What is the limit to the amount of times you can forgive someone?
It's an interesting question. Take a moment. Think about your answer. How many times do you usually forgive people?
If you need help concocting a scenario, think of your kids. How many times do you forgive them when they 'forget' to clean up their toys? What if they refuse to clean up their toys? Or how many times do you forgive your coworker for continually mocking you behind your back? Or how many times do you forgive your neighbor for repeatedly cranking up the noise at night?
I think we all assume there must be a limit. Because if there isn't, then aren't we just training people to keep on sinning against us! If I forgive my child every time he says he's sorry, what has he learned? If I forgive my husband every time he says he's sorry, what has he learned? Not too mention that I'm just letting myself become a punching bag. If I forgive my coworker, every times he asks forgiveness for bashing me, then won't he just keep on doing it?
There must be a limit, right?
Fortunately, for us the Apostle Peter asked Jesus that very question.
1) The Debt We Owe
In Matthew 18 Peter approaches Jesus and asks, "Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?"
I wonder why Peter asked that question. Was his brother Andrew repeatedly late for early morning fishing? Was there a neighborhood boy whom Peter had repeatedly caught trying to steal his fish? Did his wife constantly 'nag' him for spending too much time with that Rabbi? Did his own children stubbornly refuse to clean up the toys were scattered all over his room?
Whatever it was, Peter seems to be seeking permission to stop forgiving. Maybe, he was hoping that he had already reached the limit and could immediately return to his 'sinner' and tell him off! Worst case scenario, in his mind, he would at least be able to look forward to a day when he could give a mean look, raise his voice, and say, "I will not forgive you!"
As he usually does, Jesus says something that is totally unexpected: "I tell you, don't forgive seven time, but seventy-seven times."
I imagine Peter sighed, but then immediately began counting the number of times he had been sinned against by this person. "How close am I? Maybe another few sins and I'll finally be able to let him have it!"
But before he could get too far, Jesus continued: "The kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt."
"Ten thousand talents." In 2013 American dollars, that estimates to be about 20 million dollars! So, say that you made $40,000 a year. That's an average middle class income. If you made that much, it would take you 500 years to pay back the money. If you never used the money for anything else. (You know, like food, clothing, or shelter).
In other words, this was a ludicrous amount to pay back. There wasn't any way this guy would pay it back in this lifetime. That's why the king decides that he'll call it even if he gives him everything he owns. Appliances. Transportation. Animals. Home. Family.
Can you imagine being so far in debt that you are in danger of having your kids taken from you?
It was too much for the servant. The shame caused him to fall to the ground. 'The servant fell on his knees before his master! 'Be patient with me,' he begged.' Literally, the Bible tells us that he lay prostrate on the ground! Flat in the dust. Tears in his eyes. Distress in his voice. He makes a delusional promise: "I will pay back everything!"
What would you expect the king to do? 20 million dollars. He should sue him for all he's worth. Wouldn't you do the same thing? That's a lot of money.
But he didn't. Instead, the servant's master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.
Let's take a break from the parable to remember that Jesus is using this parable to teach us about forgiveness. Consider: Who do you think the servant represents?
If you're thinking, "My next door neighbor! He's such an awful sinner. He does drugs, plays raucous party music and keeps inviting woman after woman to spend the night." You've missed the point.
Because the servant is... you. It's me. It's all of us who live under the Heavenly King.
Let's do some math. Say that we each sin an average of 1x per minute. You might want to contest taht, but remember sin involves not only actions, not only words, but thoughts as well! Sure, maybe there's a minute that goes by without a sin, but that average is driven up when in a rage when lambast a coworker or you spend an entire hours sneaking glances in the mirror at the lady working out at the gym near you.
So. One sin per minute would mean we sin 60 times per hour which means we sin 1,440 times per day and 525,600 times per year and 42,480,000 times per average lifetime of about 80 years.
That's ludicrous! But it's also the truth. The debt we owe our Heavenly Father is so high, it's ludicrous.
It also isn't something that we even have the means to pay back!
If you have a debt, no matter how much it is student loan or mortgage, it is something that you can at least pay back. Even if the debt is ridiculously high, at least, you could possibly conceive of how it could be paid back. A lottery win, a cool investment, or hard work and good saving habits could pay back the debt of money with money.
How do you pay back the debt of sin? Romans 6:23 tells us: "The wages of sin is death." It's not money. It's not hard work. It's not good intentions. None of those pay back even a single sin! The wages of sin is death! Eternal death in hell. I suppose if you wanted to pay for sin on your own, you could spend eternity in hell. But there's two problems there: 1) That would only pay for one of your 40 million plus sins.
2) How would you get out of that eternity in hell in order to start paying for your next sin?
Do you see how dire our situation is? It almost makes you want to lie in the dust and cry out: "Have mercy on me!"
When we turn to our Heavenly King in such despair, know that He reacts just as the king in the parable did. He has mercy. He forgives you. He cancels all your debt.
It's as simple as that.
Now this may seem unbelievable! I get that. Yet, the key to understanding comes in what the parable doesn't tell us: our Heavenly King still needed the debt to be paid! So he paid this impossible debt with regenerating, infinite blood that only He has. Jesus died on the cross for our sins! Because of this death, you are forgiven!
Think of what that means for you. Those hundreds of actions sins you commit each week. Those thousands of word sins you commit each year. Those millions of thought sins you commit each lifetime, all of these sins, trespasses, debt--whichever version of hte Lord's prayer you're using--all of these terrible things have been forgiven in Jesus Christ.
Incredible. With God, there is no limit to forgiveness!
2) The Debt We are Owed
Look at the rest of the parable: The servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him and began to choke him. "Pay back what you owe me!" His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, "be patient with me, and I will pay you back." But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt."
Doesn't that upset you? What a jerk! He just had millions of dollars wiped out. You'd expect a celebration. But instead, he goes and finds a guy who owes him a lot less money and he tries to kill him. Even after he begs for mercy, the unmerciful servant refuses to have mercy and he has the guys turned in to the cops.
Before you get too upset, remember who that servant represents. Remember how we opened this sermon by considering how often we are willing to forgive others. Remember that you're a human and you probably have done exactly what this man did -- been forgiven for your myriad of sins and then turned and refused to forgive someone else!
With that in mind, look what happens next: The other servants saw what had happened and they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened. Then the master called the servant in. '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 his anger, his master turned him over to the mailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. This is how your heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from the heart.
Wow. Puts it into perspective, huh? When it comes to the debt others owe us, there is not anyone in the world who has sinned against you more than you have sinned against Jesus. It doesn't even come close! The debt we are owed is meager.
Because, Really? How many times has anyone sinned against you? Probably the people that sin against you most are your spouse and your kids...simply because you spend the most amount of time with them.
However, I bet they get distracted. Sometimes they sin against the person at work that's upsetting them. Sometimes they sin against their brothers and sisters. Sometimes they sin against the teacher at school. In other words, they aren't always sinning against you.
Compare this to every one of your sins. No matter who they are against on this earth, they are also against God in heaven.
And yet, in Christ, he forgives you!
Plus, when humans sin against humans, we generally consider that debt payable. At least, people always treat it that way. Whether it's time that earns forgiveness or gifts or good behavior or even literal money -- like a courtroom might award. Even the worst offenses, when death occurs, we might say: "I guess she got what's coming to her! Now I can forgive."
Compare this to your relationship to God again. Our sins are unpayable with anything but death! NOTHING WE DO CAN EARN FORGIVENESS!!! Yet, that's exactly what Jesus did--He died that you might be forgiven!
Why, then, wouldn't you forgive those who have sinned against you?
That's Jesus' final point. Why wouldn't you forgive those who have sinned against you. In fact, he implies, you must! Because if you truly grasp what our Heavenly Father has done for you, if you truly mean "forgive us Lord, as we forgive others", then you too will forgive.
"But," you might be saying, "it's too hard to forgive. These people have truly wronged me. I can't forget it. I'm not able to look at them without being disgusted. How can I ever forgive when I keep thinking about all the wrong they've done to me?"
Fair enough. When we look at those who have wronged us and how they have wronged us and THEN try to forgive, that's hard! Usually our insides scream, "No way!" and we become more hardened in un-forgiveness.
Why not look to Jesus?
Think about that. If you are struggling to forgive, look to Jesus! What would happen? You'd confess your sinful struggles to forgive. You'd see the power of the cross. You'd look at your Lord crucified for you and view that the incredible amount of your sin He has forgiven. Then, marveling at his forgiveness, you will be strengthened to forgive others from the heart.
What an incredible God we have! He forgives us and give us strength to forgive others!
"O Lord, Forgive us Our Trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." Amen.