Forgiveness - Disgracing Grace
After we have experienced the grace and forgiveness of the Lord Jesus Christ, we must then live it by forgiving one another.
Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, "Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he 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 talents 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.
"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 denarii. 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 you 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 greatly distressed 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 turned him over to the jailers until he
should pay back all he owed.
"This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart."
Simon Isenthall, a famous Jewish writer, wrote a remarkable short story in 1976 entitled "The Sunflower." It was an autobiographical account of an experience he'd had thirty years before while incarcerated in a German concentration camp. While on a work detail turning a barn into a field hospital, he was stopped by a young German nurse who said, "Come quickly, come quickly." She guided him to a young man whose head was wrapped with a bloodsoaked bandage covering both eyes. Grabbing for Isenthall's hand, the young man finally caught it with a death grip and cried out, "I must talk to a Jew before I die!"
Isenthall said, "I am a Jew."
The young man said, "My SS troop was sent to burn down a Jewish house. After it was set on fire, the family ran out of the house, and we gunned them down. I cannot get it out of my mind. I know I am about to die. Forgive me!"
Isenthall said in "The Sunflower":
"I jerked my hand away and went out the door without a word... That bothered me for thirty years." And then he ended the story in a most unusual way. He told of asking thirty-two different people to comment on his reaction. They were Jews, Gentiles, young and old, men and women. Out of the thirty-two people polled, the majority said that he did the right thing, that he should not have forgiven. One of them said that the young soldier should go straight to hell.
The late Corrie ten Boom found herself in a similar situation. During the war she and her sister were also imprisoned in a concentration camp. They were taken continually to the delousing shower and forced to strip naked. A lecherous SS guard ogled these very modest women during the whole humiliating time. Corrie survived the camp, but her sister did not
After the war, Corrie became a Christian spokeswoman all over the world, preaching forgiveness everywhere she went. One day she was speaking in Munich. At the end of the lecture, a man came up to her and stuck out his hand and said, "Ah yes, God's forgiveness is good, isn't it?" As she looked into his face, she recognized him as the lecherous SS guard. His face had been imprinted on her consciousness forever. She said, "I thought in my heart I had forgiven him, [but] as he reached his hand out, my hand froze by my side, and I could not reach out and take his hand. Here I was, the world-famous forgiver, and I had come face to face with a man I couldn't even touch. I prayed to God, 'God, forgive me for my inability to forgive.' When I asked God for that, He gave me the grace to reach my hand out, take that man's hand, and say, 'Yes, God is good.' "
Something similar must have happened to or among the disciples during those years of following Jesus across the Holy Land. Maybe it was Peter, or maybe it was Andrew or John, but obviously, as the story is told in Matthew 18, somebody needed to forgive someone else. Peter came to Jesus and asked, "Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me, up to seven times?" The rabbis of the time always taught that a person should forgive another person three times. So Peter, feeling magnanimous, doubled that and added one for good measure. And Jesus answered, "I tell you not seven times, but seventy-seven," which was His way of pointing out to Peter that he had fallen far short of Jesus' conception of forgiveness. It was as if Jesus were saying, "As long as you are talking about limitations on forgiveness, you've not understood the message of the kingdom of God that I've come to bring."
We all know how it feels to be deeply hurt People can betray our confidence or our trust, crush our feelings, or even harm us physically. How can anyone who has been wronged by another human being possibly be so forgiving as to keep on forgiving?
A Story of Forgiveness
I'm sure Jesus understood the sheer incredulity that the disciples must have displayed after His answer. And so He told a parable to explain such forgiveness. It was one of His most unusual stories, a drama in several acts. Even the setting of the parable was strange. The setting, scholars tell us, is not that of the Holy Land, but of some kingdom much further to the East, perhaps in what we would today call Iran or Iraq.
In this land, as Jesus told the story, a king suddenly wants to know what he is worth. These were the days long before modern-day accounting or bookkeeping—not to mention personal computers. The only way a king could find out what he was worth was to have his servants come in and put all he owned, and all that was owed him, on the table and count it. And that's exactly what the king did.
Jesus explained, "The kingdom of heaven is like the king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants." The king ran his fingers over the list of debts owed to him by his servants and decided he wanted everyone to pay up. At that time servants were not houseboys waving fans to keep flies off the king. Servants were men of enormous responsibility. Today we might call them cabinet-level members of the government, vice-regents of the kingdom.
The first one to enter the presence of the king was a man who owed him 10,000 talents. This man had defrauded the king. It's difficult to estimate what 10,000 talents means. To give you a comparison, all the taxes collected by Herod the Great when he was king of Israel amounted to only around 800 talents a year. All of the gold in the Ark of the Covenant was only 30 talents. Ten thousand talents was probably the amount of money that was in the biggest bank in the Eastern Roman Empire—the bank on the Acropolis of Athens. We would say today that this man had done the equivalent of robbing Fort Knox—right under his master's nose. He owed him something between 30 and 50 million dollars (since a day's wages was 17¢, this would look like our modern national debt!).
How would the king respond? In the modern Arab world officials cut off a man's hands if he is caught in simple theft. In that day, this servant must have thought that his head was forfeit. For some reason, Jesus tells us that since the servant was not able to pay, the king ordered that the servant, his wife, his children, and all that he had be sold to pay the debt. Possibly, Jesus included this point in the story to show the absolutely impossible situation of this servant. Because even if the servant's assets were totally liquidated, it would not have equaled even one ten thousandth of what he owed the king. With the going rate of slaves at the time, the man's whole family would not have brought one gold talent. Because of this hopeless condition, he sorely needed mercy, grace, and forgiveness.
As you might imagine, and as we all probably would have done, the servant gasped out a seemingly futile appeal. He fell on his knees and begged, "Be patient with me and I will pay back everything." He knew his situation was hopeless, so he tried everything he could do, falling on his knees, pleading for "patience." The word in the Greek New Testament combines the word for "long" with the word "temper" and means literally to be "long-tempered." We have the opposite English word, "short-tempered," so we can understand the idea. It means to postpone any action or retaliation.
There was a problem with his plea, though, wasn't there? He discounted it with an impossible lie. He said, "I will pay back everything." At the daily wage of the time, it would have taken him one hundred million years to do that! He didn't even have 60 million minutes left to live if he was in midlife.
So, such a lie would make the king angrier, you'd think. But as it happens in Jesus' unpredictable parables, the punch line is quite surprising. The king took pity on this man, canceled the debt, and let him go. Moved only by pity, since this man had done nothing to deserve such forgiveness, the king wiped his slate clean. One scholar stated in discussing this story, "In that civilization, such an act would never have been done without also giving him back his full responsibility and trusting him to be a steward once again."
Where Do We Fit In?
If we hold this story up to a mirror, we will understand that it is a story most of all about the sovereignty of God. Everyone of us has been given the stuff of life—one or more talents. Time, money, energy, connections, influence, contacts, life itself—all are gifts. It is a story of every person, because we've all fallen short of what God intended for us when He gave us our bundle of talents. Sometimes, He even catches us red-handed—and we feel it when the Holy Spirit convicts us. At such times, we feel our own mortality, even to the extent of saying such things as, "Just give me time and I'll pay it back." Down deep we know our pleas are just as futile as the servant's.
The difficulty with sin, the breaking of God's law, is that it doesn't just place us in a difficult situation. It places us in an impossible situation apart from the mercy of God. And there is no way to take back the resulting effects of the sin. Like throwing a pebble into a still country pond, the concentric circles of responsibility, of problems, only spread wider and wider. There's no going back, no repayment of even a moment of our disobedience.
Of course, it's easy to see the personal correlation in this part of the parable. It's as if Jesus is standing up and saying, "I've already paid your debt on the cross." Like the father of the prodigal He comes and says, "Welcome back." Like a king coming down from his throne He says, "You're a commoner, but I'll make you royalty." Like a judge stepping down from the bench and becoming the defense attorney, He says, "You're mine. I forgive you fully, freely, finally, forever."
It's hard to understand what a relief such forgiveness can bring if you yourself haven't been forgiven a huge debt. I remember the first time that happened to me. I was nineteen years old, and pastoring a church in south Waco, just off the Baylor University campus. The community surrounding the church was a slum. I was ministering to one of the most desperate groups of people I had ever met. But I was happy to be there, and I was ready to win everybody to Christ I had lots of enthusiasm, but very little knowledge.
In that church there was a young man whose wife was expecting a baby. So, when the time came, I went with them to the hospital and sat there all day long—twelve hours. All the time I was thinking, If I just sit here with him long enough, I'll surely win him to the Lord. While we were there, I went with him to the hospital business office. There they shoved a piece of paper toward him and asked him to fill it out. I discovered that he couldn't write. He didn't even have a job, and he couldn't pay the debt. So in my wonderful pastoral wisdom, I said, "Oh, give it to me. I'll sign it." I was sure the man would get a job the next week and he'd always remember how I'd helped him with his problem.
He didn't get a job, and within the month my new bride and I had received the hospital bill. To make everything even worse, I found out that there was another baby already on the account from the year before. I had signed to pay for two deliveries! At that moment, I, a college freshman, saw my whole life passing before my eyes. I thought I had ruined my reputation and my good name forever.
In desperation, I visited the administrator of the hospital (he happened to be a deacon in a large church in the city). I told him I was just a young preacher. He said, "Yes, I can see that, all right." I admitted I had done a very foolish thing. He said, "Yes, we know what you did. And we've already taken care of it. We have an account for such things."
I almost went through the roof of that hospital I was so happy. It was as if I had thrown off an impossibly heavy weight. I owed a debt I couldn't pay. And it had been paid for me.
Why do I tell you all this? The servant should have felt as I did when my debt was wiped away. All this is only the background for the point that the parable makes. It is actually the backdrop for the central act of this drama.
When the servant left the king, he did not act the way you would have expected him to respond in the face of his forgiveness. He should have had a new lease on life. He should have felt reborn. Instead, he did something unbelievable. He went out to disgrace the grace he had been given.
Jesus explained that the servant "went out and found one of his fellow servants." There's an emphasis on that word "found." It doesn't mean that one of his fellow servants crossed his path. It means that he deliberately went out to find him. The fellow servant owed the forgiven servant 100 denarii, or about $17 in today's currency. That would come to about 100 days' wages, a sum most men could have handled, given enough time. Suddenly the man with the huge debt was now a stern creditor. We are told he grabbed his fellow servant and began choking him, saying, "Pay me back what you owe me!"
Livy, the Roman historian, tells us that according to Roman law if a man owed you money you could twist his neck until the blood ran from his nostrils. Evidently, the forgiven servant was doing just that.
It's interesting to contrast the two scenes. Only a moment before, this man had been treated with dignity. Now he is humiliating another man whose debt is trivial compared to his own. And then his own words are thrown back to him when the fellow servant says, "Be patient with me and I will pay you back." Yet the forgiven servant acts as if he does not recognize those words. In this case, the possibility of the debt being repaid was very real. It may have taken several months, but it was possible.
Yet you can almost hear the spring door slam shut on the forgiven servant's hard heart. He actually has his fellow servant thrown into prison until he can pay this small debt. In reality, he ruined the man's life forever. Debtor's prison was a futile institution, since you couldn't work to pay the debt until you could get out—and you couldn't get out until you had paid the debt. He killed hope in that man's life forever.
The Point of It All
What is the point in this story? I believe that Jesus is teaching a lesson in memory. He knows that we will be slighted, offended, betrayed, even hurt in this lifetime by other human beings. And He knows that we must react. But he wants us to remember something before we react.
After we have experienced the grace and forgiveness of the Lord Jesus Christ, we must then live it by forgiving one another. Why? Because comparing what others have done to you with the enormity of what God has forgiven you in His grace is like comparing the Pacific Ocean with a mud puddle. It is like comparing Mount Everest with a molehill. There is no comparison. Seventy times seven, indeed!
Martin Luther, the great reformer, put it this way. "When you have experienced Christ, you must go out to be like Christ toward others."
There is a certain tribe of Polynesians who keep the shrunken heads of their enemies hanging in the doorways of their huts. The purpose of this strange action is to remind one another from generation to generation to remain angry at their enemies.
Some of us hang things in our hearts just like that. They are tokens of bitterness to remind us to stay angry and unforgiving toward someone else.
Yet forgiveness is a foundation for the vital Christian life. Forgiveness isn't a concept to be left in a theological fog. At one time or another, it must be grappled with by all of us.
In his book Forgive and Forget (Harper and Row, 1984) Lewis Smedes says some very basic things about forgiveness. He states that when it comes to forgiving because you have been forgiven, there are three stages you must go through: recognition, surgery, and starting over.
First, you must recognize that something has happened to you that really deserves forgiveness. This factor can be misunderstood. Hurt may lead to forgiveness, but not every hurt is serious enough to require forgiveness. Sometimes we cheapen forgiveness by forgiving things that really don't rise to the level of needing forgiveness.
Have you ever had the experience of someone coming to ask you to forgive them for something you didn't even know they had done? There are some minor matters that you ought to have the grace and grits just to forget. They don't even rise to the level of requiring forgiveness.
What do I mean? For instance, someone cuts in front of you in line at the grocery store, someone is late for an appointment, a colleague is rude to you at a party, a friend doesn't notice you, the boss didn't invite you to his daughter's wedding. You don't have to forgive such people. You just accept the grace of God to go on, to not allow life's slights and oversights to entangle you. When you become bitter about things that don't even deserve your time, then you cheapen forgiveness.
What then needs forgiving? Two things—betrayal and disloyalty. These are the two wounds that need to be recognized and confronted.
Examples? A husband, after fifteen years of marriage, is unfaithful to his wife; a business partner who promises a friend a loan and then reneges because he can make more money by loaning it to another; a co-worker who recommends a friend to the boss for promotion until he finds the friend is out of favor with the boss and hurriedly withdraws the recommendation. That is disloyalty which deserves confronting and forgiving. And then there is betrayal: A person shares the deepest secrets of his/her life with someone in confidence and that person tells it to the neighborhood's biggest gossip. Disloyalty and betrayal are the two experiences worthy of forgiveness, worthy of recognition.
Then, after recognizing these situations, there needs to be surgery. In other words, you simply cut away from the person the disloyalty or betrayal that they have done to you. You disengage the person from the act. Actually, when you get right down to what forgiveness is, it is this very step, done through the grace of God.
Then the third stage of forgiveness is starting over. Picture a father going to a daughter whom he has disowned and saying, "I want you to be my daughter again." Or picture one friend going to another after a tremendous falling-out and saying, "I want you to be my friend again. I want to start over again."
That sounds like the hardest thing in the world to do, when you apply it to a personal situation, doesn't it? But is it any harder to wake up every morning with that same unforgiving spirit, that same bitterness beating you over the head? Is it any harder than running the same tape through your mind over and over, day after day, month after month, year after year of hatred, vengeance, and anger because you won't forgive? Maybe the hardest part of the whole situation is bearing and living with the slow decay such lack of forgiveness forces upon your soul.
That's why Jesus tells this parable, to show it is an act of grace to clear up the situation and clear it out of your life.
The parable has a sober final act Fellow servants saw the whole incident between the forgiven man and his fellow servant. Someone is always watching what we do. If these servants had truly been merciful, they would have paid the fellow servant's debt. Instead they ran and told the king what they saw: "You know that man you forgave 10,000 golden talents? You aren't going to believe what he just did over 100 denarii!"
For the first time in the story, the king is angry. When he was betrayed, he wasn't angry. But when he found that the one he had forgiven fully had himself refused to forgive, then he became very angry indeed.
What follows is the "divine must," the moral of the story. "Shouldn't you have mercy on your fellow servant just as I had mercy on you?" the king, in essence, asks. The "should" is actually a "must," and is the same word in the Greek New Testament that Jesus uses when He said three times, "The Son of Man must go to the cross." It's that divine imperative which is part of the whole salvation experience. If we know grace, we must forgive. We must want to forgive.
A nurse who called herself Sue wrote in Guideposts about a true experience she had. She was at her nurse's station on a bleak and snowy January evening late at night when she decided to check on room 712. The man had suffered a light heart attack and everything seemed to be just fine. His vital signs were okay.
But as she was about to leave, he grabbed the sheets until his knuckles turned white, pulled himself up, and said, "Please call my daughter." Sue tried to calm him down, but he said, "No, you don't understand, she's the only child I have. Please call her now." Sue noticed his breathing had become ragged and labored. She adjusted the oxygen and left to call his daughter, when he suddenly called after her, "Do you have any paper, nurse?" She had one little yellow scrap of paper in her pocket and so she handed it to him.
When she called the daughter, she knew the daughter would be upset to know about her father's heart attack but she wasn't prepared for her reaction. "Oh no!" the daughter sobbed. "Please, no! Tell me that he'll get better!" It sounded more like a plea than a request for information. "You don't understand," the daughter cried. "A year ago, we had a terrible argument and the last time I saw my father, I slammed the door and went out screaming, 'I hate you!' "
Not too long after she hung up the phone, Sue decided to check on the man in room 712 again. She noticed he was all too still, checked his pulse and found none, and began CPR while waiting for the emergency team to arrive. But the team was too late. One by one, the team left the room until finally someone turned off the gurgling oxygen machine. And then all was absolutely quiet. Nurse Sue was the last one to leave the room. And there she noticed a doctor in conversation with a young woman who had to be the man's daughter.
As she walked into her father's room, the daughter began to sob. Convulsively, she grabbed the sheet over her father and pulled it up to her eyes sobbing even more uncontrollably. Just as she did, the nurse looked over and saw the yellow piece of paper she had handed the man. On the paper, he had written, "I love you. I forgive you. I hope that you forgive me. I know you don't hate me." Signed, "Daddy."
Isn't it sad that only one half of the relationship was put right? The daughter, though given the cleansing of her father's wonderful forgiveness, did not have the chance to make it reciprocal as she wanted so desperately to do at that sad, irreversible moment.
Forgiving is so treacherously hard. But when we cannot forgive, we are actually disgracing the grace we already have experienced.
How can we forgive? Remembering all we've been forgiven, and remembering Who has done that forgiving is the secret to making that first move into active, life-affirming forgiveness, no matter what the hurt.
Growing Pains of the Soul.