Matthew 18:21-35 English Standard Version (ESV)
The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant
21 Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.
23 “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants.[a]24 When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents.[b] 25 And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. 26 So the servant[c] fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii,[d] and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. 31 When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place.32 Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers,[e] until he should pay all his debt. 35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
In Genesis 4:23-24, we see Lamech confessing that he had killed someone and suggesting that, just like Cain before him, his murdering ways should be avenged seventy-seven times. This had been the normal pattern of how the people of God viewed dealing with sin. In this passage, Jesus turns this thinking completely upside down when he says we should forgive those who sin against us seventy-seven times.
And then notice how immediately Jesus launches into a parable about how forgiving others who have wronged us is like the kingdom of heaven. Why does Jesus immediately move into kingdom-oriented language here?
I think verse 33 affords us a clue. In this story, Jesus has the king basically exclaiming, “Look at the vast and charitable manner in which I forgave you! My actions were broader and more sweeping than the pittance you forgave another!” This story is echoing the new Kingdom that Jesus knows is being ushered in upon His death on the cross. If we are careful to notice the kingdom language strewn through and through Jesus’ words in the various gospel accounts, it’s clear He doesn’t want us to miss this incredibly sweeping revolution that began with the cross and continues to this day.
Forgiveness always involves a painful wound. Without woundedness, forgiveness is unnecessary. And paradoxically and most disappointingly, forgiveness doesn’t numb the wound; forgiveness actually draws us closer to it where we feel it more acutely.
So why do we forgive?
First of all, forgiveness doesn’t paper over the offense as is often presumed. In fact, forgiveness acknowledges the offense. Forgiving brings the offense into the real world where it really happened and where it really hurt someone.
There is no living in denial when living in forgiveness.
Secondly, as we said, forgiveness doesn’t take away the wound, but it does change our relationship to it. Forgiveness is a fruit of broader living, of more integrated wholeness to our being, of embracing all the parts of ourselves.
Finally, forgiveness places one’s life in the broader Kingdom that is at hand. It brings forth the Kingdom of God and His love through the very act of acknowledging there is a broader Kingdom in which this offense occurred. When we forgive others, we both acknowledge the story of how this wound came to be and our response, as well as affirming that this painful story exists within a larger story being written, the ever-advancing story of the Kingdom of God moving forward through love, forgiveness and restored relationships.
This larger story began on a cross with an act of very costly forgiveness.
For most of us, the temptation we face daily is to see things as Lamech does. And like Lamach, our biggest temptation is to have our eyes on our own wrongdoing and our own need for punishment (even self-punishment). During this season of Lent, which is a season of abstaining, are there any areas of your life that you need to let go of self-punishment and embrace Jesus’ offer of forgiveness?
Since forgiveness almost always moves us closer to our pain, how does seeing that you are part of a larger story, part of a larger, divine love, help you to make room for the pain someone caused you? Does making room for this pain help you to make room to forgive?