PROCLAIMING THE GOSPEL Matthew 18.3

21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” 22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. 23 “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. 25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. 26 “At this, the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ 27 The servant’s master took pity on him, cancelled the debt and let him go.

 28 “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded. 29 “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’ 30 “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt.

 31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened. 32 “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I cancelled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow-servant just as I had on you?’ 34 In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured until he should pay back all he owed.

35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

ALL THE PIECES OF STAND-ALONE INFORMATION

  1. When Jesus had finished talking about healing relationships in the church that were broken by sin, Peter asked a related question about forgiveness.
  2. He wanted to know how many times a person should be expected to forgive an offending person.
  3. Peter suggested it would not be more than seven times (a limited number)
  4. Jesus replied, saying it was more like seventy-seven times (i.e. an unlimited number)
  5. To illustrate the point, Jesus told a story about a king who was calling on all those who owed him money to settle their accounts.
  6. One of the debtors was a man who owed millions and millions of dollars – an amount too large to be repaid.
  7. According to the standard practice of that day, the king gave the order for the man and his family to be sold as slaves to recoup some of the debt that was owed.
  8. The servant fell on his knees and begged the king for patience while paid back the debt.
  9. The king had pity on the servant.
  10. He cancelled the debt and let the servant go free.
  11. When the forgiven servant went out from the king’s presence, he found a fellow servant who owed him a small amount of money: only a few thousand dollars.
  12. The forgiven servant grabbed his fellow servant by the throat and threatened him, saying that he must pay what he was owed.
  13. The fellow servant fell on his knees and begged him to be patient, promising to repay what he owed.
  14. The forgiven servant refused.
  15. He had the fellow servant thrown in prison until the debt was paid.
  16. Other servants found out what happened to the fellow servant.
  17. They were outraged by his actions.
  18. They went and told the king what he had done.
  19. The king summoned the servant to appear before him.
  20. He told him that he was a wicked servant.
  21. He had called on the master for mercy, and the master had shown mercy by totally cancelling an un-payable debt and letting him go free.
  22. The king said that he should have shown the same mercy about a much smaller debt when his fellow servant begged him for mercy.
  23. The king then handed the wicked servant over to be tortured until the debt was fully paid.
  24. Jesus said that we would be treated the same way by the Father if we refused to forgive small offences committed against us by other people (when we had been forgiven un-payable debt by our Father in heaven).

THE STORY

Jesus had just told the disciples how crucial it was for relationships in the church to be maintained through forgiveness, repentance and reconciliation. One broken relationship was enough for the whole church to get involved. Peter’s question was definitely there to be asked. What if such the person was to become a serial offender. How many times would someone be expected to offer forgiveness and seek to heal the rift? It seems he thought seven times would be a more-than-generous upper limit. He was shocked when Jesus said a number big enough to mean, “There really is no limit.” Forgiveness was to be offered every time there was an offence.

The story Jesus told may sound harsh to post-moderns, but it was normal for those who lived in the ancient world. The story unveils a dimension that was not included in the scenario offered by Peter. The micro story needs to be seen in the context of the macro-world of the immeasurably forgiving God. The offence of the fellow-servant, when viewed in light of the king’s forgiveness, ceases to be a justice issue and becomes wickedness. The wicked servant is brought into the court of the king a second time. His actions toward his fellow-servant cause the king to revoke his previous decision and impose the original sentence.

Jesus concludes the matter by saying that a similar outcome will occur if people like us fail to extend heartfelt forgiveness to an offender.

 

THE MESSAGE OF THE STORY

21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” 22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.

When Peter and the other disciples heard Jesus telling them how important unity is for a church to be able to fulfil its calling, I doubt that they were thinking of a congregation like Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul, South Korea, with a congregation of more than half a million members. He was more likely thinking of groups of 15 or 20 people meeting in houses. Peter’s question was entirely logical. If a person was required to forgive an offending member of the congregation surely, there must be a limit to the number of times that should be expected. For Peter, seven was a number that seemed more than reasonable. If you think about someone doing something offensive or hurtful and you forgive them, and then they do it again, and you forgive them, you can already feel the sense of unfairness rising. Seven times? Surely there must be a limit? Remember there is no mention of an apology or any recognition that they had done the wrong thing. There is no requirement for reparation. Sevenfold forgiveness, under those circumstances, would be countercultural, if not unheard of. It would be thought of as unfair for the person who was harmed and totally lacking in accountability for the perpetrator.

The response Jesus gave indicates that the problem with Peter’s suggestion had nothing to do with numbers at all. The problem was with the idea that there should be any limit at all. I can’t really believe that Jesus was offering the “golden number.” As you would be aware from accounts that number is recorded as “seventy times seven.” We are definitely going to lose count somewhere between two or three and seventy-seven. Four hundred and ninety is way beyond counting. Unlimited forgiveness is a foreign concept to most human societies. Many cultures have almost no place for any kind of forgiveness let alone unlimited forgiveness. Broken humanity can only think about various kinds of vengeance. Here the idea is that a person who has been wronged must be given satisfaction. Only then is there a general idea that the relationship might have a chance of being repaired – mostly there is little expectation of that the relationships would be repaired at all. The historical record shows that relationships often stay broken and the stories that justify the separation are told and retold. The deception is enshrined in the narrative of the group.  One party is totally guilty, and the other party is devoid of guilt. Such darkness simply perpetuates horrendous human suffering. Forgiveness is seen as a sign of weakness at best. Unlimited forgiveness is outrageous. Unconditional, unlimited forgiveness seems to cause even the kindest of people to recoil. That’s why Jesus provides us with a context in which to consider the eternal truth he has just revealed.

 

23 “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. 25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. 26 “At this, the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ 27 The servant’s master took pity on him, cancelled the debt and let him go.

To provide the context for the massive statement the disciples heard Jesus make in reply to Peter’s question, Jesus identifies what happens in this new kingdom he had come to proclaim, namely the kingdom of God. We have seen and heard plenty about the kingdom up to this point, and most of it is radically counter to much of what we are familiar with. We need to remember that the kingdom of God is not geographically located like the kingdom of Australia. It operates as a set of primary and secondary relationships. Like all relationships, it starts somewhere and continues to grow and increase. This kingdom expands by occupying more and more of our relationship world. It starts when we commit to loving Jesus as the king and understand that this king is the Creator, Sustainer, Redeemer of the world we live in. As subjects of this kingdom, we are signing up to bear his image/character to the world and fulfil his redemptive purpose. This kingdom advances from the inside out. It starts with a changed person and extends to changed relationships.

This context is described in the story Jesus told. When Peter makes his suggestion that forgiveness should be limited to no more than six repeats he was only thinking about a two-person sphere, himself and the offender. He should have been thinking about a sphere that began with his relationship with God. He saw God being revealed through his master, Jesus. He had observed unconditional forgiveness happening every day. No one coming for healing has had to go to the confession cubicle to qualify. No one needing deliverance has been asked to confess all their sins in order to be released. No outcast has been given a list of rules they must promise to keep in order to be accepted. Not one. The only people who have been challenged in that way are the people who didn’t think they needed any forgiveness in the first place. Only the sick need a doctor, not those who consider themselves to be healthy. The “sick” have all been loved and rescued with no questions asked. Their redemption became an invitation to trust in Jesus as King, not the other way around.

Peter, himself, had experienced profound forgiveness. At the beginning of this journey, he saw Jesus catch fish when there were no fish to be caught. His arrogance turned into regret as he told Jesus, “Depart from me Lord, for I am a sinful man.”[1]  Now, when Peter wants to put limits on his willingness to forgive, Jesus reminds him of the fact that he (Peter) has been immeasurably forgiven. This matter is not between him and an offender. It is about God and him. Only when that matter has been acknowledged should he deal with the issue of how much and how many times he should forgive. I think it is possible that we have made light of our own forgiveness. We have failed to see its cost to the honour and glory of God. This will only be revealed by looking at the cross. If we can see the invisible story behind the physical we may gain some understanding of the cost of forgiveness to the offended party – in this case, God. Paul tells us, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself; not counting their sins against them. He made Him to be sin who knew no sin that we might become the righteousness of God.”[2]

We are talking about offences between fellow believers here. When I am the subject of someone’s hurtful action, it seems so easy to forget how dark and horrible it was for Jesus to bear the brunt of my many transgression.  I don’t think about the fact that his action declares that I will never see resentment and unforgiveness in the eyes of the Father. His posture will be one of unconditional and everlasting forgiveness. So, we must not limit the experience of hurt and damage to a two-person sphere. It must always be a three-person sphere: God to me and then me to them.

All we should notice in the first part of this story is that the king set aside a debt that was so large it was un- payable. It makes no sense to ask how or why the man accrued such debt or why the king allowed it to get to that point. To do so would miss the real issue: our plight is beyond human ability to resolve. Our determination to reject a relationship with our Creator has plunged us into a web of inescapable consequences. In sending his own Son to deal with the problem, we have been rescued from that web. It has little to do with a legal technicality. It has to do with estrangement. It is the relationship with God that has been smashed beyond repair. It is the choice to live independently that does the damage. At the end of the Bible story, the resolve is not that God has somehow been recompensed for the damage caused. The resolve is that God is able to see his original plan fulfilled: “Behold the dwelling place of God is with people.” [3]  The same matter is displayed in the great story of the prodigal sons. The Father doesn’t hand his returning son an invoice of the amount owing. He celebrates the fact that his son has come home.

 

 28 “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded. 29 “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’ 30 “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt.

No one is going to read this part of the story without being disgusted at the attitude and actions of this servant. It seems his sigh of relief coming from the royal court turned into a wicked snarl when he noticed a fellow-servant who had incurred a very small debt. When asked for the same kind of mercy as he had just received from the king he refused. He was not prepared to be patient. More than that, he called on the full force of the law to have the man thrown in the jail cell that he, himself could have been sent to had it not been for the mercy of the king.

It is worth noting that, as we watch this story unfold, we are not inclined to pay any attention as to the back story of the fellow servant’s debt. Our attention is drawn by the fact that the forgiven servant was not willing to join the dots between his very recent plight and that of his fellow servant. If this parable were to be told in a contemporary way, this man had spent up on his credit card without restraint until the total was completely unpayable. The bank had finally called him to settle up, and all he could do was to beg for mercy. I know he said that he would pay, but the truth was, no matter how long he lived he would still not be able to pay back what he owed. He was shown mercy without condition. It was just given to him. For whatever reason, he was unwilling or unable to see the forgiveness from his benefactor. He just read it from his own self-centred point of view. When he saw the fellow servant, all he could think about was a small amount of money that belonged to him, and all he felt was anger toward the debtor for not being willing to pay up.

We need to be grateful to God for the insights that come by way of revelation. We are not meant to simply note the information and then forget what we have read, as James eminently reminds us.[4] We are supposed to allow what it says to become part of who we are. When we meet together as a believing community and share communion, we are not just remembering that Jesus died on the cross. That’s not the thing we are most likely to forget. What we are capable of forgetting is the measure and impact of our sin. What happened to Jesus was not the product of religious intolerance and Roman cruelty. It was a revelation of the darkness of the universal human condition. What happened to Jesus shows us exactly what happens to God when we squander our inheritance and decide to forsake our genuine home and family.[5] We need to give careful thought to what the father lived with from the day his son walked off the farm. It wasn’t about money. It wasn’t just foolishness. It was a broken relationship and the broken heart. It was the daily grief of estrangement and the pain that would only be assuaged when he could run down the road and wrap his boy in his arms to welcome him home. It was also the pain of having a son living in his home whose self-righteous focus blinded him to his father’s love and embrace. Both remain as debts waiting to be forgiven by our heavenly Father. When we meet for communion, we need the reminder of the massive debt that has been totally wiped.

In the story, we are talking about money. In the kingdom of God, we are talking about offences. God’s daily embrace and desire are eternally free from resentment, bitterness or even the remembrance of our offences. He neither sees us or relates to us with them in mind. It’s hard to believe, but it is totally true. When we compare ourselves favourably by using some convenient human moral scale, we abuse God’s grace again and more. The cross will be the only genuine reference point. It’s not that we should be going around beating ourselves up. There are some parts of the church that seem to play up the shame and degradation factor. One such term is “total depravity.” If you want to get a feel for this kind of thinking, go read Jonathan Edwards’ famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”[6] Where did the idea come from that we are detestable “miserable sinners” in God’s eyes? Both the three-year testimony of Jesus as well as the cross spell out the absolute opposite. We may well be foolish, broken, deceived and dysfunctional. We are not rubbish, worthy only of eternal destruction. We are longed for, fought for and desired. When we experience the generosity of God’s love in total forgiveness, we should lose the capacity to hold a single human in debt because of their attitudes, words or actions against us.

 31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened. 32 “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I cancelled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow-servant just as I had on you?’ 34 In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured until he should pay back all he owed. 35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

Here are some challenging bits of information. It is not the first-century human story that is a problem. In those days, kings considered themselves entitled to do what this king did to the servant and more. They showed both favour and wrath with total impunity. The problem for those of us who see God as revealed by Jesus doesn’t see one who is capable of showing favour on one occasion and then switching to a totally different character. Regardless, if this man is going to be thrown into the prison, it means one of two things: either this sin was number seventy-eight (i.e. one more than seventy-seven), or the servant was doing something that disqualified himself from receiving further forgiveness. A personal request from me: please don’t serve up the platitude that God is God and can do what he likes – and he will always be good even when it seems bad to us. In such a case as this God would be guilty of duplicity. On these occasions, the teaching and information are asking us to look wider, deeper and longer for understanding.

I want to be clear. I am not suggesting that people don’t end up in a “prison-like” situation as a result of their choices. There are choices to be made in this world. A world created in the name of love and for the purpose of love demands choice. As we all know from our own experience, choice involves risk. Instead of love, we can choose to ignore or even hate. Both have destructive consequences for the people who are targeted as well as for the person or persons choosing them. When we are designed for love but choose to hate our personhood becomes disfigured and malfunctions. It would be like putting water in the sump of a car engine that was designed to be lubricated by oil. In the end, the whole engine will be destroyed. It’s like choosing an unhealthy diet and damaging our bodies to the point that we could literally die because of our eating choices.

An unconditionally forgiving God doesn’t change. What changes is our capacity to receive that forgiveness? More to the point, our capacity to be transformed by this great forgiveness into people who, like God become unconditionally forgiving. It is also very evident that forgiveness doesn’t start at the point of repentance. It is waiting for repentance in order to be fulfilled, but it waits as forgiveness. We can forgive someone even if they never admit their sin or ask for forgiveness. There is unlimited forgiveness in the heart of God. The warning given in Jesus’ teaching and parable is what happens when we are NOT transformed by God’s massive unconditional capacity to forgive. When we hold our resentments and make people pay for their sins against us, there are consequences; like a bad diet or water in the sump of an engine. A point will come where forgiveness will be available, but we will not be able to receive it. Forgiveness offered but not received will eventually permanently break the relationship. It is the warning of this parable that, from the point of view of the unforgiving servant, it will seem like the king is refusing to “let him off the hook.” That won’t be the case of course, but it will seem as if it is. As for the elder son in the parable of the Prodigal Son, such a person will look at a compassionate, loving and merciful father and only see a harsh overlord.

Finally, we need to note the last words of the punch-line: “from the heart.”  This is no religious ritual. This is a transformed person. We have been brought up with the idea that forgiveness is a nice idea, but has clear limits. Like Peter, we can see some beauty in the idea. We don’t do forgiveness naturally. We only do it supernaturally. Seventy-seven or seventy times seven requires a deep work of the Spirit. We need to use all the opportunities life circumstances provide for us to embrace the culture of the kingdom of God. It is a kingdom where the lives of its citizens are the product of redeemed sin, not self-righteous achievement. There is something beautiful about a relationship that has been broken but restored. It is a very different world from those relationships (if they exist) that have never been broken. Such relationships are wrapped in grace, gratitude and wholeness that is the product of the healing process. Churches should be havens of healed relationships. That healing process should be so multiplied that broken bonds are quickly recognised, readily responded to and fully healed. In one of the classic ironies of life, where suffering has been avoided as if it is the enemy, people become ever more fearful, protective and self-centred. Where there has been healing offered “from the heart” in the wake of suffering there is courage, generosity and wholeness. On the other hand, when forgiveness is not sought after as a worthy prize and resentment, unforgiveness and bitterness are allowed to compound within a Christian (or any) community even the shadows become lost as deep darkness inevitably takes hold.

IF THIS WAS HAPPENING IN MY LIFE, WHAT WOULD IT LOOK LIKE?

  1. I would gain a much greater understanding of what “forgiveness” from the heart looks like and feels like since it is both the emblem and a core feature of the kingdom of God culture. I have come to see that forgiveness is one among several Christian issues that we hear about and presume we know about but may not be clear about as a feature of our day to day Christian experience. In this particular story, it is likened to setting aside a debt of money someone owes. When someone does something that brings hurt or harm to us and our relationship with them, there is the feeling like they owe us. On that basis, we often change our attitude toward them. We often withdraw from the relationship or at least we are “cool” toward them. We can also avoid them – and worse. When we forgive the other person, we treat them as we would if nothing had happened in the first place. If I ask myself how many times I have forgiven someone this week, I find it hard to answer. So, I need to become more aware so that I can make sure it happens as often as it is needed.
  2. I now realise that the effectiveness of the church depends on the healing of broken relationships not just putting up with them. It isn’t about avoiding possible conflict or “saying ‘Peace, peace’ when there is no peace.”[7] It is about pursuing a unity that takes its model from the Creator. [8] I will never allow a broken relationship to stay broken on any pretence. I will go to the offending person and explain the issue with the sole objective of seeing the relationship repaired – made whole and therefore holy – able to carry the presence of God once again. I can only think of a few occasions where I have participated in the kind of practice described in the previous story, so I am sure there remain other situations where I need to get my heart to a place of forgiveness and then go after the repair of the relationship.
  3. It is clear that the body of Christ is to be a place where people are expected to make mistakes and offence one another, intentionally or unintentionally. I will help create an environment where people are encouraged to take risks in their commitment to serve Jesus and where they are encouraged to speak what is in their hearts to one another, even at the risk of causing offence. We must not fear offence. We must be more fearful of staying still and silent. The peace that comes from inaction and silence will not be a healthy peace. It will be a calm surface with subterranean turmoil. We must become a group of people who become whole through forgiveness. Only broken people can be healed, and healing can only happen when forgiveness is unconditional and unilateral. That’s the kind of church I want to belong to.

HOW WAS THE GOSPEL PROCLAIMED?

The gospel is a message of unconditional, unhindered, unilateral forgiveness. When Peter and the other disciples heard Jesus saying, “Seventy times seven” and then telling this story they were faced with a challenge. They had to decide whether they would become another version of a human kingdom where forgiveness may well be an ideal and where people rise to the occasion at certain times OR the kingdom of God where forgiveness is immediate, unceasing and challenges every form of disunity. This challenge was a gospel challenge in the sense that they were called to live a supernatural lifestyle of forgiveness that would only be possible when they were strongly connected to Jesus and were empowered by the Holy Spirit.

We are so accustomed to linking the gospel with the idea of going to heaven or hell when we die that we lose sight of good news like this. That’s why the best way to think about the gospel is to link it with the word, kingdom. It is the gospel of the kingdom. It is good news telling us that the kingdom of God is accessible. This kingdom produces the culture of heaven in the midst of the lifestyle of the earth. Every time that happens it heralds an invitation from God for his lost children to taste and see what heaven is like. It challenges the church to BE that community NOW, rather than being as divided, offended and tribal as the rest of the community. In this kingdom, forgiveness is not seen as weakness. It is what offers ordinary people a taste of heaven and reminds believers of the nature of their Father. I wouldn’t like to read this story and make a commitment to forgive just because I was afraid of being thrown into prison. I want to read this story and be reminded of how much forgiveness I have been shown by my Father in heaven, how refreshing and renewing it is – and be so convinced that I never measure an offence as being unforgivable.

[1]         See Luke 5

[2]         See 2 Corinthians 5

[3]         See Revelation 21

[4]         See James 1:19-25

[5]         This is beautifully portrayed when Jesus told the story of the lost coin, the lost sheep and the two lost sons; see Luke 15

[6]         www.jonathan-edwards.org/sinners.pdf

[7]         See Jeremiah 6:14; 8:11

[8]         cp. John 17:21-23

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About Brian

Passionate follower of Jesus. Member of a family that keeps on growing because I keep on meeting up with more great people from every nation and background who I belong to because of Jesus. Husband of an amazing woman, father of four forgiving kids and eight almost perfect grandkids. And loving it.

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