Forgive and Forget?

Forgiveness. The act of letting someone off the hook. In moderation, forgiveness feels right. It makes you feel like a great, kind and generous person. But when it reaches a threshold, it’s no longer an act of kindness but an ignorance towards injustice, is it not? So where is this threshold, if there is one? And why should we even bother forgiving, when really it isn’t just?

Jesus disciples had the same question:

“Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.”

Matthew 18:21-22

Now, Jesus isn’t setting a threshold here, he’s not giving us a number to count up to before we seek revenge. It’s the equivalent of when you pull out the wildcard when you argued with your siblings when you were young: “I’m better that you times infinity.” Jesus says, there is no threshold, you should just keep forgiving without number.

Now, that just seems unreasonable. You can’t just keep forgiving, where’s the justice in that? To make his point Jesus uses a parable, which he often does:

“Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants.”

Matthew 18:23

Just as the King wants to settle his debts with his servants, so does God want to fix our debt to him. Our rebellion has a cost, Romans 6:23 says “For the wages of sin is death.” Our actions bring us to owe God our life, he has more than the right to take it. However, the story continues:

“When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed ten thousand talentsĀ [1 Talent = 20 years work; thus 10,000 Talents = 200,000 years work]. And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and the payment had to be made.”

Matthew 18:24-5

Not a pretty picture. The servant obviously hasn’t got the years in him to work off this debt and the only thing that seems to solve the problem is the life of him and his family. Just as we are incapable of paying for our sin with all the good deeds and action we can muster, this servant can’t pay back this debt.

“So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.'”

Matt 18:26

As any sane person would do in this situation, they would try and save themselves. It almost seems like the instinctive response to this kind of debt is to promise the unfulfillable. I’ll pay you back, don’t worry, even though it is humanly impossible, I’ll make the promise because it gives a sense of false assurance. I’m in over my head.

You may be thinking, what does this have to do with general forgiveness, it’s not like majority of issues are debt related. Just bear with me, I’m getting there. Jesus continues:

“And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.”

Matt 18:27

Obviously the servant’s promise was a cry for mercy that came out of a fear and understanding of the hopelessness of his situation. There was no way he could get himself out of it. The master sees this, has pity on him and just lets him off the hook. Just for a minute, close your eyes and imagine the emotions, the sensations that the servant must be feeling. Thankfulness isn’t a big enough concept to even encompass the experience.

This is the extent to which we are forgiven through Christ. That is why Christianity is such a different religion: it asks for nothing in return for salvation, for there is nothing that humanity can offer that can satisfy the debt. The verse from Romans that I mentioned earlier also has the same ending:

“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 6:23.

However, the parable continues:

“But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii [100 denarii = a days work], and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe me’. ”

Matthew 18:28

So off skips this free servant and he stumbles upon someone he happened to lend money to. You have to notice, his methods are a little more violent than his masters.

“So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you’. He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt.”

Matt 18:29

Just as the servant pleaded with his master, so too does his friend plead with him. You’d think after having experienced such mercy that the servant would feel more inclined to give mercy himself but he doesn’t. This has consequence:

“Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I has mercy on you?’ And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”

Matthew 18:32-35

The servant has his master to answer to. His behaviour has cost him the mercy he received initially. It seems almost illogical that he didn’t see how little his act of mercy would have been in comparison to the mercy he received from his master and yet he could not forgive.

So this is how forgiveness should work, then. God offers us mercy and forgiveness in our sin because there is no way we could fix the problems we’ve created on our own. Thus, this forgiveness should spur us to forgive others their wrongs which are so much less in comparison to what we’ve received.

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Offered not Earned

One thing that is common among us, is the belief that we were generally good people. A lot of people say, ” I’m sure that if God is so loving, he’ll just see I’m pretty good, most of the time and be happy with that.” It’s a common assumption.

Matthew, the guy that wrote the first gospel and was a disciple of Jesus, lived in a time when his people were ruled over by the Romans. He was a tax collector, and not until recently have I understood the significance of this. Tax collectors were rejected, despised by the people. His job was inherently corrupt, he collected tax for the Romans but with his authority he was capable and permitted to extort as much as he wanted from the people. And in order to get as much money as he could, he inspired fear in the people.

To the Jews, this was the least of his problems. To become a tax collector, you had to purchase an office from the Romans to live in, which means selling your portion of the land God had promised and divided amongst the people. Like prostitutes selling their bodies, tax collectors sold themselves to Rome and corruption.

Not only were there tax collectors, but also, Pharisees and Saducees. Pharisees were self-righteous religious leaders, they patronised the community while living off donations to the temple (despite there well known hypocrisy). The Saducees on the other hand, openly showed their corruption, they had come to the decision that Israel was owned by Rome and nothing was going to change. If they fought against Rome, they’d get crushed, so they just went along with them. Exploiting the people to stay in the good books with Rome.

So within this climate, Jesus walks onto the scene. Any Pharisee expected that if a Messiah were to come, hid first stop would be at their house, glorifying them for their triumphant maintenance of righteousness. Expecting him to knock on their door, give them a wink and say “Thanks for watching the flock for me”.

What’s weird is that he does the complete opposite. He spends his life having dinner parties at tax collectors’ houses, at healing the outcast and forgiving prostitutes. So while at Matt’s place, our tax collector, the Pharisees have huddled together watching the going on’s with their beady eyes and confront Jesus disciples about it: “Why does your teacher eat with the tax collectors and ‘sinners’?” Matt 9:11

Jesus gets up and replies to them himself: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.” (Matt 9:12). The Pharisees assumed they were healthy, they were righteous. Jesus said this with an element of what we’d call sarcasm. He’s here to save people, but these people think they are already saved so why come to the doctor?

Jesus then went on the quote an Old Testament passage that they would be well acquianted with : “I desire mercy, not sacrifice”(Hosea 6:6). Basically, God prioritises grace over sacrifice. And finally Jesus reveals his mission statement: “I have come not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matt 9:13)

Think about it. Grace is inviting to the unrighteous and threatening to the self-righteous. Grace cannot be earned, but it is instead given. It’s given to those that recognise that they need it. As awful as it sounds to say this, no-one is ‘good’ enough to be in God’s good books without grace. No matter how many charities you donate to, how many children you adopt, how much volunteering you do, how many people you help, none of it amounts or will ever amount to the perfection you need to achieve eternal life.

You can only get there through grace.