One day Jesus was explaining how a person who has been wronged by another must work things out by first going to the person, and secondly taking others with him. Peter was listening to the discussion and was apparently reminded of someone who had hurt him in the past, not once but over and over. When Jesus finished, Peter pulled him off to the side and said, I’ve got a question for you. How often should I forgive someone who sins against me? Then, maybe trying to look impressive to the Lord, he said, “How about seven times?” (Matt. 18:21). Seven was a good Bible number. Yet in asking the question, Peter showed some confusion about the nature of forgiveness. (It is a confusion that many of us share). Like us, Peter made some assumptions, that forgiveness is for the benefit of the offender; therefore, if I want to do something nice for the offender, I’ll do them a favor and forgive them, even if it means doing so seven times. The idea is that to forgive is to do someone a favor.
You see, when we’re hurt, there is always the sense that the one who hurt us is a debtor to us. It’s why we make statements like: “You OWE me an apology!” We say of a boss, “She owes me respect,” or of a spouse: “He owes it to me to be more understanding.” When we experience pain there is always the sense that something has been taken from us that must be paid back. It’s the debt we fell we are owed, and we hold on to the debt, often building a case against the offender.
The result is that bitter feelings fill our hearts, and we think about the offending person much of the time.
Some in the counseling profession say there are two primary ways we deal with pain. We either exhibit turtle-like behavior, taking anger and stuffing it deep inside, or we respond more like a skunk, spraying the offending person personally with our words and spreading the news to everyone we know about just how sorry we think the offending person is.
Then, as victims, we ask questions like, “When is enough, enough?” and “When can I say I’ve done my part?”
In Matthew 18, Peter seems to be struggling with the same issue, so in the typical fashion that Jesus often employs, he tells Peter a story. Jesus knows that we listen to stories. They move us to think more deeply about a matter, to decide where we fit in the narrative. So he begins:
- Is there a person you have thought about a lot over the last month?
- Do you really like that person?
We don’t know what Peter was thinking, but it’s likely that about two thirds of the way through the story, Peter realizes that it’s not going in his direction. Perhaps Peter thought that he and God would take care of the person who had wronged him. But as the story goes, it occurs to Peter: God is the KING, I am the WICKED SERVANT; I have been forgiven a lot, yet I can’t forgive the small thing. And the moral is: “Peter, you have to forgive every single time, or God will deal with you.” Furthermore, Jesus ends with these words: This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart (verse 35). So here’s the big question: why is God so bold as to impose his punishment on us if we refuse to forgive? Continued next week . . .
- Therefore, 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 bags of gold 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. “At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go. “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded. “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’ “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged 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 anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed (23-34, NIV).
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Let me begin by asking a couple of question: