Jesus often spoke of God’s mercy, but in Matthew 18 He also said, in a statement that can send chills up your spine, “If you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Does that mean we have to forgive everyone? Apparently so … yet no one does it perfectly. We don’t do anything perfectly, so how can we ever hope for the Father to forgive us?
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 times.’”
Imagine that someone has hurt you, and the person says “sorry.” Later, he or she does it again, and says “sorry.” Then it happens again, and again you hear “sorry.” And again, and again, and again …. At what point are you going to say, “I don’t think you’re really sorry,” and you could be right, maybe the person isn’t really sorry? … Forgive them anyway.
Jesus then goes on to tell a parable about the kingdom of heaven, that it’s like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants and a servant who owed him an enormous amount was brought to him. The servant was not able to pay and the king ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. Whew! That’s a hefty sentence, but the debt corresponds to our sins, which we are unable to pay for. We can’t work our way out of this.
But the servant fell on his knees and begged, “Be patient with me, Lord, and I will pay back everything.” So the king took pity on him, canceled the debt, and let him go. If we ask for mercy, God will have mercy on us. It’s interesting, though, that the servant didn’t really understand God’s grace. He asked for mercy, but still thought he could repay it.
But remember, Peter’s question is not whether he is forgiven, but whether he has to forgive others. The parable continues. The servant went out, found one of his fellow servants who owed him a small debt, and violently demanded that he pay back what he owed.
Question? Was the first servant determined to pay off his debt to the king by collecting what he could from others? Do we try to earn God’s respect by looking down on others who we feel aren’t trying as hard or doing as much as we are? The fellow servant begged the first servant to be patient and I will pay you back. We heard that before, but this time the first servant had the man thrown into prison until the debt could be paid.
When word got back to the king, he called the first servant in and said, “I canceled your debt because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?” Here’s where the parable turns into a warning. The first servant was turned over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed …. Jesus then closes the parable by saying, “This is how my heavenly Father will treat you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.” Shocking!
Does it sound like Jesus is saying that God may take away the forgiveness he once gave? There’s no further explanation, but it is a warning to forgive others, not grudgingly, but from your heart. But is it an impossible burden? It’s easy to say “you are forgiven,” but often difficult to really mean it in our heart. Is there lingering anger or bitterness at the injustice done to us?
The better we understand the depth of God’s forgiveness, the better we can forgive others. When God forgives, we are forgiven. There is no debt to repay. There’s nothing to work off, no penance to perform, no need to prove how sincere we are. It’s gone. Go and do likewise.
But forgiveness does not mean that it never happened. It does not mean trusting a swindler with money, a wife-beater to not get abusive again, or giving a thief the key to your home. Forgiving means we do not harbor grudges; we do not seek vengeance. It means letting go of our need to get even. It means loving our enemies and praying for them. We’ve all been hurt. In a world of sin and ignorance, offenses are inevitable. Let them go.
— Joseph Tkach