Read Matthew 18:21-35.
If you’re reading these words, the chances are you have some level of interest in forgiveness. Why is that? Do you need to forgive someone? Or do you need someone to forgive you? The answer to both of these questions is yes, whether you know it or not. Understanding the connection between these two is at the heart of forgiveness.
Let’s begin with a story. In Matthew 18:21, Peter asks Jesus a question: How many times should I forgive someone who has sinned against me? Peter suggests that seven might be an appropriate number and a generous one! Surprisingly, Jesus adds on an extra digit and makes it 77! He then tells a story about a servant who owed a huge financial debt to his master. Because he was merciful, the master forgave the man and canceled his debt. This newly freed, forgiven servant then did something completely irrational. Having been freed of his debt, he turned around and went to one of his fellow servants who owed him a debt that was paltry by comparison. He literally began squeezing the life out of him to get him to pay. When that servant asked for the same mercy the first man had been given, he received none and was thrown into prison until he could pay off all his debt.
Stop there for a moment. How does that make you feel? Outraged? Indignant? Perhaps regretful that the master had been merciful to the servant in the first place – and not given him what he deserved?
That was exactly Jesus’ point. The story is outrageous because we can’t imagine that someone who had been forgiven so much would be so harsh and self-serving toward a fellow servant who owed him a fraction of that debt. We’re repulsed by the state of a man’s heart who would do such a thing.
But are we, perhaps, like that man? Have we been wronged by someone and refused to forgive them for what they have done? Do we intend to (or are we proceeding to) do everything we can to exact the debt they cannot pay from that person?
We want to think that our lack of forgiveness is not the same as that of the man in the story. His fellow servant’s debt was small. In our case, the wrong done to us was great — no mere paltry sum to be forgiven and overlooked.
Jesus’ point is not really for us to compare the wrong done to us with the debt owed to the servant. It is instead to compare the debt that we owe to that of the servant. His debt was so great that he could never pay it off in his lifetime. That’s our debt too. That’s our debt to God, where the key to forgiveness lies.