READ : Matthew 6:12-15
You know, it’s a dangerous thing to ask that your own forgiveness depend on how you forgive others.
One of the harshest words in the English language is the wordimplacable. It describes the attitude of someone who cannot be appeased, a person who absolutely refuses to show pity or forgiveness. To be implacable is to be utterly hardened and merciless. “By my soul,” cried Shylock, Shakespeare’s merchant of Venice, when he was urged to forgive his enemy’s debt, “I swear there is no power in the tongue of man to alter me: I stay here on my bond.” That is what it means to be implacable.
THE NEED FOR FORGIVENESS
We all know this is not the way Christians ought to behave. In the Lord’s Prayer Jesus teaches his followers to ask for forgiveness. The fifth petition of Jesus’ model prayer for his disciples is this: “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt. 6:12). In the slightly different form of the Lord’s Prayer in Luke’s gospel, the petition is: “Forgive us our sins [or trespasses], for we also forgive everyone who sins against us” (Luke 11:4). The different words in these two versions complement each other; debts are things we owe to God but fail to pay; trespasses are instances where we break God’s law, his rules for good behavior. So taken together, these terms refer both to sins of omission and commission, to wrong actions we do and right actions we fail to do. I’m sure we all know that we need forgiveness every day. Here Jesus tells us to ask for it.
But he also tells us to be willing to offer it. Jesus connects our receiving forgiveness for our debts and sins with our willingness and readiness to extend forgiveness to those who have wronged us. This is the only petition in the Lord’s Prayer which has a condition attached to it. It is easy to ask for forgiveness; it is hard, very hard, to give it. Yet give it we must. Jesus knew that you can never truly experience the mercy of God for yourself unless you are also willing to be merciful toward others. An unforgiving heart can never itself be forgiven. Grace is a gift which has to be given in order to be received; if we ask God to forgive our sins, we must also offer forgiveness to those who have sinned against us. You can no more get forgiveness without giving it than you can breathe in without breathing out! So to recognize our own need to be forgiven is at the same time to recognize our equally great need to be forgiving.
A QUESTION AND A STORY
Jesus emphasized this truth, as he so often did, by telling a story a little bit later in the Gospel of Matthew. One day Peter came to him with a question about forgiveness. The question that he asked shows that he assumed it was his duty to forgive his neighbor. In fact, Peter even went beyond the minimum requirement. Jewish teachers of that time held that one must be willing to forgive a friend up to three times. Peter, sensing the spirit of love and mercy in Jesus, figured he would have to better that in order to do what Jesus approved, so he asks: “How many times should I forgive someone who does something wrong to me? Is seven times enough?” Like most of us, Peter was interested in establishing the minimum standards. What was the lowest amount of good he had to do in order to be acceptable? His question assumes that we have a right to resent an injury and that, while we may by a great effort give up this right for a time, finally we’ll reach a limit where we can do what we’ve really wanted to do all along, which is to remain offended. Peter is like a basketball official who is waiting for the player to commit his fifth foul so he can blow the whistle and dismiss him from the game. But Christ’s answer puts an end to such thinking. He says in effect: “That’s all wrong. There’s no limit to the number of times you should forgive, so stop counting. You need to have a new heart, a new nature, a new way of life, where forgiveness becomes a habit for you.”
And then he told his story:
One day a king decided to call in his officials and ask them to give an account of what they owed him. As he was doing this, one official was brought in who owed him fifty million silver coins. But he didn’t have any money to pay what he owed. The king ordered him to be sold, along with his wife and children and all he owned, in order to pay the debt.
The official got down on his knees and began begging. “Have pity on me, and I will pay you every cent I owe!” The king felt sorry for him and let him go free. He even told the official that he did not have to pay back the money.
As the official was leaving, he happened to meet another official, who owed him a hundred silver coins. So he grabbed the man by the throat. He started choking him and said, “Pay me what you owe!”
The man got down on his knees and began begging, “Have pity on me, and I will pay you back.” But the first official refused to have pity. Instead, he went and had the other official put in jail until he could pay what he owed.
When some other officials found out what had happened, they felt sorry for the man who had been put in jail. Then they told the king what had happened. The king called the first official back in and said, “You’re an evil man! When you begged for mercy, I said you did not have to pay back a cent. Don’t you think you should show pity to someone else, as I did to you?” The king was so angry that he ordered the official to be tortured until he could pay back everything he owed. That is how my Father in heaven will treat you, if you don’t forgive each of my followers with all your heart.
(Matthew 18:21-35, Contemporary English Version)
WHY WE MUST FORGIVE OTHERS
Let me emphasize three reasons, in order of increasing importance, why we must forgive. First, we have to forgive others simply because of the world we live in. It’s a world full of injury and wrong, where everyone is a debtor. This is the one common experience each of us will go through, from the youngest child to the oldest grandmother. Not everyone will have to experience trials of deep grief or struggles of doubt or despair. Everybody is tested by different temptations, and no one has to face them all, but the one thing that will happen to everyone is that we will be hurt and wronged sometime by someone, and we will do wrong to someone sometime. So if we each need forgiveness from others from time to time, how can we expect to receive it if we fail to extend it ourselves?
Secondly, we should forgive our debtors because God forgives our debts. Imagine you gave your child a large sum of money and told her, “Now go share this with your sister.” How would you feel if instead she kept it all selfishly for herself? Well, that’s how God feels when we receive his mercy and refuse to extend it to our neighbor.
It isn’t difficult to figure out with whom Jesus wanted his disciples to identify in the story he told about the king’s unforgiving servant. We are the man whose huge debt was freely forgiven when he found it impossible to pay. We have experienced the indescribable greatness of the King’s mercy. We are the ones being asked for forgiveness by those whose offenses against us are small by comparison; whatever injury another may have done to me shrinks beside what I have done to God. And if he can forgive all my sins, why cannot I forgive the lesser sins – grave though those still may be – that have been committed against me?
But the final and most important reason we must forgive is the one already talked about. It bears repeating, though. We have to forgive because our own forgiveness depends upon it. Jesus added a small postscript to the Lord’s Prayer in which he brought this point out even more clearly:
For if you forgive others when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.
(Matthew 6:14-15, nrsv)
He couldn’t have been plainer. Forgive, or you will not – perhaps I should say you cannot – be forgiven. I don’t think that it is a matter of our earning God’s forgiveness by performing the good work of forgiving others. It’s more a matter of our actions reflecting our experience. You see, if you don’t have the mercy to forgive sins, then you haven’t really experienced the mercy of sins forgiven. You can’t be one way toward God and another way toward people: crying out for mercy for yourself and ignoring the same cries that your neighbor directs to you. That’s just hypocrisy. A great preacher of the last century put it like this: “We cannot cut our lives into halves, and be inwardly filled with contrition, and outwardly full of assertion of our rights. We cannot plead with God to do for us what we will not do for others. Our prayer for forgiveness must, if it is real, influence our whole behavior; and if it is not real it will not be answered” (Alexander Maclaren).
“Forgive us our sins” is a dangerous prayer to
ake. According to Jesus, we are not allowed to say that unless we also pray, “as we forgive those who sin against us” – pray it not only but mean it. If you aren’t willing, or able, to do that, then you had better not pray the Lord’s Prayer. And if you can’t pray the Lord’s Prayer, then you had better ask God to deal with your own heart.
He can, you know. What may be impossible for us to do on our own is not too hard for the power of God’s Spirit within us. Corrie Ten Boom was one of the great Christian heroes of our time. This gallant Dutch woman, together with her father and sister, hid many Jews in her home in Holland during the war. Eventually they were arrested, and Papa Ten Boom died in captivity. Corrie and her beloved sister Betsy were sent to a concentration camp, where Betsy also died from the harsh mistreatment.
Many years later I heard Corrie share her testimony. She told how she went through a long period after her release at the end of the war, trying to recover emotionally and spiritually, as well as physically, from all she had suffered. Though she was still far from being whole, Corrie began to speak to others about the deep faith in Christ which had sustained her; eventually she even traveled to Germany to bear witness to the gospel. And after one particular meeting there, a man came up to talk to her. Although the man didn’t know it, Corrie immediately recognized him as one of the guards – an especially cruel one – from the camp where she and Betsy had been prisoners. He introduced himself, and told her what he had been but that now he had been converted and he was a Christian. “I want to ask you to forgive me,” he said, extending his hand to her. Forgive him? Forgive the man who had tormented her, whose harsh treatment had helped to kill her sister! For a moment, Corrie froze; she couldn’t move. Then she prayed, “Lord, I can’t forgive this man, but I know I need to. Please help me!” At that instant she felt a power as if from outside herself begin to move her arm toward the man until her hand took his, and when their hands clasped, Corrie knew that she had forgiven him from her heart, but more importantly, that God had worked a wonderful change in her. She was finally healed!
If the Lord Jesus could do that for Corrie Ten Boom, do you think he might be able to do it for you?