Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ! Amen. In his excellent apology for Christianity, Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis writes, “Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive…” [Pause for laughter.] Yes, we all want to be forgiven for our shortcomings, but as fallen, sinful creatures, we are less inclined to overlook and forgive the sins of others. Forgiveness is hard work.
No wonder, then, that Peter comes to Jesus with his earnest question: “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” (Matt. 18:21, ESV). Peter wants to know what the limit of forgiveness. If we forgive somebody seven times, and then they offend us yet again, do we still have to forgive them the eighth time?
We may laugh at Peter’s specificity and even regard his question as petty. But that’s not the case. In fact, the rabbis of Jesus’ day generally agreed that you only had to forgive somebody three times. The fourth time that they sinned against you, you could write them off as a dirty, rotten scoundrel and have nothing more to do with them. Peter’s suggestion to forgive somebody seven times is quite generous. He doubles the rabbis’ number and adds 1 more time for good measure.
But Peter misses the point. “I do not say to you seven times,” Jesus answers, “but seventy-seven times” (v. 22). Peter’s capacity for forgiveness isn’t big enough. Jesus says 77 times—a much bigger number. (Some translations have it as seventy times seven, or 490 times.) But don’t lose the forest for the trees. 77 is not a literal limit for forgiveness. Jesus employs it as a symbolic number. If you forgive somebody 77 times and they still sin against you, then the 78th time you don’t get to write them off as a dirty, rotten scoundrel. Jesus’ point is that forgiveness should have no limit whatsoever. As Christians forgiven by God, we are called to keep on forgiving those who wrong us. In other words, forgiveness is for giving!
But how do you forgive somebody who annoys you or offends you and refuses to change their behavior? How do you forgive somebody who refuses to admit they are wrong? How do you forgive sins that leave terrible lasting scars, such as adultery, divorce, or abuse? When we are wronged, we’d rather do anything but forgive the other person. We’d rather get revenge—or nurse a grudge against them. We bristle and walk away when they enter the room so that we don’t have to be around them. We gossip about them to ruin their reputation. We write them off and run them out of our lives, cutting off all communication and ending the relationship.
But that is not what Jesus teaches us to do when others sin against us. Instead he tells a story we have come to know as the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant. In this story, a king decides to settle accounts and any outstanding debts with his servants. One particular servant comes before him who owes an unimaginable sum: ten thousand talents. To put that into perspective, consider that a talent was worth about twenty years’ wages for a laborer, according to the ESV text note. Multiply that by 10,000, and you realize that this poor schmuck owes the equivalent of two hundred thousand years’ worth of wages! It’s staggering. Based on Colorado’s current minimum wage of $13.65 per hour, that comes out to $5,678,400,000 that he owes the king.
The poor wretch has no way to pay off that kind of money, so the king orders that his family be sold into slavery, and he be thrown into prison as punishment for default. So in desperation, he falls on his knees, crying out, “Have patience with me, and I will repay you everything” (Matt. 18:26). That’s quite the promise, and he has no way to make surety.
Yet the king in his great compassion, forgives the debt. He doesn’t restructure or refinance the loan. He doesn’t sell his family or throw him in jail. He just cancels the debt, rips up the bank statement, and lets him go free.
Incredible! What kind of king would do such a thing?! Well, the king in this story is not like any earthly kings or rulers we know. His part in the story represents God. You see, the word for “pity” in verse 27 is very special Greek word: splagchnidzomai. I’ve mentioned this special word before. Splagchnidzomai is related to the Greek word for “kidney,” which is splagchna. So to experience splagchnidzomai means to feel it in your kidneys—to have such a gut-wrenching, emotionally twisting pity on someone that you are moved not only to feel compassion for them, but to help them. And here’s one more interpretive key: this special word splagchnidzomai is used in the New Testament only in reference to Jesus and characters in parables who represent God or Jesus (e.g., the Forgiving king, the Good Samaritan, and the father of the Prodigal Son). No one else in Scripture has this kind of compassion. Splagchnidzomai is divine mercy. That is the kind of forgiveness the king extends to his unfortunate servant. The servant asked for more time, but instead the king forgives the debt. The servant asked for patience, but instead the king has mercy on him (cf. v. 33).
Now what you would expect is for that servant to THANK the king and then run home to tell his wife the good news. But that’s not what he does. Instead, he immediately finds another one of his fellow servants who owes him money. “Pay what you owe!” he demands, as he chokes the poor man, whose debt is only a hundred denarii. Again, to put it into perspective, a denarius was worth a day’s wage in Jesus’ time. So 100 denarii is a little more than 3 months’ wages—about $10,920 at Colorado’s minimum wage. Now $10,000 is a lot of money! But compared to the debt the king just canceled, it’s a drop in the bucket—not even mentionable. Yet he shakes him down, nevertheless.
The terrified servant pleads with the first guy to be patient with him. He actually uses the exact same words that the unforgiving servant used to plead before the king. But this appeal doesn’t even register with him. Instead he throws the man into prison.
Can you imagine such a scene?! The unforgiving servant is a horrible person. The king has just forgiven his impossible debt of billions of dollars, and now he refuses to forgive a debt of just a few thousand dollars. It’s unconscionable! It’s hypocritical! What could motivate him to do such a thing?
The unforgiving servant is also an ungrateful servant. Why can’t he extend forgiveness to his fellow servant? Because he hasn’t experienced forgiveness himself. Even though the king forgave his debt, he doesn’t believe it’s true, so he doesn’t receive the benefit of such forgiveness. Rather than rejoicing and going home after his audience before the king, he leaves the palace intent on collecting all of his outstanding loans. Why? Because he still thinks he has to pay back the king. He asked for more time to repay, and the king forgave him, but he’s still stuck on thinking that he has to somehow work it off. And so he abuses his fellow man in an attempt to get back what he thinks he’s owed—and owes.
But when the other servants see what has happened, Jesus tells us, “they were greatly distressed” (v. 31). (Aside: That might be the other understatement of the year!) “Greatly distressed”?! They were obviously shaking in their boots because they were worried that they would be next! Certainly they also owe money to the unforgiving servant, and they can see the machinations going on behind his head as he calculates their payoff amounts without any of the pity shown to him.
So the other servants go to the king and tell him what’s happening. But when the king hears of it, he blows his top and goes absolutely livid. “What do you mean that rascal is refusing to forgive his fellow servants?! After everything I did for him? Now he’s going to get it!”
After summoning the unforgiving servant, the king declares, “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?” (Matt. 18:32-33).
Now the unforgiving servant is in a real pickle. What can he do? Nothing. It’s too late. The king has given his verdict, and the sentence is swift and cruel. He throws the unforgiving servant into debtors prison and hands him over to the torturers until every last penny is paid.
And then Jesus ends the parable with this clincher: “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (v. 35). Ah, there’s the rub! This parable was never really about loan forgiveness. It’s all about forgiving sin. In fact, one version of the Lord’s Prayer reads, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt. 6:12). When people sin against us, it puts them in our debt, spiritually speaking.
Jesus tells us that we must forgive our brother from the heart. Not merely lip service. Not like when you force one of your children to apologize to another child and then compel the other child to say, “I forgive you.” That’s good training, but that’s not real forgiveness. When we forgive someone from the heart, it means that we wish them well. We wish them all of God’s blessings, including his forgiveness, which is supposed to flow out of us.
All of us are sinners undeserving of God’s forgiveness. Christ did not die for us on the cross because we are lovely. He died for our sins because there was no other way to pay the price of our debt of sin. We are drowning in sin-debt, and only Jesus can bail us out. So he did. He died for you and paid the price for your sin with his blood, sweat, and tears. In his dying agony, he prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Because Jesus died, our debt is paid in full.
Now we are called to love and forgive others in the same way. The Bible says, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Eph. 4:32). How did God in Christ forgive you? Fully, freely, unconditionally, and preemptively—before you or I even thought to confess our sin, before we ever sinned, before we were even born. Now forgive one another as God in Christ forgave you. That little word “as” means “in the exact same way.” Fully, freely, and unconditionally. That is how Christians are called to forgive others.
Isn’t that what we pray for in the Lord’s Prayer? “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” That is, forgive us our trespasses in the exact same way that we forgive others. That’s a pretty scary prayer, if you take it seriously. Because I’m not always the best at forgiving those who wrong me. I hope to God that he doesn’t forgive me in the same way that I sometimes withhold forgiveness from others.
In Matthew 6, as corollary to the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus adds: “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive you.” Like the king in Jesus’ parable, all our debt is canceled. So we should extend that same grace and mercy to others. After all, forgiveness is for giving. But if you do not, be warned: the biggest debtors prison of all—Hell!—yawns wide ready to receive you. Do not be like the unforgiving servant. Rather, be like Christ.
It’s not easy to love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you, or forgive those who wrong us. So ask God to help you. Ask Jesus to help you love, help you forgive, help you reconcile with those indebted to you. Whatever you ask in Jesus’ name, he will do for you. He can even change you body, mind, and soul so that you also will learn to love your brother or sister “from your heart.” Because forgiveness is for giving. In the name of the Father and of T the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Touchstone, 1996; Reprint, Macmillan, 1943), 104.
 All Scripture references, unless otherwise indicated, are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.