Summary: Taking seriously the command of Jesus to forgive -- what it means and what it does not mean.
A man was walking on the sidewalk outside a playground with a high wooden fence and heard the children chanting, “Thirteen! Thirteen! Thirteen!” He stopped and, finding a small hole in the fence, he bent over to look in. Just like that, a finger poked him in the eye. And the chanting continued, but now they were saying, “Fourteen! Fourteen! Fourteen!”
Sometimes this thing of Christian fellowship can seem less like a pat on the back and more like a poke in the eye. It is one of the mysteries of Christendom that believers love each other so poorly when the Jesus we claim to follow said it was central to the life of a believer.
In the scripture today, Jesus points to the importance of forgiveness in this business of loving each other. Peter initiates the discussion when he says, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?” The Jewish rabbis taught that you should forgive someone three times, but after that there was no forgiveness. Peter thought he was being large of heart by going beyond the normal bounds of forgiveness, so he was probably shocked when Jesus said, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” And if the truth were told, we are shocked that Jesus demands this kind of forgiveness as well. We often withhold forgiveness after just one offence, let alone seventy-seven times.
And after Jesus made this shocking statement, he told a parable about a man who owed a king millions of dollars. The king threatened to sell he and his whole family into slavery until the debt was paid — which he would never be able to do. Nevertheless, the servant fell to his knees and begged the king for a chance to repay the debt. And then, in what must have been shocking to him, the king cancelled the whole debt and let him go. The point of this part of the parable is to show how God, the King, deals with us. Because of our many sins, which we can never make right, God forgives all our sins, releases us from all our debt, frees us from our guilt and the bondage of our sin. What this amazing act of grace and generosity should do is fill us with gratitude and a resulting grace toward others.
But in a surprising twist to the story, the man meets a friend of his who owes him a few dollars. He forgets all about how he was treated by the king and demands the debt be repaid immediately. The friend falls on his knees and begs (as he had done with the king) and says, “Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.” But the man refuses his friend’s request and has him thrown into prison “until he could repay the debt,” which was impossible, since he could not work in prison. A shocking turn of events. And their fellow servants report the incident to the king.
So the king calls the servant to appear before him and says, “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?” And then Jesus ends the parable with these frightening words, “In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”
This should give us all pause as we consider our relationships with others. There is no love without forgiveness, and there is no forgiveness without love. Love is what makes life wonderful, but it is the most complex part of life as well, and human relationships are among the most difficult aspects of life. I want to specifically address the issue of love between friends and, in particular, fellow Christians. The first point in what I would like to say is this: A loving person is a forgiving person. This should be obvious, but for many people this is the place where they get stuck the most. Remember that Jesus said: “But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you” (Luke 6:27). This is a particularly relevant verse, since today we commemorate the events of 9/11 and remember what our enemies have done to us. The problem is that in the Christian community we have not even learned how to love our friends, let alone our enemies. We allow petty issues and differences to divide us. How do we ever hope to live up to the command of Christ to love our enemies if we cannot even love those who are our brothers and sisters in Christ? Jesus said, “And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins” (Mark 11:25). All of us have been wronged by other people. All of us have been sinned against. But you cannot pray the Lord’s prayer unless you are willing to forgive those who sinned against you. Do not pray, “Forgive our sins as we forgive those who sin against us,” if you haven’t forgiven others and do not mean it. If you gloss over that part of the Lord’s prayer, or if you think you are forgiving most people, just not everyone, then it is better not to pray the prayer at all.