Tuesday, October 04, 2022

Five Brief Thoughts About Forgiveness

I find it is all but impossible to exhaust the Lord’s parables. There are always more principles to learn from them and new ways they might legitimately be applied. So don’t mistake the following for an attempt to fully exposit Matthew 18:21-35. I am just nibbling around the edges.

What I do find useful is to work my way through the parable eliminating the obvious. Once that is done, I can give slightly-less-confused consideration to the possibilities that remain.

Settling Accounts

We may start with the observation that what follows is private teaching of the Lord’s disciples. It does not appear in the context of public discourse:

“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?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.

‘Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. 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. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, “Pay what you owe.” So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. 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. Then his master summoned him and said to him, “You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.’ ”


A few thoughts:

1/ The parable is given in the context of sins against other members of the believing community. It follows the instructions about what to do if a brother sins against you (verses 15-20) and is prompted by Peter’s follow-up question about how many times a man has to go through this process before he can wash his hands of the offender. So it’s not really about financial debt, though an unpaid loan might be one of the grievances one might have with one’s brothers and sisters. It’s really about any sort of situation where you feel another person owes you something: a private apology, a public retraction, whatever.

2/ It’s about servants and citizens of the kingdom. It begins with the words “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to”, which suggests a study of how God’s kingdom expectations contrast with the way relationships work among the people of this world. This is also confirmed by the final line: “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you.” The “you” refers back to 18:1, where the disciples have come to Jesus. So this parable is not intended to address disagreements between the sons of the kingdom and the unsaved, even if they are close family members. We should not try to force it to apply where it doesn’t.

Realistically, we ought to have no expectations of the unregenerate. Those who do not know Christ (1) do not operate by or understand the standards by which we live, (2) do not live in anticipation of a judgment of their works which will result in either reward or punishment, and (3) do not have the enabling power of the Holy Spirit to help them live as they should. To hold grudges against them or expect redress from them when they sin against us is pointless. Even if we could get them to behave the way we want, they would gain nothing lasting from it. The people from whom we can reasonably expect decent behavior are those who accept the same standards we do: the servants of a king to whom all must give account.

3/ The parable presumes repentance. In both the case of the unforgiving servant and his fellow servant, there is acknowledgement of the debt (“Have patience with me and I will pay you”). There is no disagreement that something is owed and needs to be made right. So the real sin of the unforgiving servant is not that he fails to overlook an unacknowledged slight, but fails to let go of a grudge when asked for forgiveness. A debt about which the debtor is oblivious or unresponsive requires the procedure described in the preceding verses. The point in this case is that when a believer is asked for forgiveness, he has no right to withhold it.

4/ The parable is not teaching that unforgiving people cannot be saved. The master delivers the unforgiving servant to the jailers (tormentors) “until he should pay all his debt”. Hell is not for the paying of debts — an eternity in hell will not wipe the slate of the sinner clean — so it is not eternal damnation or a purgatory-type experience that is in view here, but rather reaping what we sow in this life.

Some teach that this torment is only of the conscience, but there is no reason to limit the consequences of refusing to grant forgiveness to mere mental anguish. For example, when the Corinthians sinned against one another, the Lord dealt with them in very practical ways. The lesson in that passage, as here, is that if we judged ourselves we would not be judged. Bringing the Lord into our grievances with one another by appealing to our “rights” may end badly for us.

So then, when a servant of Christ refuses to forgive, his heavenly Father will discipline him until he learns his lesson. If the lesson will not be learned, the unforgiving person may even be taken out of the picture.

5/ Forgiving ‘from the heart’ is not a matter of working up the correct emotions. The Greek word kardia is certainly associated with feelings on occasion, but it has far more to do with authenticity than it does with the subject matter of treacly ballads. The heart is the place where all a man’s secrets are kept. Throughout scripture, the heart is contrasted with the outward appearance. The real man is found in the heart, not necessarily in what he says. (See the use of “heart” in Matthew 15:8, 24:48, Mark 2:6, Luke 2:19 and a great many others.)

Therefore, to do something “from the heart” is to do it sincerely, honestly and without deception. In other words, there can be no secret plan to use a show of forgiveness as a ploy to get the injurer to let his guard down so you can turn the tables on him. When you say you will no longer pursue a remedy from him, you must absolutely mean it. That is a decision, a choice, an act of the will.

What this verse does not teach is that Christians must attempt to gin up affectionate feelings toward someone who has terribly wronged them before they can offer forgiveness to them. One of the most frequently cited excuses for refusing to forgive is “That would by hypocritical!” This is quite untrue. The appropriate emotions may or may not come in due course, but forgiveness can and should be extended to a person who expresses repentance with or without them.

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