One of the most interesting books I have ever read is Simon Wiesenthal’s The Sunflower, which is subtitled The Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness.
Wiesenthal was a young man interned at Buchenwald concentration camp under the Hitler regime, who witnessed the death of many of his family and friends. One day while on duty cleaning the grounds of a hospital he was summonsed to the bedside of a young dying German soldier (Karl) who requested that a Jew—“any Jew”—be brought to him. Karl’s conscience was troubling him because of a horrific deed of slaughter in which he had participated. He knew he was dying and so desired forgiveness.
He asked Wiesenthal to please forgive him for what he had done to so many Jewish people. Wiesenthal responded with silence as he pulled away from the grip of the dying man, never to see him again.
After the war he tracked down Karl’s mother and gave to her some personal articles entrusted to him by her son. But for many years he was haunted by the matter of forgiveness that he refused to grant to the solder. Should he have done so? Could he have done so? That is, would it have been right to forgive a soldier for deeds that he had done to others?
In an attempt to answer this question Wiesenthal wrote to various philosophers, religious leaders, politicians, ethicists and intellectuals in his quest to know whether or not he had done the right thing. Most of the respondents said that he was not morally bound to forgive the man for what he had done to others but rather only for wrongs that he may have done to Wiesenthal himself. And yet there were a few dissenting voices who believed that Wiesenthal should have forgiven this man. One such respondent said, “I am afraid not to forgive because I fear not to be forgiven” (Henry James Cargos).
Without entering into the debate (at least at this point), I appreciate Cargos’ words, for this is precisely the point that the Lord made in the passage before us in this study. Those who will not forgive are indicating that they have no experience of forgiveness from God. And that is a far more serious matter than that which Wiesenthal encountered.
Thomas Watson wrote, “A man can as well go to hell for not forgiving as for not believing.” And J. C. Ryle said, “There are few duties so strongly commanded in the New Testament Scriptures as this duty is, and few whose neglect so clearly shuts a man out of the kingdom of God.” That is a very significant statement in light of the context in which we find this parable of Jesus.
You will remember that this whole discourse began as the response to conflict amongst the disciples, precipitated by their desire to be greatest. The Lord gave them a thunderbolt response as He told them that unless they humble themselves, they will not even enter the kingdom—let alone be greatest in it! This then led to a discourse on how they are to honour each member of the kingdom and how they were to help each other in the corporate pursuit of holiness. Specifically, they were to seek the spiritual welfare of those in the church who might sin against them. They were to seek to reconcile with and to restore such straying sheep. Yes, they were to forgive.
If each of us were to follow the precept laid out in Matthew 18 then we would increasingly experience a holy harmony. But to do so means that we must embrace forgiveness as a lifestyle. And this is exactly what those who seek to be the greatest fail to do. Peter’s question in v. 21 highlights this.
As we study this final section of Matthew 18 I trust that we will be equipped by the Spirit through His Word to put these various nonnegotiables together in a holy harmony for the glory of Christ. As John MacArthur has pointed out, “Because they have been forgiven everything by Christ, believers should be willing and eager to forgive each other in everything.” When this is the case then harmony increases in the community of the forgiven. As we begin this study let us remember that, as one pastor noted, “the Christian is at his very best when he is forgiving.” May God help us to be at our very best!
The Responsibility to Forgive
Our text first sets for the responsibility that we all have to forgive. It began with a question from Peter, which Jesus answered in a thorough manner.
Then Peter came to Him and said, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.”
The Context of Forgiveness
Remember that this question arose from what had just preceded concerning church discipline. We don’t want to miss this connection because it highlights once again that church discipline is a positive force in the church. It is interesting that Peter’s question was not concerning those who don’t repent. (In other words he was not obsessed, as some are, with v. 17.) Instead, he was considering how to respond to those who do repent. This positive aspect should be our focus; as we have seen, the sheep of the Chief Shepherd hear His voice and they follow.
We should approach confrontation (or what some have called “carefrontation”) with this positive mindset of expectancy for the best. But immediately we are confronted with the question of how far do we go in forgiving others? After all, some people just seem to be gifted at offending us! Surely there must be a limit to how often we forgive them? Surely we are not to be doormats upon which offenders can repeatedly wipe their sins against us with impunity? Surely at some point the Lord would permit, even expect, that we would refuse such forgiveness. After all, if someone sins against us seven times in a day and seven times they say they repent, surely they are dishonest and we should give them the cold shoulder (see Luke 17:4)? To tweak a baseball metaphor, “seven strikes and you’re out!” surely is a legitimate rule to be exercised in the local church? Well, actually, it is not!
The Consternation Over Forgiveness
Perhaps Peter had someone specific in mind, or some specific conflict, that just would not go away. Was he perhaps thinking about one or more of the disciples who kept arguing over who was the greatest? Did he perhaps have James and John in mind (cf. Matthew 20:20-28)? His question had an underlying consideration (in light of the context): “What about those who keep wandering and wounding? Is there not a limit to forgiveness?” And so he asked, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” (v. 21).
Have we not all at times asked such questions? Have we not given such consideration to the question of forgiveness? After all, there are those who quite often harm us and they do so in very painful ways. Is there not a point at which we say, “Enough!”?
In this study we will not address all of these issues, for our text does not. What this text reveals to us is that, generally speaking, there is no limit to the forgiveness that we are to grant others. Yes, there are other Scriptures which address the issue of restitution and the “conditional” elements of some forgiveness. But this is not our Lord’s point here. Rather Jesus was answering a specific question regarding the limits of forgiveness and His answer was that there is none.
We will not answer all of the questions of forgiveness, though perhaps in future messages we will attempt to do so. Suffice it to say, for now, that fundamentally the Lord Jesus was teaching us that, all things considered, generally speaking, there is no limit to our forgiveness.
I fear that, when it comes to this matter of forgiveness, the church is often as confused as the world. But this passage should clear up most of this question. After all, the entrance of God’s Word gives light. We should be thankful that Peter merely articulated what each one of us thinks! As William Barclay said, “We owe a very great deal to the fact that Peter had a quick tongue. Again and again Peter rushed into speech, and his impetuosity drew from Jesus teaching which is immortal.”
Simply put, we are no different to Peter; we all are tempted to put limits on our forgiveness. And we do so with religious fervour. This was most certainly the mental and moral context in which Peter asked this question. Barclay notes the general religious understanding of the day.
It was a Rabbinic teaching that a man must forgive his brother three times. Rabbi Jose ben Hanina said, “He who begs forgiveness from his neighbour must not do so more than three times.” Rabbi Jose ben Jehuda said, “If a man commits an offence once, they forgive him; if he commits an offence the second time, they forgive him; if he commits an offence a third time, they forgive him; the fourth time they do not forgive.”
The reason for this teaching was poor exegesis of Amos 1-2. On several occasions in these chapters, God said through Amos, “For three transgressions of [a particular city or nation], and for four, I will not turn away its punishment” (1:3, 6, 9, 11, 13; 2:1, 4, 6). The rabbis interpreted God’s message as, “I will forgive for three transgressions, but for the fourth I will not turn away punishment.” It was inferred that God only forgives up to three times before He brings judgement.
We are in great need of clarification concerning forgiveness—for our own health as well as for the holy and healthy harmony of the church. As David Jackman has observed, “The unwillingness to forgive is a major cause of psychological breakdown, and there is little doubt that a bitter spirit is a killer. It kills the spiritual life of those who cherish it; it kills their emotional, mental and even sometimes their physical health; and it kills the fellowship where it is not dealt with.”
The late Karl Menninger, noted psychiatrist and author of Whatever Happened to Sin?, observed that 75% of the hospital beds in the United States could be emptied if people realised that their guilt was forgiven.
The Lord Jesus Christ is passionate about holy harmony in His church. Ken Sande has noted this emphasis in the New Testament. He writes, “The apostles understood the importance of peacemaking, and they realized that Satan will do all he can to promote conflict. The depth of their concern is revealed by the fact that every Epistle in the New Testament contains a command to live at peace with one another.” Consider some of these New Testament exhortations.
- Romans 15:5-7—“Now may the God of patience and comfort grant you to be like-minded toward one another, according to Christ Jesus, that you may with one mind and one mouth glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore receive one another, just as Christ also received us, to the glory of God.”
- 1 Corinthians 1:10—“Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgement.”
- Ephesians 4:32—“And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you.”
- Colossians 3:12-13—“Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering; bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do.”
- 1 Thessalonians 5:12-15—“And we urge you, brethren, to recognise those who labour among you, and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake. Be at peace among yourselves. Now we exhort you, brethren, warn those who are unruly, comfort the fainthearted, uphold the weak, be patient with all. See that no one renders evil for evil to anyone, but always pursue what is good both for yourselves and for all.”
In order to bring about such holy harmony our Lord has, like Siamese twins, so connected both discipline and forgiveness that they can never be separated; neither can survive on its own.
We need to pay heed to our Lord’s clarification of Peter’s muddled mindset on the essential attitude of unlimited forgiveness in the Body of Christ. After all, as theologian Theodore Hasburgh noted in The Sunflower, “the sin [of Karl] is monumental . . . [but] it is still finite and God’s mercy is infinite.”
The Concept of Forgiveness
Before proceeding we would do well to try and come to some biblical definition of what it means to forgive. In order to do this, it will prove helpful to consider how the Greek word here translated “forgive” is rendered in various other New Testament contexts.
- Matthew 3:15—“But Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfil all righteousness.’ Then he allowed Him.”
- Matthew 4:20—“They immediately left their nets and followed Him.”
- Matthew 23:23—“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone.”
- Matthew 26:56—“But all this was done that the Scriptures of the prophets might be fulfilled. Then all the disciples forsook Him and fled.”
- Matthew 27:50—“And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up His spirit.”
- Mark 4:36—“Now when they had left [“sent away,” KJV] the multitude, they took Him along in the boat as He was. And other little boats were also with Him.”
- Mark 7:8—“For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men—the washing of pitchers and cups, and many other such things you do.”
- Luke 13:8—“But he answered and said to him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and fertilise it.’”
- John 20:23—“If you forgive [“remit,” KJV] the sins of any, they are forgiven [“remitted,” KJV] them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
Surely at least one of these terms will strike you regarding your responsibility when it comes to forgive!
Let me sum this up by saying that, basically, the word means “to let go of a wrong.” Thus, we may not bring it up again—either to the one who has been forgiven, to others, to yourself, or to God. Past wrongs are not to be used as bargaining chips.
But of course this is (as they say) the rub, for letting go of the “right” to revenge is precisely what we don’t want to do! We would rather stew, and stealthily plan our defensive attack. But if we take this passage seriously we will need to let go. If we do not then, according to v. 35, God lets go of us!
The Costliness of Forgiveness
Vance Havner once said, “If we would be spared humiliation then we must first humble ourselves.” Unfortunately, Peter seemingly had not paid close enough attention to the first part of this chapter and so humiliation was his experience. You see, our Lord’s answer regarding the responsibility to forgive was a blow to Peter’s sense of magnanimous charity. In fact, it made Peter to look like a moral pauper! William Hendriksen noted, “There was something wrong with Peter’s approach. . . . It sounded as if the forgiving spirit were a commodity that could be weighed, measured, and counted; as if it could be parceled out little by little up to a certain well defined limit, when further distribution would have to stop.”
The Lord Jesus had been speaking to the disciples about the absolute requisite of humility if they were to enter the kingdom of God. Remember that this was preceded by their arguing over whom was the greatest. Now I ask you, is it not evident that one who thinks he is better than others will display this in a refusal to forgive others for wrongs committed? We call this self-righteousness. And for one to continually forgive another will require repeated acts of self-humiliation. This is costly.
Peter was battling with how far he must go in forgiving others. There is an old song, Breaking Up is Hard to Do, but I would suggest that so is making up. In fact, breaking up is probably easier than making up. And Peter knew this, and this was the reason for his question.
I suppose that this was Wiesenthal’s dilemma. For him to forgive Karl would have been too costly, too painful, because of a sense of betrayal of his murdered loved ones and fellow kinsmen.
At the end of the day this too is our dilemma. To forgive time and again is costly. It costs us the “right” of revenge, or the “right” to say, “I knew you were not really sorry.” Retaliation is always a more tempting prospect than letting go of the “right” to respond in kind. As Sir Walter Scott once expressed, “Revenge is sweet—the sweetest morsel ever cooked in Hell.”
Though we may be tempted to respond with “There will be hell to pay!” we should consider that, according to what our Lord said here, the hell to pay will be rendered to the account of the unforgiving.
Again, common rabbinic teaching held that a person was expected to forgive no more than three times. Peter doubled this number, and then graciously added one, believing that he was being absolutely magnanimous in his suggestion. The Lord answered with an astounding statement: In fact, Peter was required by God to forgive “seventy times seven” (v. 22).
A plan reading of Jesus’ response makes it clear that He did not expect Peter to calculate the number of sins that his brother committed against him and then cut off forgiveness at Sin 491. Obviously, the Lord’s point was that the believer is required to forgive without consideration of a limit; the wounded are required by Christ to not even consider exhausting the possibilities of forgiveness. Such an answer would have been very humiliating for one who thought that he was being so magnanimous.
The phrase “seventy times seven” was probably a direct reference to Genesis 4:23-24, where godless Lamech boasted to his wives in his vengeful spirit that God would defend him against any that might seek to harm him.
Adah and Zillah, hear my voice; wives of Lamech, listen to my speech! For I have killed a man for wounding me, even a young man for hurting me. If Cain shall be avenged sevenfold, then lamech seventy-sevenfold.
This is the first recorded poem in biblical literature and its theme is that of taking revenge on those who had done him harm! Henry Morris observed that “Lamech sought to inflict [self-righteous] mortal retribution upon anyone who opposed him.” But our Lord later lifted this “seventy-sevenfold” language in order to make the point that, in His kingdom, it is not those who are unlimited in their vengeance that are considered great but rather those who are considered unlimited in their forgiveness. As Don Carson has observed, “Lamech’s revenge is transformed into a principle of forgiveness.”
Jesus was saying “Whereas the world lives by revenge, my kingdom is marked by forgiveness, by grace. There is no place for revenge in my kingdom.” The law is the realm of limits, whereas grace is limitless.
Simply put, our Lord’s point is that biblical forgiveness is unlimited. We are not to keep account of wrongs done and forgiveness granted. Stop counting! Law keeps count, grace does not. As long as there is repentance, forgiveness is to be granted.
Someone has well said, “The faithful, godly Christian will never allow his own forgiveness to be surpassed by a brother’s sin.” Such forgiveness is costly. We pay the price, among other things, of living with the commitment to forget the wrongs done. Praise God for spiritual Alzheimer’s!
We must live with the deliberate commitment to not remember the sins of others against us. The objection is often raised that it is well-nigh impossible to forgive and forget, but as Maclaren notes, “‘I forgive, but I cannot forget,’ generally means, ‘I do not quite forgive.’” In conversation with John Wesley, General Oglethorpe once said, “I never forgive and I never forget.” Wesley wisely replied, “Then, sir, I hope that you never sin!”
As we shall see, forgiveness is costly but the greatest cost is not paid by us. Rather the cost is (was) transcendently expensive.
The Revelation of Forgiveness
As He so often did, Jesus produced a parable to illustrate just what biblical forgiveness looks like. It is a fairly well-known parable, familiar (no doubt) to most reading this. It begins with a wealthy master and a servant in debt.
Therefore the kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. And when he had begun to settle accounts, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. But as he was not able to pay, his master commanded that he be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and that payment be made. The servant therefore fell down before him, saying, “Master, have patience with me, and I will pay you all.” Then the master of that servant was moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt.
As noted, parables were employed often by our Lord in His teaching ministry. A parable is a story that is given for the purpose of enlightening those who will see. For the most part parables are confusing for the spiritually blind. This one is no exception. You see, those who have been born again respond to exhortations to forgive matter-of-factly. We may not initially like it, but because of our experience with the gospel we find that we cannot fight against the call to forgive and so we submit to it. However those who are still bound to their sin will try to rationalise their bitterness and their pursuit of sweet revenge. This parable thus will be appreciated by the former and reasoned away by the latter.
It is important to note that parables only parallel real-life scenarios to a point. We cannot make every aspect of a parable align perfectly with its spiritual reality. We will see this as we consider this parable together.
The Debt Incurred
The parable concerns “a certain king” who began to “settle accounts with his servants.” The word “servants” speaks of satraps—officials, tax-collectors, members of the national treasury. They were employed by the government of a land to collect taxes for the king. In biblical times, tax-collectors were not famed for their honesty. They often collected far more than the governments due, and the king often turned a blind eye as the tax-collectors retained the surplus for themselves while passing onto the king only that which he demanded.
One particular servant owed to the king “ten thousand talents.” It will be helpful to put this into perspective. “Ten thousand” was the largest Greek numeral, and “talents” were the largest monetary measure in the Roman world. Simply stated, this particular servant owed more than anyone could possibly imagine. Historians tell us that the Romans collected 10,000 talents in taxes from the regions of Idumea, Samaria, Judea and Galilee—over an eleven-year period! One talent was equivalent to 17 years of wages for an ordinary servant, and so this amount was equivalent to 17 years of wages for 10,000 servants! The Lord’s point is clear: This servant owed an enormous, immeasurable and unpayable debt—much of it acquired (we can assume) dishonestly.
The servant did not come willingly to his king to settle his account, or to beg for an extension. Instead, “one was brought to him who owed ten thousand talents.” It was only when he was forced to appear before the king that he began to seriously consider the ramifications of his debt. Of course, “he was not able to pay.”
In order to settle the debt, the king did what was generally accepted in those days. He “commanded that he be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and that payment be made.” To add to his dishonesty in acquiring the debt in the first place, this servant proved to be a liar. “The servant therefore fell down before him, saying, ‘Master, have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’” He was boasting in the impossible. “I will get myself out of this mess! I will pull myself up by my bootstraps! I just need some time to get things right; I will get the accounts right by my own ability!”
Does this perhaps sound familiar?
In short, this servant was dishonest, disloyal, destitute, and deluded. He was doomed because of his debt. He was a dead man walking. (This reminds us perhaps of Ephesians 2:1-3, which teaches that, from birth, we are dead men walking—dead in trespasses and sins.)
What we were (dead in trespasses and sins) and what we have been forgiven helps us to forgive others. And this is all related to the issue of humility. Paul, who wrote much on the issue of Christian forgiveness, certainly understood this principle of humility. And he grew in humility the longer he was saved. At one point, he humbly admitted to being the least of the apostles (1 Corinthians 15:9). Later, his humility intensified and he professed to be the very least of all the saints (Ephesians 3:8). Still later, very close to the end of his life, he openly confessed to being the foremost of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15).
Only as we grow in humility will we grow in our understanding of biblical forgiveness.
The Debt Forgiven
In v. 27, the king, having heard his servant’s plea for time, went beyond that, and frankly forgave the debt that was owed to him. “Then the master of that servant was moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt” (v. 27).
We must notice three things about this verse, the first of which is that the master expressed pity. He was, says our text, “moved with compassion.” The word “compassion” means “to sympathise with” or “to show tender mercy.” Literally, it speaks of “mercy in the gut.” It is a characteristic often ascribed to God Himself (Psalms 78:38; 86:15; 145:8).
Second, the king enacted a pardon. He “released” the servant. “Released” translates the Greek Word apoluo, which means “to set free” or “to release.” It is again terminology that reminds us of Christ, who “came to set the captives free.”
Third, he ensured the protection of his servant. Earlier in the parable, Jesus spoke of “accounts” and of “payment.” These terms describe legal obligations with legal ramifications if not honoured. The word translated “debt,” however, speaks of a loan, and in this instance a bad loan. The king was committed to writing off the debt as a bad loan. From that point on, no one could hold it against the servant that he had not settled the account.
Again, this reminds us very starkly of Jesus Christ, of whom it is written,
And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses, having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.
And again, “As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:12).
And so, in both the parable and its real life counterpart, the Sovereign assumed the loss. It was forgiveness undeserved, unasked for, unconditional and unthinkable! “Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift!” (2 Corinthians 9:15).
This forgiveness was without limit. Sadly, this is rarely the case in human relationships. Indeed, Ab. B. Bruce has lamented, “Alas the rarity of such charity.”
What follows is highly unexpected and yet sadly it is often relived in the history of the church—and, if we are honest, even in our churches.
The Rejection of Forgiveness
Hendriksen observes of vv. 28-34, “The story makes a turn here. It is no longer the compassion of the king or master that holds our attention but the cruelty of the forgiven servant whose enormous debt had been cancelled and whose sentence had been remitted.” This is why the parable is known as “the parable of the unforgiving servant.” Unforgiveness rather than forgiveness takes centre stage.
But that servant went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and he laid hands on him and took him by the throat, saying, “Pay me what you owe!” So his fellow servant fell down at his feet and begged him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you all.” And he would not, but went and threw him into prison till he should pay the debt. So when his fellow servants saw what had been done, they were very grieved, and came and told their master all that had been done. Then his master, after he had called him, said to him, “You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?” And his master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him.
This is a startling story, but Peter needed to understand that placing limits on his forgiveness of others was dangerously close to this.
I call this section the rejection of forgiveness because it is quite obvious that this servant did not appreciate the mercy and grace which he had just experienced. He may even have been repulsed by this “soft” king who lacked the chutzpah to follow through with the punishment that was called for.
It is quite clear that this servant is a picture of the self-righteous who with a reprobate mind have no appreciation for the amazing grace of God. And this is revealed by an ungracious treatment of others.
Does this represent you?
A Horrible Conjunction
It is a shame that the first word is “but” rather than “and.” “And” would present continuity rather than contrast. Sadly, that is not the case here.
The forgiven servant “went out and found” a fellow servant who was in debt to him. This phrase implies that he did so immediately. He wasted no time in finding someone indebted to him, and not in order to show grace! R. V. G. Tasker helps us grasp the meaning of this phrase: “The meaning probably is ‘no sooner had he left the king’s presence than he found.’ This cruel wretch was still basking in the sunshine of the royal mercy, when dealt with his fellow-servant so unmercifully.”
A “fellow servant,” of course, speaks of an equal—in the larger context of this chapter, of a fellow church member. This fellow servant owed the forgiven servant “a hundred denarii.” This amounted to around four month’s wages for an average worker. It was approximately one five-hundred-thousandth of his own debt!
The forgiven servant “laid hands on” his debtor, and “took him by the throat.” Literally, he throttled his fellow servant! How said this is, for as Jackman has observed, “The first debt was so large it could never be repaid; the second is so petty it might easily have been overlooked.” Importantly, the point is not that the sins of fellow believers against us our insignificant but rather that compared to our guilt before God, they are infinitesimal.
The plea of the fellow servant was identical to his own, but with one major difference: this man’s debt could be paid! This fact, up against his own unpayable debt, should have tenderised his heart. He was being called upon to exercise a little grace. For him, after experiencing such forgiveness, to demand repayment was both seriously insensitive and ungrateful.
The response was irrational, harsh, cruel, ungrateful—it was bizarre! “And he would not, but went and threw him into prison till he should pay the debt.” In fact, the point is to highlight the bizarre nature of one who claims to belong to the community of grace being ungracious.
Sadly, it is not unbelievable. The problem here was a matter of the will (“would not”). That is, this man’s heart had been unaffected by the mercy and grace of the King. And as goes the heart, so goes the will. This man’s conduct was indicative of an unmoved will.
So it is with those who will not forgive. They may have heard the gospel of the grace of God but they have not been transformed by it. And the bitterness in their response to others proves an unregenerate heart.
That said, we should understand that even believers can be guilty of this—to a point. Cruelty is the response of those who have major humility issues. That is, those who are motivated by power over others will never pursue merciful harmony. Forgiveness is not a noble act, but merely a reasonable response of the regenerate. And yet how often even unbelievers struggle with pride and therefore refuse to forgive!
A Horrified Community
Keeping in mind the context of this parable, the Lord was teaching how we are to respond to those in the church who reject the grace and mercy of the King. And according to vv. 31-34, they are to be identified and excluded.
The other servants were horrified and saddened at the forgiven servant’s unwillingness to forgive. They therefore took the matter to their lord. The king, naturally, was furious. The phrase “should you not also have” literally means, “Was it not your lasting obligation?” (Hendriksen). Those who have been forgiven have an obligation to forgive others. J. C. Ryle says it well when he writes, “Our neighbour’s offences against us are mere trifles, compared with our offences against God.”
Unforgiveness is a cancer to the community of faith; to marriages, etc. I remember a pastor telling me of how he had had a heart attack at a relatively young age. He recounted how it was a humbling experience to him, for he came to learn that his biological heart attack was really a message from God about his spiritual heart. For too long he had harboured bitterness and unforgiveness, and God used his circumstances to humble him.
It is instructive that “his fellow servants . . . were grieved.” John MacArthur notes, “Christians should be deeply grieved when a fellow believer is unforgiving because his hardness of heart not only tends to drive the offender deeper into sin, but also causes dissension and division within the church, tarnishes its testimony before the world, and deeply grieves the Lord Himself.”
Those who disrupt the holy harmony of the church must be dealt with. Unforgiveness is as much a sin that must be disciplined as any other. In fact, it is one of the most dangerous! Realize the awfulness of the sin of an unforgiving spirit. Here it is characterised by the word “wicked.”
A Hell to Pay
Sometimes debtors were tormented for the purpose of getting information from them about where the loot was stashed. Jesus brings this picture into the parable now: “And his master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him” (v. 34). It is important to remember that this man’s debt could never be paid off—especially when he was incarcerated. Hence the picture here is that of one who is in a hopeless situation. It is a picture of hell. The wicked—as characterised by an unforgiving, ungracious spirit—are separated forever.
Ryle exhorts us: “Would we grow in grace ourselves, and become more holy in all our ways, words, and works? Let us remember this passage. Nothing so grieves the Holy Spirit, and brings spiritual darkness over the soul, as giving way to a quarrelsome and unforgiving temper (Ephes. 4:30-32).”
The Reasonableness of Forgiveness
The last verse in this text points to what I would call the reasonableness of forgiveness. “So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses” (v. 34). As noted above, to forgive is not a noble action; for the believer it is merely one reasonable service that flows from a renewed mind because of a recreated heart (cf. Romans 12:1-2).
The challenge here is intensified by the words, “from his heart.” In other words, mere lip service is not called for but rather we are commanded to say, “I forgive you” and to mean it! If we forgive from our hearts then we will seek true reconciliation. As Hendriksen points out, “Prompted by gratitude the forgiven sinner must always yearn to forgive whoever has trespassed against him, and must do all in his power to bring about complete reconciliation.”
How important is this? G. Campbell Morgan observes, “The one thing God will not forgive is an unforgiving heart.” Surely this is the Lord’s point. And hence for Peter to raise concerns about legitimately putting a cap on forgiveness is an indication of a spiritual problem. If we would know that our sins are forgiven then we need to ask the Lord to search our hearts that we might see whether we are humbly forgiving those who have sinned against us.
At the end of The Sunflower, Simon Wiesenthal issues a challenge to the reader: “You who have just read this sad and tragic episode in my life, can mentally change places with me and ask yourself the crucial question, ‘What would I have done?’”
Let me be so bold as to say that this is the wrong question. In fact, the better question is, what could you have done? And you could only forgive to the degree that you yourself have been the recipient of forgiveness by God.
Neither you nor I (I assume) have ever been in such a moral dilemma. But we are still faced daily with the question of whether or not we will forgive others. Wiesenthal wrote to over forty individuals seeking to find an answer. And when he died in 2005 I wonder if he had found it? But we have Matthew 18 to guide us. So what will you do about that brother or sister who has offended you? How will you respond to their repentance or to their impenitence?
As we close, let us once again focus our attention on the Lord Jesus Christ. You see, He faced a moral dilemma unlike anything anyone, including Wiesenthal, ever experienced. And how did He respond? In the same way that He continues to respond, “Father, forgive them, for my sake!”
You will remember that this entire discourse came on the heels of the Lord’s frequent references to His imminent and impending crucifixion. It was in the shadow of the cross that these issues were raised and addressed. And it is only in the shadow of the cross of Christ in which we too can relate to one another.
May the Lord so bless us that we will be humbled by the gospel of the grace of God that rather than personal greatness being our pursuit, the good of our fellow church member will be our passion. If so, then in humility we will honour one another, helping one another towards a holy harmony. With these four nonnegotiables the local church will grow to be an increasingly healthy church to the glory of God.