In Matthew 18:21-25 Jesus tells a parable about an unmerciful servant. In the parable, the servant owes a large sum of money to his master and cannot pay it back.* After begging his master not to sell his family into slavey in order to recover the money he is owed, the master chooses to cancel the debt of this servant and let him go. However, as soon as the servant departs, he finds another man who owes him money and has this man thrown into jail when he cannot repay the debt. But then along comes the master, who is livid with his servant for not extending the same mercy that he received from the master. The master then hands over his servant to be “tortured” in jail until he pays his debt back in full.
After telling this parable, Jesus says in v. 35, “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
The parable is a response to Peter’s question regarding how many times he should forgive another person who sins against him. That, of course, draws a response from Jesus saying, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” The entire direction of this conversation has come about because Jesus told a parable about the Father’s happiness in leaving the ninety-nine sheep to find the one lost sheep and then some instructions for dealing with sins (Matt 18:10-20).
What we encounter first is the expansive nature of the grace and mercy that God extends. When Jesus begins the parable of the unmerciful servant, he says, “The kingdom of heaven is like…” as he begins telling about this master who forgave a great debt out of sheer grace and mercy. Jesus begins the parable that way because this is really how God forgives and what God expects of us. That’s why God is more concerned with the one lost sheep and why Jesus provides instruction about dealing with sin as well as how many times we should forgive others.
On one hand, as already stated, the passage implicitly speaks to the expansive nature of God’s grace and mercy. Sometimes we might wonder if God would ever forgiven us of our sins. The answer is a resounding “Yes! God does and already has forgiven us!” That, however, is the basis for the explicit point of the passage which is the fact that we must forgive as God forgives us.
But What If…
It’s one thing to talk about forgiveness and it’s another to do it. The challenge will always be actually embodying our doctrine of God’s grace. In particular, will we forgive others as much as God forgives us?
Over the last two and a half years, one theme I have heard over and over is how much of a healing community our church has been and I believe we are because I’ve seen it. We are striving to be as we say, “a family of grace in Columbia.” Yet a big part of what makes a church a place of healing, where the grace and mercy of God is palpable, is the willingness to forgive others as God forgives us. Whether it is the one lost sheep or the fellow Christian who sins against us, we must always forgive.
God’s desire for us to forgive others is not contingent on whether or not such forgiveness is deserved because it never is. We are to forgive others because God forgives us. That inevitably raises an objection from someone suggesting that forgive others might result in being taken advantage of by someone else. That’s a good point because at some point along the way that will likely happen to us… Just like it happened to Jesus even to the point of death on the cross so that we might be forgiven of our sins. But I never hear anyone objecting to that. So let us not raise objections instead raise our practice of grace and mercy as we forgive others.
How wonderful it is to know we are forgiven!
* This same article was originally published in Connecting 29 (May 21, 2014), a biweekly publication of the Columbia Church of Christ, and has been reformatted for this blog.