By Ben Hoerr: In this series of posts, we’ve been taking a closer look at 28 “Jesus Says” commands. Whether we grew up attending church or not, almost all of us are familiar—at least in some measure of detail—with Jesus’ life-changing teachings and memorable parables or stories. Of all the things Jesus said, perhaps none is more challenging and difficult than his instruction to forgive others, especially when we have been deeply hurt or unjustly wronged.
In Bible times, the Jewish rabbis often taught the need to forgive others was limited to three or four offenses—after that, one was entitled to “hold a grudge.” The Apostle Peter might have thought his suggestion to Jesus that one should be willing to forgive “seven times” seemed generous. But in his typical re-interpretation of the current understanding of God’s original intent with the ancient scripture texts, Jesus said we are “to forgive seventy times seven” (a figure of speech for an infinite number of times). And then he told a compelling story that we call The Parable of the Unforgiving Debtor, recorded in Matthew 18:21-35.
In this story, a king decided to settle accounts with his servants. In the process, one of his debtors who owed millions of dollars—a preposterously large sum of money to the audience—was unable to repay and was consequently subject to being sold into slavery. But the man begged for mercy and more time to repay. Filled with pity, the king forgave his debt.
This same servant left the king’s presence, found another servant who owed him an insignificant amount of money, and demanded repayment. Even though this second servant could not repay the debt and begged for mercy, the creditor was unwilling to wait, had the man arrested and thrown into debtor’s prison.
Several observers were upset by this transaction and reported it to the king. He immediately called in the first servant, rebuked him for his unmerciful attitude having been shown mercy, and threw him into prison where he would be tortured until he paid his entire debt. The story concludes with Jesus’ sobering words: “That’s what my heavenly Father will do to you if you refuse to forgive your brothers and sisters from your heart.”
Jesus is teaching that unforgiveness enslaves, or imprisons, us to bitterness, resentment, anger, even patterns of fear, rejection, loneliness, indecision, or a desire for revenge. He commands us to forgive those who have wronged us. Forgiveness is letting go of the debt we want others to pay! It is not minimizing or denying the wrong that’s been done or the hurt and pain that we’ve suffered. Nor does forgiveness declare that what the offenders did is now alright. Rather, what forgiveness does is to remove the power of that experience and memory over our life.
You see, every wrong, hurt, or injustice against us produces an indebtedness we feel. These debts are something we believe are owed to us, and we internally long to be compensated for this loss. Forgiveness means that we release what we perceive is owed to us and we let it go. This sets us free to go on with God’s purposes for our lives—to think, feel, and act differently.
I don’t think that Jesus is suggesting this process is easy. But it is possible with the help of his indwelling Spirit whom he called “the Helper.” The Spirit enables us to do what we cannot do on our own strength, power, or resources. And forgiveness is not so much a destination at which we arrive once for all time as it is a daily walk on a narrow, winding road, paying close attention to not slip into either ditch of bitterness or desire for revenge.
In 2007, a person who did not get the job they applied for at our former church, inaccurately perceived that I had made this decision alone. Consequently, he systematically went around to various staff, leaders, and the Board of Directors to smear my character and try to get me fired. The facts were that he was unqualified and inexperienced for the position and that the entire senior staff made the decision. I was especially bitter and angry because he was attacking my integrity and spreading lies. While I wanted him to pay for this debt, nevertheless Jesus said I had to forgive him! It certainly wasn’t easy, but with God’s grace I was able to forgive him. Subsequently, I experienced a new freedom—like being released from torment!
May the Holy Spirit enable each of us to experience the freedom Jesus offers by forgiving others for the things we have suffered. Let’s ask Jesus right now the first steps we should take in order to “forgive seventy times seven times!”