Why forgive?

A sermon by Rod Benson

Matthew 18:21-35

Forgiveness is a gift we all like to receive, but we don’t all like to give. English writer and apologist C.S. Lewis said that forgiveness is a beautiful word, until you have something to forgive. One of Lewis’s mentors, G.K. Chesterton, said that forgiveness means pardoning the unpardonable, or it is not forgiveness at all.

The eighteenth-century English poet Alexander Pope coined the proverb, “To err is human; to forgive, divine.”

Hungarian-born psychiatrist Thomas Szasz said, “The stupid neither forgive nor forget; the naïve forgive and forget; the wise forgive but do not forget.”

Ambrose Bierce, the US author and journalist, defined forgiveness in his famous Devil’s Dictionary as “a stratagem to throw an offender off his guard and catch him red-handed in his next offense.”[1]

Perhaps it is fitting, then, to conclude my introduction with the words of John Greenleaf Whittier, whose long poem begins:

Dear Lord and Father of mankind,
Forgive our foolish ways …

At any moment, some of us are in need of forgiveness from another person, or from God, or from ourselves. At any moment, some of us need to decide whether to forgive another person, or ourselves, and when that forgiveness will be offered.

The question of forgiveness surfaces in the mind of Peter, the follower of Jesus, as they walk along a Galilee road, just before Jesus enters Jerusalem for the last time. Peter asks, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” (v 21).

He may have heard the rabbis teach that one only needs to forgive a wrong three times – after that there is no more need to forgive. He has learned from Jesus that retaliation is wrong, and forgiveness is right, but he seems to be looking for permission to forgive in moderation – a kind of fishermanly actuarial forgiveness calculus. Or perhaps he thought he was being generous in more than doubling the rabbinical recommendation.

Jesus replies, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy seven times” (v 22). And he tells a story about the relationship between a servant and his master, and between the servant and a fellow servant (vv 23-34).

The story, or parable, is found only in Matthew’s Gospel.[2] Jesus has just finished teaching his disciples to value childlike qualities and to pursue humility and moral purity (vv 1-14); and has suggested what to do when one person wrongs another (vv 15-20).

Verses 15-20 often appear in church constitutions and Christian guides to conflict resolution. But as my friend Alan Kelshaw recently pointed out, those verses should be considered in the context of the whole chapter, which greatly expands the meaning and significance of those six verses.

Peter has listened to the teaching, and asked the question. Now Jesus explains the source and power of forgiveness. The source is God’s forgiveness experienced in my life, and the power is God’s grace expressed in my will and heart.

Easily said, but difficult to accept and to action.

In the parable, a king decides to settle accounts with his servants. One owes “ten thousand talents” (v 24). The talent was the largest weight in use among Jewish people. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, the entire tax revenue of Palestine, Perea and Galilee at the time amounted to 8,000 talents.[3] Ten thousand talents is an enormous sum, far beyond the capacity of any individual to repay. So the king orders him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and partial payment to be made (v 25).

When the servant hears this shocking news, and feels the weight of his impending fate, he falls on his knees and implores his master, “Have patience with me, and I will repay everything!” (v 26).

Now the king happens to be a man of compassion, and the servant’s anguished plea moves him to pity, and then to action. He releases the servant and forgives the debt (v 27). No hesitation, no conditions. The debt is erased, and the servant is free.

You and I are that servant, and God is the King. When we come before God, aware of the gigantic moral and spiritual debt recorded against our name, and plead for mercy, God forgives us and cancels the debt. There is no hesitation on God’s part. There are no conditions imposed by God. The debt is erased, and we are free. It is an act of pure grace.

The source of our freedom to forgive others is God’s forgiveness of us, and the power to forgive comes from our experience of God’s grace, transforming our will and heart through the indwelling Holy Spirit. As Gary Inrig puts it, “Forgiveness is granted, not earned. I choose to forgive. I am not to wait until I am no longer hurt by what was done. Forgiveness is a servant of the will, not a prisoner of the emotions.”[4]

But the story Jesus tells does not end there. The servant leaves the king, and immediately finds one of his fellow servants who owes him “a hundred denarii,” seizes him by the throat, and demands, “Pay what you owe!” (v 28). A denarius was about a day’s wage for an ordinary worker; there were 6,000 denarii to a talent.

His fellow servant makes the same plea he made to the king (v 29), but the free servant is free of compassion and pity, and refuses. Instead, he has the fellow servant thrown in prison until he can pay the debt – which would be a long time since those in prison had almost no opportunity to create wealth.

But other servants observe this, and report it to the king, who summons the forgiven servant (vv 31-32a).

“You wicked servant!” says the king, “I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” (v 32b-33). And in anger the king reverses his earlier pardon, and has the forgiven servant thrown in prison “until he pays all his debt” (v 34).

The point Jesus is making is this: those who experience God’s amazing grace should act in accordance with the grace they receive.

To accept God’s grace and forgiveness and to refuse to forgive another person is not merely sad but sin (v. 32). The implication seems to be that we must forgive others, or God will not forgive us. Our ability to forgive is free, although not often easy or simple; refusal to forgive is costly beyond imagining.

Why do I say this? Because in verse 35 Jesus applies the parable: “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from the heart.”

But, you might say, does not this parable cast God’s action as capricious? How can God graciously forgive, then ruthlessly punish? Don Carson responds to such questions by saying that “it is precisely because he is a God of such compassion and mercy that he cannot possibly accept as his those devoid of compassion and mercy.”[5]

If I claim to be a Christian but refuse to forgive, I demonstrate that I have not really received God’s forgiveness. As I reflect the forgiveness of God in situations of conflict with others, I demonstrate that God has forgiven me.

That is not to suggest that forgiveness is either easy or simple – which is why Jesus taught those who follow him to pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Mt 6:12).

The world in which we live is an unforgiving place. And the church too can be an unforgiving community. In his commentary on this passage, evangelist and author Michael Green observes that

Church life is bedeviled by failure to be open over wrongs that are committed, and by failure to forgive. As Christians, we are called to openness with those we feel have wronged us, and to frank forgiveness when apology is sincerely made. Hidden grievances and unwillingness to forgive are two things that make shipwreck of personal relations.[6]

Where hidden grievances, passive aggression and unwillingness to forgive are not addressed, not only personal relations but church health, evangelistic effectiveness and even eternal destiny are at stake.

Whom do you need to forgive today? Make a list, and pray.

Whose forgiveness, freely offered, do you need to accept today? Prepare your heart and mind for what lies ahead.

And finally: Are you ready to forgive yourself for things said and done?

Sermon 652 copyright © 2016 Rod Benson. Preached at Lithgow Baptist Church, Australia, on Sunday 10 January 2016. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).


[1] Ambrose Bierce, The Enlarged Devil’s Dictionary (London: Penguin, 1967), p. 132.

[2] Peter’s question too, which prompts the parable, is the last of five references to Peter found only in Matthew 14-18 (specifically 14:28-31; 15:15; 16:17-19; 17:24-27; 18:21).

[3] Josephus, Antiquities, 12.175; 17.318-320.

[4] Gary Inrig, The Parables: Understanding What Jesus Meant (Grand Rapids: Discovery House Publishers, 1991), p. 69.

[5] D.A. Carson, ‘Matthew,’ in The Expositor’s Bible (vol. 8; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), p. 407.

[6] Michael Green, The Message of Matthew (Leicester: IVP, 2000), p. 198.

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