I’ve never yet met a person who didn’t think that forgiveness was a good thing. Peter certainly thought so. He just wanted to check what its limits might be. The rabbis said that one should forgive a person up to three times. Peter was prepared to more than double the figure: “Up to seven times, Master?” “Not seven, but seventy times seven,” says Jesus; meaning, of course, one should forgive his brother an unlimited number of times.
The point is, of course, that true forgiveness is not a matter of cold-hearted calculation but of warm-hearted generosity. And then comes a parable to drive the point home.
A king is doing his accounts. One of his servants is hauled up in front of him. He owes his master 10,000 talents. Now this is a colossal sum of money – something like £1 billion. The servant, of course, has no chance of ever paying off the debt, and he is facing complete ruin and terrible punishment. The poor man is desperate. He throws himself on the ground before the king, and pleads for more time so that he can repay the debt – a totally unrealistic plea. But the king, moved with deep compassion, there and then cancels the debt, and lets him go free.
But no sooner has the man left the king’s presence that he runs into a fellow-servant who owes him much smaller sum of money – a fraction of the amount that he himself had owed to the king. He grabs this fellow-servant by the throat, and says, ‘Give me my money or else.’ The fellow-servant pleads for mercy, just as he himself had done, but to no avail. ‘Off to jail with you, and there you can rot until you can think of a way of paying me back.’
Of course, when the king hears about this behaviour he is furious. He revokes his cancellation of the earlier debt, saying, ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.’
Then come Jesus’ solemn words, “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”
This is how things are in the kingdom of heaven. Each of us has, like that first servant, built up an enormous debt of sin. We cannot possibly make amends. But God, out of his great love and compassion, has cancelled the debt. ‘As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.’ God has had compassion on us; he has hurled all our iniquities into the depths of the sea. In words quoted in our service of Holy Communion – ‘If any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the propitiation for our sins.’
God’s forgiveness is costly, for it cost him his one and only Son, and it is free, because we pay nothing. But it is not cheap. It utterly incompatible with an attitude that says, ‘God has forgiven me; I have a first-class ticket to heaven; I can do as I like.’ To accept Christ means to accept what it means to become Christ-like. To love Christ means to love those who belong to Christ. The giving and receiving of forgiveness are inseparable: they are two sides of the same coin. As air has to be breathed out as well as in, so forgiveness must be offered as well as received. Any person who expects forgiveness, but offers none, destroys the bridge over which he himself is to pass.
Jesus has taught us to pray: Mt 6:12 – “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.’ For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”
Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, was never known to hold resentment against anyone. Once, a friend recalled to her a cruel act that had happened to her some years previously. Clara seemed not to recall the incident. “Don’t you remember the wrong that was done you?” the friend asked? Clara answered, “No, I distinctly remember forgetting that.”
Each of us, therefore, ought to ask the following question: ‘Is there anyone against whom I am harbouring a grudge, a festering resentment, a refusal to forgive?’ Is there someone who has hurt me so much, or so often, that I cannot find it in my heart to forgive him? If so, I must plead with my heavenly Father to have mercy on me once, to renew my heart, and to grant me grace that I might have a loving, forgiving heart towards that person. I cannot be responsible for his or her response, but I am responsible for my own attitude. As a Christian I can never justify or defend an unforgiving attitude.
May God grant us grace to forgive one another as freely as we ourselves have been forgiven.