If you have your bible, I would invite You to turn with me to Matthew, chapter 18. We have been looking at this great passage for about a month or so. It’s hard to believe that it all began with the question, “Who is the greatest?” Ever since the disciples asked that question, they have been treated to discussions of how to relate to their brothers, how to relate to the sheep, how to be servants, how not to be stumbling blocks. Somewhere in the midst of that they have received an important message from the Lord Jesus Christ about what greatness meant in His kingdom. Greatness means relating to our brothers humbly, caring about them spiritually, seeing them as wandering sheep, taking care of the brethren even when they offend us. That’s greatness in the Lord Jesus’ kingdom. You can almost see the disciples after this long discourse saying, “Okay, okay, we get the point.” And so we come to Matthew 18, beginning in verse 21 where Peter asks another question. Hear God’s holy and inspired word:
Then Peter came and said to Him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven times. For this reason the kingdom of heaven may to compared to a certain king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. And when he had begun to settle them, there was one brought to him who owed to him ten thousand talents. But since he did not have the means to repay, his Lord commanded him to be sold, along with his wife and children and all that he had, and repayment to be made. The slave therefore falling down, prostrated himself before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will repay You everything.’ And the Lord of that slave felt compassion and released him and forgave him the debt. But that slave went out and found one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denari; and he seized him and began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay back what you owe.’ So his fellow slave fell down and began to entreat him, saying, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you.’ He was unwilling however, but went and threw him in prison until he should pay back what he owed. So when his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were deeply grieved and came and reported to their lord all that had happened. Then summoning him, his lord said to him, ‘You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt because you entreated me. Should you not also have mercy on your fellow slave, even as I had mercy on you?’ And his Lord, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him. So shall My heavenly Father also do to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart.”
Thus ends the reading of God’s holy, inspired and inerrant word. May He add His blessing to it. Let’s look to Him in prayer.
Our Lord and our God, we thank You for the truth of Your word, its clarity and power. We confess that when we come to passages like this, Your meaning is so crystal clear that what we need most of all are willing hearts, ready to become obedient to your word, even when it is difficult. We ask for this even as we ask for understanding, in Jesus’ name, Amen.
Jesus’ disciples must have been stunned by this discourse. Having started with the less than innocent question as to who was greatest, wanting to know who had primacy, who had priority amongst His disciples, they had been treated to lesson after lesson about humility and servanthood, about what it really means to be a part of His kingdom, about how greatness means serving your brothers who are part of that kingdom. I can’t think of a better passage for us to meditate upon at this time of the year when our own hearts are turned to thoughts of the incarnation. For what did the incarnation accomplish, but God the father’s design of forgiveness towards us, and what does this parable point us to but the lavish cost of God’s forgiveness in comparison to the relatively small cost of forgiveness that we have to bear when we are sinned against by our brothers.
I. Christians are to forgive
And so there are several great lessons that we ought to attend to in this passage today. First of all, I invite You to look at verses 21 and 22. There you see Peter’s question, the follow up question especially to those last five verses that we’ve been studying. As we looked at verses 15 through 20 and we saw the Lord Jesus speaking about how to handle personal differences between brethren in the kingdom. Peter has a question pop into his mind. He knows exactly where the Lord is going with what He’s saying and he is thinking to himself, “This is hard stuff. He’s asking me to forgive those who have wronged me and He’s asking me to take an initiative in looking out for their best interests, even when they have wronged me.” And so Peter goes to Jesus in verse 21 and He says, ‘Now Lord, how many times do I have to do this? Would I have to do this up to, for instance, seven times?’ And Peter thinks that the Lord is going to be impressed with his generosity, and commend him for being such a gracious soul as to be willing to forgive someone up to seven times, but in this passage, in verses 21 and 22, Jesus teaches us that Christians’ willingness to forgive ought to be unlimited. No limit on the Christian’s willingness to forgive. And so when Peter asks Him “Up to seven times?”, expecting that pat on the back in response, he gets instead the Lord saying, “No, Peter, 70 times 7,” meaning ‘Don’t even count. When someone comes to you and asks forgiveness, you be ready and willing to extend it, not just seven times, not just seven times a day, but you have a heart that is ready to forgive and which puts no limit on the willingness to forgive.’ Jesus, you see, is undercutting Peter’s rabbinical counting approach to mercy. Jesus is saying, ‘Peter, your heart needs to be transformed by your realization of how much God has forgiven you. And if you’ll think for a minute, Peter, how much God has forgiven You’.
You can imagine the poignancy when Peter recalls the night after the Lord’s trial. ‘If God has forgiven you so much, Peter, so also ought you to show forgiveness toward your brothers.’ The context of this dialog again is in the setting of brothers and sisters in Christ – part of the family of God. How we relate to one another as part of the family of God. Jesus is not saying that we ought never to punish crime in the land. He’s not saying that our response against infractions against the law ought to be to overlook them and pardon them. Jesus is talking about relationships especially between brothers and sisters in Christ in the context of the family of God. There are principles here, of course, that apply to every arena of life, but He is especially talking about the context of how we deal with one another in the congregation of God, in the body of Christ, in the family of God.
It’s interesting that the context may in fact be Peter having trouble with his fellow disciples. You remember the disciples themselves were grumbling that every time someone came around to speak to the head spokesman of the disciples, they went to Peter. And james and john and others were, apparently, a bit miffed about that. They didn’t like the idea of Peter having that sort of priority in the eyes of the public, and apparently they were murmuring against Peter and apparently Peter, himself, was a bit offended by this and he was ready to do some confrontation here and he was asking the Lord Jesus ‘how many times do I have to forgive these guys for this type of behavior?’ The Lord Jesus is telling him that he must be ready to forgive as long as he is sincerely asked to forgive.
Now that itself raises a question for us because forgiveness, just like broken relationships, is a two-way street. One, the first one, cannot complete the final act of reconciliation just as one person cannot constitute a quarrel. You have to have two to have a quarrel, and you have to have two to have a reconciliation. And so we ask ourselves, ‘What then does it mean that we ought to be ready to forgive? What if the other person is not repentant?’ Well, Jesus is ready for us there as well, because He’s speaking in this passage, about an attitude of forgiveness.
Calvin helps us, by the way, in this area in his commentary by suggesting that there are two kinds of forgiveness. There is the willingness to forgive, and there is that forgiveness of a repentant person that helps restore the relationship. Those are two different things. There may be times where God calls upon You to have a merciful heart toward someone who is not yet repentant. God may call on You to be ready to forgive that person in case they are repentant, and yet to deal with the fact that they have not gotten to the point where they have seen their sin. In that case, you can’t restore the relationship on your own. You can’t bring about reconciliation because the other party doesn’t think there needs to be any reconciliation, doesn’t think there’s been any offense to you. But you can be ready to forgive.
J.C. Ryle puts it beautifully. He says, “It takes two to make a quarrel, but let us purpose ourselves as Christians that we will not be the one.” We will not be the obstacles to reconciliation in the relationship. Our hearts are going to be open to reconciliation in the relationship if only our brother or sister will cooperate. But isn’t it so often the other way around? We, ourselves, want forgiveness to extended immediately to us – in fact we almost think it’s a right – but when we are deeply hurt, when we have been deeply wounded in those most serious of sins in relationships, we are very grudging in our willingness to hand out the same kind of mercy that we want for ourselves.
This is hard stuff that Jesus is asking. Peter knows it. That’s why Peter is here asking him the question, ‘How many times do I have to do this? This hurts, Lord. It costs, Lord.’ The Lord Jesus knows that, and He lays down as a general rule that we ought to forgive others to the uttermost. He knows that is hard and so He tells Peter this story, and if you’ll look at verses 23 through 34 again, you’ll see this parable. This parable is really about the Spirit of forgiveness. It is simultaneously a reminder of our motive as believers for forgiving. It is a reminder of that which enables us to forgive other people, but simultaneously, it is a warning against a stingy, unmerciful, unforgiving spirit, isn’t it?
In this parable, Jesus teaches us this: it is our realization of what God has forgiven us that enables us to forgive others when we feel their wounds most acutely. Its our realization of just how much God has forgiven us that enables us to give costly forgiveness, costly mercy to other people. Sometimes a friend feels that he has sinned against you and he comes to you and confess it and says, “I’m so sorry that I’ve done such and such.” And you never thought about it, and in those circumstances most of us are very quick to say, “Oh, I thought nothing of it. I appreciate you bringing this to my attention. I appreciate your conscious about it, but I wasn’t wounded by that at all. I just appreciate your attitude in coming to talk with me about it.”
But there are other times when we are deeply wounded, deeply wounded by what someone has done. So wounded that when they do come to us and say, ” I repent of what I have done. I don’t just apologize. I’m not just saying that I’m sorry. I already know that. I’m saying that what I did was wrong and I’m beginning to recognize just how hurtful it was to you.” Sometimes that hurt is so great that we’re not ready to extend that forgiveness so quickly. It doesn’t just roll off our lips, or if it does, we’re holding back in our hearts. In those times, and in those circumstances, what enables us as Christians to forgive? It’s what Jesus tells us about in this parable.
This is an interesting parable, isn’t it? The parable gets to the heart of what enables us to forgive, and it negatively shows us what lurks behind an unforgiving attitude. Only a full realization of the mercy that has been extended to us in Christ can enable us to forgive and to show Christian mercy to our brothers and sisters who have wounded us. You know the story: a king has a servant and this servant isn’t like a domestic housekeeper or helper. This servant is someone like a satrap in the time of Daniel. This is an administrator. This is someone who has a bureaucratic responsibility in the kingdom. Perhaps this person had access to a great amount of the wealth in the kingdom, in some measure responsible for administrating that wealth and for whatever reason, he’s in great debt to his king. In fact, not only is he broke, He is – in the language of verse 24 – 10,000 talents in debt to his king. Now, that’s kind of hard to translate into modern language, but roughly this is about 10 million dollars in debt. Just bear in mind this: the average day laborer, the average day laborer, working his entire life and not spending any of what he made in Jesus’ time would have earned, maybe 10 talents total. Jesus is talking about someone who owes 10,000 talents. Assuming that this administrative servant of the king made 100 times what an average day laborer would have made, he would only make 1,000 talents in his lifetime. He could never, ever even hope to repay this debt. Jesus is setting that debt at that height to illustrate a debt which has no possibility of being repaid, and that is why the king takes the grave step of saying, ‘Okay, because of this debt you, and your wife and your children and everything that you possess are going to be sold into slavery as reparation of the grave injustice you have done me in defrauding me of this amount of money.’ The servant prostrates himself before the lord and then this king that was ready to send them away into slavery for some reason, has mercy and forgives the debt!
One expects this servant to be jubilant and to be changed of heart, but what does he do? He goes immediately out and he finds one of his own debtors. This man owes him 100 denari. Now, that was a lot of money for a day laborer. For a day laborer, it would have taken you about four months in Jesus’ time, to earn 100 denari. So you can imagine that for the day laborer to live and to save that amount would have taken him a considerable amount of time, maybe two or three years of very diligent work to pay back that money, and you can imagine that this unmerciful servant who was not only broke, but a few moments before 10 million dollars in debt, would be looking for every resource ye could find to keep his family afloat even after that 10 million debt had been forgiven. He was broke. But you can’t understand how he could have been so cold and callous with this man in light of what he had been forgiven. Jesus is saying to us – it is clear – that this man did not realize what he deserved. He deserved to be sold into slavery. He deserved to be punished to an extreme extent. He deserved condemnation. He received mercy. He showed no mercy in return, and Jesus is putting that parable before us as a picture of what we owe God. Those sins which our brothers and sisters perpetrate against us cannot match the sins that we have committed against God. You know that the amount owed by the servant’s servant was one sixth hundred thousandth of the amount that the servant owed the king? That’s Jesus’ point. “Peter, how often ought we to forgive? Peter, let me remind you of something. Peter, how much are you in debt to God? How much do you owe God? How much do you deserve at the hand of God’s justice. So Peter, in light of that, and in light of the mercy that you have received from a loving, heavenly Father, how then will you love others? Will You love them in a stingy way, or will you love them in a lavish, extravagant way, the way the Father has loved you?”
Prompted by gratitude, the forgiven sinner must always yearn to forgive those who have sinned against him and must do all in his power to bring about a complete reconciliation. Jesus is saying, ‘Peter, I don’t care how deep the wound is; the wound that you have received cannot compare to the sin that you have committed against the Father, which the Father has freely forgiven you. Therefore, having been freely forgiven, you make a practice of freely forgiving.’ Jesus is saying, “Look, Christian, I am not saying forgiveness is easy, but I am saying this: if you will remember how much you owed and how much God paid, you will find in that the resources to be able to bear the cost yourself, because all real forgiveness costs and it costs the one who gives it.’
You can think now of the hurts you bring to this place today, the wounds, fractured family relationships, business deals gone array, people who disappointed you greatly, and you can think, “Yes, it would cost Me to forgive in that circumstance.” And you can hear Jesus’ words saying, “Think how much you owed the Father. Can you forgive in that light?”
II. A heart of mercy is an essential mark of saving grace.
One last thing Jesus teaches here. If you look at verse 35, it’s a warning to us. This warning is similar to other warnings that Jesus gives in the gospels and He teaches us here that a heart of mercy is an essential mark of saving grace. A merciful heart is the first sign of a person who has realized God’s mercy given to him. Jesus said, ‘My heavenly Father will do the same to you if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart.’
Now, understand Jesus’ point. Jesus’ point is not that we earn God’s forgiveness by forgiving others. Jesus’ point is not that we merit God’s forgiving us by forgiving other people. Jesus’ point is this: when You have received in your heart the grace of God, and you have been forgiven of your sins, justified by grace, it cannot help but transform your heart to be merciful to others who have offended you. For as the Father forgave you in your great offence, you are then enabled to forgive others in their small offence. And so, Jesus is saying this: the first sign that we see in a heart transformed by God’s forgiveness is that that heart becomes forgiving. A person sees the greatness of his sin and the greatness of his Savior and is led to be magnanimous and generous in forgiveness.
But conversely, Jesus warns that those who do not display a forgiving heart are like this servant. They do not realize the cost that has been borne by the king for their forgiveness.
Now in this Christmas season, with all its family and religious joys, let me leave you with this challenge: all of us have tremendous challenges and even obstacles in this area of forgiving. There may be a particularly painful family breach that you are wrestling with. There may be a breach in the neighborhood or at work. There may be a difficulty between parent and child, husband and wife. There may be a breach between congregation members’ fellowship. Let me challenge you, in light of Christ’s words, to be the one who will be the initiator in reconciliation and if you are called to love someone who does not respond to your attempts at reconciliation, pray that God will give you a willing spirit to forgive so that you will not be the one who perpetuates the quarrel between the two. May God bless You. Let us pray.
Our Lord and our God, forgiveness is one of the hardest tasks of kingdom life, and yet it is one of the most essential. You have told us to pray “Forgive us our debts as we have forgiven our debtor,” and so, O Lord, we pray that You will work in our hearts such an apprehension of the greatness of Your mercy that we, too, would become merciful people. We ask it in Jesus’ name, amen.