Matthew 18:21-35 Forgiveness
If you’ve ever gotten to a concert early, you’ve probably heard the musicians tuning their instruments. It isn’t a particularly pleasant sound, but we know it is necessary for the harmony to come later. Instruments slip out of tune so easily. So do relationships. Many times harmony is missing from our relationships because our hearts are out of tune. In his book, Untwisting Twisted Relationships, William Backus wrote, “Though we expect from our relationships the sweetest moments life can offer, the brutal fact is that what parents, spouses, sweethearts, friends, and neighbors say and do can cause a large share of life’s miseries.” One of our greatest challenges is to learn the fine art of forgiveness. 1
THREE SPHERES OF FORGIVENESS
“Then Peter came to Him and said, “Lord, how many times could my brother sin against me and I forgive him? As many as seven times?”” (Matthew 18:21, HCSB)
““I tell you, not as many as seven,” Jesus said to him, “but 70 times seven.” (Matthew 18:22, HCSB)
I have often wondered why Jesus said 70 times seven as the answer to this question. Chuck Missler points out that:
“When Jesus instructed His disciples to forgive “seventy times seven,” it may have been more than a figure of speech: that was an apparent threshold in Israel’s own history!2”
In other words, there was significance to Israel’s history with the number 490 and forgiveness.
“Seventy weeks are decreed about your people and your holy city— to bring the rebellion to an end, to put a stop to sin, to wipe away iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy, and to anoint the most holy place.” (Daniel 9:24, HCSB)
Israel would not see the peace that God promised His people until certain conditions were met. One of those conditions is “wipe away iniquity” and that wouldn’t happen until God’s people start to forgive one another.
So there is this important sphere of relational forgiveness.
Jesus said, “Peter, you are to forgive four hundred and ninety times.” Peter must have thought, Four hundred and ninety? How am I supposed to keep track? And that was the point. We are to just keep forgiving and forgiving and forgiving and forgiving. Where there is binding and loosing, there must also be a free, unending flow of forgiveness.3
Jesus says that we should never stop forgiving one another. To put it in the positive, we should always forgive one another.
The Lesson: We should always forgive one another.
This leads us to another sphere of forgiveness which we will need to operate. This sphere of influence in which we forgive one another is financial.
“For this reason, the kingdom of heaven can be compared to a king who wanted to settle accounts with his slaves.” (Matthew 18:23, HCSB)
One thing to notice about Jesus’ parable here about forgiveness. Jesus makes the connection between financial forgiveness and relational forgiveness. Peter asks the question about forgiving a brother. Jesus uses the story of master and his two slaves. The master represents God the Father, who is willing to forgive lots of sin. The struggle and tension in the parable is about the slave and how he treats someone who is in debt to him. The amount of trouble caused by the fellow slave (or slave #2) to the first slave is minor compared to the trouble caused by the slave (slave #1) to the master. The point of the parable is that since the Father has forgiven much in our lives, we must be willing to forgive even a small amount with our brothers.
Notice the actions of the three characters in the parable:
“Then the master of that slave had compassion, released him, and forgave him the loan.” (Matthew 18:27, HCSB)
The Master, when asked for forgiveness, had compassion, which led to his decision to release the slave from his debt obligation, and in turn this forgave him of the debt.
““But that slave went out and found one of his fellow slaves who owed him 100 denarii. He grabbed him, started choking him, and said, ‘Pay what you owe!’ “At this, his fellow slave fell down and began begging him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’ But he wasn’t willing. On the contrary, he went and threw him into prison until he could pay what was owed.” (Matthew 18:28–30, HCSB)
Right after the unforgiving slave has been released of an enormous amount of debt, he goes off IMMEDIATELY and starts to hurt another slave who owed him money. The sense of vengeance in this story is amazing. Instead of relief from the burden, the unforgiving slave feels anger at another slave. As absurd as this may sound, this is how some people react to one another.
THREE UNFORGIVING CHARACTERISTICS
The unforgiving slave reacted to his forgiveness with open violence to another slave. Where did this reaction come from? Pressure from debt can lead to frustration. Instead of rejoicing that he has been freed, he released the pressure on another person.
The unforgiving slave was also impatient with his fellow slave. He was just released of a billion dollar debt and he can’t wait to get a couple of dollars from another person. The absurdity of this impatience is the point. When I am freed of obligations of debt, I should be willing to wait until someone can pay me back. What happens in reality? I can’t wait to get my money back from someone else. Just like the commercial says:
“It’s my money and I need it NOW!”
It’s like that JG Wentworth commercial: “It’s my money and I need it NOW!” Have you seen those commercials, especially the first ones. They are screaming off the top of their lungs out the window that they need their money, and they want it now. How stupid. But that’s how people are when it comes to getting their money back. They are impatient.
Failure to have such patience and to extend forgiveness will cut us off from our experience of God’s forgiveness. This is not because God is unwilling to forgive. It is because forgiveness is like a coin: it has two sides. We cannot have “heads” (receive forgiveness) without having “tails” (extend forgiveness) too.4
Worse than impatient, is the idea that they are vengeful. For a guy who got all his debts released, he sure is full of vengeance. He really has no need to throw the other guy in jail for a couple of dollars. However, he is so full of hatred that he wants to “throw the book” at him. The other guy needs to get the most punishment. What good will do in repaying a loan if you are sitting in jail? No good at all. However, this is how he reacts. Instead of rejoicing, he reacts to the fullest measure to another person.
The Other Unforgiven Slave
This guy doesn’t do anything in the parable. Instead, everything gets done to him. The mistreatment is so bad that the other slaves take notice. The other slaves are so disturbed by what happened to him that they tell the Master.
“When the other slaves saw what had taken place, they were deeply distressed and went and reported to their master everything that had happened.” (Matthew 18:31, HCSB)
Instead of anger and bitterness toward another person who owes us, we should have mercy. This is the lesson which the Master tried to teach.
“Shouldn’t you also have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’” (Matthew 18:33, HCSB)
Forgiveness should/must result in forgiving. Forgiveness is not the basis of our salvation but a sure evidence of being forgiven.5 If we condemn a brother, we bring out the worst in him. But if we create an atmosphere of love and forgiveness, we can help God bring out the best in him.6
The Lesson: As God has shown you mercy, you should show the same mercy.
This brings us to the next sphere of forgiveness:
I call it spiritual forgiveness because it is in relationship to our Heavenly Father. There is a direct correlation between how we treat others and how we are treated by the Father. In the parable, the master makes the unforgiving slave get tortured and then make him pay back his debt. This was the debt which was released by the Father.
“And his master got angry and handed him over to the jailers to be tortured until he could pay everything that was owed.” (Matthew 18:34, HCSB)
This text is bothersome because it says that God can change our circumstances. He can put us back into the misery we were in.
The parable illustrates the power of forgiveness. It is important to note that this parable is not about salvation, for salvation is wholly of grace and is unconditionally given.
“For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift— not from works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:8–9, HCSB)
The parable deals with forgiveness between brothers, not between lost sinners and God. The emphasis in this chapter is on brother forgiving brother.7 Any expression of church ‘discipline’ is with a view to effecting forgiveness and restoring the erring party to fellowship.8
Notice also the stages the unforgiving slave went through: First, he was a debtor, then he was a creditor, and now he is a prisoner. This what happens when try to live by justice. Remember that the master told the unforgiving slave to show mercy? What happens when we don’t show mercy to others? Many times we get justice.
Justice is nice when it happens to the other guy, whom we believe deserves it. However, it is not so fun when it happens to us.
So how do you operate spiritually? Are you a legalist who demands justice for every wrongdoing which happens to you? Are you judgmental about what other people do? Do you think that everyone owes you and therefore should submit to your authority?
Maybe you are someone who operates on the basis of mercy. You let things go instead of letting them bother you. You let take offense to you, but you don’t react in violence.
One final word. Forgiveness, when properly done, should come from the heart.
“So My heavenly Father will also do to you if each of you does not forgive his brother from his heart.”” (Matthew 18:35, HCSB)
The Lesson: Forgiveness must come from the heart.
Jesus doesn’t want us to give lip service to forgiving one another. He expects us to act with a heart of forgiveness.
1 Robert J. Morgan, Nelson’s Annual Preacher’s Sourcebook, 2002 Edition. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2001), 320.
2 Chuck Missler, Learn the Bible in 24 Hours® (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2002).
3 Jon Courson, Jon Courson’s Application Commentary (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2003), 146.
4 Larry Richards and Lawrence O. Richards, The Teacher’s Commentary (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1987), 572.
5 Robert James Utley, The First Christian Primer: Matthew, vol. Volume 9, Study Guide Commentary Series (Marshall, TX: Bible Lessons International, 2000), 154.
6 Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1996), Mt 18:21.
8 Iain D. Campbell, Opening up Matthew, Opening Up Commentary (Leominster: Day One Publications, 2008), 115.