Summary: This story addresses forgiveness and forgiving others
The Call to Forgiveness
Tim Keller tells the story of being a Yankee and pastoring his first church in a blue collar, Southern town. In the church was one man, who hadn’t even graduated from junior high school and thus, could hardly read. He wanted to live a holy life and knew that just because all the other good ol’ boys did things, it didn’t mean that was the way he should live. So he taught himself to read so that he could study the Bible. As he did, he began to examine his own life and read the Scriptures to understand what a holy life was really about. And Tim Keller writes, “A holy life is an examined life... Every single part of it is examined.” That’s where we find ourselves in our Scripture today. In Jesus’ time, the Jewish life was one that was examined and measured against the 613 laws of the Jewish faith. The desire and goal was to live a life of holiness by fulfilling the law and thus being righteous or in good standing in the eyes of God.
But the problem with the law as Paul pointed out is that it can lead to pride. Rather than seeing the law as a gift of God and our unworthiness to be called his people, we can begin to see our own justification and salvation by our hands and efforts. So one day, the disciples come to Jesus and ask, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” In response, Jesus brings a child to him and then says, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children (children were meant to be silent and thus had no rights and no voice, the lowest of the low), you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus goes on to talk about what causes people to stumble in their faith and then he begins to talk about sin. Peter comes to Jesus and says, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to 7 times?” The Jewish rabbis taught that you should forgive someone 3 times, but after that there was no forgiveness. Peter thought he was being magnanimous by going above and beyond the normal bounds of forgiveness. So he was probably shocked when Jesus said, “I tell you, not 7 times, but 70 x 7 times.” He then 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 from jail he would never be able to do. 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 and Jesus’ audience, the king cancelled the whole debt and let him go.
Then in another surprising twist to the story, the man meets a friend who owes him a few hundred 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.” His 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 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 is a story about Gentiles as revealed by several things. It has a king and only Gentiles had kings. The vast amount conjures up images of the Roman Empire and those who collected taxes on Rome’s behalf. The man in debt begins to grovel or fall down worshipping which is something a Jew would never do. And finally, Jewish law forbade a mother and child being sold into slavery to pay off a debt. This story confirmed the stereotypes of how vicious and cruel Gentiles could be. The King’s actions thus become a huge surprise to the crowd because he has chosen mercy at the expense of the justice he deserved to expend. By linking this parable with a discussion about sin, Jesus must be saying that unforgiveness is a sin and we pay a terrible price for it. In fact, it creates baggage in our lives which hold us back and can even cause us to stumble. I went up in June to visit my mother after she had fallen and undergone several surgeries. When I got to baggage claim, people from an earlier flight were still getting their bags. I saw a woman about my age, 5’1” and maybe 105 pounds struggle to pull her red suitcase off the carousel. Before I was able to get to her, she took not one or two but three heaves to get it off the carousel and then almost stumbled and fell. Now here’s the amazing thing: when she got her suitcase and struggled to carry it, it was as tall as her rib cage. I thought to myself, how could anyone travel with so much baggage? And yet, we do it all the time. We carry unforgiveness around with us and it tinges everything we think, say or do. More than that, it keeps us from becoming who God wants us to be. Life is just better when there’s less baggage. That’s why we need forgiveness in our lives.