How Often Must You Forgive?
“Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive? As many as seven times? Jesus answered, ‘I say to you, not seven times but seventy seven times.” Forgiveness. Again. It seems that this idea is central to Jesus’ thinking, for he mentions it and gives us examples of it many times in the Gospels.
Jesus, in his usual, masterful teaching fashion, uses a parable to make his point more clear to us. It is about a king who decides to “settle accounts with his servants.” One of his servants is brought before him who owes him a vast amount of money, an amount so great that the servant has no way to pay back his debt to his master. The master orders him to be sold, along with his wife and children, in order to pay off the debt. The servant falls down before the master and begs him “to be patient with him and he will pay it back in full” (verse 26). As the scripture tells us, the master is moved with compassion for his servant and he forgives the servants entire loan. The servant then goes out and finds a fellow servant who owes him a tiny amount in comparison to what he owed to the master. He beats his fellow servant and demands payment. That fellow servant begs him to be patient with him in the same manner, but instead the servant who has had his entire debt forgiven has his fellow servant thrown into jail until he pays off his debt. Others report this to the master and he calls the former servant back before him and lets him have it. “You wicked servant! I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to. Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant, as I had pity on you?” (verse 33).
This parable is as clear as it can be for us. And it is one of our greatest challenges. It is difficult for the same reason it was to the Jews of Jesus’s time. Jesus’ teaching contradicts everything that the world teaches and it flies in the face of the old law of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” that was common throughout the world then, and remains so even now in our own time. The “Master” in the parable, of course, is Jesus. This is what Jesus did for all of us when he was raised up on the cross. He forgave our entire debt, that is, our sins against God, and those against our neighbors, and against ourselves. He wiped them off the books. And we are told here that we are to do the same for those who have sinned against us. And the parable shows us the consequences for not doing so. The master in the parable handed the unrepentant, unforgiving servant “over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt” (verse 34). Then he finishes his teaching with the ultimate truth that, “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart” (verse 35)
These words are to be taken personally. They are to be taken to heart in each one of us. Jesus is expressing the will of the Father to us in this matter of forgiveness. And he not only preaches it, but he practices it by sacrificing everything in order to do the will of the Father. These words of Jesus, then, are to be heard as our duty of love and thanksgiving to the One who canceled our whole debt on that cross. We are to forgive as he forgave. This is how we can love others as he loved. We know how hard it is to forgive another who has injured us in some way. As Christians, we know the internal struggle between the desire to get revenge and our desire to imitate Jesus in all things. This struggle is real, but Jesus does not ask us to do the impossible. He asks us to do what he knows we are capable of doing in faith. A profound practice of daily prayer is needed. It is needed both to deepen our relationship with Jesus, but also to receive the wisdom and the graces we need to courageously follow Jesus by forgiving those who have injured us, just as he forgives us every day.
Lord, We pray that you strengthen our faith and deepen our understanding of the great gift of forgiveness that you have so freely and compassionately given to us. Give us the vision of faith so that we can see those who have wounded us through your eyes. We pray this in your name, Jesus. Amen!
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