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Forgiving is for giving

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topic Scripture: Matthew 18:21-35

Thesis: We must forgive others to receive the forgiveness of God.

Americans lead the world in the consumption of aspirin, and in physical problems caused by stress. By the year 2020 depression will likely be the world’s second-most disabling disease, after heart disease. The World Health Organization already ranks depression as first in prevalence among females and fourth overall.

Why are so many people discouraged or depressed? One psychologist said recently that 90% of the problems his clients face can be reduced to two issues: grief over failures of the past or fear of failing in the future. We desperately need to learn to be forgiven, and to forgive. This is the food and shelter of the soul.

Here is the paradox of forgiveness: we are to give what we have received, or we cannot receive it. Jesus’ parable explains why both statements are true. And it shows us the way to give and receive the forgiveness which will liberate your heart from the prison of legalism and bring the joy of grace to your soul.

Ask an honest question

Our text opens with an honest question, and a surprising answer. First Peter’s query: “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?” (Matthew 18.21).

Peter was being generous. The rabbis recommended that we forgive not more than three times (cf. Rabbi Jose ben Jehuda: “”If a man commits an offence once, they forgive him; if he commits an offence a second time, they forgive him; if he commits an offence a third time, they forgive him; the fourth time they do not forgive”; quoted in Barclay 2.193). They deduced the limit of three from the book of Amos, where God repeatedly cites condemnations of the various nations “for three transgressions and for four” (cf. Amos 1.3, “For three sins of Damascus, even for four, I will not turn back my wrath . . .”). It was thought that man could not be more gracious or forgiving than God (Barclay 2.193).

So the fisherman thought he was being gracious, but we wonder what prompted his question. Earlier in Matthew 18 Jesus taught his disciples to go directly to the brother who sins against them (v. 15). Perhaps these words prompted in Peter’s mind an unresolved conflict. We don’t think of him as an abstract philosopher given to speculative inquiry. Probably he had someone in mind for his question.

Whether he did or not, we do. With whom are you at odds today? Who comes to mind first when the subject of forgiveness is mentioned? What person is to be the focus of your response to this parable?

Count the debt you owed

Your first step in forgiving that individual is to realize how much God has forgiven you. Jesus answered Peter’s question: “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18.22). The Greek can be translated as “seventy times seven,” but “seventy-seven” is more likely the correct rendering. (Genesis 4.24 records Lamech’s vow to avenge himself on others “seventy-seven times.” The Hebrew there is clearly “seventy-seven,” as is the Septuagint which translated it into Greek; cf. France 277, Broadus 390.)

Jesus’ meaning is clear: we are never to stop forgiving. There is to be no limit. No loopholes. No contingencies. But this seems an impossible request, so Jesus showed us why it is not. What follows is the most famous parable on forgiveness in all of literature.

The hero of our story is the king. The king has vast holdings, and is owed a vast debt: “ten thousand talents” (v. 24). A talent was the highest unit of currency in the ancient world, and ten thousand the highest Greek numeral (France 277). And so this would be the largest financial amount Jesus could name. The Attic talent was $1,200 in our currency; the larger Roman was $500; the Hebrew, Assyrian, and Babylonian ran from $1,550 to $2,000. If Jesus had in mind the Hebrew talent, this figure would range from $15 million to $20 million (Lenski 712).

As large as this amount seems, it grows astronomically when compared with typical revenues in the first century. The total income of the province containing Idumaea, Judea and Samaria was only 600 talents; the total revenues of Galilee was only 300 talents (Josephus, Antiquities 11.4). By comparison with incomes of the day, the debtor in Jesus’ parable owed more than America’s entire national debt!

Was such a debt even possible in Jesus’ day? Or are we to take the story as intended fiction? Historians believe that one of the richest Oriental despots could rule such a large province that his finance minister could owe tax returns of this size over time (France 277, Barnes 189, Broadus 391, Keener BBCNT 95). Whether Jesus alluded here to a fact of history or not, the spiritual implication is clear.

In the parable, the king is God. Jesus stated that his parable concerns the “kingdom of heaven” (v. 23), where God is king. Only a king of great power could have such debtors (Bruce 242). And only a king of great grace could forgive such a debt. No human being could or would do what Jesus’ king did. And what he still does.

The king was well within his rights to sell the servant to pay the debt (v. 25). Exodus 22.3: “A thief must certainly make restitution, but if he has nothing, he must be sold to pay for his theft.” It was illegal to sell a man for a sum greater than his debt (Carson 407), but nothing prevented the king from selling the man for a sum less than what he was owed.

In Jesus’ story the king also resolved to sell “his wife and his children” (v. 25). During the time of Nehemiah the people sold their own children to slavery to pay their debts (Nehemiah 5.4-5); a wife of one of the prophets complained to Elisha that her deceased’s husband creditor “is coming to take my two boys as his slaves” (2 Kings 4.1). However, Jewish custom prohibited the sale of women and children (Keener IVPNTC 292), and Nehemiah condemned such a practice (Nehemiah 5.9). The king’s decision to sell the children to pay the debt indicates that Jesus probably meant a pagan king in the historical context of his parable.

Now the servant “fell on his knees before him” (v. 26a), continuous action in the original Greek, indicating an ongoing act of homage and supplication (Broadus 391). “Be patient with me, and I will pay back everything” (v. 26b), the man begged. He was foolish to think so. No person could pay back such a huge debt. But still we try. Still we make religion a way to repay the debt we owe to God. Still we worship, and give, and serve out of obligation, to earn the righteousness God can only give.

Here’s the vertical axis of the story: “The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go” (v. 27). He was “filled with compassion” for his woeful servant. He “forgave the loan,” as the Greek puts it. In v. 32 the master made clear that this was a “debt”; here he chose to see it as a loan he could forgive.

Think of it: a debt you could never possibly repay, forgiven with a word. Completely cancelled. The slate wiped clean (1 John 1.9). Your sin buried in the depths of the deepest seas (Micah 7.19), where God remembers them no more (Isaiah 43.25).

How much has God forgiven you? Take Peter’s suggestion of seven sins as a start, per day. This comes to 2,555 per year. Over 70 years, a person who sinned at this rate would have committed 178,850 transgressions against God. Be honest—do you sin against God by omission and commission, thought and action, less than seven times a day? More?

A priest in the Philippines carried in his soul the burden of a secret sin he had committed many years before. He had confessed this sin to God but still had no peace about it. In his parish was a woman who deeply loved God and claimed to have visions in which she spoke directly with her Lord. The priest was skeptical. To test her he said, “The next time you speak with Christ, I want you to ask him what sin your priest committed while he was in seminary.” The woman agreed.

A few days later the priest asked her, “Did Christ visit you?” “Yes, he did,” she replied. “And did you ask him what sin I committed in the seminary?” “Yes.” “Well, what did he say?” “He said, ‘I don’t remember'” (Leadership vol 85, p. 68).

To forgive the person with whom you have issues today, first remember how much God has forgiven you. And how much he has forgotten.

Consider the debt you are owed

Now consider the debt this person owes you, in the light of what you owe God. In Jesus’ story the forgiven servant found a fellow servant who owed him a “hundred denarii” (v. 28). A denarius was a silver Roman coin worth about 18 cents today, the workman’s daily wage in Jesus’ day (Rienecker 55). This was a not insignificant debt, as it was equivalent to a man’s salary for 100 days (thus the NIV text note calling this “a few dollars” is misleading; Boring 382). But the contrast between the two debts could not be more stark.

A hundred denarii could be carried in a man’s pocket. The ten thousand talents would require 8,600 carriers, each with a sack of money weighing 60 pounds. Walking a yard apart, they would form a line five miles long (Barclay 2.194). The second debt is one six-hundred-thousandth the debt of the first (France 277). This is the relation of the debt owed us to the debt we owed God.

At this point the first servant had a choice. He could give to the second the forgiveness given to him. Or he could stand on the rights his king refused and require what his king forgave. He chose poorly: “He grabbed him and began to choke him” (v. 28). This was a legal “citizen’s arrest,” permitted in ancient Israel when a man owed money to another. The second servant repeated to the first the exact words (in Greek) he had spoken to the king: “Be patient with me, and I will pay you back” (v. 29).

But the first servant had the second thrown into prison until he repaid his debt (v. 30). He chose law over love. He showed that his heart had not been changed by the forgiveness he had received. He proved the maxim, “We pardon in the degree that we love” (Francois del la Rochefoucauld, quoted in The Pastor’s Story File, April 1986, 8). He was within his rights, but he was wrong.

You can make the same decision with that person who owes a debt to you. You can refuse to forgive, choosing instead to punish. You have that right. But you’ll be wrong.

Frederick Buechner comments perceptively on “anger”: “Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back—in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down in yourself. The skeleton at the feast in you” (Wishful Thinking [New York: Harper and Row, 1973] 2). The rest of Jesus’ parable proves that he’s right.

Choose grace

Private sin never remains so. The old truism is true: sin will always take you farther than you wanted to go, keep you longer than you wanted to stay, and cost you more than you wanted to pay. In our story the first servant thought his injustice would go unnoticed, but it never does. The other servants were “greatly distressed” (“exceedingly grieved” in the Greek) and told their master “everything that had happened” (“every single detail” in the Greek; Broadus 392) (v. 31).

Now the master must give to the first servant what that servant gave to the second: “in anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed” (v. 34). Grievous debts were punished in the ancient world with torture in prison (France 277-8). Now the servant who required that he be repaid what he was owed, must repay what he owes. With this conclusion from Jesus: “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart” (v. 35). Not just externally but internally. Not just for the moment, but permanently. Not out of obligation but choice. As a commitment of life.

Is this a parable of works righteousness? Is Jesus teaching that we must earn God’s forgiveness by giving it to others? Not at all.

Biblical forgiveness is pardon. It is not excusing what was done to you, or pretending it didn’t happen. It is not justifying the behavior, or ignoring its consequences. To forgive is to pardon, as when a governor pardons a criminal. The governor does not pretend that the crime did not occur; he or she instead chooses not to punish as the law permits. The sentence, though rightfully imposed, is not carried out. (See Lewis Smedes, Forgive and Forget: Healing the Hurts We Don’t Deserve [New York: Pocket Books, 1984] for a brilliant analysis of this theological fact.)

This is precisely what the king does earlier in the parable. He does not pretend that no debt is owed, or excuse the mismanagement or criminality which produced it. He doesn’t ignore the enormous consequences of such a fraudulent act. He doesn’t overlook the debt, but instead chooses not to punish the debtor. This is what God has done for each of us in Christ: “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5.8). Now we “have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness” (Romans 6.18). Now we are commanded to “be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4.32).

To earn forgiveness? No—to receive it. It is a simple fact that forgiveness must find a forgiving heart, as a seed its soil. If I will not forgive your debts against me, I show my heart to be cold, hard, calloused. I see myself as a man owed, a person treated unfairly. I am living within the worldview of legalism, a prison made of laws. Wrongs must be made right, crimes punished, criminals convicted.

In such a worldview, my crimes must be punished as well. If I am unwilling to forgive you, it is likely that I am unwilling to be forgiven by God. I am most probably living in a world of works, where I must pay my debts even while I require you to pay yours.

Even if I am willing to be so hypocritical as to require punishment from you while expecting forgiveness for myself, I cannot experience such pardon from God, for I have not done what I must to receive it. To be forgiven by God I must admit that I am a sinner. I must confess the deep and grievous nature of my sin. I must say with David, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight” (Psalm 51.4a). When I see my sins as God does, their enormous size and horrific nature appalls me and I admit to him, “you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge” (v. 4b).

When I see my sins in this way, I see your sins in their light. I realize how small are yours and how extreme are mine. I realize how little you owe me and how much I owe the Lord of the universe. And I must forgive you, for I have been forgiven by him.

So if I will not forgive you, I have not received forgiveness from God. For if he has pardoned me, I must pardon you. If he has forgiven me the national debt, I must forgive you anything you could owe to me. If I will not pardon you, it can only be because I have not been pardoned.

So give grace to receive it. Receive grace to give it. Choose to pardon the person whose sins hurt you, because you have been pardoned by the One your sins crucified. Forgive not seven times, or 77 times, but every time. Because every sin you confess to God will be forgiven. Start today.

Copernicus, the great astronomer, lay dying. A copy of his great book, The Revolution of the Heavenly Bodies, was placed in his hands. But he was not thinking of his brilliant scientific discoveries or the universal acclaim they won him. His mind was on a far higher plane.

As one of his last acts, he directed that this epitaph be placed on his grave: “O Lord, the faith thou didst give to St. Paul, I cannot ask; the mercy thou didst show to St. Peter, I dare not ask; but Lord, the grace thou didst show unto the dying robber, that, Lord, show to me” (The Pastor’s Story File, April 1986, p. 1). Every person can come to God under these terms. And every person can give them to others. Even us. Even now.