck by the wisdom of the commentator Albert Barnes here who says, “The sum [of 10,000 talents] is used to show that the debt was immensely large, and that our sins are so great that they cannot be estimated or numbered.”

The king’s first solution is to hold this man’s feet to the fire by selling him into slavery and at least collecting what he could on his money.  The man with the great debt was left with only one thing to do:  plead for mercy (v. 26).

He could never repay this debt.  It would almost be like you & Bill Gates together trying to pay off the national debt!  Still, the man’s appeal touched the King’s heart and here is where we not only see forgiveness, we learn what it is:

[He] took pity on him”– (heartfelt):  Forgiveness cannot be given in dribs and drabs; it cannot be discharge begrudgingly.  Forgiveness includes the emotional component, here noted as “pity”.

[He] canceled the debt”– (totally releasing the man from his wrongdoing):  We wipe the offense completely off the record books.  We can’t do this in a 30, 50 or 90% fashion–that means we are still holding the person accountable for some portion of their sin against us.  No, Jesus says!  It is all or nothing with forgiveness.

[He] let him go”– (giving him a fresh start):  When we forgive someone, we don’t keep on holding him in a prison cell of our making.  We give second chances (and third and so on).

Easy?  Doesn’t matter.  It’s what forgiven people do as we will continue to explore in another post.

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