For a while there was a major emphasis in both society and church on not judging others. More recently, that emphasis seems to have diminished greatly. Today we hear accusations left and right. There is a pervasive judging of most anyone about any number of things. This judging is in contrast to one of the central tenants of the kingdom of God, namely, forgiveness.
When Peter asked Jesus how many times he should forgive someone who sins against him and suggested the possibility of up to seven times, he probably thought he was being generous. Jesus’ response, however, was that he should forgive seventy-seven times (or possibly 70 x 7). In comparison to Peter’s suggestion of “seven times,” Jesus’ reply indicates we are to forgive way more than we might expect and perhaps even infinitely.
This discussion led Jesus to tell another parable of the kingdom, introduced by “…the kingdom of heaven is like…” (Matthew 18:23-35). You may know the story. One of a king’s servants owed him about 700 billion dollars. The servant couldn’t pay so he begged for mercy. His master had compassion on him and canceled his debt. The servant then went out and found a fellow-servant who owed him $10,000, 70,000 times less than what the first servant owed his master. That servant could not pay, and he, too, begged for mercy. But the servant whose master had forgiven him a ginormous debt refused to forgive and had him thrown into prison. When the master heard about this, he was angry, confronted the servant, and called him “wicked” (v. 32). He told him he should have had mercy on his fellow-servant as he (the master) had on him. He handed the servant over to the jailers to be tortured until he paid back all he owed, something he would never have been able to do. Jesus ends the parable with the sobering words that, “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart” (v. 35).
I learn from this parable that God is merciful. He is willing to forgive us our debt of sin if we humbly beg him to do so. He will even forgive enormous, 700 billion dollar debts. Mercy is a prominent aspect of the nature of our King.
I learn from this parable that God’s mercy will rightfully make me merciful. God’s mercy should transform my heart and lead me to show mercy toward others who have sinned against me. How much more merciful should I be when I merely perceive or suspect them to have sinned against me.
Notice that the parable doesn’t focus on what wrong may have been done to us nor on the circumstances but simply on the need to forgive. The fact that the follow-servant begged for mercy implies that this is the right thing to do (cf. Luke 17:3-4), but elsewhere unconditional forgiveness is also taught (Colossians 3:12). Not only is forgiving others like God, it is a necessary part of enjoying the peace that God wills for us. Remember, resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.
I learn from this parable that I am to forgive others from my heart (18:35). I can’t say I forgive but then continue to hold a grudge against them. Yes, forgiveness can be difficult and we may not be able to instantly bring our heart fully into line with our decision to forgive. But we can decide to forgive and begin to treat people like we’ve forgiven them even as we pray and work on our hearts. A metaphor that has been helpful to me is “drop my case against them.” When we are angry, we often busy our minds with building a case against others, identifying and making mental notes of everything they do that we perceive to be wrong. To forgive means to just drop the case we have been building against them.
I learn from this parable that I am to forgive repeatedly (18:21-22). Not just seven times but seventy-seven (at least).
I learn from this parable that my choice about whether to forgive my brothers and sisters reveals my heart. Specifically, it shows whether I am “wicked” (18:32). God’s mercy has the power to transform my heart, if I truly humble myself before him.
I learn from this parable that I will give an account to God for whether I have forgiven my brothers and sisters. The consequences of not doing so will be severe (18:34-35). God is not only merciful but also just, and he can become angry (v. 34). We want to have such hearts and actions that he will gladly deal with us according to the mercy we need and not the justice we deserve.
When we humbly submit to God as King and pledge fealty to Him, he shows us mercy for all the ways we rebelled against him previously. Since the Lord’s mercy is great, it has the power to transform us and make us like him. The more like him we become, the more mercy and forgiveness we will extend to others. Our willingness to forgive others is a pretty good barometer of how much we are seeing our need for God and being transformed into his likeness. Is there someone you need to forgive?
God sent Jesus as our King to deliver us from evils including resentment, grudges, and anger. His wise, royal counsel provides us a better way of life than we had when we were ruled by our own passions and pleasures. The kingdom of God is a “place” where people can experience and pass along the blessing of a better way of living. It is imperative that communities of God’s people learn and be characterized by generous forgiveness. Is there someone you need to forgive?