Peter, one of the disciples of Jesus, stepped forward to ask a question: “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?”
Jesus had just finished explaining the process for reconciliation when a person sins against you (Matthew 18). Peter's question is clear. Just how much forgiveness are we required to give? The traditional rabbinical teaching of the day was that forgiveness be extended three times to an offender (1). Peter was willing to be generous. Still, he expected a limit to be set.
Jesus responded to Peter, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times." In other words, there is no limit to forgiveness; quit keeping a list. To underscore His message, Jesus told a parable, summarized below:
There is a great king who decides to settle accounts with those in his kingdom. He calls a servant before him who owes him a great amount, 10,000 talents. In today's currency, this might equal close to several million dollars (2). When it is clear that the servant cannot pay, the king orders for the servant, his family, and all his possessions to be sold in order to pay the account. Despondent, the servant falls before the king and begs for mercy. If only the king will give him more time! Moved to pity, the king relents and does more than just give him more time. He forgives all the servant's debts!
The servant leaves the king's presence and comes upon another servant who owes him money. The debt owed is equivalent to a day's wage in their time. The first servant, who has just had all his debts forgiven, demands to be paid from this other servant. The other servant, however, cannot pay. He falls to his knees and begs for mercy, but the first servant refuses. Instead, he has his debtor thrown into prison until his debt can be paid.
Other servants witness this ordeal, and they are greatly distressed. They go to their master and report what has happened. The master calls the first servant back, and he has him thrown into jail for failing to extend mercy. He, who had been shown great mercy over his insurmountable debt, failed to show mercy to one whose debt was exceedingly smaller.
Jesus concluded his parable with this statement: "So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart" (vs.35).
What do we do with this scripture? What about the one who extorted all of your lifelong savings? Or the spouse who has had multiple affairs over the course of a broken marriage? Does it apply to even these?
What of the parents who must forgive the one who molested their child?
Or the family who must forgive the drunk driver who took the life of their loved one?
What of the husband who finds himself a widower after the doctor made a careless mistake in surgery?
Mere Christian platitudes won't help us in situations such as these. There must be something greater than good intentions to evoke a heart of forgiveness in life's toughest betrayals and offenses. Does God really expect us to forgive even the most base and detestable transgressions?
In a word - yes. We are called to forgive "in direct proportion to the amount forgiven" by our Heavenly Father (3). We explored in the previous post the extent of God's forgiveness: to those who have called on the name of the Lord in confession and repentance, He offers complete absolution of our sins. God's expectation, then, is that we be ready to forgive our offenders completely, "from the heart," as often as forgiveness is required.
The command is clear: forgive, for you have been forgiven. Before you throw your hands in despair and cry "foul" - that this is not fair - wait. God's good and perfect will for you is shown in your forgiveness toward others.
A genuine believer in Christ always remembers his humble and destitute place outside of God's grace. No offense is so great as the sins we've committed against God, and He has shown us mercy. As long as we can remember this, we find our starting point for forgiving others.
1. Barbieri, Jr., Louis A. (1983). The Bible Knowledge Commentary: New Testament. John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck, eds. Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook.
2. ", 62.
3. ", 63.