The Freedom of Forgiveness
Text: Matthew 18:21-35
Intro: There was a man who really loved dogs. He devoted his life to them. He read about them, studied them, and even gave talks about them to other dog lovers. One day he decided to pour a new sidewalk in front of his house. His neighbor watched from his window as he smoothed out the last square foot of cement.
Just then, a large dog appeared and walked through the fresh cement, leaving paw prints behind. The man muttered something under his breath and smoothed out the damage.
He then went inside to get some twine so he could put up a fence around the sidewalk. But, when he got back outside, he discovered some more dog tracks in his fresh cement. He smoothed out the cement and put up the fence.
He then went into the house. Five minutes later he looked outside and saw some more paw prints. He was really mad now. He got out his trowel and smoothed the cement one more time. As he got back to his porch, the dog reappeared and sat right in the middle of the sidewalk.
He went inside, grabbed his gun and shot the dog dead. The neighbor rushed over and said, “Why did you do that? I thought you loved dogs.” The man thought for a minute and said, “I do, I do like dogs. But that’s in the abstract. I hate dogs in the concrete.”
That’s how many of us feel about our theme for this morning. We love to hear about forgiveness in the abstract, but when it hits close to home, we hate it in the concrete.
Relational viruses attack every friendship. Tensions arise. Wrongs are done. Lies are told. Trust is broken. Since we’re imperfect people, we’re bound to have trouble with forgiveness. I’m convinced that relationships are built not on a standard of perfection, but on our ability to ask for forgiveness, and upon our willingness to extend forgiveness. In other words, grace must flow into our relationships!
If you and I want to have relationships that last for the long haul, then we must be willing to extend forgiveness to others. Here’s another way to say it: In every relationship you have, you will constantly be called on to forgive and to ask for forgiveness.
Forgiveness is costly -- it’s not easy to ask for forgiveness and it’s certainly not easy to extend forgiveness to those who’ve wronged us. Proverbs 18:19 says that, “An offended brother is more unyielding than a fortified city, and disputes are like the barred gates of a citadel.”
Forgiveness is the virtue we most enjoy and least employ. There are at least two reasons why we struggle with forgiveness: 1. Forgiveness is not natural. That’s why it’s so hard to do. 2. Forgiveness is not fair. Our sense of justice wants to be vindicated.
1. Unlimited Forgiveness
Of all the people in the Bible, Peter stands out as the most mathematical of the disciples. He was a stickler for detail, always trying to pin down the precise meaning of everything Jesus said. Do you remember when Jesus engineered a miraculous catch of fish? It was probably Peter who sat down and counted each squirming one to find out that they caught 153. If you were to count the number of times that Peter messed up, you’d discover that he needed forgiveness on at least 7 different occasions.
Being a numbers-guy, one day Peter came up to Jesus and asked him a question in Matthew 18:21, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times? I find his question a bit amusing. Here’s Peter, the one who needed personal forgiveness on at least 7 different occasions himself, being concerned with how many times he had to forgive someone else. He was trying to discover a mathematical formula for grace.
When you think about it, we all have some barriers that keep us from giving the gift of forgiveness to others. We have a threshold that we don’t want to cross, a limit we won’t go beyond. There are at least three barriers in an unforgiving heart:
Revenge ¬ “I’m going to get even!”
Resentment ¬ “I’m going to stay angry!”
Remembering ¬ “I’ll never forget!”
We’ve all asked this question at one time or another. “How many times do I have to forgive this guy? I’m getting tired of it. Why does he keep hurting me like he does?” Peter may have been thinking of a time when somebody wronged him and he had extended forgiveness. But, this same person did something to hurt him the next day. Again, Peter forgave him. A couple days later, his friend lied to him. This time, Peter reluctantly forgave him but now he’s angry. Peter wanted Jesus to help him set some forgiveness limits. Peter wanted to know when it’s OK to say, “That’s it. You’ve messed up one too many times!”
I wonder if Peter here is thinking of something his brother Andrew did. Maybe Andrew didn’t put the fishing nets away, or maybe he was always borrowing Peter’s clothes, or maybe he borrowed some shekels to buy some fish & chips at the diner and never paid Pete back.
Whatever the case, before Jesus could answer, Peter responded to his own question by suggesting that seven times would be a good limit. That’s not a bad answer. The rabbis back then taught that you had to forgive someone three times and then you could retaliate. The fourth time you could do whatever you liked. In fact, they mistakenly taught that God only forgives three times. Peter doubled that and added one for good measure. I think he thought his answer would impress Jesus.
To be honest, forgiving someone seven times is commendable. Most of us get frustrated if we have to forgive someone twice. By human standards, what Peter said was admirable and perhaps even extravagant. But Peter wanted a number, a limit, a place where he could finally say, “That’s it -- you’re not getting away with this any longer. Our friendship is now over.”
As Jesus often does, his answer to Peter was unexpected. Take a look at verse 22: “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven times.” The crash you hear is Peter hitting the ground in a dead faint. He couldn’t believe his ears! Seventy times seven? He got out his pocket calculator and punched in the numbers. That’s 490 times!
Jesus isn’t suggesting that we count the number of times we forgive someone -- 298, 299, 300 -- only 190 to go! Not at all. Seventy times seven means there is no limit to the number of times we are to forgive someone. Actually, if you were to count, by the time you reach 490, you would be in the habit of continual and unlimited forgiveness. That’s precisely the point Jesus is making -- you don’t keep score when it comes to forgiveness. Like grace, forgiveness has a disturbing quality to some because it is undeserved, unmerited, and unfair.
2. When We Need Forgiveness
Since the truth of forgiveness without limits is hard for us to grasp, Jesus told a story to help illustrate what He meant. In the first half of the story, Jesus deals with those of us who need forgiveness. He gives us some practical help for those times when we’ve wronged someone and stand in need of their forgiveness.
In the second half, He targets those of us who need to forgive others. We’ll find some practical help for those times when someone has wronged us -- when they’re in need of our forgiveness.
Let’s start with verses 23-24: “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 10,000 talents was brought to him.”
Here’s the picture. The king in the land decided to call in all his debts. He sent out his collection agents and they came back with a man who owed the king a large sum. Some calculate the amount to be the equivalent of about $25 million. We’re not sure exactly how he ran up this kind of debt but it’s clear that he would never be able to repay the king.
Since he couldn’t pay the debt, verse 25 says that, “the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.” The king knew he could never recoup all his losses -- he just wanted to get back whatever he could.
At this point, the servant did what most of us would have done. He fell on his knees and said, “Be patient with me, and I will pay back everything.” Even though he could never pay it back, he’s now desperate. He can’t stand the thought of his family being sold because of the debt he ran up.
The king was moved. The Bible says that he was filled with compassion. And, he does something the man doesn’t even ask for. The king not only releases him, he also forgives the debt. This is at great personal cost to the king. By assuming the debt, he allowed it to go unpaid and had less in his treasury. He wipes the slate clean, erases the books, and cancels the debt. Now the man owes him nothing.
This is exactly what forgiveness is all about. To forgive is to cancel the debt. When we’ve wronged someone, and they choose to forgive us, they are in essence saying, “I cancel the debt. The slate has been wiped clean. You don’t owe me anything -- I release you from ever having to pay me back.”
Notice that the servant did not deserve this forgiveness; it was purely an act of grace and mercy on the part of the king. Perhaps you’ve done something to someone but you’ve never asked for forgiveness. Maybe you know that you’ve offended your friend but you haven’t owned up for it. I encourage you to…
1 - Face Your Friend. The first step you need to take if you’re the guilty party is to meet with your friend or foe face-to-face. In Matthew 5:24, Jesus put it this way, “If your brother has something against you...go and be reconciled to your brother.” Is there someone you need to “go” to this week? Anyone you need to call? Do you need to stop at someone’s house?
2 - Own The Wrong. The second step, after you’ve faced your friend, is to own the wrong that has been done. There’s a phrase athletes sometimes use that might be applicable here. When they mess up they often point to themselves and say, “My bad.” It’s their way of saying that it’s no one else’s fault. I messed up. Friends, when we mess up in our relationships, Jesus wants us to own the wrong, to say, “My bad.” It’s not enough to just acknowledge a mistake -- we need to own it.
3 - Ask For Release. After facing your friend and owning the wrong, the next step is to ask for release. I suggest that you actually say the words, “Please forgive me.” If your friend says something like, “It’s no big deal, don’t worry about it,” you might want to say, “I appreciate that, but I need to have your forgiveness. Do you forgive me?” It’s really important to be released from the debt.
3. When We Need To Forgive Others
Let’s go back to the story. As this humbled man walked away with this wonderful gift of forgiveness, he ran into a friend who owed him some money. It wasn’t a lot of money. In comparison to the $25 million that he had owed the king, it might have been a day’s wages. Maybe his friend had borrowed the money to feed or clothe his family and hadn’t paid it back yet. Instead of canceling his friend’s debt, verse 28 says that he grabbed him and began to choke him saying, “Pay back what you owe me!”
Jesus continues by telling us that the forgiven man’s friend fell to his knees and asked for some time. In fact, his plea was almost identical to the other man’s when he was before the king: “Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.” But, there’s one big difference. Instead of forgiving the wrong out of gratitude for the forgiveness he had received, verse 30 says, “he went off and had the man thrown in prison until he could pay the debt.”
We’re a lot like this man when we don’t forgive others. We enjoy putting people in prison if they’ve wronged us. We want them to suffer, to hurt as bad as they hurt us.
We put people in prison in various ways:
We might use the silent treatment
We may simply avoid them
Or, we may launch a volley of verbal assaults
Are you holding someone hostage right now? Are you trying to make them feel miserable? Are you determined to punish a friend or family member for something that he or she said to you? Got a few people hanging in your backyard? If that describes you, let’s pick up the story again to see what happens.
This man made a critical mistake. He threw his friend in prison in broad daylight. Someone saw it happen and reported it to the king. Word got around and soon everyone was talking about it. It wasn’t the fact that the man would not forgive his friend that shocked them. It was that he was so unforgiving after having found such mercy and grace himself.
The king is very angry now. He sends his soldiers to bring the man before him. Notice verses 32-34: “You wicked servant. 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 torturers until he paid back all he owed.” This guy had a $25 million debt forgiven. Shouldn’t he have done the same for someone who owed him a few lousy dollars?
4. Hidden Torturers
Listen closely. What happened to that man will happen to each one of us unless we learn to forgive without limits. The torturers will come and take us away if we don’t extend forgiveness to those who have wronged us. What torturers, you ask? The hidden torturers of anger and bitterness that eat your insides out. The torturers of frustration and malice that give you ulcers, high blood pressure, migraine headaches, and lower back pain. The hidden torturers that make you lie awake at night stewing over every wrong that someone has done to you. The torturers of an unforgiving heart who stalk you day and night, who never leave your side, who suck every bit of joy out of your life. Why? Because you will not forgive from your heart.
While we often try to punish and imprison those who hurt us, the reverse actually happens. When we don’t forgive we end up being tortured. Do you know where the worst prison is in the entire world? It’s the prison of an unforgiving heart. If we nurture feelings of bitterness we are little better than inmates of an internal concentration camp.
Many of us lock ourselves in a lonely isolation chamber, where we are tortured incessantly, walled in by bitterness and our own refusal to forgive. When we choose to not forgive, we are imprisoned in the past and locked out of all potential for change. Have you ever noticed that some of the most miserable people in the world are those who are unwilling to forgive others?
If we don’t forgive, we remain bound to the people we cannot forgive, held in their vise grip. And yet, many of us persist in demanding that others act in a way that we ourselves can never achieve. When we forgive, we set a prisoner free and then discover that the prisoner we set free was us!
To forgive is a process of giving up. That’s exactly what the word forgiveness means -- it means, “to give” to someone by releasing them from debt. It also carries the idea of “releasing, and freeing yourself.” It’s like saying, “You did something that really hurt me. But I care enough about you to meet face-to-face. And now, I release you from all obligation to ever pay me back. I forgive you completely.” When we cancel the debt, we give up demands for perfect behavior, perfect justice, and perfect retribution. When we extend forgiveness, we begin to experience the truth that all of us are fallible humans in need of being forgiven ¬ and in desperate need of grace.
C.S. Lewis has said, “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.”
Ernest Hemingway loved to write about the country of Spain. In his short story, The Capital of the World, Hemingway tells of a father and son who had stopped talking to one another. Things got so bad that the son left home. After several years, the father wanted to mend the relationship and so he looked everywhere for his son. When he came to the capital city of Madrid, he decided to go to the newspaper office and take out a big ad in the newspaper that said this: “Paco, please meet me at 12 noon tomorrow in front of the newspaper office -- all is forgiven. I love you. Your Father.”
The next day at 12 noon, there were 800 men named Paco standing in front of the building! I suspect we have some Paco’s here this morning in need of forgiveness. We also have some who need to give the gift of forgiveness to others.
Do you need to ask forgiveness from someone? Can you think of a person right now? Is there someone you’ve wronged and you haven’t owned up for it? Are you ready to make the decision to go to that person and make things right? If so, would you please raise your hand?
Do you need to extend forgiveness to someone? Have you been holding a grudge? Are you giving someone the silent treatment? Are you ready to forgive the debt? If so, would you please raise your hand?
Do you need to admit your sins to a holy God and receive His forgiveness? If you haven’t done so, now is the right time. The cost of our sins is more than we can pay. The gift of our God is more than we can imagine. If you are ready to receive the gift of divine forgiveness this morning, would you raise your hand?
Some thoughts and ideas adapted from Brian Bill, sermoncentral.com