A Lesson On Forgiveness

Scripture Reading: Matthew 18:21-35

Perhaps no other lesson is harder to learn than to be forgiving. It never gets easy to bear injury or wrong. Yet the lesson is essential. We can ask forgiveness for ourselves only when we are ready to forgive those who trespass against us.

Jesus had been speaking to His disciples about forgiving others. He said if anyone sin against us, we should first go and talk the matter over with him privately. Mutual explanations will likely settle the matter. It will be still better if the two kneel and pray together before they begin to talk about their differences. If the matter cannot be settled between the two, then one or two witnesses are to be taken along. If one man still remains implacable, the other has done his part.

It was always Peter who spoke first, and when he heard the Master’s words, he asked Jesus how often his brother should sin against him and he forgive him. This question still troubles many people. In some person’s minds patience quite soon “ceases to be a virtue.” If they have forgiven another two or three times, they think they have really acted very generously. Peter supposed he was going to the very extreme of Christian tolerance when he suggested that seven times would be a good limit for Christ’s disciples. The rabbis said, “Forgive the first offense, the second, the third; punish the fourth.” But the answer of Jesus showed that there should be no limit. That is what seventy times seven means — not any definite number, however great, but infinitely. We are to forgive as God forgives us, and He does not keep account of the number of times. He forgives all the multitude of our transgressions. The time never comes therefore when we may say: “I have exhausted the requirements of Christian love. I cannot forgive you anymore.”

Jesus told a little story to illustrate and enforce His teaching. He said the kingdom of heaven is like unto “a certain king, which would take account of his servants.” We must never forget that there will be a reckoning with God. We are told that on the last day the books will be opened, the books which record men’s acts, words, motive, dispositions, tempers. But we do not have to wait until the judgment day to have these reckonings — God reckons with us also as we go along. He is constantly calling men to give account to Him. Sometimes the call is given by the preaching of the word which convicts them of sin and makes them stand trembling before the bar of conscience. Sometimes it is by an affliction which compels men to stop and think of their relations to God, revealing to them their sinfulness. Sometimes it is by a deep searching of heart, produced by the Holy Spirit. There is no man who some time or other is not called, even in this present life, before God for a reckoning.

The reckoning is individual — each one must stand before the judgment seat and give an account of his own life. Among the king’s servants “one was brought unto him that owed him ten thousand talents.” We need not trouble ourselves about the exact money equivalent of these figures. It is enough to know that the figures stand for our debt to God, and that this is immense. It makes it plain to think of sin as a debt. We owe to God perfect obedience in act, word, thought, and motive. Duty is what is due to God and the obligation is beyond computation. We may flatter ourselves that we are fairly good people, because we stand well in the community; but when we being to reckon with God, the best of us will find that our debt to Him is of vast magnitude.

It transpired at once that this servant had nothing to pay. There was no possibility that he ever could make up the amount that he owed to his king. So it is with those who are called to make a reckoning with God. There is no possibility that they can never make up to Him their enormous debt. Many people imagine that in some way they can get clear of their guilt — they do not try to know how. Some suppose they can do it by tears of repentance; but being sorry that we are in debt does not cancel the debt. Some fancy that because their sins do not trouble them anymore, therefore the debt has been overlooked. But forgetting that we owe a man a thousand dollars will not release us from our debt to him. We are hopelessly in debt to God, and have nothing wherewith to pay.

If the law had been enforced, the servant would have been sold and his wife and family and all that he had. But this servant came to his king and begged for time. “Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay thee all.” This appeal to the king touched his generous heart. “The lord of that servant, being moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt.” This is a picture of the Divine forgiveness. We never can pay the enormous debt we owe to God, but His mercy is sufficient to wipe it all away. Bankrupt people sometimes pay so many cents on the dollar and are allowed by their creditors to go free. But that is not the way God forgives. He does not require anything on our part, because we have nothing to give. We are justified freely by His grace.

One would think that this servant, after being forgiven such an enormous debt, would have gone out with a heart kindly disposed toward all men. But the reverse was the case. He “found one of his fellow servants, which owed him a hundred pence: and he laid hands on him, and took him by the throat, saying, Pay me what thou owest.” He had forgotten the way he had been forgiven. A little while ago he was at his lord’s feet, pleading for time and for patience. But the memory of this wonderful forgiveness had failed to soften his heart.

What his servant owed him was a mere trifle in comparison with his great debt to the king, yet he demanded payment and refused to show mercy. How is it with us? This morning we knelt at God’s feet, implored His forgiveness, and received from Him the assurance that all our sins were blotted out. Then we went out, and someone said a sharp word to us or did something to irritate us, or injured us in some way. How did we treat our fellow who did these little wrongs to us? Did we extend to him the same patience and mercy that god had shown to us in the morning?

Soon again the servant was before his king. His harsh treatment of his fellow servant had been reported. Very stern was the judgment the unforgiving man now heard: “Thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all that debt… shouldst not thou also have had compassion on thy fellow servant, even as I had pity on thee?” The king was right in his severe censure. The man who had received such kindness at his hand should certainly have been kind to his neighbor who had wronged him in such a little matter. An old Spanish writer says, “To return evil for good is devilish; to return good for good is human; to return good for evil is godlike.”

Jesus makes the application of His parable very plain: “So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not everyone his brother their trespasses.” This does not mea that God actually revokes the forgiveness He has once granted. In fact, the person who acts thus never has been truly forgiven. “If you get pardon from God, you will give it to your brother; if you withhold it from your brother, you thereby make it manifest that you have not received it from God.”

Thus we are brought face to face with a most definite practical teaching which we dare not ignore. Have we the forgiving spirit? An old proverb says, “Revenge is sweet”; but this is not true. “The unforgiving spirit is a root of bitterness from which there springs a tree whose leaves are poisonous, and whose fruit, carrying in it the seeds of fresh evil, is death to all who taste it.” A little poem by Charles Henry Webb is very suggestive:

Revenge is a naked sword—
It has neither hilt nor guard,
Wouldst thou wield this brand of the Lord?
Is thy grasp then firm and hard?

But the closer thy clutch of the blade,
The deadlier blow thou wouldst deal,
Deeper wound in thy hand is made—
It is thy blood reddens the steel.

And when thou hast dealt the blow—
When the blade from thy hand has flown—
Instead of the heart of the foe,
Thou mayest find it sheathed in thine own.