Our weekly devotion from the sainted Rev. Earl Feddersen:
After hearing Jesus’ method of restoring to friendship and fellowship someone who had sinned against him, Peter probably realized the implications of that restoration. As I said last week, Jesus cares about our relationships, and He wants us to be actively forgiving and loving each other. Peter knew that Jesus would have expectations of us beyond the strict interpretations of Old Testament law. If the law required forgiving three times, Peter guessed that Jesus might expect double that. He asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus probably floored him when He answered, “No, not seven times, but seventy times seven.”
It is important to remember that Peter was just “plain old folks” like us. He was fully aware of how hard it is to forgive someone, even once! It has been observed that there is scarcely anything in life more difficult than this matter of asking, bestowing, and receiving forgiveness. The difficulty is not limited to the “bestowing.” One of the things that keeps many people away from the Christian faith is the insistence of humans to stand on self-righteousness and reject Christ’s forgiveness. Those who won’t ask or receive it from Him certainly don’t want it from each other.
Some translations and texts give Jesus’ number as just 77 instead of 77 times seven. Either way, it is obvious that Jesus did not intend for us to keep a record of our forgiving and call a halt to it at offense number 78 or 491. It is also obvious that He linked our forgiveness from Him to the way we forgive each other. A pastor friend said, “We can stop forgiving when He does.”
Jesus told a parable about a servant who owed millions of dollars to a king. He begged the king not to sell him, his wife and children into slavery, and he promised to pay back everything if the king would only be patient. The king had compassion, not just patience, and forgave him the entire debt. Shortly after that, the same man met a fellow servant who owed him a few dollars. The fellow servant begged him for patience but, unlike the king, he had neither patience nor compassion. He had the man jailed until his family would pay back the paltry debt. When the king heard about the incident, he immediately called the unforgiving rascal back in. The king was furious. He said, “You should have had mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you.” Then the king had the man jailed until the entire debt was paid.
Here is an interesting question: where was a servant to get the kind of money the first one owed to the king? The parable implies an impossible debt — just as our debt to God is beyond our every means. The hard words of Jesus at the close of the parable ought to make us sit up and take notice: “That is how my Father in heaven will treat every one of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.” If you think forgiving is hard, try not being forgiven!
Forgiveness is never easy. People tend to overlook or ignore minor offenses — not forgive them. Forgiveness is something else entirely. I once saw a large man at the back of an elevator smile genially when a smaller man in front of him apologized for stepping on his foot. At the next floor, more people got into the elevator, jostling the smaller fellow back and onto his neighbor’s foot once more. This time the man at the back shoved the smaller one rather violently into the cluster of passengers. A woman let out a slight shriek. The smaller man and several other people got off the elevator immediately without saying a word. Those of us who remained also went to our desired floors in silence.
How many times have we heard, or said, “You have to draw the line someplace.” It sounds so rational, natural, and even pious, but who says so? Who says that we are to measure offenses by either frequency or size? I can assure you that it wasn’t Jesus. The parable seems to imply that the only thing that might be held against us is holding something against someone else! Two of the biggest pitfalls in human relations are that we often don’t know when our words or deeds have hurt someone, and we just as often assume someone has said or done something to hurt us when they haven’t at all. Either way, all we need is a little lack of communication to transform a mouse-sized misunderstanding into an elephant-sized problem.
It would be wonderful if we human beings could just learn to erase certain things from our memories. We need a “delete file” button of some kind. Lacking that, we could use some adult education about forgiveness. As little children, we confuse “getting off” or getting out of some punishment with forgiveness. We don’t know the difference. We may think we “got off” because we put on our very best sad face, pleaded and begged. Consequently, we point to our behavior, not Mommy’s mercy, as the reason we were not punished. That is why some adults don’t know if they are “repentant enough” to receive God’s forgiveness. Never think that God’s forgiveness comes as a result of anything but His grace and mercy. If we think that He forgives us because we have put on the proper show of repentance, we are unbelievers — trying to manipulate a god of our own making, by our behavior — not trusting the steadfast love of the One True God.
Let there be no doubt that repentance has its place. In the most glaring example in all time of God’s forgiveness, however, repentance came after the forgiveness. From the cross, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them; they don’t know what they are doing.” Was that prayer answered without any repentance from the perpetrators of the evil? Well, the hillside wasn’t splattered with the blood of Roman officials and soldiers, Jewish priests, Pharisees and scribes, was it? No, only the blood of two thieves and the Son of God was shed on Golgotha!
All of mankind, not God, should have died that day. This was not a matter of someone stepping on the Father’s toe in an elevator either. If we have to draw the line someplace, then humanity went over the line. But the Victim, not the murderers, got the death sentence. Take additional note that after the resurrection, Jesus still did not exact any retribution. He did not even visit Pilate, Herod, or Caiaphas to sing the children’s song, “Nah, na-nah, na-nah, nah.” God carries no grudges.
People carry grudges. In Robert Harling’s play and movie, “Steel Magnolias,” one of the characters says, “I’m not crazy — I’ve just been in a bad mood for 40 years.” I think I’ve met her. At least I’ve met men and women like her. They have a monkey on their backs far worse than drugs or alcohol. Unlike addiction, it is a monkey that will simply die and fall off if they just stop breathing life into it. To use another illustration, resentment is carried in a sack that would be invisible if it wasn’t attached to the corners of the mouth. The more junk we throw into it, the more we frown and pout.
Did anything about Jesus’ parable bother you? In addition to feeling very uncomfortable about having my forgiveness apparently depend on my forgiving, something bothered me. Didn’t the king forgive the servant’s debt of the millions? How could he just reinstate it when the man refused to forgive the fellow servant? I thought forgiveness meant forgotten-forever! It does.
One of the most difficult aspects of sharing the Gospel, whether across a backyard fence or across cultures, is that people prefer recognition to forgiveness. We trust our own accomplishments more than we trust God’s grace. We want to pay our debts, not have them forgiven. We want to do enough good stuff that it outweighs the bad stuff. We want to deserve God’s blessings and, arrogant as it might be, we think we can.
The issue in the parable is the same as in life — just because God forgives does not mean we want the forgiveness. I believe that the first servant could not have experienced such profound forgiveness and remained unforgiving. He left the king, thinking that the king had done just as he had asked — that the king would wait for him to pay the debt because he was “good for it.” He was such a “good person” that the king could count on him to repay. The unbelievable arrogance of that is that the debt was too huge for him to ever repay.
The first servant apparently decided that his fellow servant was not a “good person.” The fellow servant had to be jailed. The first one refused to be forgiven. Naturally, he refused to forgive. Maybe frowns and pouts come from two sacks, one on each corner of the mouth — one filled with self- righteousness, the other with resentments. Both can be left at the foot of the cross. Jesus doesn’t say it this time, but I will: “Those who have ears should listen.”