TO FORGIVE IS HUMAN (MATTHEW 18:21-35)
Some officers during the Korean War rented a house for themselves and hired a Korean houseboy to work for them. He was a cheerful, happy soul, and they were young and had a lot of fun playing tricks on him.
The officers would nail his shoes to the floor, and they would put water up over the door so that when he pushed it open the bucket would fall on him. They played all kinds of tricks, but he always took them in such a beautiful, good humor that they finally became ashamed for themselves.
The men called him in one day and said, “We’ve been doing all these mean things to you and you have taken it so beautifully. We just want to apologize to you and tell you that we are never going to do those things again.” He said, “You mean no more nail shoes to floor?” They said, “No more.” He said, “You mean no more water on door?” They said, “No more.” “Okay then,” he said, “no more spit in soup!”
The parables in Matthew have their distinctive features. They are called the parables of the kingdom of heaven and most of them begin with the classic statement that is unique to Matthew: “The kingdom of heaven is like…” (Matt 13:33-52, 20:1, 22:2, 25:1-14). In Matthew 18, Jesus stressed that forgiveness is the mark of kingdom citizens. God in Christ has forgiven us of our sins (1 John 1:9), our debts and our transgressions or unrighteousness (Rom 4:7).
Why has God forgiven us of our sins? How serious was the offense? In what way can we repay His forgiveness?
You are a Debtor
21 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?” 22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. 23 “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. 25 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. 26 “The servant fell on his knees before him. ’Be patient with me,’ he begged, ’and I will pay back everything.’ 27 The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go. (Matt 18:21-27)
My favorite Broadway musical of all time is Les Miserables, which beautifully contrasts law and grace, condemnation and forgiveness, justice and mercy. A man who spent 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread became a bitter, hardened and destructive man at his release. When he was recaptured for stealing things from a church, the kind bishop, instead of turning him in, assured the police that they were gifts from him, not stolen.
Jean Valjean, given a second chance, changed his name, identity and act, skipped parole and ended up in a small town, becoming the town mayor, benefactor and philanthropist. A detective, Javert, however, was determined to take him to justice for parole violation, no matter what good he had done and how far he had run.
Many times Jean Valjean miraculously and barely escaped Inspector Javert’s long arms of the laws. Still, when Jean Valjean learned that the inspector was captured by revolutionary-bent students in the dark days before the French Revolution, he risked his life to save Javert from execution, thereafter turning himself in to the exasperated police. Javert, instead of saying thanks and expressing gratitude, said, “You annoy me. Kill me rather.” He could not accept kindness from a criminal and yet he could not bring himself to arrest his savior. Xavier took the only way and the tragic way out of his self-imposed prison and rigid stand: he committed suicide. The man who swore to uphold the law and to abide by justice refused to be held hostage by mercy or love!
You are a debtor, not “were a debtor,” but “are a debtor.” God in Christ has forgiven you more than you would ever know or you could ever count.
Rabbinical law asserts a man should forgive his debtor up to four times, but Jesus knew no such figures and set no countable limits. The first debtor owes ten thousand talents, which is an astronomical figure. The talent was the greatest denomination in the accounting of money or weight. International Standard Bible Encyclopedia comments that a talent could be either of silver or gold, and the estimated worth is about 410 British pounds or $2,050 (in 1915) for the silver talent and 6,150 British pounds or $30,750 (in 1915) for the gold. We are not told if the talent owed was in gold or silver, but 10,000 silver talents equal $20.5 billion (The figure is so large that my small calculator could only say “E 3.075”!) and 10,000 gold talents equal $307.5 billion - in 1915. According to NIV’s translation of Revelation 16:21, the one talent “hailstone” in Greek is about 100 pounds heavy each.
The man was in deep trouble and at the end of his rope. No parent, patron or plan could bail him out of debt, even if it was in modest silver. Not even if he had ten jobs, ten lives or ten children at work! Servicing the interest was impossible, let alone the loan! His debt was more than Bill Gates could ever give and more than Bill Gates’ personal worth. Whether the debt was in silver or gold was irrelevant. He couldn’t declare bankruptcy even if he wanted to. Humanly speaking, it was immeasurable and irredeemable. He had nothing to pay, so the master ordered not only for the man but also his wife to be sold; and not only his wife, but his family; and not only just one child, but all the siblings; and not only his family, but all his possessions. His future was bleak, his freedom was threatened and his family was doomed. It was worse than being friendless, penniless and homeless. This is the only account of human transaction in the gospels. The command, however, was never personal. The king did not pick on the servant; he settled accounts with all his servants (v 23). His intentions were not to own the man and his family, he just wanted his money back.
The debtor realized the hardship ahead of him. He might be shipped out of town. His family members might be sold together to different owners. Then he did a most dramatic thing. He fell down and worshipped the master – the critical Greek word “worshipped” is missing in the NIV. No one other than the magi who fell down and worshiped baby Jesus (Matt 2:11) had that kneeling experience in the New Testament.
The debtor appealed for the master’s patience (v 26) and pledged to repay everything, which was an unrealistic pledge and an impossible dream. The words were nonsense, but the heartbreaking and demonstrative plea touched the master’s heart. Compassion welled in the master’s heart, streamed into his blood and got under his skin. Tenderness, soft-heartedness and sympathy set in. The master felt torn and wretched about taking such a course of action, knowing he couldn’t guarantee the family will be sold intact and thinking of the separation of the man from his wife, the wife from his children and his children from one another. So the master signaled for his men to free the debtor and let him go.
You Have Been Delivered
28 “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. 29 “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ’Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’ 30 “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. (Matt 18:28-30)
A young couple from the hills got involved in a church where there was a lot of shouting and clapping and running down the aisles for Jesus. They were trying to convince Grandma that she should attend. “You should have seen it,” the young man said to Grandma. “The Holy Spirit was really there! The music was rocking the place. It was awesome!” Grandma kept rocking in her chair and didn’t say a word.
“And, Grandma,” said the young woman, “you should have seen the preacher. He really got with it. He was shouting and screaming at the top of his voice and people were popping up like popcorn to praise the Lord. It was unbelievable!” Again, Grandma kept right on rocking.
Finally, the young man said, “Grandma, don’t you like our church? You never seem to say.” Grandma finally rose from the chair to speak: “Honey, let me just put it this way. I don’t care how loud they shout, and I don’t care how high they jump. It’s what they do when they come back down that counts!”
Once the debtor went out the door, he was a changed man and sang a different tune. He forgot his deliverance from misery, meaninglessness and much more. The passionate man left his head and emotions at the door and went head-hunting instead. The man who almost lost his freedom and his family found one of his fellow servants that owed him a mere hundred denarii in contrast, grabbed him by the throat, restraining, choking and hurting the man. The previously harmless and pitiable man had turned into an unfeeling and unrecognizable monster. The Greek text reads “seized him by the throat” – not just “grabbed him” (v 29). He went straight for the jugular or the windpipe. It was a most undignified, uncivilized, untamed, unbecoming and unwarranted act, the only occurrence of the Greek word “throat” in the Bible. The unforgiving man, exemplified by the debtor, is an enemy, an abuser, a brute, an animal and a savage. The freed debtor was still a slave and a creature of habits, conditioned by the past, captive and chained to his blindness. His newly found freedom had the opposite effect on him. It brought out in him pride and not humility, self-righteousness and not righteousness, madness and not meekness, misconduct and not morality, mindlessness and not maturity.
The man roared at the fellow servant and shouted for his money back. At that point, the fellow servant fell at the man’s feet but, unlike the previous debtor, did not worship; after all, it was just a hundred denarii or a hundred days’ work. Also, unlike the first man, he did not say he would repay “everything” (v 26), because did not owe much. In the end, he pleaded for patience like the debtor did previously, but without the desired result.
The mean spirited man showed his true colors. Unlike the master who wanted to sell the debtor and his family and possessions to recover his loan, the man just wanted to punish the fellow servant, throw him into jail and teach him a lesson. He didn’t care to know if the servant had anything to sell or pawn to pay off his debt, whether he had friends and relative to call on and that the servant’s prison record would scare off all potential employers. This guy was sadistic, mean, cruel, vicious, relishing and enjoying it.
You Must Have Decency
31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened. 32 “Then the master called the servant in. ’You wicked servant,’ he said, ’I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ 34 In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. 35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.” (Matt 18:31-35)
There is a story about a king in Africa who had a close friend that he grew up with. The friend had a habit of looking at every situation that ever occurred in his life and remarking, “This is good!”
One day the king and his friend were out on a hunting expedition. The friend would load and prepare the guns for the king. The friend had apparently done something wrong in preparing one of the guns, for after taking the gun from his friend, the king fired it and his thumb was blown off. Examining the situation the friend remarked as usual, “This is good!” To which the king replied, “No, this is NOT good!” and proceeded to send his friend to jail.
About a year later, the king was hunting in an area that he should have known to stay clear of. Cannibals captured him and took him to their village. They tied his hands, stacked some wood, set up a stake and bound him to the stake.
As they came near to set fire to the wood, they noticed that the king was missing a thumb. Being superstitious, they never ate anyone that was less than whole. So untying the king, they sent him on his way. As he returned home, he was reminded of the event that had taken his thumb and felt remorse for his treatment of his friend. He went immediately to the jail to speak with his friend. “You were right” he said, “it was good that my thumb was blown off.” And he proceeded to tell the friend all that had just happened. “And so I am very sorry for sending you to jail for so long. It was bad for me to do this.” “No,” his friend replied, “this is good!”
“What do you mean, ‘this is good!’ How could it be good that I sent my friend to jail for a year.”
“If I had not been in jail, I would have been with you.”
It’s been said, “To be unforgiving is like taking the poison yourself, and expecting the other person to die from it!”
Unfortunately for the hardhearted man, his deafening roar and demeaning actions were the talk of the town. The man was the most coldhearted and ungrateful man the other fellow servants had ever seen. They were not indignant or outraged; they were just sad, stunned and speechless. They were greatly distressed at the attitude of the insensitive debtor and for the welfare of the imprisoned man. The repentant Peter was “sorry” (John 21:17) for betraying Jesus, but the Greek records that the servants were “very sorry” ( v31) - that such a man existed and such a situation arose. So they told the master.
The master was not as polite and respectful as the servants. He did not scream like the debtor in his fellow servant’s face, but he called his debtor “wicked” bluntly to his face – the only person to be called out as such to his face in the gospels.
The king (v 23) was not an unrealistic or unreasonable man. He did not expect the debtor to cancel his fellow servant’s debt, since he may not be able to afford that. All he was asking was for the debtor to be merciful (v 33), lenient and humane to his fellow servant – not to give in to grudges, hostility, spite, malice and ruthlessness.
Jesus hinted of his coming wrath occasionally but only in the context of the parables (Matt 22:8, Luke 14:21). The phrase “from your hearts” (v 35) was an indictment on the unforgiving debtor who never understood or appreciated forgiveness personally. Forgiveness is not a feeling but an act. The debtor learned an unfortunate lesson: The king forgave his debt, but not erased his debt. NIV needlessly used the word “canceled” instead of “forgave” (KJV and NASB) in verse 27. Biblical forgiving is not forgetting; it is forsaking. Forgive has the natural idea of forsaking, setting things aside, letting go of things, or putting it on the backburner, and not the wrong notion of forgetting a wrong, erasing the memory, wiping out the past or pretending things had not transpired.
Conclusion: Forgiveness is an order, an obligation and an opportunity. He who is unforgiving invites rebuke, condemnation and rejection upon himself. It’s been said, “He who does not forgive burns the same bridges he himself must cross.” Do you know how significant your sins are compared to the wrongs you have suffered? If God in Christ has forgiven you, won’t you forgive others? Do you know that the sooner you forgive, the easier you’ll breathe, the healthier and happier you are? Be like Jesus, who prayed with his dying breath on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
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