Forgive and forget?

Matt 18:21-35

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”

Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.

“Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.

“At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.

“But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.

“His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’

“But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.

“Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

“This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

None of us escape being deeply hurt by others.  We have been lied to, insulted, cheated and maybe even physically or mentally abused.   Jesus’ parable speaks into that context of our brokenness to speak about forgiveness and un-forgiveness. How can we forgive especially when the hurt is so deep and so painful? How can we forgive when there is no remorse shown?  How can we forgive when reconciliation is impossible?

The maxim “Forgive and forget” is far easier to say than to live out and yet Jesus teaches us both in parables, direct instruction and by His personal example that forgiveness is at the centre of the gospel. Today we learn why extending forgiveness to those who offend us is so important as an ultimate expression of love.

Let’s start our study this morning by musing on the context behind Peter’s question, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me?” What do you think prompted Peter’s question?

(I wonder if a fellow fisherman had borrowed his boat and wrecked it yet again – or perhaps one of the other disciples was getting on Peter’s nerves)

If we look at the whole of Matt 18, Jesus is addressing a whole range of bad attitudes which threaten cohesion in the community of faith and in vv 15-22 Jesus directly deals with discipline within the Church.  In fact some commentators suggest that this material was added by an editor later once early Church protocols had been established. There is little justification for this.  Jesus is simply re-iterating long-established principles of Jewish jurisprudence and applying them to the emerging community of his followers, namely the requirement for at least two or three witnesses before an offender is brought to answer before a court. 

 It is against the context of this debate and teaching that Peter poses his question, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me?”  “Fine. I get the protocols about maintaining Church discipline, but what about personal insult and offense?

Prevailing Jewish teaching was that in the case of being wronged an observant Jew was obliged to forgive up to three times and so Peter might have thought himself very generous in extending the offer of forgiveness twice as much, 7 times. I dare say he raised his eyebrows in astonishment to learn that he was expected to forgive 490 times and not just 7. It is classical hyperbole used by Jesus in order to make people think.

Whilst Peter picks himself off the floor, Jesus relates his parable of the unforgiving servant. Something to think about as we dig into this parable. What do you think is the connection between the amount owed by the first servant and the number of times which a person is expected to forgive?

According to the original Greek, the second servant in the story owed one hundred denarii.  A Denarius was the average daily wage of a labourer and so the second servant owed the first servant 100 day’s wages.  That is a significant amount of money and he was well within his rights to seek restitution, but compare that with the sum the first servant owed his master.

According to the original Greek manuscript the first servant owed his master ten thousand talents. Biblical historians tell us that just one talent was worth more than 15 year’s wages of an average labourer. The first servant owed 10 thousand times this amount. In other words a staggering and un-repayable debt. Seventy times seven or 490 is really an expression of un-limitless forgiveness.

It is clear that Jesus is using hyperbole not to describe a realistic situation, but he is seeking to prove a point. What do you think that point is?

I think that Jesus wished to demonstrate that un- forgiveness has both temporal and eternal consequences. The appalling double standards of the ungrateful and unforgiving servant outraged both the community in which he lived and the master, but had far reaching consequences to himself when repeating the generosity of the master to his fellow servant would have made everyone happy.

The generosity of the master  is staggering.  Simply hearing the entreating words, “Be patient with me” prompted the master not just to give the servant more time to meet his obligations, but to cancel the debt altogether. It is an act of staggering generosity, mercy and grace. Jesus, the master story teller has the second servant crying out the same words, “Be patient with me!” In response, however, the first servant throws the second servant into prison.

When you look at this parable in such detail you can see why the master reacts in the way he does having learned that his generosity had not been reciprocated.  Jesus concludes such wrath as being indicative of the way we will be treated by God if we withhold forgiveness from those who wrong us. His descriptions are pretty vivid.  We will be “handed over to jailers to be tortured, for eternity for we can never pay back an un-repayable debt.”

Hearing this might make you want to walk out of Church and throw your bible into the rubbish tip.  Some of you listening may been abused as children at the hands of drunken parents. Those hurts are so deep and so painful that just the very memory of them brings tears to your eyes. What do we say of the people of Ukraine?  Millions and people driven from their homes.  Thousands of people killed in an unfair unjust war.  Does God expect them just to cancel the debts that the Russian invaders owe them and can never repay?  No apology even by President  Putin himself will ever bring their loved ones back.  Some of you might be in situations where the one who has hurt you has long since died and there is no possibility of reconciliation. Surely God is asking too much?

Well he is asking much, but for good reason.

How well do you know the Lord’s Prayer?  All of us will be able to recite at least one version.  Did you know, however, that the original Greek recorded in Matthew 6: 9-11 does not read “forgive us our sins or trespasses, but “forgive us our debts?”

The Greek word for the state of indebtedness ὀφειλέτης (opheiletēs) is exactly the same word used both in the Lord’s Prayer and this parable.  When we trot off the Lord’s Prayer often without thinking about it we are in fact praying. Our Father, forgive our un-repayable debt in accordance with our willingness to forgive those who are indebted to us.  It is a big ask isn’t it? BUT God says “Yes.”

Most of live pretty good lives.  In what way have we incurred such an un-repayable debt?  In his recounting of the Lord’s Prayer Luke records in Chapter 11: 2-4 that Jesus’ model of prayer teaches us to ask the Father to forgive our sins “Harmartia” literally “Short-comings” in accordance with our willingness to forgive other their debts.  The concept or Harmartia, a military term meaning “to miss the target” seems mild in comparison to an un-repayable debt, but we can never achieve God’s standard, will always fall short and so are permanently indebted to Him.

Ok, we get it, but how can we forgive? The answer can be found in 1 Cor 13: 5. The answer is by making it an expression of love. We are not required to forget what others have done partly so that we do not commit the same offence to someone else.  Such deep seated searing scars take a life-time of God’s healing and the scars may still be visible.

BUT, not keeping a record of wrongs is forgiveness and in accordance with St Paul’s list, is one of the qualities of true love. Not keeping a record of wrongs is an expression of love.  In this way we can and must forgive, even and especially our enemies.  Jesus modeled this for us at his crucifixion and so must we.

Concluding thoughts:

Someone like Mr Putin can never repay his debt to the people of Ukraine. An abusive parent, since deceased can never make good their wrong doing, but we can and must forgive.  The consequences of un-forgiveness quite apart from incurring un-describable wrath of God, leads to re-cyling violence out of a desite for vengeance and causes deeply embedded and psychologically harmful bitterness.  We must make a conscious decision in our hearts to delete that record of wrongs even if the person who has hurt us shows no remorse whatsoever.

The master in Jesus’ parable wrote off the debt.  It was only in response to the unforgiving attitude of the servant with whom he was so generous, that he changed his mind and let the full weight of the law fall upon the ungrateful wretch.

So. Next time you pray the Lord’s Prayer remember what you are praying.  If you use “trespass” or “sin” remember that you have more than once even daily deliberately or negligently cross the line with God or miss the target.  You must cancel the debts of those who have so treated you or we cannot expect generosity and grace from God.

One final point hitherto not discussed is that our attitude toward this issue of forgiveness or un-forgiveness will directly affect how others outside the Kingdom view God.  If we preach about a forgiving and merciful God and yet are seen to hold grudges and a lust for revenge in our hearts.  It doesn’t say much about the validity of a life-changing faith in Christ.

We owe an un-repayable debt to God which he has chosen to remit and the record of which he has has destroyed on the cross.  We must cancel the debts owed to us by others by consciously and deliberately choosing not to retain a record of their wrongs too even if circumstances or their continuing attitude toward us mean that reconciliation seems impossible.

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