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21 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, how many times should I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Should I forgive as many as seven times?”
22 Jesus said, “Not just seven times, but rather as many as seventy-seven times [Or seventy times seven]. 23 Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 When he began to settle accounts, they brought to him a servant who owed him ten thousand bags of gold [Or ten thousand talanta, an amount equal to the wages for sixty million days]. 25 Because the servant didn’t have enough to pay it back, the master ordered that he should be sold, along with his wife and children and everything he had, and that the proceeds should be used as payment. 26 But the servant fell down, kneeled before him, and said, ‘Please, be patient with me, and I’ll pay you back.’ 27 The master had compassion on that servant, released him, and forgave the loan.
28 “When that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him one hundred coins [Or one hundred denaria, an amount equal to the wages for one hundred days]. He grabbed him around the throat and said, ‘Pay me back what you owe me.’
29 “Then his fellow servant fell down and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I’ll pay you back.’ 30 But he refused. Instead, he threw him into prison until he paid back his debt.
31 “When his fellow servants saw what happened, they were deeply offended. They came and told their master all that happened. 32 His master called the first servant and said, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you appealed to me. 33 Shouldn’t you also have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?’ 34 His master was furious and handed him over to the guard responsible for punishing prisoners, until he had paid the whole debt.
35 “My heavenly Father will also do the same to you if you don’t forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
Some rabbis said forgiving a sin three times was enough. Peter may have thought that forgiving seven times was huge. But Jesus’ story said forgiveness was much bigger. The debt the servant in the story owed was a whopper, equivalent to 60 million days’ wages (about 170,000 years of work)! Yet the king (clearly God) showed mercy even to a man who owed “a gazillion dollars.” But the freed debtor refused to show any mercy at all to someone whose debt was much smaller.
Lord Jesus, have mercy on me. And even as I ask for your mercy, which I need every day, help me be merciful to those who wrong me, so that they and I may be free. Amen.
The struggle to forgive is a very human one. Our species seems to have built into it a fundamental sense of justice that is disturbed by wrongdoing. This is a good thing!
It may help to first recognize how important justice is to us. We yearn for fairness, equity, to safeguard one another’s well-being and our own from harm. We can embrace this desire as holy, part of the glue that helps us love one another and ourselves.
Yet this same sense of justice can imprison us, hold us captive to never-ending score keeping, as we hold others and ourselves hostage to the wrongs done. Some of us hold fast to our grievances like badges of honor, keeping score at each slight or possible offense. Some of us long to forgive yet are haunted by hurts that seem beyond reconciliation.
I don’t know how forgiveness works. I cannot fathom its source or operation. I only know that I cannot create it. I cannot summon or conjure forgiveness out of nothing. All I do know is that the Holy One who knows the hidden hearts of each one of us pours out compassion on the whole world.
My work, then, is not to somehow reach deep into my heart and pull out forgiveness, but to participate in God’s overflowing mercy, let it pour through my life, let it soak through me. And then let it overflow to others. God, not I, is the Source of forgiveness. I can start here, resting in God’s compassion and mercy.
Try this experiment: visualize yourself before God, receiving the radiant compassion God pours over you. Rest in this for a bit. Then bring into this visualization a person with whom you struggle or whom you find hard to forgive. Let God’s radiant compassion pour over that person as you simply participate in the flow.
* Adam Hamilton, Forgiveness: Finding Peace Through Letting Go. Nashville: Abingdon Press, p. 17.
** Myron Augsberger comment on Matthew 18:35 in The Preacher’s Commentary Series, Volume 24: Matthew. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1982.