So this morning, I’m curious about something. I want to ask some questions and I want you to think about how you would answer them for a minute. Have you ever heard someone make the rather strong assertion that they just can’t forgive some kind of behavior or a particular person who has engaged in said behavior? Let’s make this more personal: How bad would someone’s offense against you have to be before you entertained this notion? What would it be? How far would you let someone go before writing them off? What would the final offense involve for you? What’s most important to you? Would it be money? How much money? I mean, most folks aren’t going to write someone off for $10, but would you do it for $100? $1,000? $10,000? Would you give someone more of a license to cheat you than that? Or would your limit be focused on trust more generally? If someone lied to you, would that be it? How big would the lie have to be? What would the lie have to be about? Or would perhaps yours be focused on faithfulness? Would you tolerate infidelity at all? Would you try and work it out or would you just send the bum packing? Maybe, though, your core values are more focused on relational issues. What really burns you up is when someone who should be relationally close becomes relationally distant. You simply won’t stomach someone not fulfilling their relational duties. In any event where is your limit? And don’t just ignore these questions by blithely asserting that you are a very forgiving person and aren’t harboring grudges against anyone. Be intellectually honest with yourself for a minute. Most of us have a forgiveness limit somewhere. Where’s yours. In fact, let me push your comfort zone just a bit. If you can identify what your limit would be, turn to the person next to you and tell them what it is (and if that person happens to be your spouse, pay close attention so you know what to avoid!).
We live in a world in which there’s a lot of talk of forgiveness, but not a lot of actual forgiveness. We live in a world in which personal relationships remain in shambles for a long time because people won’t forgive. Our culture calls for us to remember offenses of various kinds and to not forget when we have been victims of an injustice, but forgiveness isn’t quite as popular. On occasion public leaders will issue calls for forgiveness on some issue or another such as racial reconciliation, but the policies set in place don’t really support the language. Furthermore, the understanding of forgiveness we are taught doesn’t really seem to get the job done. We hear the refrain, “forgive and forget,” repeated almost endlessly when something bad has happened, but inside we know that some offenses are simply not going to be forgotten…nor should they be. And if we can’t forget have we really forgiven? And if we can’t really forgive then why bother even trying? Let’s hold it in and let the bitterness make us stronger! In any event, though, some things aren’t going to be forgotten. We shouldn’t ever forget what happened on December 7, 1941 or September 11, 2001. Forgiveness on a full national scale like that is hard. I’d say we’ve accomplished it in the former, but the latter is still some ways off in the distance. Other dates seem like they should be etched in our memories—November 22, 1963, April 20, 1999, April 16, 2007, December 14, 2012—but when the offender isn’t around to forgive anymore, it’s a little hazier how we should proceed and bitterness can start to lay a root.
Even in the church, though, while we think we know what forgiveness is and we think we practice forgiveness better than the average bear, I think perhaps that our practice of the discipline tends to be more informed by the teachings of our culture than the teachings of Jesus. We know somewhere between our heads and our hearts that we ought to be doing it, but without any real cultural help we sometimes forget why exactly this is…especially when our own wounds have been pretty grievous. To this end, I want to spend the next few weeks with you looking at some of what the guys who contributed to the Scriptures were inspired by the Holy Spirit to pass on about forgiveness to us. Some of it will come from fairly direct teaching, but most of it is going to come through the vehicle of a story. We are going to look at some stories where forgiveness happened. We are going to look at some stories where forgiveness didn’t happen in spite of appearances and see what the difference in result is. We’ll spend some time talking about the cost of forgiveness. And we’ll wrap everything up just before Thanksgiving by talking about the importance of forgiveness in our own spiritual journeys. I think this has the potential to be a really powerful series of messages in all of our lives so I hope you’ll make plans to catch the whole series. In fact, if you know anybody who could really benefit from learning about what forgiveness is, how to do it, and the results of both forgiveness and unforgiveness, this will be a great time to invite them to come with you (and if it’s your spouse, that’s fine, just don’t tell them why you think it’s so important that they come or you’ll have to put all of this into practice sooner than you’re anticipating).
All of that said, the next few weeks are going to be quite a journey. In taking on a journey of this magnitude, though, we need a place to start. And so, this morning, we are going to start by trying to answer the most basic question about forgiveness we can ask: why should we bother with it in the first place? I mean, if you think about it, forgiveness isn’t natural to us. It goes against our natural inclinations. We would rather get revenge or at least hold a hard grudge if revenge isn’t possible. I know that God declared all vengeance to be His, but if we’re honest, we don’t like His timetable very much on vengeance and so we’d prefer to take care of things ourselves thank you very much. So while other questions may seem more pressing, the ground floor question on the issue of forgiveness really is: Why should we do it?
Of all the places in the Bible that offer up reasons to forgive, the clearest and most direct comes in the vehicle of a parable Jesus told in response to a question Peter asked about the limits of forgiveness. We can find this interaction beginning in Matthew 18:21. If you have your Bible or Bible app handy, open them there and take a look at this story with me.
Now, the story doesn’t really begin where I’ll start reading this morning. It actually begins a few verses earlier. The story begins with the disciples asking Jesus who the greatest person in the kingdom of God will be. The obvious motivation for their asking is so that they can take the steps necessary to become this person. The disciples were driven by a desire to be the greatest throughout their time with Jesus. He had to call them down on multiple occasions and remind them that the values of the kingdom are often paradigmatically opposite the values of this world. In this case Jesus did something to illustrate this that would have left them all slack-jawed. He called a child to come to Him and informed them that they needed to be as humble as a child before they could be considered great in the kingdom—this in a culture in which children were considered expendable until they could work a full day. Jesus went on from here to teach about the dangers of temptation to sin as well as God’s heart to go after people who had fallen into temptation. Well, how do you think God manages to put Himself in the position of pursuing sinners in order to have a relationship with them? He forgives them. If God forgives people who have sinned against Him, then, doesn’t it seem logical that His followers should be forgiving people who have sinned against them? Drawing a really clear comparison to God’s behavior toward those who have become separated from Him by sin as demonstrated in a story about a man with 100 sheep who loses one and searches all over to find it, Jesus next offers some instructions about the lengths we should go to see things resolved with a fellow church member who has offended us. The end of this little block of teaching, though, does allow for the possibility that the offending member doesn’t want things resolved.
Well up to this point Peter had been tracking with Jesus pretty well. Here, though, when Jesus seems to say that the offending brother here who doesn’t want to admit his mistake and make things right should be kicked out of the body so that we can start over with them, Peter speaks up with a question. Look at v. 21 with me: “Then Peter came up and said to him, ‘Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him?’” Now, let me give a quick piece of background here. According to popular Jewish teaching of the day, faithful Jews were required to give three strikes and then they could knock the other guy out. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me; fool me three times, this is getting ridiculous and next time you try it I’m going to put a permanent stop to this. With that in mind then, Peter ups the ante: “As many as seven times?” Given that this whole conversation started with the disciples asking Jesus who the greatest in the kingdom of God would be you can almost see Peter kind of elbowing the other guys as he asks this. He knew Jesus was into raising cultural standards of behavior so he goes double plus one beyond what was expected and waits for Jesus to praise him for getting it. Jesus, though, in somewhat typical Jesus fashion, pops his balloon. Actually, that’s not quite accurate. I took the boys to a friend’s birthday party a couple of weeks ago. I’m going to withhold his dad’s name here for reputation’s sake, but to lead the kids around the bug-themed party from one activity to the next he dressed up in black tights, a frilly blue tutu, butterfly wings, and a pink wig. When it came time to break open the piñata, the group of four- and five-year-olds couldn’t do it so the stick was given to Bart the Butterfly. Bart beat the poor bumblebee piñata half to death and when it still didn’t break open took the stick, impaled the bee on it, and ripped it in half in a glorious haze of glitter. Minus the tights, tutu, wings, and wig, this is a bit more like what Jesus did to Peter’s hopes of looking good here. Come back to the text with me at v. 22: “Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.’” Now, some translations more accurately translate Jesus as saying “seventy-seven times,” but the point is that Jesus basically erased any upper limit on the number of times we should forgive someone who has hurt us.
As the crowd around him scooped their jaws up off of the dusty ground, Jesus tells a story to show why this is. Listen to this: “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents.” Let me just stop there and make sure we all understand what Jesus just did. A talent was not a unit of money, but rather a unit of weight. It was the amount a Roman soldier could carry for a day. It ranged between 75 and 100 pounds. Expressed like this though, it referred to that amount in either gold or silver. Let’s just assume that this man owed gold talents that were measured at 100 pounds per talent. Do you know how much 10,000 talents would be today? Right now gold is trading at about $1,300 per ounce. Ten thousand 100-pound talents weigh in at 16 million ounces. Do the math and you’ve got about $21 billion dollars. Ignoring the Bill Gates class of folks and government spending levels, as far as you or I or any of the folks to whom Jesus was speaking were concerned he might as well have said 100 million billion kagillion dollars! Nobody racks up that kind of debt. And, if you did, nobody could ever repay that amount of debt. When Jesus said this servant owed his king 10,000 talents, his audience probably burst out laughing because it sounded so ridiculous to them.
Let’s keep rolling in the story at v. 26: “And since he could not pay [more laughter from the audience], his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant [took the only recourse available to him and] fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’” Let’s stop one more time here quickly. That’s nice this guy was begging for his life and the life of his family, but come on. If somebody owed you 100 million billion kagillion dollars would you let it go? I think we could all probably agree that would go on our list of not-to-be-forgiven-offenses we made earlier. And yet, look at v. 27: “And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.” Now again, that doesn’t even make sense. Nobody does that. But, remember, this is a parable, a made-up story to make a point. Suspend your disbelief with me a bit longer and we’ll get there.
So this servant just had his unpayable debt wiped. He’s on cloud 21 billion. Look at what happens next, though. Verse 26: “But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii…” I know it’s not the point of the story, but it’s helpful: putting that figure in actual dollars would work out, in Virginia at least, to about $5,800. That’s about 3.7 million times smaller if you’re keeping score. Back to the story: “…and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’” Sound familiar there? This second servant pleads for mercy using almost the exact same words the first servant had just used with the king. But to no avail: “He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt.” Just let this scene sit on you for a minute. The first servant was forgiven a debt 3.7 million times larger than what his buddy here owed him and yet when his friend begged for mercy using the same words he had just used he refused. I don’t know about you, but that makes me uncomfortable to even think about it.
Well, some of the other servants in the king’s house felt about the same way so they went and told the king about it. The king, unsurprisingly, didn’t take it very well. Verse 32: “Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master delivered him to the [torturers], until he should pay all his debt.” To which most of us would exclaim: “Well yeah. Of course he did. How dare that servant not let his buddy go for a few thousand dollars when he just had a debt forgiven that was larger than the GDP of about half the nations on the globe!” And just as our righteous anger is firing up Jesus drops the hammer: “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother [or sister] from your heart.” Silence. We could just close in prayer right there. But let me push you just a bit further to make sure we all have our minds fully wrapped around what Jesus just did here.
Let’s pull back the curtain a bit. This parable is allegorical. That means all the characters in the story are representative of someone or something else. In this light, let’s define our terms. The king in the parable here? It’s God. That first servant? Us. The second servant? Anybody else who’s ever done anything to offend or otherwise sin against us. Do you see what this means? It means that if we don’t forgive the people who have offended us in some way, God will hold us fully responsible for our sins without recourse. In other words, He won’t forgive us. We’ll come back to that in a minute but there’s more. This also means that the comparison between our debt to God and anyone and everyone else’s debt to us isn’t even worth making.
That’s kind of abstract though. Let’s put some numbers on it. Let’s make things a bit more concrete so we have something solid to grasp. Taking Jesus’ parable amounts and putting them in today’s U. S. dollars, the debt owed to the king by the first servant was about 3.7 million times larger than what was owed to him by the second servant. This means—and again Jesus’ actual figures were merely a rhetorical device intended to set the bar infinitely higher than this—until one single person has sinned against us 3.7 million times, not forgiving them for each and every offense will render God’s forgiveness of us impossible to attain. That’s still a bit abstract, though. Think about it like this. Say you live to be 100 years old. Not many folks do. But if you did, you would have lived a total of 936,000 hours. How many times do you think you sin an hour on average? Keep in mind that on average you sleep about a third of the day. Would you say 2 times? That’s once every thirty minutes. That seems fairly generous to me. There’s mostly church people in this room so you shouldn’t be getting in but so much trouble anyway, right? If you sin an average of 2 times an hour and live to be 100 you would still have committed only 1.9 million sins. In other words, if someone committed a sin against you every thirty minutes without fail for 100 years straight you would still be only halfway to the point where you could start to entertain the notion, “I’ve reach my limit. No forgiveness this time.” In fact, someone could sin against you every fifteen minutes for the same time period and you would only just be reaching that point. Do you get it yet? Refusing to forgive what someone else has done to us, regardless of what it is, is not simply wrong, it’s ridiculous. It’s not just sinful, it’s stupid. It requires us to act as if we were God.
And here’s the thing. If you think you’re God, then you don’t need any forgiveness. God isn’t accountable to anybody but Himself because He’s God. A creator isn’t accountable to his creatures. It goes the other way around. This means that the One who actually is God can’t forgive you because you don’t think you need it. We can’t receive forgiveness if we don’t believe we need it. Thus, what Jesus said there at the end of the parable isn’t so much a threat as an observation of reality. If we don’t forgive, we won’t be forgiven. This is why we forgive. This is, most centrally, why forgiveness matters. If we don’t forgive, we won’t be forgiven. If we don’t unconditionally forgive—from our hearts, as Jesus said—every single person who wrongs us in any way, we will put ourselves in a place where we cannot receive the forgiveness of God. If we don’t forgive, we won’t be forgiven. And by the way, if you’re holding a grudge, you haven’t forgiven.
This is doubly tragic. In the first place, if we aren’t forgiven then we can’t be with God, meaning we’ll die in our sins, meaning we’ll be separated from Him eternally. (That’s Hell in case you’re curious.) In the second place, though, keep in mind where all of this teaching sprang from. Jesus was talking about God’s desire for us. He was telling us about God’s passionate yearning to be in a relationship with us. He may have a lot of people who are His, but if you’re lost, nothing matters to Him so much in the world as getting you back. And He’s fully aware that this means forgiving you unconditionally for openly rebelling against Him. But He’s ready to do it because that’s how much He loves you. This is the Gospel: God came to earth in the person of Jesus Christ to demonstrate once and for all for us what it looks like to live in a personal relationship with Him and to blow open the doors which were previously locked and barring the way from anyone living in such a state. Jesus went to the cross so that He could forgive us and bring us into a relationship with Himself. But, unlike the interaction between the king and the servant in the parable, we didn’t ask for it and He still did it. But, the thing about forgiveness is that it has to be received for the circle to be completed. Now, that doesn’t mean that we can’t, for example, forgive someone who hurt us in the past and died before we got to a place where we sought to forgive them. We’re not robbed of peace by unreceived forgiveness, the relationship is simply not restored. But, for the relationship to be fully restored forgiveness has to be both offered and received. And what Jesus is saying here is that regardless of what we might have convinced ourselves to believe, if there are people in our lives who have offended us and to whom we are refusing forgiveness then we cannot fully receive the forgiveness of God. If we don’t forgive, we won’t be forgiven. It’s ridiculous. It’s stupid. And it’s tragic. It doesn’t have to be. Yet, if we don’t forgive, we won’t be forgiven.
Now, is this a hard teaching? Yeah, it is. In fact, the deeper the wound from which you’re reeling, the harder it is. There are some people we think simply don’t deserve forgiveness. And you know what? We’re right. There are. We just need to add ourselves to the list because we’re one of those people. The offer of forgiveness from our heavenly Father is ridiculously unfair. And yet, because of what Christ accomplished on the cross, it’s just. The price has been duly paid to the one who was chiefly offended. When we step down from God’s throne we’ll be able to see the truth of this with clearer eyes. Until then, if we don’t forgive, we won’t be forgiven. That’s the bad news. But the good news is that when we do forgive, our heavenly Father is ready to lavish His forgiveness upon us and receive us into His arms for eternity as His dearly beloved children. This too is deeply unfair, but it’s good. I hope you’ll receive it. If there is someone in your life—past or present—to whom you need to extend forgiveness, it’s time to do it. You’ve played God long enough and it’s obviously not working for you. Why don’t you step down and give a turn to the only One who really can fill that bill? Now, is there more nuance to all of this? Absolutely, but you’ve got to come back to hear it. I’ll see you next week.