Summary: We love to talk about how God has forgiven us, but we sometimes choke on the idea of forgiving others.
People often speak about a certain kind of gift as a “gift that keeps on giving.” It’s used often, but do you know its origin? In 1924, Victor Talking Machines trademarked that phrase to promote the sale of their talking machines, later called phonographs. This was before cassettes tapes, and CDs. By giving a phonograph as a gift, it would keep on giving enjoyment as the owners could hear music for years. Today I’m not going to talk about a gift that keeps on giving, I’m going to talk about a gift that keeps on FORGIVING—and that gift is God’s grace.
We love to talk about how God has forgiven us, but we sometimes choke on the idea of forgiving others. A pastor friend of mine tells the story of driving along as his two sons fought in the backseat. He looked in the rearview mirror just in time to see the foot of his 10 year-old connect squarely with the jaw of the 7-year-old, who started screaming in pain. The pastor pulled the car off the road and got his older son out and said, “Why did you do that to your brother?” He said, “Because he keeps hitting me and won’t stop.” The father said, “Son, why can’t you just forgive him?” His son said, “Dad, why should I forgive him when I know he’s going to keep on hitting me?” The pastor said that was a question he had often been asked by adults, and he still didn’t have a good answer. The world’s answer is simple: Payback time! But as Christians, we’re told to turn the other cheek; we’re told to forgive. But sometimes forgiveness is very difficult when we know the person who needs our forgiveness is going to keep on hitting us.
In this passage Jesus shares a powerful parable about forgiveness.
Matthew 18:21-35. “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?’ Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven [or “seven times seventy”] times. Therefore the kingdom of heaven is a like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. 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. The servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.”
Wow, isn’t this a great story of forgiveness? Let’s talk about that today. But wait a minute, there’s more. I wish the story ended here. It would be much more pleasant. But I suppose we should read the rest of the story!
“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. His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’ But he refused. Instead he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened. Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘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 handed 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.”
Actually, Peter’s question demonstrated his attempt to be magnanimous. The Old Testament standard was an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth—no forgiveness. But the rabbis had adjusted that standard to say that a good Jew would forgive someone three times, but no more. If someone stomped on your toe once, forgive them. They stomped a second and third time, forgive them. But when they stomp the fourth time: Pow! Right in the kisser!
So Peter offered to double that standard of three and add one for good measure. Seven times, Lord? Jesus answered by saying that forgiveness isn’t about counting; it’s about character. There should be no limits to forgiveness. Then Jesus tells the parable to illustrate this truth.
In order to keep the characters straight; I’ve made up some names. The King, of course, represents God. One day He will demand a full accounting for the debts all people owe Him as their Creator. One servant arrives; whom we’ll call Hardhearted Harry. The royal auditors have been doing their job so the king rolls out a long scroll revealing Harry owes an astronomical amount of money. The word Jesus used could mean $10 million or $10 trillion, because it was a word to describe an amount beyond belief. Harry fell on his knees and said, “Please give me some time, and I’ll pay you back.” The kindly king knew it was a lie, but he took the scroll and wrote the word “FORGIVEN” across the endless column of numbers. Now if I had been telling this parable, I would have ended the story there because everyone lived happily ever after. But Jesus often added uncomfortable twists to conclude His parables.