(This article is based on the first sermon in a four-part series at WPC Belconnen, on “Forgiving Others”)
Forgiveness isn’t easy. Either we’ve wanted it from others, or needed to give it to others. Actually, probably both. And whether it is getting it or giving it, it can be really, really hard. As C. S. Lewis wrote, “Every one says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive…” Maybe I gave so much to someone, trusted them with so much, and they just betrayed me and betrayed me again. How could I possibly forgive them? Or maybe they are strangers--well, worse actually—it seems they are more enemies. Because you don’t really know why, but they just decided to have a go at you, abuse you, take out a personal vendetta against you, and you have no idea why. Why should you owe them anything, the least of all forgiveness? I spoke to someone recently who used to work in the tourist industry. And because of what happened during World War II, the people of these particular two nations, they didn’t want to have anything to do with each other, the two groups couldn’t be in the same building at the same time. Whether it is at the personal level, or even at a community level, sometimes forgiving can be really, really hard.
Then we see examples in the Bible, things difficult to imagine if they weren’t actually true. Despite all the envy, hate and murderous intentions of his brothers, Joseph is forgiving toward them, showing kindness and love instead of paying back evil for evil (cf Genesis 50:15-21). Or we see Stephen, in the face of people enraged at him, hurling stones at him to kill him, and just before he dies he says, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” (Acts 7:60) How do they possibly do that kind of thing? How can we? What is the key to us being able to forgive others like that?
In Matthew 18:15-20 there is the well-known instruction of what to when your brother sins against you. In 18:21, Peter understands the implication, that he may need to forgive that brother (even though Jesus didn’t mention the word “forgive”). And Peter’s imagination takes him to the place where that brother keeps sinning against him. Surely there must be a limit to forgiveness then. Surely seven times is plenty enough, maybe even highly virtuous to be so forgiving. I expect to Peter’s great surprise, Jesus tells him, “No, Peter, you have it all wrong. You seem to be thinking of forgiveness just as a procedure, some boxes to tick, maybe a legal process, perhaps some kind of being fair, and showing your righteousness. Actually it is about mercy and kindness, Peter, it is about a perspective, a way of life, that you can’t put a number on.” Well, ok, he doesn’t literally say that. But I think that is the conclusion we can draw from the story Jesus tells in response, which we find in Matthew 18:23-35. (Quick, go read the passage now J) It shows us why it is hard to forgive others, and in so doing, also gives us the key to actually being able to forgive others, even when it feels too hard.
Jesus’ story tells us about a servant who owed the king ten thousand talents. Jesus seems to just pick the biggest number (ten thousand) with the biggest unit (a talent), to make a point. But maybe some other numbers more familiar to us will be helpful. The footnote in my ESV says that one talent was worth about twenty years of wages for a laborer. If we use the Australian minimum wage as a basis ($17.70/hour), and a 38-hour week for 52 weeks, then one year’s wage would be about $35,000. Twenty years would be about $700,000. Multiply that by ten thousand, and you get about $7,000,000,000. How would you like that debt? Or what would you do if someone else, somehow, owed you that much money? We might wonder how someone could rack up such a debt, but that’s not really the point. The amazing thing in the story is that the king actually forgives that $7 billion debt! But then another stunning thing happens, something rudely shocking. That servant who owed $7 billion was owed some money himself, by another fellow servant. But only “a hundred denarii”. Again, the ESV footnote tells us that a denarius was a day’s wage for a laborer. So the same kind of calculation this time gives us, say for an eight-hour day, about $14,000 equivalent. This is a substantial amount to be owed, but hardly significant compared to $7 billion. And yet astoundingly, the servant who had been forgiven $7 billion was unwilling to forgive $14,000. Rightly the king called him a “wicked servant” and delivered him for punishment.
So what does Jesus’ story about financial debts have to do with forgiving others when they offend us or sin against us? As with Jesus’ other parables, the real application is not in the precise circumstances of the situation, but in what the story parallels. In 18:35 it is clear that the king is paralleled to God, and the forgiveness of one servant by another is paralleling forgiveness between people. The key principle in forgiving others is that being forgiven by God should empower us to forgive others. And Jesus’ story presses the point by highlighting the shocking wickedness of one who is unwilling to forgive, despite being forgiven so much by God. And some of the small details really brings this home.
In the story our attention is drawn to both the similarities as well as the vast differences between the accounts of the two servants’ debts. When both servants are confronted concerning what they owe, they respond with the same words, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you”. Well, almost the same words. The first servant says one more thing, “… I will pay you everything” I think this little extra word, combined with the vast difference in the debts owed, highlight something else about the differences between the two servants in the story. The $14,000 debt was significant, but possibly payable. Eventually that second servant could have paid back his fellow servant. It was doable. It was possible. But there was no way the first servant could have paid back $7 billion. And yet he had the audacity to offer to pay back everything. He was deluded. He didn’t really understand the overwhelming situation he was in. And therefore he also didn’t understand the debt he had been forgiven. And he had no comprehension of the mercy he had been shown. And this is our problem, when we have difficulty forgiving others. We have no understanding of the vast debt our sin has created before God, and little comprehension of the mercy we have been shown in God forgiving our sins. Somehow we think it is not really so bad after all, that really it is something we can fix by ourselves. But we can’t. The sin debt is one that only God can fix. We can’t actually avoid the consequences of our sin, but in our pride we can try to avoid believing that we really deserve it, that our debt is really that bad.
One way to realize the enormity of a problem, is by comprehending the cost involved in solving it. When we have difficulty realizing the enormity of our sin debt, we should meditate on what it cost God to solve our problem, and forgive our sin debt. Years after Jesus spoke this story to Peter, Peter wrote these words, “knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.” (1 Peter 1:18-20) You will probably never owe someone $7 billon. But our greatest debt isn’t a monetary one. And no amount of money is enough to release us from the greatest debt we have. Only Jesus’ precious blood is enough. When Peter asked Jesus about forgiving others, I don’t think he really knew what Jesus knew, that Jesus was going to have to die to free Peter from his sin debt. But all those years later, and Peter understood that, and wrote it down for everyone to understand. The enormity of our sin problem was such was that the only solution was for the Father to give the life of his own Son, and for Jesus to suffer the full wrath of God, in the place of his own people, so that we could be released from our sin debt.
This is where we need to go when we find it hard to forgive our brother from our heart. This is the key to forgiving others. Just like the $14,000, there may indeed be a significant debt of offence against us, but it is still so little compared to what God has already forgiven us in Christ. Out of the humility in understanding we have been forgiven a vast sin debt to God, which we could never have repaid, comes the freedom and joy of being able to love others, to give to others, to forgive others. As with so many things, our pattern and our power, through the work of the Holy Spirit, is what God has done for us in Christ. “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (Ephesians 4:32-5:2)