It happened in a little church, in a little town. I was there; I saw it; I heard it. Toward the conclusion of the service, a trembling woman came forward and sat on the front pew, asking forgiveness. She had been an absentee for several years. The woman who sat directly behind her, shocked, grew pale and nervous. Several in the audience seemed bewildered and wondered if trouble would start all over again; for there had been trouble, lots of it, tragic and heartbreaking– two murders, court trials with opposing families, and one death in the electric chair.
The responding woman was the mother of the murderer. The woman behind her… it was her husband and son whose blood had been shed. What will her reaction be? Will her mercy go unstrained? Will her forgiveness be big enough to welcome the mother of the man who widowed her and left her bereft of both husband and son? It was! She went to her, clasped her hand and said, “I’m glad you have come back to be with us in the church.” She later commented, “I feel better than I have felt in years. Now I feel free.” (From LeRoy Brownlow’s book, Making the Most of Life)
Forgiveness freed a woman that many might think had a right to feel resentful and harbor bitterness. “I feel free” speaks to the liberating power of forgiveness. No matter how great the slight, or how deep the wound, the failure to forgive imprisons the person who binds himself within his own heart.
But how often and how long should I forgive others? This was Peter’s question in Matt 18:21. Peter thought he was being quite generous by suggesting seven times. This prompted Jesus to tell the famous parable of the unforgiving servant.
In the story a man was more than “head over heels” in debt. He owed over one billion dollars! When he couldn’t pay the creditor ordered him, his wife and children to be sold as slaves. The debtor pled for mercy. The master was moved with compassion and forgave the debt. Yet, after being forgiven, the same man found someone who owed him $4,000 and grabbed him by the throat, demanding payment. This man also asked for mercy. But the servant would not forgive and ordered him thrown into prison.
When the master of this servant heard of this, he was angry. He called the servant in and denounced him as a “wicked servant.” He said, “I had mercy on you and forgave you all your debt. You should have demonstrated the same mercy to your fellow servant. As a result, I rescind my offer. You are going to jail!”
Jesus’ comment on this story speaks to us directly, “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (Matt 18:32).
There are three lessons to this simple, yet profound story.
(1) It says that our sins our enormous. Yes, as big as a billionaires bankroll! The debt is too great! We could never repay it. Our sins have separated us from God and we do not have the means to pay the debt.
(2) But God’s mercy is immeasurable. Paul affirmed that “God is great in mercy” (Eph 2:1-5). God through the blood of Jesus has paid the debt of sin. Regardless of the depth of our transgression or the length of time we’ve been sinners, there is no limit to the kindness, compassion and mercy of God. Indeed, he will abundantly pardon (Isa 55:7).
(3) Therefore, we must forgive other people. This is the point of the parable. Inundated by our Lord’s love for us and his mercy toward us, our hearts should be moved to forgive our friends, our family and our brethren when they trespass against us. If we won’t, God won’t forgive us. George Herbert put it this way, “He who cannot forgive others burns the bridge over which he must pass himself.”
Jesus said, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” When we believe, embrace and obey the truth, we experience freedom from the burden, bondage and blame of sin. And when we extend that forgiveness to our others, we can enjoy a liberating life that loosens us from the bonds of bitterness and the shackles of resentment. Like the West Texas lady, we can say, “I feel free!”