Once upon a time in their marriage, a fellow, let's call him Jim,
did something feally stupid. His wife chewed him out for it.
He apologized, they made up.
However, from time to time, his wife would mention what he
"Honey," the fellow finally said one day, "why do you keep
bringing that up? I thought your policy was 'forgive and
"It is," said his wife. "I just don't want you to forget that I've
forgiven and forgotten."
"Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors." Have you ever
given much thought to that line from the Lord's Prayer? I think
it's fair to say that most of the time, we pray this prayer
without thinking deeply about what we are saying. But today's
teaching from Jesus forces us to give serious thought to our
practice of forgiveness towards others, especially as it relates to
God's forgiveness towards us.
The lesson begins with Peter's question, "Lord, how many times
should I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me?
Should I forgive as many as seven times?" Peter doesn't literally
mean saying, "I forgive you," seven times over. Throughout the
Bible, seven is considered the number that represents
perfection. So Peter is in essence asking, "If I forgive perfectly,
that should about take care of it, right?" But Jesus response is
not really affirmative. "Not just seven times," Jesus says,
"but...seventy-seven times." In other words, your forgiveness
must be better than perfect, it must be perfect perfection. And
then Jesus goes on to illustrate just what forgiveness should
look like through a parable, known as the "parable of the
Now, this parable is told to a first century audience, familiar
with the economy of that day and the value of talents and so
forth. Because we don't have a full knowledge of the value of
money and various denominations of money in that time, it's
hard for us to understand the immensity of what Jesus is
conveying here. So let me try and put this servant's debt in
perspective. In the first century Roman world, a talent was
equal to about fifteen years' pay for a laborer. Did you hear
that? It took roughly fifteen years for an average laborer to
earn just one talent! And now we have this king who has said
the servant owes him 10,000 times that; 150,000 years worth
of labor! So clearly, this is an absurd amount of money the
servant owed to the king. There really would have been no way
the laborer could have run up such a debt with his master.
Jesus is speaking in hyperbole here in order to convey
unquestionably that the servant owed his master a lot. But the
point is not the exact amount owed by the servant. Instead, the
point Jesus wants to make in this parable is the immensity of
the forgiveness offered by the king. Certainly, what the servant
owed the master was great, but what the master forgave was
Which is why it's so ironic that the servant immediately turns
around and does just the opposite! As soon as the servant has
left the king's presence, he runs across a fellow servant who
just happens to be in debt to him some 100 coins. Again, this is
most likely not a precise amount. But to give you an idea, let's
call the first servant's debt "the ocean," and let's call his fellow
servant's debt "a drop." What this fellow servant owed was
miniscule compared to the debt just forgiven by the king. Still,
though, the unforgiving servant did not show the same
generous forgiveness his master had shown him. In fact, he
offered no forgiveness at all. That's pretty unbelievable, isn't it?
Imagine how we would feel if we had been so generous with
someone, and they turned right around and attempted to take
something from someone else. We'd be pretty angry, wouldn't
we? And the king gets angry as well. When he gets word of his
unforgiving servant, he calls him back and punishes him. Now,
what we have to note here is that the servant is not being
punished because of the debt he owes his master. Instead, he is
being punished because he did not show the same generous
forgiveness the master had offered to him. Just think about
that for a minute, friends. We mess up a lot in our lives. We sin
against God and our neighbor. But if we go to God again and
again seeking God's forgiveness, then Christ tells us, the Father
will generously bestow that forgiveness. But, if we cannot in
turn offer the same generous forgiveness to those who have
sinned against us...well, it's only THEN that God's forgiveness
may not be so readily available. Do you see what I'm getting at?
One message of this passage is that God does not punish us for
the bad things we do; rather, God punishes us for the good
things we do NOT do, our failure to be generous with others as
God in Christ Jesus has been generous with us.
Clearly, forgiveness is serious business. And I do not in any way
want to diminish either the seriousness of our failures, nor the
extreme difficulty in forgiving those who have wronged us. If
we are to receive God's forgiveness, it requires that we repent
of our wrongdoing. This means we have to acknowledge that
we were wrong, we have to approach God in humility, and we
have to seek God's grace. In other words, we essentially turn
ourselves over to the mercy of God. Forgiveness is not just like
some Christmas present that a kindly grandfather gives to his
sulky grandchild, even though the grandchild has been
disrespectful and ungrateful the whole Christmas morning.
Forgiveness requires a change of our hearts, and it results in a
change of our lives.
In the same way, the forgiveness we share with others should
not be bestowed lightly. There are terrible, terrible things that
people do to one another in this world. Children are abandoned
or abused by their drug-addicted parents. Thieves rob us of our
material goods and our sense of security. Terrorists kill
innocent civilians in an effort to get some attention. People lie
to us, take advantage of us, and bully us. And many of us, no
doubt, have been on the receiving end of such hurt at times.
We know it is not easy to forgive, nor is it appropriate to just
flippantly forgive such harm. But if, in time, the person who has
wronged us seeks us out, acknowledges their wrongdoing, and
genuinely asks for our forgiveness, then Christ's message to us
this morning is that we should not withhold it. And if, even
then, we find it difficult to forgive the person who has hurt us,
then at the very least, we should pray to God to help us do
what needs to be done. Maybe even the prayer goes something
like this, "God, will you forgive this person for the hurt they
have caused me? And in turn, God, please help me to forgive
them as well."
Forgiveness is a hard road to walk, but it is the way to life and
life abundant. Forgiveness is the way of Jesus, the way of the
cross. And while revenge may seem to be much easier and
more desirable, it in fact is what leads to bondage and death!
Did you know that the Greek word for "forgive" means to "let
loose"? It's like a really tough knot that suddenly gives way and
becomes completely untied. It's like a dark bondage from which
there is sudden release. That's what it's like to be forgiven. And
that is what it is like to forgive as well!
Forgiveness means to release, to let go of the other, but
forgiveness is not denying or forgetting our hurt. When we
minimize what has happened to us, gloss over it, or tell
ourselves that it was not really that bad, we cannot really
Today, as every year at this time around September 11, we
remember those terrible attacks in New York City and
Washington DC, just a few hours south from us. This was a
major event, causing widespread heartbreak. Perhaps we knew
families hurt by the tragedy; perhaps we ourselves felt hurt by
these obscene acts. This was an event that rocked our world.
An event that changed our world. An event that had incredible,
life changing negative impacts on an entire world.
And perhaps we also remember other pains and the hurts,
fears and angers, not as far reaching, but that have nonetheless
changed our own lives in the last decade.
Forgiveness is only truly possible when we are able to
acknowledge the negative impact of another person's actions in
our lives. And what Christ teaches us is that once we have
acknowledged the hurt, we are to forgive the perpetrators. We
have to make a conscious choice to release those who have
wounded us from the sentence of our judgment, however
justified that judgment may be.
Often we do not really want to forgive someone or ask for their
forgiveness, even though we know we "should." One reason
may be a desire for revenge, and that is surely true for many
when we recall the events of 9/11, or other harmful or hateful
things. We want to get back at the people for what they have
done to us. We may want to return the hurt by inverting the
Golden Rule, "Do unto others as they have done unto us." We
may resist forgiving another because we think that the person
who hurt us ought to do or say something to mend the hurt, or
repay us for what we have experienced. We want to put
conditions on forgiveness, probably because it is so difficult.
But.... The great blessing of forgiveness is that it is a two-way
street, where both the one who is forgiven as well as the one
who forgives are set free. How can we, sinners saved by grace,
those who owe a great debt to God but who have had that debt
cancelled by Christ's shed blood on the cross, by God so loving
and forgiving us; how can we refuse to forgive others? Our
hearts are either open or closed to God's forgiveness. If they
are open, able and willing to forgive others, it shows that they
have truly and for real been open to receive God's love and
forgiveness gratefully and in such a way that saves our very
souls, changing us from the inside out! But if our hearts are
locked up to the love of God they will be locked up from
extending God's love to others. It's basically just a law of
There can be no doubt that this is a hard lesson for us to learn,
both in our thinking and in our acting. This lesson holds up a
mirror for us to see our tendency to withhold the very mercy
and forgiveness we have received.
Think about it, the ONLY righteous judge, Jesus, says from the
cross, "Forgive them." We, from our positions of self-
righteousness, cry out, "Pay me back what you owe!" The key
point of Jesus' words to Peter are that the way of life which
marks out the Christian life is forgiveness! Those who truly
understand the magnitude of God's mercy must may it forward
Not only does Jesus forgive us, but it is only through Jesus'
forgiveness that we, ourselves, can possibly forgive others. As
Jesus' words make clear, those of us who have been forgiven so
very, very much by God through Jesus Christ must take a good
look in the mirror. Those who have been forgiven, must forgive.
Every time we accuse someone else, we accuse ourselves.
Every time we forgive someone else, though, we pass on a drop
of water out of the bucketful that God has already given us.
God does not forgive our sins easily, nor does God expect us to
simply blow off the deep pain that others sometimes cause us.
But when we can acknowledge the cost of our own mistakes,
and let go of the pain and hurt that others have caused us, then
we will find ourselves free of a great burden. Forgiveness is life-
giving. It is an important part of the abundant life Christ has
promised to those who follow him. In fact, forgiveness is the
way of life that will mark out the new covenant community.
And it's not just that Jesus' disciples be forgiving people, but we
must together be a community of forgiveness. Still, there is a
deeper demand of this text, which is to forgive others as our
acceptance of God's forgiveness. "Forgive us our trespasses as
we forgive those who trespass against us." If we are not willing
to share the generous forgiveness that God has shared with us,
then we cannot expect that God will continually be so merciful.
Think of it like this: forgiveness is like the air in your lungs.
There's only room for you to inhale the next lungful when
you've just breathed out the previous one. If you insist on
withholding it, refusing to give someone else the kiss of life
they may desperately need, you won't be able to take any more
in yourself and you will suffocate very quickly. Like those lungs,
if our heart is open, able, and willing to forgive others, it will
also be open to receive God's love and forgiveness. But if it's
locked up to one, it will be locked up to the other.
We can allow ourselves to be robbed of life as we keep pain
and hurt locked up inside us, or we can let it go. The key to
letting it go is forgiveness; allowing ourselves to forgive and to
be forgiven. But grace will not operate if it's not embraced
wholeheartedly. There is a direct connection between God's
saving work on our behalf and the behavior that is expected of
the family of God. Our lives must make obvious who God is and
what God is like. So let us move and live in God's grace,
extending to others what has been so freely given to us.