“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.” – Matt. 18:21
Not too long ago I found myself in a financial ruin. I racked up some significant debt and the interest compounded to far more than I could have made in three lifetimes.
The thing about debt is the seeping stain – even when (or if) it’s removed, the discoloration remains. You can wipe up dirt but what remains requires some extra work.
So I found myself in this court, brought before my debtor with a demand of payment. And as I listened to the to the sentence handed down – bank leans, assets seized, jail time – the prosecution rose with a full pardon, the dropping of all charges.
See, I am the servant in Matthew 18. My debt wasn’t dollars and cents but sins and wrongdoings. And not just the forgiven aspects of the servant, but the unmerciful one, as well.
More times than I can count, and way past the 490 mark, I have found myself in this court of Christ with my sins wiped clean, billions of dollars forgiven. But what hasn’t changed is my deep-seeded desire to play judge and jury myself, cashing in the petty debts amassed against me of pennies.
Proximity is perhaps the most disturbing part of the entire story. It’s not just that the servant was forgiven and then chose not to forgive his own debtor of pennies, but it’s the rush and urgency with which he pursued his fellow man.
“But when that servant went out…” indicates (to me) that it was an almost immediate hunt for the one who owed him, without so much as a pause.
The debt of a few dollars quickly overcast the pardon of several millions – it’s disgusting to see, but easy to live in real time. This court of pardon in which we find ourselves convenes momentarily – because our debt racks up quickly. Our forgiveness isn’t some distant thing, but a very near and present event.
Another thing we tend to gloss over is that this servant never asked for a pardon. In fact, he begged the chance to repay.
How foolish he must have looked – a poor man in tattered clothes, in front of nobility, bragging that he will essentially pull himself out by his own flimsy sandal straps – if he had any at all.
We tend to see pardons as something removed instead of something gained. No wonder this servant went out looking to “cash in” – he didn’t realize he was actually a billionaire, since what he didn’t have to pay was really what he kept.
The practicality of forgiveness.
Yet we get caught up in semantics – thinking that linear equations like a + b should = c: how can we forgive, unless we forget? Yet we are not called to forget, at least not the way I see it. It’s a falsity that must be extinguished.
The debt example is poignant for several reasons:
First, we know how to deal with dollars. It’s why few research studies come out about the exchange of money compared to thousands that deal with our thoughts, feelings and relationships. Money is a tangible example.
Second, the thing about debt forgiveness is it deals with the issue of forgetting, or lack thereof. “You know they owe you, but you don’t make them pay,” writes bible.org. “You know they owe you, but when you don’t make them pay, you know that it cost you. We don’t forget. We can’t forget, but we don’t hold a grudge. We don’t bring it up again.”
Finally, it deals with the concept of credit. I find it highly unlikely the king would have loaned money to the servant again. I’m talking purely on my own here – I’m struggling through this myself – but there seems to be a fine line between holding a grudge and being naive.
I believe one can pardon a debt without opening a new line of credit. Is this Biblical? Like I said, I’m still working through this myself, and I welcome those wise in the faith to help me. But if our forgiveness is to be like Christ’s, then it is to be unquestionable and unlimited. Period.
We, as forgiven friends and children, are held to repentance and righteousness.
This isn’t to say after 490 times we let them have it. But at some point, perhaps we close the account.
It’s not prudent to focus on this last part – and I’ve debated removing it several times – because it waters down the bite of the forgiveness process. If we’re focusing on “when” we can cut ties, then we’re not fully focused on the continual process of forgiving.
And that’s a life-saving process, for yourself.
“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.”