“To err is human; to forgive, divine” penned the British poet, Alexander Pope.
The apostle Peter probably thought he was being deeply divine when he asked, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?”
Peter undoubtedly thought he was being excessively generous and magnanimous. After all the Rabbinic teaching as expressed by Rabbi Jose ben Hanina said, “He who begs forgiveness from his neighbor must not do so more than three times.”
The Savior’s symbolic response was: “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.” In other words, forgiveness ought to be unlimited, immeasurable, and unrestricted.
To illustrate His point, Jesus relates one of His most famous parables–the unforgiving servant.
In the story, a man owed 10,000 talents. Philip Massey, an adjunct faculty member for Crowell School of Business, figured that in US currency and based on our minimum wage laws, that would about 7.4 billion dollars. He was more than “head over heels” in debt.
When he couldn’t pay, the creditor ordered him, his wife and children to be sold as slaves. The debtor pled for mercy. Moved with compassion, the Master forgave the debt.
Can you imagine, how you would feel if a bank released you from a mortgage debt you couldn’t pay? Paid in full. You’re free. Forgiven. Released. What a burden lifted. And what a joyous feeling.
However, this same man found someone who owed him 100 denarii, which Massey calculated would be $11,733.00. The forgiven servant 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 personal, profound lessons to this simple story.
(1) Our sins are enormous. Yes, as big as a billionaires bankroll! The debt is too great! We could never repay it. Our sins are innumerable! Too often we minimize sin and excuse our sins. But make no mistake, 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). I’m sure glad that God hasn’t reduced forgiveness to a number. I’m afraid that I would have already surpassed 490 times!
(3) Therefore, we must forgive other people. Unconditionally. Categorically. Without limits. This is the point of the parable. Inundated by our Lord’s love and mercy toward us, our hearts should be moved to forgive.
Who do you need to forgive? A friend? A family member? A neighbor? A work associate? A client? A fellow Christian? Maybe even your spouse?
George Herbert was right when he wrote, “He who cannot forgive others, burns the bridge over which he must pass himself.”
The Bible says, “love keeps no record of wrongs” (1 Cor. 13:5). Forgiveness is not reduced to a number. It’s an attitude. A matter of the heart. A spirit of compassion. Love. Mercy. And grace.
Finally, the words of C. S. Lewis should hit home with all of us. “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.”
–Ken Weliever, The Preacherman