Infinite Forgiveness

Infinite Forgiveness

As we also noted last week, Chapter 18 of Matthew’s Gospel presents us with Jesus’ teaching about how we are to view sin in our own lives and in the lives of one other:

It begins with the observation that in order to inherit heaven’s kingdom, we must trust Jesus with the trust of a child.[1]

It then transitions to a caution about not causing any who trust in Jesus to stumble. And as a means of making this point forcefully, Jesus uses hyperbole noting that if your hand, foot, or even eye causes you stumble, better to cut it out than to go on sinning and risk the fire of hell.[2]

Next Jesus notes how our heavenly Father isn’t willing that any of his sheep should perish, pointing out the joy he feels when even one sheep that has wandered off is found by him.[3]

Then, as we saw last week, Jesus teaches how seriously we should take sin so that if one of us refuses to be gently restored upon turning away from our sin, we should be cut off from the communal worship of God with his people.[4]

And now Jesus turns to the flip side of church discipline, highlighting the importance of forgiving those who do turn away from their sin. For again, the purpose of church discipline is that a brother or sister might see their fault, repent, and so be reconciled to their loving Father in heaven and to their brothers and sisters through Christ. Now in last week’s passage I mentioned that some manuscripts state “If your brother or sister sins” and others add “If your brother or sister sins against you.” Peter’s question in verse 21 may indicate that “against you” was part of the original teaching for following Jesus’ teaching on how we are to deal with a brother or sister who sins, Peter asks him, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me?” If this passage is intended to continue the thread of Jesus’ previous teaching, then it’s reasonable to conclude that Peter is seeking further elaboration about the best-case scenario Jesus mentioned—that of privately going to someone who has sinned against us and having them listen with that result that you have won them over. So Peter now asks a practical follow-up: “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”?

Seven, that perfect biblical number, certainly seems a reasonable number of times to forgive someone. Think about it. What if there was someone in your life who consistently sinned against you—and again, we need to be reminded that we’re dealing with sinful and not merely annoying behavior. So for example: What if someone regularly lied to you? Or stole from you? Or caused discord in your life? Or expressed hatred towards you? Or jealousy? Or had fits of rage? Or caused dissensions or factions? Or demonstrated selfish ambition or envy? If this list sounds familiar, it’s because these are some of the representative sins we looked at last week as they are delineated for us in Scripture.[5] And let’s be honest. Some of these sins would be difficult to forgive even one time; so to forgive them seven times, as Peter asks, certainly seems more than generous. Think about how different the high-minded concept of forgiveness feels when we move from the general principle—forgive one another—to the specific instance: this sister in Christ regularly lies to me; this brother in Christ regularly has fits of rage towards me; this sister in Christ regularly steals from me; this brother in Christ regularly expresses his jealousy and envy towards me. So let’s be realistic. Even if a brother or sister who regularly, over a course of time, sinned against us in these various ways just as genuinely and regularly repented and asked our forgiveness, wouldn’t the regularity of the behavior nonetheless wear us down? Wouldn’t we feel, in time, “Enough already! Since you evidently aren’t willing to change”—notice the attribution of motive—“I’m no longer willing to forgive.” Surely by the eighth time we were sinned against, we would no longer be obligated to forgive, right? Surely by the eighth time we were sinned against, we would have met out obligation, even before God, to forgive, right?

Well, I’m afraid not. Reasonable as our argument may appear to us, this human reasoning isn’t in accord with divine reasoning for in verse 22 Jesus answers Peter, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”—or some translations state “seventy times seven times.” Regardless, even assuming the lower number “77,” Jesus isn’t speaking literally but is making the point that we are to forgive countless times. We are to forgive someone who comes to us as often as that individual seeks our forgiveness. Jesus doesn’t expect us to keep count literally, much as we might be tempted to do so. It’s sobering to consider, isn’t it? As often as someone sins against us and repents and asks our forgiveness, we are obligated by Christ Jesus to forgive that individual. Why is this the case? Well, Jesus offers us a parable to answer our question beginning in verse 23.

It’s because

the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. 25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. 26 At this the servant fell on his knees before him. “Be patient with me,” he begged, “and I will pay back everything.” 27 The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.

With this parable Jesus is trying to help us understand why it is that we are to forgive one another as often as forgiveness is sought. The tangible financial debt spoken of in the story is intended to help us understand the debt of forgiveness we owe for in the parable a literal—and huge—debt is owed and a literal—and huge—debt is forgiven. And the forgiveness of debt should result in a transformed life.

So we begin with “a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants” (v. 23) who has brought before him “a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold” (v. 24) or ten thousand talents. Since a talent was worth about twenty years of a day laborer’s wages, we’re talking ten thousand times twenty years. And if we have a superb study Bible like that of the Crossway ESV Study Bible,[6] we don’t even have to do the math ourselves for as the notes explain: “In approximate modern equivalents, if a laborer earns $15 per hour, at 2,000 hours per year he would earn $30,000 per year, and a talent would equal $600,000…. Hence, ‘ten thousand talents’ hyperbolically represents an incalculable debt—in today’s terms,”—wait for it—“about $6 billion.” In other words, there was no way this servant could ever pay off this debt. It would have required ten thousand lifetimes to do so. So given that the servant was unable to pay, the king “ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt” (v. 25). This would have been a common course of action at the time. Yet upon hearing this verdict, verse 26, “the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’” Now the king knew full well that there was no way this servant of his would be able to pay off such an enormous debt so rather than sell off his goods and family as was the king’s due, he instead, verse 27, “took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.” At this point we are rightly expected to gasp at such generosity.

The gracious king’s servant had just won the six-billion dollar Galilee Powerball lottery—and he didn’t even have to purchase a ticket. And as is the case in close-knit communities, word about this astonishing, incredible, extravagant act of pardon spread throughout the kingdom. The other servants of the king would have known about the servant’s insurmountable debt and they no doubt marveled at their master’s equally insurmountable compassion. This parable provides such a practical way of helping us enter into the story, doesn’t it? For who among us is free of debt? Who among us is free from financial concerns? Who among us wouldn’t love for our all of our debt—our mortgages, car loans, student loans, credit cards, home equity loans, reverse mortgages, what have you; who among us wouldn’t love for all of our debt to be forgiven that we might have a fresh start? Wouldn’t this lift an enormous burden from our lives? And wouldn’t we feel undying gratitude towards the one who either paid off or canceled our debt? At this point in the parable, this is no doubt what we are expected to feel: “Wow! How fortunate that servant is. And how wonderfully compassionate that king is. How uncommon such lavish generosity is. And how humbling it must be to be the recipient of such a magnanimous gesture….”

But, as we know, this isn’t the servant’s response. Instead when the very servant who had just been forgiven ten lifetime’s worth of debt “went out,” verse 28, “he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.” To put this in perspective I again turn to my handy Crossway ESV Study Bible notes[7] which indicate that a hundred silver coins or denarii was “equivalent to about 20 weeks of common labor, or about $12,000 in today’s terms.” Now not that this is an insignificant amount in and of itself. But what is striking about this amount, of course, is that the servant had recently been pardoned six billion dollars. So we expect him to express some empathy and even compassion toward his fellow servant. But, no, what we disturbingly see him doing instead is grabbing his fellow servant, choking him, and demanding that he pay back what he owes.

Upon experiencing this violent response, verse 29, “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’” Do these words sound familiar? This had been the first servant’s reaction when the king had sought to settle accounts with him. He, too, had fallen on his knees; he, too, had begged that the king would be patient; he, too, had promised to pay it all back. And in his case, paying back the payment wasn’t even a viable option given the enormity of his debt. But payment would have been an option with the debt his fellow servant owed him. But how easily we forgot past kindnesses done for the first servant refused to allow him time to pay. “Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt.” Mind you, once again, as was true with the king’s original intent to sell off his servant’s family and property, the servant was within his rights in sending his fellow servant to prison. But clearly the letter of the law isn’t the point here, the spirit of the law is. Given that the king had forgiven this servant a debt he could never repay, he similarly should have forgiven his fellow servant’s payable debt—or at the very least allowed him time to pay it back.

Now if word of the king’s generosity had spread throughout the kingdom when he forgave his servant’s exorbitant debt, so, too, did word about the forgiven servant’s hardness when he didn’t forgive his fellow servants comparatively small debt, verse 31: “When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.” And if the king’s servants felt outrage over the ungrateful servant’s harsh treatment of a fellow servant, so, too did the king who called his servant in and said, “You wicked servant,… I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?” (vv. 32–33). We have a variation of the Golden Rule here, don’t we? But instead of “do to others what you would have them do to you,”[8] what we see here is “as you’ve had done to you, do so unto others.” The king’s servant—who by his behavior is now deemed to be wicked—had an unimaginable debt forgiven by his master. And when he had an opportunity to extend similar mercy for a far lesser amount, he refused. And because of his belligerent, harsh, unmerciful treatment of his fellow servant, he ended up losing everything for, verse 34, “his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.” So he was not only tortured for his lack of compassion but was jailed for what in effect would be the entirety of his remaining life. And Jesus ends the parable with these sobering words, “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” Sisters and brothers, forgiving each other is a non-negotiable tenet in the life of a believer. Why is this so?

Well, Scripturally the heart is our spiritual and moral barometer. As Jesus elsewhere states, “every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.”[9] By his behavior, the servant demonstrated his wickedness. He had been forgiven his debt but he hadn’t changed. Remember that Jesus offered this parable by way of responding to Peter’s question about how often we should forgive someone who has sinned against us. Jesus’ answer? Not seven times, but as often as your sister or brother seeks your forgiveness. For God is like a king who will one day settle accounts with us, his servants. Let’s stop and think a moment: How many times in our lives have we sinned against God and others? How many times in our lives have we done what we know to be wrong? How many times in our lives have we cut moral corners for our own convenience? How many times in our lives have we acted in an unloving manner? How many times in our lives have we not loved God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength and our neighbor as ourselves? How many more times will we fall short before we meet our Maker? It would take more than a moment to come up with a number, wouldn’t it? Is that number closer to seven or seventy-seven? I would venture to say that we’d be considered saints by the world if the number were even seventy-seven.

Isn’t this the point? We are those who owe ten thousand bags of gold. We are those who owe six billion dollars in debt. And we, too, are unable to repay this debt. But here’s the good news. Any and all who have placed their trust in Christ Jesus; any and all who have believed that he is God’s Son, the Messiah, have had our debt—past, present, and future—forgiven. For our heavenly Father has caused his Son, Christ Jesus, to pay the penalty of our debt. Christ has suffered for us. Christ has died for us. And by his resurrection, Christ has canceled all of our debt. Through Christ Jesus, our heavenly Father has had pity—has had compassion—upon us. He has placed our debt upon his Son that we might be reconciled to him. And because it cost our triune God nothing less than Christ Jesus’ sinless life, horrific suffering, and excruciating death for our debt to be canceled, we are now expected to go and do likewise. We are now called to be like him, forgiving one another as often as it takes that our oneness in him might be lived out. And if we don’t forgive another, it’s an indication that we haven’t experienced God’s transformative love and forgiveness ourselves.

As another study Bible so beautifully puts it: “Those who know God’s mercy must operate on the principle of mercy. If they do not show mercy but insist on justice, they will not receive mercy, but justice. An unforgiving heart is an unforgiven heart and is subject to torment ‘until he should pay all.’… A truly forgiving heart is one result of spiritual rebirth (John 3:3).”[10] Isn’t this what we pray for each week when recite the Lord’s prayer together: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” This is how the kingdom of heaven is like this parable for we should ever pray “Thy kingdom come, they will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” The extravagant forgiveness our Father in heaven has lavished upon us by sacrificing his Son on our behalf is the kind of forgiveness that typifies heaven—that typifies God—that typifies our heavenly Father—that typifies Jesus himself—and that should typify us by virtue of Christ’s Holy Spirit now indwelling us. God is the King. As our gracious King has done to us, so we should do to others. As God has extended his infinite forgiveness to us through his Son, we should extend infinite forgiveness to one another through his Holy Spirit who has sealed and indwells us individually and corporately. Yes, change is difficult. Yes, holiness is hard work. No, we can’t get there alone. But we don’t have to. God doesn’t expect us to. For he has given us himself. He has declared his love for us in his written and risen Word. And he has given us each other that together we might learn how to gently restore one another from sin, from ways of living that are harmful to us and destroy our relationship with God and each other. And by the example of his Son, and his indwelling us by means of his Holy Spirit, we, too, can live out that infinite forgiveness which is ours through Christ Jesus, our Lord, to the glory and praise of our loving and kind and merciful Father in heaven.

Let us now pray that our gracious God will help us to be more concerned about—and forgiving of—our spiritual debt than our material debt.

[1] Verses 1–5.

[2] Verses 6–9.

[3] Verses 10–14.

[4] Verses 15–19.

[5] Taken from Galatians 5:20–21 and Exodus 20.

[6] Matthew 18:24 note (emphasis added).

[7] Matthew 18:28–32 notes.

[8] Matthew 7:12: So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.

[9] Matthew 8:17–20.

[10] Reformed ESV Study Bible note on Matthew18:23–25. John 3:3 states: Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”

Leave a Reply