One of the things you have to admire about the apostle Peter is his spirit. This was the guy who proclaimed that Jesus was the Messiah. He offered to put up tents for Moses and Elijah when Jesus met with them on the Mount of Transfiguration. He boldly declared that even though others might deny Jesus . . . he never would do so. He was the guy who carried a sword into the Garden of Gethsemane and even though the disciples were vastly outnumbered, Peter didn’t intend to go down without a fight. He took a big swing with his sword and took off the ear of one of the guards.
In the parable before us we see Peter’s spirit once again. Jesus had been talking about the need to go to great lengths in an attempt to be reconciled to those who offend you. Jesus told us to go to someone personally and seek to resolve the issue. If that didn’t work we should bring a mediator with us. If the person would not listen to the mediator then we were to bring the matter before the church.
Peter was listening to this teaching and when Jesus finished we are told that Peter “came to Jesus” with a question. “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?” [v.21]
I think Peter wanted to show the Lord that he was listening. But he also wanted to understand the parameters of the instruction. In Peter’s day the rabbis told people that (based on God’s “for three transgressions and four” in Amos) they were required to forgive someone three times for an offence. Peter understood that Jesus was “raising the bar” so to speak. So, Peter asks if seven is a good figure to use for how many times to forgive.
It’s an honest question. How many times should you extend forgiveness to someone? Where should we draw the line when it comes to being gracious and merciful? How should we respond to that one who offends again and again? The answer of Jesus staggered Peter and has been staggering people ever since.
THERE IS NO LIMIT TO THE REQUIREMENT TO FORGIVE
Jesus’ answer to Peter was not what Peter expected. Some translations have Jesus saying, “we are to forgive 70 times 7” and some answer “seventy-seven” times. It doesn’t really matter which translation you prefer. Jesus wasn’t trying to set a limit on the number of times we are to forgive. The numbers were both high enough that it was unreasonable to keep track of how many times a person was forgiven. There is no limit to the requirement to forgive.
Immediately, you and I have problems with this teaching. We have all been hurt by people over and over. Perhaps it was
- A parent
- A mate
- A school bully
- An employer
- A co-worker
- A person who came into your life and destroyed it
- A gossip
The question we want to ask is, “Did Jesus mean what he said?” Are there any situations under which we need not forgive? Jesus seems to be saying, no! We are always to forgive. I think there are several reasons for this.
First, a lack of forgiveness imprisons us. The offender is seldom affected by our unwillingness to forgive. The bitterness, anger and resentment are things that we have to carry with us. These things become a weight on our soul and a barrier between the Lord and us. Besides, it robs the joy from our living. Forgiveness allows us to lay those feelings down. Forgiveness sets us free.
Second, a refusal to forgive implies that you will never need to be forgiven. The person who refuses to forgive has an air of superiority that assumes that they can look down on others. Remember the word of Jesus,
“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? (Matthew 7:1-3)
Third, a lack of forgiveness makes reconciliation impossible. Until you are willing to let go of the hurt, any hope of reconciling your relationship is lost. In the context of this passage Jesus is concerned about reconciled relationships. Our goal is to work through our differences, not to perpetuate them.
Fourth, forgiveness and reconciliation are separate things. It is important that you and I remember that you can forgive someone yet still not be reconciled to them. We are required to forgive. We are required to put judgment into God’s hands. And we are required to try to reconcile the relationship. But sometimes that may be impossible.
If that person still refuses to listen, take your case to the church. If the church decides you are right, but the other person won’t accept it, treat that person as a pagan or a corrupt tax collector. (18:17)
Warn a divisive person once, and then warn him a second time. After that, have nothing to do with him. You may be sure that such a man is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned. [Titus 3:10-11]
I believe the Bible teaches that unless a person is willing to confess their wrong (that is, to agree with God about the sinfulness of their actions) and repent of it (meaning to turn away from the wrong they were doing) reconciliation is impossible. This is also true in our walk with the Lord. When a person is unwilling to repent or turn from their sin it shows they are not really sorry for their sin at all. They may be sorry they were caught, sorry that others were hurt, or sorry they feel bad, but they are not sorry for their sin. Paul tells us,
Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. (2 Corinthians 7:10)
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. [1 John. 1:9]
John is not simply saying that all we have to do is say, “Sorry.” We have to mean it. We have to agree that God’s judgment on our actions is correct.
There may be times when both parties sincerely believe that they were in the right. In those cases it is our responsibility to act with grace. We must admit that sometimes we don’t have all the facts. Sometimes we mis-read a situation. In these times we are to let the hurt go and seek to gain new understanding and a renewed relationship.
WE HAVE EXPERIENCED FORGIVENESS
Jesus understands that His teaching is difficult, so he tells a parable. Once upon a time a King wanted to balance his financial books. One man who worked for the King owed him an exorbitant amount of money. The man owed the King 10,000 talents. In my reading I discovered that one talent was the equivalent of 6000 denarii. And one denarii was the equivalent of one day’s pay for a normal laborer. In other words to owe someone one talent would be the equivalent of 16 ½ years of salary! Keep in mind that this man owed the King 10,000 talents or 60 million denarii or 164,000 years of salary!!
It is certainly possible that this man was making more than the normal wage . . .but not that much more! Besides, the point of the parable is not to ask how anyone could owe the King that much money. Remember, Jesus is telling a story. The figures are great to illustrate his point.
Since there is no possible way for this man to pay that amount of money, the King decides to sell the man and his family into slavery to recoup some of his loss. It was a common practice at that time. The debtor pleaded for mercy. He promised that he would pay back every cent (an obviously impossible task). The King however, had compassion on the man and forgave his debt.
Let’s put it in terms we can understand. Suppose you are a farmer. You have several bad years in a row and aren’t able to pay anything on your debt. You go to see the banker and you are sure that you are going to have to sell the family farm, declare bankruptcy and start all over. You ask for mercy but you know that even if you had a number of bumper crop years, you would never be able to pay off the debt that had accumulated. Now, suppose the banker takes your notes, tears them up and burns them. How would you feel? Obviously, you would feel the weight of the world had been lifted off your shoulders. You would feel alive again. You would be filled with gratitude.
The parable refers to our relationship with God. He is the King and we are the debtor. We go into debt every time we sin. That means every time we
- Think an impure thought
- Do something the Bible says is wrong
- Neglect God in our lives
- Despise or look down at someone
- Hurt another
- Neglect someone who is hurting
We sin every time we,
- Want what somebody else has
- Every time we lie or twist the truth
- Every time we make even the smallest promise and don’t keep it
- Every time we are selfish, petty, rude, or stubborn
- Every time we enjoy thinking about sin
- Every time we fail to put God first in our thoughts and actions
- Every time we complain
The list could go on and on. The debt builds without us even realizing it. Have you ever used a credit card? If you have, then you know how easy it is to charge items. You can charge $20 and $30 dollar items and at the end of the month be dumbfounded by a bill of over a thousand dollars! You are sure it has to be a mistake. You didn’t buy anything big. But as you examine your credit card bill, you see that there are no big charges. Those little things that you barely noticed and didn’t remember buying added up to more than you could afford to pay.
That’s the way it is with God. You may believe that you have never committed any major sins. And maybe you haven’t. But day in and day out you and I commit smaller sins with great regularity. And the debt is out of control. Even if we could stop sinning we could never pay off what we owe. We are like the man who owed millions.
The astonishing message of the gospel is that Jesus came to earth to pay our debt. If we will ask for forgiveness with genuine repentance . . . God will forgive, cancel, and eliminate our debt. We will be holy and perfect in God’s eyes! We should live our lives like those who have had a narrow escape with death. Those folks feel like they have another chance. They examine their values. They live with a new sense of joy and enthusiasm. Little things no longer bother them because now they see the big picture. When you have been released from the debt of sin you are given a new beginning.
A FAILURE TO FORGIVE SHOWS A LACK OF GRATITUDE FOR GRACE
The story continues. The forgiven man runs into a fellow servant who owed him 100 denarii. We are told that the man grabbed the fellow by the neck and demanded payment of the debt.
The man who owed the money asked for mercy. He said he needed a little more time but he would pay the debt back. It wouldn’t be easy, but it was possible. But no mercy was extended. The man was thrown into debtors prison until he could pay the debt.
Please understand, 100 denarii was the equivalent of three months wages. This was no small debt . . . but it was nothing compared to the debt that had been forgiven. The ratio was 600,000 to 1. Sure, to forgive the debt it would be costly . . . but in comparison to what the man had been forgiven, it was nothing.
One of the fellow servants told the King what had happened. The King called the first servant back into his presence. This time he spoke with anger, calling him a “wicked servant”. He berated him for his unwillingness to extend mercy after he had received mercy. The King threw the man into jail promising that he would be there until he had paid back every last cent.
Jesus concludes the story with these sobering words, “This is how my heavenly Father will treat you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”
The picture is clear. After all God has forgiven us, we should be willing to forgive each other. Sure, sometimes what people do to us is horrible . . . but compared to what we have done to God, it is minor. Sure, the hurt we suffer is often deep . . . but compared to how we have hurt God with our sin and our indifference . . . that hurt is minor.
We can and we must forgive if we have any appreciation for the nature of God’s grace. If we don’t forgive we show that we don’t appreciate what we have been forgiven. We are taking it for granted.
The popular movie, “Pay it Forward” illustrates the idea. In the movie when someone received an act of kindness they were told that instead of trying to “pay it back” they were to seek to “pay it forward” by extending kindness to another. The greater the act of kindness you received, the greater would be the kindness you extended. This is the same principle Jesus is giving us. Having received God’s grace, we are to “pay it forward” by extending that grace to others.
Let me draw some final conclusions. First, we must not conclude that we can do whatever we want and be sure of God’s forgiveness. Presuming on God’s forgiveness is a fool’s game. It is also foolish to presume upon the forgiveness of others. Notice,
- Both of these men asked for forgiveness and were repentant as evidenced by their willingness to pay back the debt
- When the one man showed a lack of appreciation for grace (he was presuming on that grace) his pardon was rescinded.
When we sin with the feeling that “God will forgive me!” We are failing to take our sin seriously. We are not truly repentant. We aren’t really sorry and we don’t really love the Lord. Do not think that God will forgive you while you have that attitude.
Second, we must not look for loopholes when it comes to extending forgiveness. We are masters at excusing our lack of forgiveness. We are constantly looking for an excuse to harbor bitterness. But there is no excuse. We are required to forgive. We are to place the matter in God’s hands. It is God’s job to determine who is sincere and who isn’t. It’s God’s job to determine who was right and who was wrong. It’s God’s job to judge. Our job is to let go. Our job is to extend grace as it has been extended to us. It’s our job to forgive.
If there is a fractured relationship in your life, make plans today to forgive. Go to the Lord in prayer and ask Him to give you strength to act with mercy. Remind yourself of the debt that you have been forgiven. See the one who offended you with the eyes of grace. Then, extend forgiveness. Make a visit. Write a letter. Pick up the phone. Extend a hand. Begin by being civil and kind even to your enemy. God may very well restore and deepen your relationship.
Finally, please remember that your debt can be forgiven. You may be like the man who owed a debt so great that he had no hope of repayment. It’s possible that as you look at your life you see devastation everywhere. You don’t have to be told that you are a sinner. You KNOW it. Every day as you look in the mirror you are reminded of the hurt that you have inflicted. Every day you wish you could turn back the clock and make different choices. But you can’t. And you know it.
The Lord of Creation is a gracious God. Our Savior has put up what is needed to pay our debt in full. Turn to Him. Confess your sin and your sorrow for what you have done. Ask for the mercy He offers in Christ . . . and you will be forgiven. No matter what you have done, the death and resurrection of Jesus was a payment for your past and mine. Through Christ your past debt will be paid in full. You will be able to start over again. And when you are set free by His grace . . . live joyfully. And when someone offends you . . .seek to pass that grace along.