Forgiven, Forgiving (Matthew 18:21-35)
Topic: Mathew Passage: Matthew 18:21–18:35
October 30th, 2011
Way of Grace Church
I. Why Do We Forgive?
An article from Newsweek magazine a number of years ago had this title: “Forgive and Let Live” Here’s the subtitle, “Revenge is sweet, but letting go of anger at those who wronged you is a smart route to good health.”
On the subject of forgiveness, the article stated that forgiveness “is one of the hottest fields of research in clinical psychology today, with more than 1,200 published studies, up from just 58 as recently as 1997…Dr. Dean Ornish, America's all-purpose lifestyle guru, regards forgiveness as the tofu of the soul, a healthful alternative to the red meat of anger and vengeance.”
Another commentator on this subject is quoted as saying: "It happens down the line, but every time you feel unforgiveness, you are more likely to develop a health problem…"
"In a way," Ornish says, "the most selfish thing you can do for yourself is to forgive other people."
Now, in one sense, this research is very exciting isn’t it? If we truly believe that when a good God instructs us, He tells us do what is ultimately best for us, then this research simply confirms this.
But, on the other hand, this kind of talk about forgiveness, the same language that is found even in popular Christian books, this perspective should make us stop and consider why it is God calls us to forgive. Are we called to forgive others because, first and foremost, God wants us to be physically healthier?
This is a question we need to bring to the word of God this morning. Turn with me to Matthew 18:21-35.
II. A Parable about Our Practice (Matthew 18:21-35)
You may ask, “Where exactly in the Bible does God call us to forgive others?” Well, there are many places, but take a look at Matthew 18:21 and 22…
21 Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.
Now here we see that Peter comes to Jesus with a very legitimate question, one that all of us may ask at some point, especially when we are feeling the burden of being repeatedly hurt by another person, as Peter is describing here.
AND Peter knew that Jesus taught the necessity of forgiving others, as Jesus made clear in the prayer that He taught His disciples… and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. (6:12). (“debts”, a figurative way in Jewish culture to talk about ”sins”)
Also, if you take a quick look up a few verses to v.15, we see that Jesus has just given His disciples instructions about how to handle a brother or sister who is NOT listening to reproof, who is not seeking forgiveness.
But here in vs. 21, 22, the offender’s repentance is implied. Thus, Peter wants to know if the offender DOES listen to counsel, and does seek forgiveness, how often are we supposed to offer forgiveness.
It’s helpful to know that in this culture the Jewish rabbis usually recommended that a person should only be forgiven up to three times for the same sin. So when Peter talks about seven forgiving seven times, he really wants to show Jesus how super spiritual he is.
But Jesus wants to show Peter that He has no clue about the depth of real grace. Jesus tells him, “No, grace is not seven times. God’s grace is seventy times seven.” And Jesus does not mean 490 here. Using all these ‘sevens’, He’s saying that grace is “unlimited”; He’s saying there can be no limit placed on the amount of forgiveness that we give.
Jesus put it this way in Luke: If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” (Luke 17:3, 4)
Do you hear what Jesus is saying? He’s saying that if someone sins against me 1000 times, and 1000 times comes back for forgiveness, I must forgive.
Now, imagine telling this to the person who has been repeatedly betrayed, insulted, neglected, ridiculed, abused, deceived, and robbed. Imagine telling such a brother or sister that they MUST forgive the repentant offender. How is this possible?
Does Jesus really understand the hurt of repeated sin, or even of just one devastating sin? Yes, He does. Does Jesus really understand that such forgiveness could be seen as an invitation for more suffering? Yes, He does. Does Jesus understand that sometimes you just need to send a message to someone? Yeah, he does.
So how can Jesus call His followers to practice this kind of forgiveness? Well, look at what we see in verse 23. Peter was probably asking some of these same questions, and so Jesus uses a parable to explain this teaching.
Look at verse 23…
23 “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants.
These would be servants who were in charge of collecting revenues for the king, and who were allowed to take extra for their labors. Thus, they had to settle up with the king. [Let’s keep reading here…]
24 When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents.
Now, if others were listening to Peter’s question and Jesus’ response, you would have heard an audible gasp at this point, because 10,000 talents is an almost incalculable sum in the ancient world.
Let’s put it this way. A talent, just one talent was worth about twenty years worth of worker’s wages. According to the most recent figures available, the average US income is around $30,000 At twenty years, this is around $600,000. That’s a lot of money. But remember, that’s just one talent. We’re talking about 10,000 talents. So in terms of our currency, in terms of our average day’s wage, we’re talking around $6 billion dollars.
Even today, if most of us heard someone was in this much debt, we would consider the situation hopeless, wouldn’t we? Where is someone going to get $6 billion dollars? Remember, the point here is not how realistic this story is, since we could ask “How could one slave rack up this much debt?” The number is obviously an exaggeration, a hyperbole, a way for Jesus to make His point. Let’s learn His point and see what happens to this servant…
25 And since he could not pay, [obviously!] his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. [that is, to be sold into slavery]26 So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’
Now, here’s the point where subdued laughter might pass through the crowd. How would this man ever payback this huge sum? There’s no way. Obviously the king will find this request laughable as well, won’t he? Or maybe the king will be insulted that this servant is taking him for a fool. Either way, the servant is doomed, right? Look at verse 27…
“And out of disgust for him, the master had him thrown in the dungeon…” No, that’s not what it says. “And out of pity for him, the master had him sent to a psychiatric hospital to get his head checked.” No, that’s not what it says. It says…
27 And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.
Talk about being able to hear a pin drop. Those listening must have been shaking their heads in astonishment. 10,000 talents dismissed, just like that? How can you even describe this kind of generosity, this kind of forgiveness? Wow! Can the servant even believe what he’s heard? Is he in tears at this point?
Well, the parable is not over, is it? Look at what we’re told next about this forgiven servant:
28 But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii…
Now, let’s stop there for a minute. We find out that this servant who owed the king is himself owed money by another servant. This time the debt is 100 denarii. A denarius was worth about one day’s wage for the common worker. So if we use our formula from before, about today’s income, we’re looking at about $11,500. This is not an insignificant sum, but it’s certainly more reasonable in terms of debt that can be paid off.
Additionally, in comparison to what this servant owed the king, this is peanuts. Remember, in denarii, the first servant owed about 60 million denarii, that is, what he owed was 600,000 times greater than what was owed to him. Now keep this in mind as we continue the parable.
So, when he (v. 28)…went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’29 So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’
Sound familiar? Yeah, it’s the same thing the first servant said to the king when he pleaded for patience. Now, this is usually the point in a movie when an out of control character hears someone else repeat their own words and they are brought to a moment of profound realization. This is when there is usually an epiphany! What happens here?
30 He refused [the first servant refused] and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt.31 When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place.32 Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me.33 And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’34 And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt.
Now, just so there’s no confusion about the application of this parable, Jesus concludes His response to Peter’s question with these words [verse 35]:
35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
So very clearly, Jesus is saying that the king’s forgiveness in this parable parallels the forgiveness of our King in heaven. But what exactly is Peter, what are we, supposed to take from the parable about why we should, why we must, always forgive?
III. The Heart Behind Our Practice
Notice that Jesus is talking about a kind of forgiveness that comes “from the heart” (v.35) So what we’re talking about here is not simply the correct formula for us to follow in terms of our duty, in terms of mere conformity the correct behavior. Jesus is talking here about understanding the kind of heart that demonstrates this unlimited forgiveness.
If we look at Peter’s heart in verse 21, we see that Peter believed there should a cut off at some point, that forgiveness should be withheld after the seventh pardon. Why did he think this? Well, there are probably several reasons:
- First, we often want to withhold forgiveness in order to protect ourselves. No one desires to be continually hurt by other people.
- Second, we can withhold forgiveness because of pride, that is, because we really want to issue a judgment against someone else; we want to show them that we have power over the relationship…the power to condemn.
- Third, we often withhold forgiveness because we like to be angry. Being hurt leads to anger, and anger is a way for us to justify that we’re OK, because we’re the one that has been wronged.
- Another (fourth) reason may be that we think if we forgive, we are somehow excusing the other person’s behavior, that we are somehow saying that what they did was OK.
There are probably other reasons, but what I want us to see is that Jesus is confronting this kind of heart, these hearts, with the heart he described through this parable.
When it comes to understanding this kind of heart, a heart of true forgiveness, everything rests on this one principle, The heart to forgive others is nurtured by a right understanding of God’s forgiveness to us.
Forgiveness begets forgiveness. We cannot first turn to Newsweek magazine or to the latest self-help book to learn forgiveness. We must look to God. Why is that the case? Well, look at what the parable teaches us.
Well, first notice that a heart of true forgiveness is humbled by the extent of God’s forgiveness.
Anyone listening to this parable, even the first readers of Matthew would have been astonished by the dismissal of the huge sum owed by the first servant. And as we saw from the Lord’s Prayer, it was very common in this culture to describe sin as a debt to God. That’s true in this parable as well.
The 10,000 talents here, our $6 billion dollars, this sum is meant to be a picture of the enormous weight of our offenses against God. Even though Peter asked about the one who might sin against him, this is first about how we sin against God; this is about every affection for which He is not the object, every desire which does not match His own, every word that fails to bring Him glory, and every deed that exalts us, judges others, and dishonors God.
We cannot truly forgive others, I would dare say, we cannot truly live, until we come to grips with just how serious our sinfulness is, with just how broken we are, with the depths of the darkness in our own hearts.
And what do we deserve? We deserve to experience the consequences of our foolish living and our failure to give God what is due to Him.
But the forgiveness we see here, the forgiveness of the King, is a picture of what was to come. We are reminded here that in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them (II Corinthians 5:19).
Our debt can be forgiven, just like this servant, because our debt has been paid in full through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. When Jesus experienced God’s judgment for our foolish living, for our failure to give the King his due, He was paying our debt. This is “the best news ever” that we’ve been talking about this past month. This is the gospel!
Do you recognize this fact this morning: that God, through Jesus, wants to reconcile you to Himself by forgiving the incalculable weight of your wrongdoing, your wrong-thinking, your wrong heart? Do you recognize that there is nothing that you can do, except believe?
Doesn’t that humble you? Shouldn’t this put you and me in our place? Doesn’t this make you say, “Who am I, that I should withhold forgiveness from another, that I should put myself in the position, that I should have the audacity to deem another’s sin as unforgivable? In light of my debt, and God’s astonishing mercy, who am I to make such a claim?”
The dramatic power of this parable rests on the utter disconnect between what the first servant received and what he failed to give. And it is such a radical disconnect that the reader is left wondering if the servant really understood the debt he had been forgiven.
In pride, Peter wanted to hold up his idea of forgiveness. Jesus wanted Peter to be humbled, to be brought down, by the reality of God’s forgiveness.
But what we also learn from this parable is that a heart of true forgiveness is “humbled by the extent of God’s mercy”, but also, a heart of true forgiveness is helped by the example of God’s forgiveness.
Not only should the extent of God’s forgiveness sober us and bring us low, but it should also make us submissive to the example that God is setting for us here.
Did you see the linchpin verse in this parable? It’s verse 33: ‘And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’
Do you see that? The inescapable reality here is that the servant should have become like the king in giving forgiveness, because he, as a forgiven servant, unlike anyone else because of his debt, he would know the sweetness, the liberation, the joy of true forgiveness.
Like the king in verse 27, this servant should have had pity on his fellow slave, or as it could be translated, he should have been moved with compassion. In the original Greek of Matthew’s Gospel, compassion is the very first word in verse 27.
Why should the servant have had compassion? First, because this was the heart of the king he followed, and second, because he knew what it was like to be in the same position. In fact, he knew his situation to be even worse. AND he knew the taste of grace, a grace that could wipe away the bondage of indebtedness and foolishness.
Please hear me this morning. Please hear what I believe God is saying to us through His word. Forgiveness is not about you. It is not about how I can feel, how you can be free, how we can sleep better at night. Will you feel better when you forgive? Will you be free, and sleep better? Probably. But those are the consequences, not the motivation.
What is in our best interest is to become like Jesus Christ, which means that we put the glory of God and the good of the other first, before our own interests.
This is true in all things, including forgiveness. What is so sad is that everywhere we look we see a ‘selfish forgiveness’ being peddled and prescribed, even by the church; a forgiveness that is fueled by what you can get.
But as we see here, true forgiveness, God’s forgiveness is not about what we can get, it’s about what we can give. Forgiveness is for giving; it’s for giving away for the good of the other.
Now you might be thinking, “How in the world am I supposed to be concerned for the good of the one who is consistently sinning against me?” Well, as Jesus put it earlier in Matthew, “I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.(Matthew 5:44, 45)
The heart of God is to be concerned for the good of those who are consistently sinning against him. He makes the sun shine on both the evil and the good. And this is the heart he wants to give to you. I can’t give you seven easy steps to loving your enemy. God must give you that heart through Jesus Christ, and that begins with steps of faith and obedience.
No more selfish Christianity. That’s an oxymoron. The way of Christ is about seeking God’s best for the other person, no matter what they might do to you. Forgiveness must always work together with discernment, but we do not have to protect ourselves. Let’s leave that to God. If we are practicing His love, our hearts will be hurt. That’s just the way it is. But our hearts are always in His healing hands.
The practice of forgiveness begins with a heart that has been humbled by God’s mercy and helped by the example of God’s self-giving heart for the other. This is why we forgive.
IV. Who Must You Forgive?
Who must you forgive this morning? Is there someone, are there people in your life that God is calling you to forgive from your heart? Maybe it’s a family member. Maybe it’s a friend. Maybe it’s someone here. Maybe it’s someone who is far away. Maybe someone from your past. Maybe someone who has died. It doesn’t matter who or where or when, forgiveness begins right here [in our hearts]. Jesus said in Mark 11:25, “And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone…” [forgive, right there, right then, in your heart]
Remember, when we fail to forgive we are calling into question our understanding of God’s forgiveness to us. Stubborn refusal to grant forgiveness might demonstrate that we have never truly been repentant before God, and thus as verse 35 makes clear, it might be that we do not truly have God’s forgiveness. What we give is a barometer of what we’ve received.
Have you received God’s forgiveness this morning? Is He changing your heart?
Look to God this morning. Look to His forgiveness through Jesus Christ. And you will find there the path that leads to knowing and showing His forgiveness to others.