Why Forgive?

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Matthew 18:21-35

We cannot act one way toward God and another way toward people, crying out to God for mercy while hardening our heart towards our neighbor.

The dilemma of the human condition is the gap between what we know we ought to do and what we actually want to do. Take, for example, the issue of forgiveness. Imagine that someone has terribly mistreated and hurt you badly for a long time, and then, unexpectedly, you find it in your power to hurt them back. What would you do?

That is actually the plot of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. Shylock, a Jewish moneylender, has been shamefully abused all his life by the “Christian” businessmen of Venice. When one of these asks for a loan, Shylock demands as collateral a pound of flesh should the man fail to pay on time. The loan comes due, the man cannot pay, and the case goes to court, where Shylock is asked to show mercy. He replies,

The pound of flesh, which I demand of him,
Is dearly bought; ’tis mine and I will have it!

Surely you can understand how he feels; this is Shylock’s one chance to pay them back for all those years of hurt. To get even! It’s what any of us would like to do in a similar circumstance. But it is not what we ought to do.

I think we all know that we ought to forgive our enemies and show mercy to those who have wronged us. Jesus emphasized this truth, as he so often did, by telling a story.

The kingdom of God is like a king who decided to square accounts with his servants. As he got under way, one servant was brought before him who had run up a debt of a hundred thousand dollars. He couldn’t pay up, so the king ordered the man, along with his wife, children, and goods, to be auctioned off at the slave market. The poor wretch threw himself at the king’s feet and begged, “Give me a chance and I’ll pay it all back.” Touched by his plea, the king let him off, erasing the debt. The servant was no sooner out of the room when he came upon one of his fellow servants who owed him ten dollars. He seized him by the throat and demanded, “Pay up. Now!” The poor wretch threw himself down and begged, “Give me a chance and I’ll pay it all back.” But he wouldn’t do it. He had him arrested and put in jail until the debt was paid. When the other servants saw this going on, they were outraged and brought a report to the king. The king summoned the man and said, “You evil servant! I forgave your entire debt when you begged me for mercy. Shouldn’t you be compelled to be merciful to your fellow servant who asked for mercy?” The king was furious and put the screws to the man [put pressure on him] until he paid back his entire debt. And here is Jesus’ comment:

And that’s exactly what my Father in heaven is going to do to each one of you who doesn’t forgive unconditionally anyone who asks for mercy.

Matthew 18:23-35, The Message

Three Reasons

What we have in this parable of the Unforgiving Servant is a series of reasons, each more powerful than the one before, that teach us why we must forgive those who hurt or wrong us.

Here is the first reason: It’s because we live in a world full of injury, where everyone is continually both wronging others and being wronged by them. It is obvious that the character with whom we are meant to identify in the story is the first servant, the one who was at the same time a debtor and a creditor. That is to say: he needed both to be forgiven by the king and to forgive his fellow servant. This is the one situation we know with certainty each one of us will be in.

Not everyone will have to face the trial of deep grief or trouble; some people sail through life on quiet seas. Many do not have to struggle with doubt or despair. Each one of us is tested by different temptations; no one has to face them all.

But every last one of us is involved in debt. Some of it we owe. Some of it is owed to us, but debt touches us all. From the time we toddle into kindergarten til we totter into the nursing home we all hurt other people and are in turn hurt by them, and so we all need both to forgive and to be forgiven. The first reason to forgive is the very practical one implied in the golden rule; forgive others so that they will forgive you.

The second reason to forgive is because of the example of forgiveness which God himself sets for us. Let’s look more closely at the characters in the parable. I don’t think it is hard to tell who’s who. As I’ve already said, we are meant to identify with the first servant. The king, of course, must be God. And the second servant is anyone who needs our forgiveness.

So the lesson revolves around God, me, and my neighbor who has wronged me. And the story’s details build a persuasive case for my need to forgive. Notice these things, for instance:

  • The amount of our debt. The original New Testament Greek says that the first servant owed his Master ten thousand gold talents, an astronomical sum. That is the position in which we stand relative to God. We are moral and spiritual bankrupts, sinners who owe him a debt we cannot possibly repay.
  • And then consider the incredible grace which the man received. When the time for payment comes and the servant is threatened with the punishment he deserves, he falls on his knees to plead for mercy. In the manner of debtors everywhere, the man asks for time he’ll pay everything he owes if the king would just give him a few weeks. This, of course, is absurd; the servant couldn’t come up with what he owes in his whole lifetime plus several more besides! But the master took pity on him and forgave the whole debt. How wonderful! The sinner begs for time to work and instead is given grace, his slate wiped clean, total forgiveness.
  • Then look at the comparative size of the debt that was owed to this man. In contrast to what he owed, the amount owed to him was a small affair, a matter of a few dollars in comparative terms. Jesus is telling us here that we need to cultivate a sense of proportion. The sins committed against us, though real, when measured next to our sins against God, are nevertheless minor things.
  • Finally, there is the appeal made directly to the man. Isn’t it striking that the second servant makes exactly the same plea, using literally the same words as the one the first servant made to the king? How could this man refuse to forgive when the request was for what he himself had been granted just moments before?

This is the question the Lord wants us to ask. How could he how could we refuse to forgive? The sting of Jesus’ story depends upon our ability to see the conduct of the unforgiving servant as monstrous. In the context of the story there is no excuse for this man’s failure to treat his fellow servant as he himself had been treated, just as there is no excuse for anyone who has been forgiven by God not to do the same to others even if they don’t deserve it. But after all, do we?

If all that isn’t enough to make us forgive those who have wronged us, here is a third and final reason. We need to forgive because that is the only way we can receive forgiveness ourselves. Only the forgiving will be forgiven. That is the truth which is taught in the somber ending to this story. When the king learns how his servant has refused to give the same mercy he received, he calls him in to face judgment. And Jesus adds this very sobering statement as a punch line at the end: “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”

Jesus connects our receiving forgiveness for our sins with our willingness and readiness to extend forgiveness to those who have sinned against us. It is easy to ask for forgiveness, but it is hard, very hard, to give it. Yet give it we must. Jesus knew, you see, that you can never truly experience the mercy of God for yourself unless you also become 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 extend that 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.

I don’t think this means that the failure to forgive is the unpardonable sin, or that we earn God’s forgiveness by forgiving others. Rather, I think it’s a question of sincerity. Our willingness to forgive those who have injured us is an indication of the grace we ourselves have received. We cannot act one way toward God and another way toward people, crying out to God for mercy while hardening our heart towards our neighbor and insisting upon justice, our pound of flesh. It just won’t do.

Now I know this isn’t easy, and you may be tempted to say, “How can anyone forgive like this?” As Jesus said in another context, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” Perhaps the place to start is to ask God to convince you of the importance of forgiving your neighbor, your brother, your enemy, and then to pray that he gives you the desire to at least want to forgive them, for you must.