Text: Matthew 18:21-35
“I will never forgive her!” a woman complained one afternoon to her husband after seeing her nemesis at the grocery store. A look of anger flared in her eyes as she explained how she had bumped into a former class mate she hadn’t seen for years. The woman was so worked up, she was physically shaking.
“Why? What did she do?” Her husband dared to ask.
Clenching her teeth she answered, “Years ago, when we were in high school, she stole my boyfriend, and ever since that day I have never liked her. I vowed that I would never talk to her again. And I haven’t, either. I just can’t believe the nerve that she has. She waved and said hi when she saw me today. But I just kept walking right past her, and didn’t say a word. – Huh-uh, I ain’t talking to you.”
Her husband listened and replied, “Honey, I’m sure that was hurtful thing, and I feel terrible that it happened. But high school was a long time ago. Don’t you think it’s time to let things go? After all, she might have stolen your boyfriend, but you eventually met me and things have turned out pretty good, didn’t they?”
“That’s debatable,” his wife muttered. “Whose side are you on, anyways?”
“Look,” her husband continued, “I’m just saying, maybe she regrets hurting you. That might have been what she was trying to say when you saw her today, if you had given her a chance.”
“Are you crazy!” His wife exploded. “That woman is pure evil. If she wants to apologize, she’s going to have to come groveling on her hands and knees, begging for mercy, before I would even think about forgiving her.”
This might seem like an exaggerated scenario, but I’m sure most of us have found ourselves in a similar position, at some point in our lives: wrestling with feelings of bitterness and resentment towards someone who has hurt us. Their offense may have been great or small. It might have been deliberate, or accidental. Either way, it’s not easy to forgive when we have been wronged. We find ourselves justifying a vengeful spirit. We want them to pay for what they have said or done. Deep down we might actually long for that person to suffer in the same way they have caused us pain. But when we carry around that kind of bitterness, the person we end up hurting the most is ourselves.
Someone has said, “holding on to a grudge is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” Sadly, there are many people who do just that.
Forgiveness can be one of the most difficult things in the world for us to do. It might seem impossible. There may be a part of us that doesn’t want to let go of our hatred and animosity. We might not even know where to start. The Lord can change our heart, if we let him.
If we have experienced the depths of God’s grace, we should forgive others just as the Lord has forgiven us.
That’s the theme of our passage, this morning. In Matthew 18, Jesus was talking to the disciples about their relationships with others. This led to a question. Peter wanted to know how gracious a follower of Christ should be toward those who have offended us. In verse 21 he said, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?”
That seemed like a good number, especially when one considered the current teaching of the Pharisees and religious leaders of the day. They believed that a person should forgive his neighbor up to three times. After that, don’t bother with them anymore, because they’ve reached their limit. Peter took that number and doubled it, adding one more for good measure. Surely, that level of graciousness would be above and beyond what anyone might expect.
But Jesus showed him that he still wasn’t thinking big enough. In verse 22 he answered, “I do not say to you up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.” In other words, when it comes to showing mercy, we shouldn’t be keeping score.
Jesus went on to tell a parable, to get us thinking about the type of forgiveness that God has demonstrated to us, and the type of forgiveness that he calls us to demonstrate towards others.
He shows us that God’s people should forgive others generously.
“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 When he had begun to settle them, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. 25 But since he did not have the means to repay, his lord commanded him to be sold, along with his wife and children and all that he had, and repayment to be made. 26 So the slave fell to the ground and prostrated himself before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you everything.’ 27 And the lord of that slave felt compassion and released him and forgave him the debt.
The servant, in the parable, owed the king an enormous debt. The largest monetary unit in the Roman world was called a talent. Just one talent would have been roughly 20 years pay for the average worker. But this man needed to come up with 10,000 talents, the equivalent of millions of dollars. We’re not talking about a bag of silver, but several armored trucks filled with gold. It was a hopeless situation. The servant owed a debt that could never be repaid. The king would have been well within his rights to confiscate all of the man’s belongings and have him sold into slavery. Even this wouldn’t be enough to recover a fraction of the debt. But instead, in an act of incredible generosity, the king was willing to forgive.
Jesus is describing the kind of forgiveness that God has shown to us. Scripture tells us that the debt of sin is too large for us to ever repay. No matter how hard we try, or how determined we might be, nothing we could ever do would be enough to make up for our failures. Even if we were to spend our entire lives trying to atone for ourselves through good works or religious rituals, it wouldn’t come close to satisfying the debt we owe. Only the blood of Christ could pay the ransom for our sin. It was an incredible cost, and yet, the Lord was willing to pay it. His mercy is overflowing. His grace is beyond measure. His forgiveness is more than generous.
If God was willing to offer an immeasurable forgiveness to us, why is it that we have such a hard time forgiving others for even the smallest offense? Sometimes we allow ourselves to get hung up on the little, ticky-tack things people do.
A man gets upset because his co-worker doesn’t put more paper in the copy machine at work, when its empty. All afternoon, he can’t stop talking about how thoughtless and lazy the co-worker is. “Doesn’t he see the blinking orange light? I can see it all the way across the office. How much time does it take to reach down and pick up a new ream of paper, open the drawer, and put it in the machine?” Those kinds of things might be irritating, but it seems pretty small in the grand scheme of things. It’s not really worth getting all bent out of shape over.
We need to show one another patience. Ask yourself, “is this really worth getting into an argument over this, or can I look past it?” Some of the fiercest arguments start over the smallest things. Friendships have been ruined over trivial things. We shouldn’t be stingy when it comes to giving people another chance. When a friend lets us down, we might be tempted to write them off. “That’s it! This is the last time I’m going to let him disappoint me! This friendship is over.” But what if that was how other people treated us? If they gave up on us every time we messed up, we probably wouldn’t have many friends.
Colossians 3:12-13 tells us to “…Clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others.”
I don’t mean to suggest that we should let others walk all over us, or take advantage of our kindness. There are times when we do need to stand up for ourselves. Sometimes we may need to sever ties. Jesus talks about that earlier in the chapter. But even then, the desire is for the other person to have a change of heart.
God’s has been incredibly generous in his forgiveness for us, and he calls us to show that kind of forgiveness to others. It won’t be easy. Sometimes there might be so much anger and hurt knotted up in our heart that it would seem to take a miracle to untie. But God is the business of doing miracles. His grace can empower us to show mercy to one another.
God’s people should also forgive others compassionately.
In verse 26 we read, “So the slave fell to the ground and prostrated himself before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you everything.’ And the lord of that slave felt compassion…”
The king could have looked on the servant with a cold and uncaring heart. He could have told himself, “This guy’s fate is not my concern. If he rots in prison he will be getting what he deserves.” But that wasn’t the kind of attitude that he had. He considered the desperate situation this man had gotten himself into and took pity on him.
In the same way, God took pity on us as he considered out desperate situation. Even though He is enthroned above the heavens, as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, still he cares deeply about each and every one of us. He doesn’t look on us with hatred or disgust, but with love. It doesn’t bring him a single ounce of pleasure to think of condemning anyone to the fires of hell. On the contrary, it breaks his heart. That’s why he was willing to make a way for us to be forgiven.
- Psalm 130:3–4 (NET) says, “If you, O Lord, were to keep track of sins, O Lord, who could stand before you? But you are willing to forgive, so that you might be honored.”
- And Daniel 9:9 (NIV84) reminds us “The Lord our God is merciful and forgiving, even though we have rebelled against him”
Forgiveness comes from a heart of compassion. That means looking at the person who has sinned against me and seeing him not as a monster, but as a human being. Instead of wishing them harm, I should be concerned for their spiritual condition, praying that God would bring about a change in their life. Maybe the person is having a bad day, and that’s why they weren’t very nice to me. It doesn’t excuse their behavior, but it helps me to understand what’s going on in their life. I have bad days too, and so I can relate.
When we allow ourselves to be consumed by anger and bitterness, it has a way of blurring our vision and distorting our view of people. If you’ve been to an amusement park, you may have seen the wavy mirrors that distort the reflection. Some of the mirrors make your head look really big. Other mirrors make you look really short. We laugh, because we realize that it isn’t an accurate picture. The mirror plays a trick on our eyes. Anger plays tricks on our eyes as well. It causes us to view friends as enemies, brothers as adversaries.
It is sad when there is a disagreement between fellow Christians. If they’re not careful, they might forget that they are brothers and Christ, and We need a heart of compassion if we are to forgive others, the way God has forgiven us.
God’s people should forgive others thoroughly.
Verse 27 tells us about the, “And the lord of that slave felt compassion and released him and forgave him the debt.”
The king was holding the ledger in his hands, which recorded the massive debt owed by his servant. What would he do? He did not restructure the terms of the loan and set up a new repayment plan. He did not merely give him an extension of time. He did not add extra assignments to the servant’s workload. The passage tells us he was willing to cancel the debt and set his servant free.
At least that’s what the king was offering. As we will see in a moment, it didn’t quite work out that way, but it would be no fault of the king. He was willing to zero the balance, crumble up the books, and release him from his debt. And this is the kind of mercy that the Lord has offered to us: thorough, exhaustive, complete forgiveness.
- Isaiah 38:17 (ESV) says, “…but in love you have delivered my life from the pit of destruction, for you have cast all my sins behind your back.”
Picture a book that records all of your sins, and failures, the times you’ve made a mess of things, every unkind word, every selfish deed, every wayward thought. The moment God forgives you, he tears the book into pieces and throws it over his shoulder. He never, ever, turns to pick it up again. It’s gone forever.
- Micah 7:19 (NIV84) promises, “You will again have compassion on us; you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea.”
God does more than toss our sins behind him, he actually sinks them in the deepest depths so that they will never be dredged up. The point that these verses make is that when God tell us. “you are forgiven,” he really means it. When we come to faith in Jesus Christ, trusting in his death, burial, and resurrection the blood of Christ cleanses us from every sin.
It’s not easy to forgive like that. Too often, when we tell someone “I forgive you,” what we really mean is “I’ll let this go for now, but down the road when you do something that irritates me I’m going to bring it up again… and again… and again.” We may not even realize that resentment continues to linger, beneath the surface, smoldering, until something happens to fan the flames. We try to cast behind us the anger and bitterness we feel, but for some reason we just can’t let go.
I was working on my computer the other day. One of the hinges broke loose, and so I was trying to superglue the pieces of plastic and the metal screws back together. We had gone to the hardware to get the stickiest glue we could find, and I think we found it. I was trying to be so careful not to get any on myself. There was actually a warning on the bottle telling you what to do if you accidentally glued your fingers together. We put a piece of newspaper down on the table, I was picturing it stuck to my hand forever, not able to shake it loose. Thankfully, I didn’t do that, but I did manage to get some of the glue on my fingernails, and I’m pretty sure it’s going to be there for a while.
Resentment can stick to us like superglue. We try to let go, but we can’t quite shake it. I think of a man who promises to give his friend a ride to the doctor. The day comes, and he gets distracted, and it slips his mind. When he realizes his mistake he calls his friend right away and tells him how sorry he is. His friend says, “I forgive you, don’t worry about it, it could have happened to anyone.” Things are going along fine, except his friend is constantly bringing it up. Every time they make plans his friend tells him, “Better set your alarm, you don’t want to forget like that time you were supposed to take me to the doctor. I better give you a call, I wouldn’t want you to forget like that time I waited for an hour at my front door but you never showed up. Better write it on your calendar, you don’t want to forget again…” Finally he says, “come on, let it go already, I thought you forgave me for that.”
Forgiving someone doesn’t necessarily mean that we will forget the wrong that was committed, and it certainly doesn’t mean that we excuse what the person did. But it does mean letting go of the animosity and ill will we bear towards them. It means letting go of our desire to get even. It is deciding that we will no longer hold it over them. We will no longer let that hurt define us.
When we have trouble letting go of those things, we can ask the Lord to work in our heart and teach us to forgive thoroughly, as he has forgiven us.
The parable doesn’t end here, because Jesus wasn’t finished making his point. He wanted us to understand that those who have experienced the depths of God’s forgiveness should be willing to forgive others. If we’re not willing… if we go about our lives full of bitterness, and hatred, and animosity towards others… maybe God’s grace hasn’t really penetrated our heart at all.
We would expect that the servant, in the parable, would go out a new person, touched by the kindness of king. But instead, we read in verse 28…
“But that slave went out and found one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and he seized him and began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay back what you owe.’ 29 So his fellow slave fell to the ground and began to plead with him, saying, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you.’ 30 But he was unwilling and went and threw him in prison until he should pay back what was owed. 31 So when his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were deeply grieved and came and reported to their lord all that had happened. 32 Then summoning him, his lord said to him, ‘You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 ‘Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way that I had mercy on you?’ 34 And his lord, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him. 35 My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart.”
What a sad turn of events. The servant had been shown incredible generosity, but he when he found a fellow servant who owed a much smaller debt, he wasn’t willing to show the slightest bit of mercy. He had felt great compassion, when the king chose to set him free, but he ruthlessly grabbed his fellow servant by the throat and gave no consideration. The king had been willing to thoroughly wipe away his debt, but this man refused to let go of the grudge he held against his fellow servant. When the king learned of what he had done, he was furious, and had the unforgiving servant thrown in prison.
We need to be careful here, and not misunderstand what Jesus is telling us. He is not saying that forgiveness should be easy… it’s not. It is only by God’s grace that we are able show the same mercy to others that he has shown to us. Jesus is not saying if we struggle, at times, we’re in danger of losing our salvation. Scripture teaches that the believer is secure in Christ. All of us struggle, at times, to forgive. We look to God for help. He is saying that if we’ve experienced God’s grace, it should show up in the way we respond to others, when we’ve been wronged. One author puts it this way, “Jesus’ central point is that forgiven people forgive. Those who refuse to forgive comparatively small offenses show that they have never truly appropriated God’s far more lavish forgiveness.” (Zondervan NIV Study Bible)
If you are here this morning, and you realize that there is someone you need to forgive, ask the Lord to work in your heart. “Lord I don’t want to be consumed by anger anymore, I don’t want to be filled with rage every time I see that person… help me to let go, and give it over to you.” Pray for them. Remember the forgiveness that you have received.
There’s a story about two brothers who lived next door, on adjoining farms. For over 40 years they worked side by side, sharing equipment and helping each other out whenever needed. Then one day a rift developed. It began with a small misunderstanding and it grew into a major difference, and finally it exploded into an exchange of bitter words followed by months of angry silence.
The older brother was out in his field working, one day, when a car pulled up and stopped in front of his home. A young man hopped out carrying a toolbox, and approached the farmer. “I’m looking for work” he said. “I’m pretty good at fixing things. Would you happen to have a few small jobs I could do for you?”
The farmer thought about it for a moment, and answered, “Yes, I believe there is a project you could help me with. Do you see the creek down there? It’s the property line that run between my farm, and my brother’s farm. He keeps it nice and deep to keep me from setting foot on his property. Well, I’ll oblige him. I want you to take the timber over there by the barn and build me a fence, a real tall one, so I don’t have to look at him anymore.”
The young man agreed, and got right to work. The farmer had a few errands to run, so he drove into town, and left the worker on his own to finish the job. When he came home, that evening, he was shocked to see what the builder had done. There was no fence. Instead, the young man had taken all of the wood and built a bridge from one side of the creek to the other. The farmer wasn’t happy. This was the opposite of what had wanted done. He took a couple of steps onto the bridge, trying to figure out what he was going to do. But before long, he looked up and his younger brother was walking across the bridge toward him. His brother held out his hand and said, “After all that I’ve done to you, I can’t believe you would still reach out to me. You’re right. It’s time to let go our differences, and forgive each other. The brothers met at the center of the bridge and hugged.
They turned to see the carpenter hoisting the tool box onto his shoulder. “Wait! Why don’t you stay for a few days? There are plenty of other projects we have around here for you to do.”
The young man replied, “I’d love to say, but I have more bridges to build.”