Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?”
Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.
Familiar words. It’s one thing to overlook the occasional slight or hurt. But where do we find the strength to offer genuine forgiveness when the hurt is deep, or when we must do so repeatedly? It’s beyond our human will-power.
Jesus tells a parable that follows his “77 times” advice to Peter. It has hidden within it three pieces of the good news for all of us who have someone we need to forgive.
Act 1: The Overflow
Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. 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.(Matthew 18:21-25)
The first piece of good news is a realistic analysis of our human condition. Jesus says the first servant owed the king 10,000 talents. A talent equaled 6,000 denarii’s, and a denarius was one day’s wage for a worker…thus the amount this servant owed was 60,000 days of labor. Even working 365 days a year, it would take 164 years to pay off this debt!! Even the richest person could never even begin to pay it.
The good news here is that Jesus tells us the truth about ourselves. We owe an astronomical debt to God. It is humanly impossible to repay. I’m impressed with the fact that Jesus doesn’t try to explain this debt. He doesn’t give any details about how this servant ran up such an astronomical tab with the king; he just states it as a fact.
We can listen to sermons about forgiveness sometimes wonder if our sin is really this serious. “I’m not that bad!” we say. And we’re right. We’re not if we measure ourselves by our own criteria. But the more we honestly investigate who Jesus Christ is and the criteria HE uses, the more we agree that he’s telling it like it really is.Let’s go on:
“The servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go. (Matthew 18:26-27)
Here’s a second piece of good news—when we admit our debt, God is lavish in forgiving. The servant in the parable asks for the chance to pay back everything, even though paying it back is humanly impossible—it would take several lifetimes. He received infinitely more than he asked. He asked only for the King’s patience to repay the debt; he received the King’s pardon and complete cancellation of his debt!
Here’s where the first act of the parable ends. Having our debt of sin diagnosed correctly led to the stupendous good news that, when we sincerely want to start over—as impossible as that seems—our God and King will lavishly cancel our debt. God’s lavish forgiveness overflows our expectations. Like the servant, we can walk away from the King as free men and women, free from being crushed by the despair of our own wrong choices, free to know our past need no longer control us.
But wait! The second act of the story is still to come.
Act 2: Surfing the Overflow
“But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded. His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’ But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt.
When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened.
Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’
In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.” (Matthew 18:28-35)
Disciples of Jesus live in the full confidence of the love of God and in a healthy fear of the justice of God. The servant who was forgiven millions of dollars but would not forgive a man who owed him only a few dollars not only ended up in prison, but tortured until he should pay back all he owed. And how long is that? Because we’ve already concluded he could never pay it back—it’s forever.
This second act has its own piece of good news hidden within it: The obligation to forgive others is placed there by grace. Like a surfer, we can forgive riding the overflow of God’s forgiveness of us.
The servant was expected to forgive his friend only because the King had first forgiven him. Don’t forget: If he had not been forgiven, he would have gone straight to prison and never had to decide whether to forgive the few dollars his friend owed him. He had an obligation to offer grace to another, but only because he had received such overflowing and abundant grace himself.
Releasing Others From Prison
I was with a group discussing this story when one person said this about the ungrateful servant: “It’s easy to put others into a “prison” of our expectations because their behavior doesn’t measure up to our values or principles.” I’ve done so many times. I see someone’s life choices that don’t measure up to bibical principles and mentally consign them to prison.
A speaker at our church told exactly this story. She was there to describe a ministry where Christian families take children into their homes of parents who going through hard times—perhaps drug abuse, arrest, legal troubles. The program is an alternative to kids going into foster care system. She spoke about the several kids she had cared for and how she had come to know their parents. Most parents had made choices (drug use, poor relationships, crime) where they had turned their backs on God or God’s ways. Yet the experience of actually getting to know them convinced her it was wrong to do so. She’d turned her back on God herself on many occasions herself, she realized.
When we truly realize just HOW MUCH we’ve been forgiven by God, it’s easier to find compassion with others and their bad choices. We who have been released from a lifetime in prison can free others from the prisons we make for them in our minds.
I knew a woman in a former church who had a lot to forgive. Her husband had deserted her for a younger woman and left her with 2 teenage sons to raise.
She knew all the right answers in Bible studies. But now she suddenly had lots of hours of introspection…hours by herself to come to grips with where she really stood with God. She was a believer—but had never come to terms, I think, with her own debt to God.
On New Year’s Eve she came to a late night service with perhaps a dozen other people and received communion at midnight. As I discovered much later, after everyone left she went back into the darkened sanctuary and sat for some time by herself, repeating words of the message that night which focused on Jesus’ words from cross: “It is finished.”
When she left (she told me later), she finally understood how much she needed God’s forgiveness. Receiving God’s grace, she could finally say, “it is finished” over her former life. Soon after, she had new freedom to start forgiving her husband.
This is what I need and what we all need. We need a genuine experience of being forgiven ourselves. We need to say, “It is finished!” over our former lives.
Then we can ride the overflow of God’s grace into our lives by forgiving others. Then we can begin to say, “It is finished!” over the hurt and pain they have caused us.