We’re coming to the end of a series on healthy relationships. We’re just a few weeks away from finishing. We can’t go through a series on relationships without talking about a subject that is at the heart of what it means to be in relationship with others. And that subject is forgiveness.
Forgiveness is at the heart of what it means to be in relationship with others. I love what Ruth Graham said: “A good marriage is made of two good forgivers.” That’s not just true of marriage. For a relationship to be healthy, it has to be characterized by forgiveness.
But forgiveness is hard. This past summer we sat around a dinner table with some friends. The food had been good. We were starting to feel at home with the others around the table.
Near the end of dinner the subject turned to forgiveness. The question that was posed was something like this: “How do you forgive others for all the ways they’ve hurt you?” We had talked enough with those around the table to know that there had been some pretty serious hurts that had taken place. I remember the heavy silence that hung over the table as we began to wrestle with what it means to forgive those who have sinned against us.
That’s why I love what Darrin Patrick said: “If you think forgiveness is not painful, you have never forgiven someone who hurt you deeply.”
But I don’t want to simply talk about forgiveness this morning. I want to talk about extravagant forgiveness. It’s one thing to forgive someone when they forget to show up at a meeting, or open their car door so that it dings yours. It’s another thing to forgive someone for a serious offense, or to forgive someone who’s hurt you repeatedly.
Pastor Fred Winters was shot and killed during a Sunday service on March 8, 2009, by a troubled young man. A week after the tragic event, his wife, Cindy Winters, said this about the alleged killer:
I do not have any hatred, or even hard feelings towards him. We have been praying for him. One of the first things that my daughter said to me after this happened was, “You know, I hope that he comes to learn to love Jesus through all of this.” We are not angry at all, and we really firmly believe that he can find hope and forgiveness and peace through this, by coming to know Jesus. And we hope that that happens for him.
You hear stories like this and wonder: how in the world is forgiveness possible? A gunman opens fire in an Amish schoolhouse and kills five girls. Afterwards one of the members of the community says, “I don’t think there’s anybody here that wants to do anything but forgive and not only reach out to those who have suffered a loss in that way but to reach out to the family of the man who committed these acts.” Or, as Roy Comrie shared a few weeks ago, missionaries are lined up and killed. Before they die, they get on their knees and pray for the salvation of the killers, many of whom later come to know Christ. That’s what you call extravagant forgiveness.
How is this kind of extravagant forgiveness even possible?
That’s the question we have before us as we look at this passage. Notice what happened. Jesus has just been talking about real community among his followers, in which we go after and restore those who sin. Peter asks a legitimate question:
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?” (Matthew 18:21)
You can see why Peter would ask this question. Centuries ago someone said, “For Who deceives me once, God forgive him; if twice, God forgive him; but if thrice, God forgive him, but not me, because I could not beware.” You have to admit that sounds a little reasonable. There comes a time when you want to say, “Enough is enough!” There are limits to how much most of us are willing to forgive.
The thing with Peter is that he’s being extraordinarily generous. Rabbinic tradition said: “If a man commits a transgression, the first, second and third time he is forgiven, the fourth time he is not forgiven.” Peter more than doubled this quota of forgivenesses. He’s clearly learned something from Jesus. He understands now that retaliation is not the right path; forgiveness is to be pursued. You can picture the type of patience needed to forgive someone seven times.
But notice how Jesus answered in verse 22. “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” I can just picture somebody writing an iPhone app to keep track of the number of times you’ve forgiven someone. But that’s not what Jesus meant. He wasn’t saying we should keep track at all. Stop counting. For Jesus’ followers, forgiveness is to be unlimited. It’s to be a way of life, freely offered to all who sin against us.
This means, by the way, that if you’re keeping track of how many times you’ve forgiven someone, you need to stop. Jesus’ point was that we need to forgive an unlimited number of times.
You can see that this is a radical kind of forgiveness that goes far beyond what you’d expect. The question occurs to me: where am I going to get that kind of ability to forgive? Where am I going to find the resources to forgive someone to that level of extravagance? Jesus answers this question, and the answer comes in the form of a story.
The Unforgiving Servant
The story we have in verses 23-35 is a simple one. We need to enter into it if we’re going to understand the point that Jesus is making. The story has three characters.
First: it has a king. A king in that day would have had many officials who handled money on his behalf in affairs of the state. You can picture what happened. It’s audit time, and the accountant comes and points out that there’s some irregularities in a particular department. The more they look, the worse it gets. This sounds very familiar, doesn’t it?
This leads us to the second character. He’s the official who has overseen this particular area. He owes the first character, the king, a vast amount of money. The amount of money is so vast that we have a hard time even understanding how much it is. A talent represented about twenty years worth of work for the average laborer. This man owes ten thousand talents, which works out to about 193,000 years’ wages. We’re talking in the neighborhood of billions of dollars here. Not millions, billions. Using today’s wages, maybe 7 billion dollars or so. So look at what happens:
As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold 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.
“At this 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. (Matthew 18:24-27)
That’s it? A guy owes 7 billion dollars, and the king has pity on him and lets him go? I think you’ll agree that’s staggering. Unbelievable. Nobody could ever expect that level of compassion and grace. He could never hope to pay that amount back. If the king wasn’t merciful, he wouldn’t have stood a chance, and all would have been lost. It’s an amazing story of extravagant forgiveness.
But what’s really staggering is what happens next. Having been forgiven 7 billion dollars, he’s on his way home and comes across someone who owes him a hundred days’ worth of wages. Remember he’s just been forgiven 7 billion dollars; he now goes after someone who owes him, say, a little less than 10 thousand dollars.
Now, it’s a big deal if someone owes you 10 thousand dollars – unless you’ve just been forgiven 7 billion dollars. Then it’s just a rounding error. Of course you’re going to forgive someone such a small amount after you’ve been forgiven billions! But look what happens:
“But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. 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 it back.’
“But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt.” (Matthew 18:28-30)
Then, we read, the king hears about it. He can’t believe his ears.
“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. (Matthew 18:32-34)
You see, you can’t be forgiven billions and then be unwilling to forgive peanuts. The problem was that this man didn’t understand how extravagantly he had been forgiven, and as a result he wasn’t wasn’t able to forgive others. And then Jesus concludes with these haunting words:
“This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” (Matthew 18:35)
How will he treat us? Jesus is saying that if we withhold forgiveness from others for what they do to us, then God will withhold forgiveness from us. This is staggering. Jesus is essentially saying that every time we refuse to forgive someone for what they’ve done for us, we’re like the guy who’s been forgiven 7 billion dollars who refuses to forgive a few thousand dollars.
The Key to Extravagant Forgiveness
Let’s try to summarize here. Remember how this all began? Jesus is teaching about how to deal with people who sin against us. Peter asks the very good question about how many times we need to forgive others. And then Jesus says we’re to forgive others freely without counting no matter how many times they sin against us.
How could we ever forgive like this? Jesus says: it’ll only happen when you understand how much you’ve been forgiven. Whatever someone has done to offend you, it pales in comparison to what you’ve done to offend God. This isn’t to minimize what people have done against you. Some of it, quite frankly, is awful. But it pales in comparison to what you and I have done to offend a holy God.
When Yahaya Wahab’s father passed away in Malaysia in January of 2006, Yahaya cancelled his father’s phone line and paid the final bill of $23. Consequently, he was mildly surprised to receive another letter from Telekom Malaysia in April of 2006. He was completely and utterly shocked, however, after opening that letter. In fact, he said later that he almost fainted.
Inside was a bill for $218 trillion. Also inside was a threatening letter, informing Yahaya that he must pay the bill within 10 days or face prosecution. It wasn’t initially clear whether the monstrous charge was a mistake, or if Yahaya’s father’s phone line had been used illegally after his death. What was immediately clear, however, was that the bill represented a debt that Yahaya would never be able to pay.
It’s like that with God. The debt of our sin is so great that we could never repay it. But instead of prosecuting us, God sent his Son Jesus to pay that debt on our behalf. Because we’ve been forgiven so much, we’ll be able to forgive others the relatively small amounts that they owe us.
We can never forgive more extravagantly than God. When we realize how much we’ve been forgiven, when we consider what Jesus did at the cross for us, we’ll know what it means to forgive, and we’ll then be ready to forgive others – even for the 78th time.
I love how Chris Brauns puts it:
If you are someone who says that you cannot or will not forgive, then you should fear for your soul. Saying, “I cannot or will not forgive,” is essentially another way of saying, “I am thinking of going to hell.”…Quacking doesn’t make you a duck, but ducks do quack. Forgiving doesn’t make you a Christian, but Christians do forgive.
It’s only when a man understands how much he’s been forgiven that he can go and visit his sister’s murderer in prison, and offer forgiveness – both his and God’s. Extravagant forgiveness is possible because of God has extravagantly forgiven us.
So I invite you to experience and revel in God’s forgiveness of you this morning, made possible because of what Christ has done at the cross.
He does not treat us as our sins deserve
or repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his love for those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far has he removed our transgressions from us.
And then I invite you, on the basis of that extravagant forgiveness, to extend forgiveness to others.