At some point or another, every one of us has been wronged. People hurt us each day—most are relatively minor offenses, often a result of misunderstanding, but other times people wound us deeply. Some of you carry wounds that are deeper than anyone knows. We respond to these wounds in different ways. Some pretend it never happened, stuffing the feelings of hurt deep down. Others lash out at the one who hurt them, seeking to hurt them in the same (or worse) way. Some want to let go of the hurt but continue to nurse it and silently seethe with anger as they constantly replay it in their minds, and so they can’t let it go.
Jesus was familiar with these kinds of hurt as well. He knew what it was like to have your spirit wounded deeply. Jesus was betrayed, he dealt with two-faced people, and he was killed by those who didn’t like what he stood for, yet through everything he demonstrated a heart of forgiveness. Even as he was being nailed to the cross, he pleaded, “Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing.” His disciples had surely picked up on this during their time with him. They knew there was something different about the way Jesus dealt with people; he loved people that others would have simply written off and he forgave people that didn’t deserve it. And I think that is why Peter asked Jesus to teach him about forgiveness in our passage this morning. Peter asked an honest question, but Jesus’ answer was much more than he bargained for.
Peter came to Jesus and asked a pretty straightforward question,
21 Then Peter came to him and asked, “Lord, how often should I forgive someone who sins against me? Seven times?” 22 “No, not seven times,” Jesus replied, “but seventy times seven! (Matthew 18:21-22, NLT)
We tend to look down on Peter, because he seemed to say whatever was on his mind. Unfortunately for Peter, that means that we get to see him working through his faith. We see him struggle to apply and understand Jesus’ teachings. He often didn’t have the right answer, but he tried to understand what Jesus taught and apply it in his own life. That is commendable.
Here Peter asks Jesus about forgiveness. I don’t know what prompted the question. Maybe someone had hurt him and he was wrestling with how to respond. Maybe it was just a hypothetical question. Regardless, Peter asks Jesus how many times he should forgive, and then offers a suggestion: seven times.
The Rabbis in those days taught that you should forgive a person three times for an offense, but on the fourth time you were to retaliate and seek vengeance. Peter seems to have understood that the kind of forgiveness Jesus was advocating was far greater than this. So when Peter asked if he should forgive someone 7 times, he probably thought he was being generous—he was really stretching!
Honestly, most of us struggle to forgive someone even one time, let alone 3. Can you think in your own life of a time that you forgave someone even 7 times for something they had done to you? Probably not. So before we are too hard on Peter we should recognize that he had the concept right—that we should forgive much more readily than we actually do. But he still vastly underestimated the kind of forgiveness Jesus calls us to.
Jesus responds by telling Peter that it’s not sufficient to forgive someone seven times, but rather seventy times seven times! There’s debate on what number Jesus actually meant, whether it was seventy seven times or seventy times seven times, but the actual number here is irrelevant. Jesus was not saying that we should keep a tally sheet of how many times we have forgiven someone and after the 77th time or the 490th time, then we don’t have to forgive and can instead retaliate; He was saying that there should not be a limit to the number of times we are willing to extend forgiveness to another. Peter was surely shocked by this answer, because it flew in the face of what the teachers of the day said about forgiveness. But Jesus wasn’t done with his explanation. He chose to illustrate his point with a parable that drives home not only how we should forgive, but also why we should forgive.
So Jesus tells a story (that is probably fictional) in order to further drive home the point. Rather than re-read the story to you, let me retell it.
Jesus said to imagine a man who had incurred an enormous debt to the king. The amount Jesus actually uses in his story is a debt of 10,000 talents. Different people estimate what that would be in today’s dollars differently, which is why the New Living Translation says he owed millions of dollars. Personally, I think was even more than that. One talent was equivalent to about 75 pounds of gold. On today’s market, 75 pounds of gold is worth about 1.3 million dollars. So 10,000 talents of gold would be equivalent to 13 billion dollars! What’s really interesting is that the talent was the largest unit of currency in use at that time, and 10,000 was the largest number in their language, meaning Jesus could have simply chose the largest possible debt he could for his example. Regardless of the amount, Jesus’ point was the same—this man had incurred a debt so great that he couldn’t pay it off in a thousand lifetimes.
Try to imagine having a debt so large that there would never be any hope of paying it off. A debt so large that the monthly interest on it was more than you made in a year. It would be a crushing debt to have. Now imagine being called before the king to whom you owed this debt. What would you feel? Wouldn’t you feel a sense of dread, a complete helplessness, and a crushing guilt? That’s what Jesus is trying to help us see in the man in this story. The man is called before the king to settle his debts. He knew there was nothing he could do to even make a dent in the debt, but he still pleaded with the king for more time, in the hopes that somehow he could pay it off. But even he knew it was hopeless.
Then the king did something unexpected. Instead of condemning this man, instead of throwing him in prison for the rest of his life, he simply forgave the debt. The debt that this man could have never paid, the debt that had come to define his life, the debt that hung over his head like a dark cloud was suddenly gone, because the king extended grace to him.
Those listening had to be amazed at this act of grace, imagining that the king’s actions would have changed this man’s life once and for all, and making him eternally grateful the gift of forgiveness he had been given. But Jesus wasn’t done with the story.
Jesus said that as soon as the man left the king’s presence, he went and sought out a man who owed him a sum of money. Jesus said this amount was 100 denarii. There were 6,000 denarii in a talent, so this may have been a debt of around $20,000. It was still a significant debt, but it was nothing compared to the debt the man had just been forgiven. He demanded the debt be repaid immediately. Even though the other man begged for mercy and promised to repay his debt (which was actually possible), the man who had been forgiven showed him no mercy, and had him thrown into debtor’s prison.
When news of this got back to the king, he was appalled. He couldn’t believe that after he had extended such mercy to the man that he was unwilling to extend even a little to a friend. And the king had the man thrown into prison until he could pay off his debt—a debt so large that couldn’t be paid. He would be in prison forever.
Jesus said that this was a picture of what our forgiveness should look like. So let’s examine what he meant.
There are several things this story teaches us. First, if we are believers, we have been forgiven an insurmountable debt. This truth is really the key to understanding Jesus’ teaching. We have a tendency to believe that we are not that bad. We view the things that others do to us as way worse than anything we would do to anyone else. We forget to take into account that every sin we commit is a sin against God. We have incurred for ourselves a sin-debt that is so great that we can’t possibly repay it. Spiritually, we are just as hopeless as the man who owed billions of dollars.
What we need to understand is that despite that great debt, despite our inability to ever repay it (or even make a dent in it) Jesus came to earth and died so that we might be forgiven. We don’t deserve that forgiveness and we haven’t earned that forgiveness, it has simply been extended to us because of the love of God.
Second, we are supposed to extend that same kind of forgiveness to others. If we recognize that we have been forgiven a great debt, one that we didn’t earn, and one that we didn’t deserve to have forgiven, then we can begin to see how we ought to relate to others.
Regardless of the hurt we have been dealt by others (even if it is a significant one), we are to extend forgiveness, because we have experienced that kind of forgiveness firsthand. This is the consistent teaching of Scripture:
Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you. (Ephesians 4:32, NLT)
Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others. (Colossians 3:13, NLT)
When people hurt us, we are to make the first move in extending forgiveness to them—even when (especially when) we don’t think they deserve it. We didn’t deserve to be forgiven either—so we are to forgive as we have been forgiven.
Third, those who don’t forgive like this do not have forgiveness themselves. Jesus said that if we refuse to forgive others, then the same fate awaits us as awaited the man in his parable—eternal punishment.
So is Jesus is saying that if we don’t forgive other people then we will lose our salvation? Not exactly. We have never deserved forgiveness, so it’s not like God will rescind our forgiveness because we haven’t deserved it. Jesus is saying that if we have truly experienced the forgiveness of our sins, we will live differently. Christians forgive because they know what it feels like to be forgiven. Jesus is saying that it is impossible to be forgiven such a great debt and yet be unwilling to forgive the small debts others incur on us. The person who doesn’t forgive others has never been forgiven themselves.
Nevertheless, Christians still struggle to forgive others. So, if what Jesus says is true, then we have to ask, why do we struggle with this? I’ve got a couple reasons.
First, we struggle to forgive because we lose sight of what we have been forgiven. One of the biggest helps to our willingness to forgive others is a dose of perspective. We have a tendency to magnify the things others do to us and to minimize the things we do to others (and to God). Let me make a suggestion. When you find yourself struggling to forgive someone else, stop what you’re doing and take time to confess your own sins to God and ask for forgiveness. It will help you remember that you are wholly dependent on a forgiveness you don’t deserve. When we persist in the notion that we aren’t that bad, it makes it tough for us to forgive others. But when we see just how much we have been forgiven, we’ll extend the same forgiveness to others because what they have done to us pales in comparison to what we have done. We struggle to forgive because we underestimate what we have been forgiven.
Second, we struggle to forgive because we think forgiveness should be easy. The man in the story was unwilling to forgive a debt that would be equivalent to about $20,000 today. That’s not insignificant, and it wouldn’t be easy to let that go. I think Jesus chose a debt of this size for a reason—to teach us that forgiveness isn’t always easy. Forgiveness costs something. When you forgive someone you are absorbing the pain and hurt they have incurred. The forgiveness that God extends to us is no different. It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t cheap. It came at a great cost. Jesus had to live, die, and be punished for our sins in order for us to be forgiven. Jesus absorbed the hurt that we deserved in order to extend forgiveness to us.
Forgiveness isn’t easy. It’s costly. It’s choosing to overlook what has been done to us in the past and instead move forward. It means absorbing the hurt ourselves rather than seeking vengeance. Forgiveness is never easy. Forgiveness will cost us something. So we have to work at it.
So what does it mean to forgive others? What does this kind of forgiveness look like? There are a few things to keep in mind.
- Forgiveness doesn’t mean that we keep putting ourselves in a position to be hurt. Just because we forgive someone who stole from us doesn’t mean we give them unrestricted access to our money. Just because we forgive someone who attacked us physically, it doesn’t mean that we continue to put ourselves in situations where they can keep hurting us. We should protect ourselves first, and then work at forgiving them for what they did.
- Forgiving isn’t saying that what the other person did wasn’t wrong. God has forgiven us, but that doesn’t mean that he says that our sin was no big deal. Forgiveness doesn’t require us to say that the other person did nothing wrong, but it does require us to give up trying to punish them for it.
- Forgiving isn’t the same as forgetting. It’s impossible to forget what people have done to us, but it is possible to stop trying to remember it. We may never forget what someone has done, but we don’t have to keep rehearsing it in our heads. We often struggle to forgive because we keep replaying what was done and keep reopening an old wound. Forgiveness means we stop nursing the hurt, we stop dwelling on it, and we choose to move on. We choose to stop remembering it, even though we won’t ever actually forget it.
- Biblical forgiveness doesn’t wait for the other person to deserve it. The other person may not deserve our forgiveness, but we didn’t deserve God’s forgiveness either. We aren’t supposed to wait around for the other person to ask for forgiveness or even to admit that they were wrong. Our responsibility is to forgive as God has forgiven us. If He waited until we deserved to be forgiven, we’d be in deep trouble.
- Forgiveness takes time. Deep physical wounds don’t heal right away—neither do wounds to our spirits. If someone has hurt you deeply, it is going to take you a long time to work through the hurt. You will likely have days where you once again try to pick up again with the same anger and hurt you felt before. But each time you choose to set aside those feelings and forgive it will get easier. The key is to keep working through them.
- Forgiveness means restoring the relationship the best we can. It’s possible that our relationship may never get to where it was before (because it doesn’t depend only on us), and it may take a long time to get there, but we need to start moving in the right direction. It might mean starting small. It might mean simply being civil to the person who has hurt you. It may mean reaching out to them and talking to them, even though it is hard for you. But over time, we need to move towards restoration.
- Forgiveness necessitates that we trust God for vindication rather than trying to “clear our name”. We often struggle to forgive because we want people to see that “we were wronged”. We must face that fact that the other person may never see the wrong they did. Others may never see the injustice of the hurt. But God sees it all.
- Forgiveness starts in the heart. Ultimately we need to deal with what’s in our hearts if we want to forgive others the way Jesus has forgiven us. We tend to view the other people’s attitude as the greatest hindrance to us forgiving them, but it’s not. The greatest obstacle is our attitude. Forgiveness is a choice. It is a choice to move forward, to deal with the feelings inside of us and take them to the Lord. If we seek Him, he can change our hearts.
- We have not forgiven if we keep bringing an old hurt up every time there is conflict. All we have really done is store the hurt in our arsenal so we can bring it out as a weapon whenever we need it. True forgiveness lets it go.
We all struggle with forgiveness in some area of our lives. It may be a wound from a friend, an attitude of a spouse, the behavior of a child, a business deal gone sideways, the way someone treated someone you love. There is probably some hurt in your past that you replay over and over in your head. That is where you must start with forgiveness.
I suspect Peter asked the question about forgiveness because he knew that it wasn’t easy. I think he wanted to be able to forgive others the way Jesus did. I think we do as well. Jesus’ answer is just as relevant, just as shocking, and just as difficult today as it was when he first gave it to Peter. But one thing hasn’t changed—this kind of forgiveness can only happen because of a relationship with Jesus himself. When you find yourself struggling to forgive, run to Him. Look to Him for help and ask Him to teach you to forgive others like He has forgiven you. If you do that, I believe He will help you. I believe that He will remind you of how much you have been forgiven, so that you can pay it forward.