Scriptures: Romans 14:1-12 ; Matthew 18:21-35
Today's passage is simple on the surface, but difficult in execution. As we look at it more deeply, and look into the concept of forgiveness, we find that things are much tougher than we might have thought. We're going through the Beatitudes in the Tuesday Bible study, and it just so happens, by the Spirit's timing, that this last week we were talking about showing mercy to others and forgiving, and there were some rather revolutionary thoughts in there about forgiveness.
I recommend that book to you, Momentum by Colin Smith. (I also recommend that you come to Bible study on Tuesdays, since it's by Zoom so you don't have to leave your house. But you can at least read the book.)
We are living in a day that is rapidly descending from Biblical values and the ideals that Jesus built his church upon. We have the “cancel culture.” We have social networks' rudeness and lack of forgiveness on things. I would even submit to you that there are demonic attempts to try to shape the church to the days we are living in. We are becoming like the culture, like the world, particularly and often in our attempts to become relevant. But all that we end up doing is weakening the base of our faith.
Forgiveness is something that doesn't seem to be in the world today. We have politicians openly defending what I would consider to be heinous behaviors and division. On both sides, the rhetoric is absolutely grievous, rooted in lies, fallacies, and open deception. I saw an interview where a leader in Black Lives Matter justified the looting from stores as a means of reparation, even though those folks had done nothing to this particular person.
Now on one level it's understandable. We all want to be paid for someone's mistake against us. The dinner that the restaurant didn't make just right. Or more often, at least for me, the service that was not what I had asked for and desired. I give on both ends. I've called the manager in to praise people too (which really freaks waiters and waitresses out).
But there have been times the service was terrible. There was one time we ate at … I don't remember the restaurant, it was a regional restaurant in the East coast I literally left two cents, so they would know I didn't forget to leave a tip, but rather that their service was so poor that I just could not, it seemed at that time, forgive.
Here in the church, many spend time demanding payment. The pastor said something we didn't like, or maybe the wrong song was played. Churches have split over what they call the “worship wars,” between whether you should have more contemporary or more traditional music, and the style of the service – whether it should be a “seeker-sensitive” service or more of a teaching service.
Does someone owe you an apology? Maybe somebody owes you a second chance, an explanation, a thank-you. If you were to stop and think about it, you could make some people aware of a debt that they owe you, and you could amass some good reasons why it's owed.
It seems like we've lose the meaning, purpose, and origin of forgiveness in the church. We've lost it because we're trying to use worldly standards as a Godly principle. We're like Peter, who asked Jesus in our passage today, “How many times should I forgive my brother? Seven times?”
Now you must understand, from Peter's perspective, that was exceedingly generous. According to the Jewish law and tradition, you had to forgive a family member up to three times, before you could demand some sort of reparation, or apology, etc. With Gentiles, you didn't have to forgive them at all.
So when Peter says seven times – and seven is the number of completion in the Jewish tradition – basically he's saying, should I forgive them that many times, is that when it's complete? And Jesus shocks him, and I'm sure the disciples around him, when Jesus says,” I do not say to you up to seven times but” – and my translation says seventy times seven, which I prefer over 77.
The reason why is not because 490 is a lot larger than 77, though it is, but because of the concept involved. That is, if seven is the number of perfection, and you have 70 times 7, then basically, he's saying for ever. There is no limit to the number of times you forgive someone.
The parable, then, is to explain why. Why should he do this? The kingdom of heaven may be compared, Jesus says, to a lord who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. He did an audit. And when he had begun to settle them, one who would owed 10,000 talents was brought to him.
To give you an idea of how much that is, in terms of a silver talent, a talent was a measure of weight of silver. These days gold and silver are measured in what are called troy ounces, and they have a certain value.
A talent is a measure of silver or gold, and let's assume it was silver. It was about 3000 denarii ( a denarius was the daily wage) per silver talent. When you multiply that out by ten thousand times, you get a whole lot of denarii, over 20 years worth of wages for a single talent. One modern commentator estimated at about sixteen billion dollars, as what he would be owing today. Somebody like Jeff Bezos might be able to pay it, but I sure couldn't.
It was a debt that could never be repaid. And yet, when the lord said – and he was within his rights – he was going to sell the man and his wife and his children and all that he had, he throws himself on the ground, prostrating himself, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will repay you everything.”
Now there is no way he could repay it. Absolutely no way. Not within his lifetime. But he had the determination. He had the desire for forgiveness. Presumably the lord thought he repented of what he did to cause that debt. And on the basis of that repentance, the lord felt compassion and released him and forgave the debt – forgave a sixteen billion dollar debt. That is a whole lot of forgiveness.
That slave went out from there, and found another slave who owe him a debt of one hundred denarii. That's not insignificant. That's a hundred days ways, almost a third of a year's wages. But he seized him and began to choke him, saying, “Pay back what you owe.”
Now this slave did exactly the same thing as the other slave had done before the lord. He put himself on the ground, and began to plead, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will repay you everything.” But the servant was unwilling and threw the guy in prison, until he should pay back what he owed.
They had debtors prisons in those days. Actually they've had debtors prisons up until early 1900's. If you look at some of the settings of Charles Dickens' writings and things like that, they include the concept of debtors prisons.
Now other slaves saw what happened, and they were understandably upset. They had seen what happened with the one slave, and then they'd seen how he turned around and treated the other slave. So they told their lord, and the lord summoned him and said, “I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way I had mercy on you?”
Then the Lord handed him over to the torturers, until he should repay all that was owed. Now remember, there is no way he could repay everything that was owed. So basically he was to be tortured for the rest of his life, and beyond. So Jesus says this as a warning. “My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive your brother from your heart.”
This leads, I think, to some misconceptions, both with ourselves and with others, regarding forgiveness. There are two things that are woven through here, that I think we need to understand. One is repentance, and the other is the response to repentance.
The lord did not throw that servant in jail simply because he did not forgive the other servant. He threw the servant in jail because apparently, when pleading for mercy, the man had not truly repented of whatever caused his debt.
It obviously had little meaning to him, and therefore the forgiveness had little meaning to him. If it had, he would have had a different attitude toward somebody who was doing the exact same thing. So the forgiveness was revoked for lack of repentance.
This is important in terms of what we looked at this week in Bible study. The author made what I consider the revolutionary statement that we do not need to forgive where there is no repentance, because God does not forgive where there is no repentance. To say that we're required to means that we have a higher standard than God.
This does not mean that we treat them as an enemy, because we have instructions for that as well, do we not? We're to love our enemies. We're to pray for them. We're to bless those that persecute us. Notice that none of those deals, necessarily, with forgiving, but it does mean that we will be in the right frame of mind and heart, to forgive the moment that they repent.
I think this is especially important for us to understand, when dealing with each other, the fact that sometimes we hurt each other without even realizing it. I like to say that you can't repent for something you don't know about. And frankly, saying, “God, I repent of everything I might have done to this person or that person” is a sort of CYA action that really has no profound truth behind it. It's kind of like a life insurance policy. You don't want to lose the policy, so you're just going to check off the box.
It's kind of like in Athens, when Paul talked to the Athenians, and he noted that they were very religious. They had a shrine to every god there, including one that said “Unknown god,” just in case. Paul goes on to tell them who that unknown god was, so that they would understand.
So just like last week, there's a process, if you've been sinned against. Part of that process is making the people recognize that there was a sin. That gives them the opportunity to repent. Then if they repent – and you have to take it at face value, at least initially, just like the lord did in this story – you need to forgive.
If they say, “I don't get it,” then again, the process is in place, from the previous passage, on how to continue things, until you bring them to the point of reconciliation, repentance, and remediation, so that they can be part of the community again, and have the relationship with you and perhaps others restored.
We want, ultimately, to have that relationship with each other. God made us to have relationships with each other. God himself, being a Trinity, is in relationship with himself, the three persons. Part of the hell that Jesus went through, on the cross, was when the Father turned his face away, the Spirit withdrew from him, and he was alone for the first time in eternity.
Just as you and I are alone, separated from God, if we don't understand Jesus Christ as our Savior and our Lord. We're dead in our sins. Note, we're dead. It's not something you can repay. Yet God brings us back to life again. He gives us more than just forgiveness and mercy. He gives us a new life, a new chance, because he loves us. And we're expected to do the same. But it doesn't happen until that repentance happens. So we must accept whatever is offered, as real and true. And we must offer repentance – real repentance – when we have wronged others.
There's an implication to that, that I struggle with greatly. A lot of preachers talk about it, and a lot of writers write about it. But that doesn't make it any easier for me, at least. That is forgiving ourselves. Sometimes we imprison ourselves by unforgiveness towards others, because unforgiveness has at its root anger that will not be released, the desire for vengeance that will not be given to God, for Him to take care of it.
Many Christians put themselves in prison. They are living in a prison of their own making, which is unforgiveness. Unforgiveness hinders and keeps our prayers from being answered, hinders our fellowship and intimacy with our Heavenly Father, and it invokes God’s judgment upon us. C.H. Spurgeon said, “Unless you have forgiven others, you read your own death-warrant when you repeat the Lord’s prayer.” Do you know why? Do you remember the phrase that is in there? We say it every week. “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”
But a lot of times, there is mostly the matter of forgiving ourselves. Again, it was Charles Spurgeon who once said, “Let us go to Calvary to learn how we may be forgiven, and let us linger there to learn how to forgive.” If we have repented of our sin, then we need to learn to let it go as well. If God forgives us of our sin, and has sent Jesus to the cross to die for our sin, and we accept that is true, and yet we say we can't forgive ourselves, then means that we're holding ourselves, again, to a higher standard than God himself.
I don't know about you, but I'm not greater than God (though I suppose sometimes it must cross my mind). God knows our every weakness. God understands our very souls. He loves us, and forgives. And we must forgive as well, not three times, not seven times, but seventy times seven.
Until you have forgiven, you can't move on, whether it be with yourself or others. If you don't forgive yourself for a wrong you did to somebody else, how can you move on with your relationship with them, even if they've forgiven you? Or if you haven't forgiven them for something they did against you, how can you move forward in your relationship? How can you truly be reconciled?
It's a matter of loving and letting go. Corrie ten Boom, who is pretty well-known to a lot of people, was the Dutch woman whose family helped Jews escape Germany. The ten Booms were caught and sent to Nazi concentration camps. She and her family were the victims of atrocities in the camps. Corrie was the only one of her family to survive.
She wrote her account in the book The Hiding Place, and she became a speaker in churches throughout Europe, where her topic usually touched on forgiveness. Once when she had finished speaking in a church, a man came up to her, and his face was familiar, forever etched in her mind. He was a German guard in one of the camps, and he had been one of the worst.
He came up to her, extended his hand, and said, “Corrie, I have become a Christian. I've come to ask you if you will forgive me for all that I did to you and your sister.”
Corrie said, “I froze. A chill went all over me. When I saw all of this one who represented all that was evil, I did not have the power to forgive, nor did I want to forgive him. I breathed a prayer, 'God help me to forgive.' Then, as an act of obedience, I put out my hand. And when my hand touched his, liquid love began to flow, and I found out God's grace was sufficient and I forgave him.”
Be obedient. Trust in God. And God will supply what you need to forgive, whether it be yourself or others, and then the love can flow. And God will get praise and glory for the goodness that He has shown, in you and through you.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.