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Our common need to receive and grant forgiveness is a bond that unites all humanity.
Peter came to Jesus and said, "Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?" Jesus said to him, "Not seven times, but up to seventy times seven.
"The kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. One was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. But as he was not able to pay, his master commanded that he be sold, with his wife and children and all he had, and that payment be made. The servant therefore fell down before him, saying, 'Master, have patience with me, and I will pay you all.' Then the master of that servant was moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt.
"But that servant went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and he laid hands on him and took him by the throat, saying, 'Pay me what you owe!' So his fellow servant fell down at his feet and begged him, 'Have patience with me, and I will pay you all.' And he would not, but went and threw him into prison till he should pay the debt.
"When his fellow servants saw what had been done, they were very grieved, and came and told their master. Then his master, after he had called him, said to him, 'You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?' His master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him.
"So my heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses."
Matthew 18:21-35 NKJV, condensed
Pass It On
My husband tells a story about a high school teacher who generously gave him an A in the first marking period. So he worked harder than ever to maintain that grade the rest of the year. Receiving better than we deserve can make a deserving person out of us. But in these verses, Jesus pointed out a blind spot.
Jesus, how often must I forgive this fellow who goes on wronging me?
That was Peter's problem and he thought seven times was perfectly adequate. But Jesus liked the 70 X 7 number better. Four hundred ninety times! It's a staggering figure that pushes through the limits of toleration. Until I stop to ponder how many times God has forgiven me! Then I know forgiveness has nothing to do with arithmetic or excuses, and everything to do with mercy, compassion and patience.
Jesus explained it in story form. This is how it works in the kingdom of heaven. A king wanted to settle accounts with his servants. One was brought before him who had run up a huge debit, so big he would not have been able to pay the amount even if he had several lifetimes to do so. The king commanded the typical solution in this type of case--sell the man, his wife and his children into slavery; apply that money to the liability and write off the loss.
But the man knelt before the king, pleading for patience and promised to pay the whole amount if he were just given the chance to do so. The king's heart was touched with compassion, so much so that he did much more than his debtor had asked. He freed the man from his term of service and tore up the entire bill!
The free and cleared worker went out from there a happy man until he saw a co-worker who owed him some small change. Roughly he grabbed his debtor by the throat and shouted in his ear to pay up or else. The poor man, still choking, fell down at the freedman's feet and begged for patience and promised to pay the whole thing.
At once, we see the disconnect. The forgiven servant had learned nothing from the compassionate king who cancelled his financial burden and saved him and his family from complete ruin. Instead of showing mercy, he felt justified in demanding full payment and made his fellow worker suffer by throwing him in jail. It was the typical attitude--no way, you're not going to treat me like this and get away with it!
Those who saw what was happening knew it just wasn't right. The merciful king had just pardoned his huge debt. And now this very fortunate man showed no mercy, compassion or patience to his fellows. They thought the king would like to hear what his generosity had accomplished. And they were correct.
The king felt angry and betrayed. He had squandered his kindness on this evil and undeserving person who could not find it in his heart to pardon a small debt after he had been forgiven so much. Having received mercy, he behaved in a most unmerciful way. So the riled up king called the man back, revoked the forgiveness and ordered the jailers to put the screws to him.
So it will happen to us, Jesus concluded, if we do not, from a heart full of grace and compassion, forgive those who sin against us! His heavenly Father will not be our heavenly Father until we learn to forgive! Amazing grace--that's not only God's work; it's our job too.
Use the following questions for small groups, journaling, further study or reflection.
Icebreaker: Not all debts involve money. What are some debts you can never repay?
What comes to your mind when you hear the phrase, "Pass it on."? Name some positives and negatives that get passed on from one person or situation to another. What do you like to pass on to others?
Try to put yourself in the place of each of the characters--the king of the estate, the forgiven worker, his debtor, and the onlookers. Describe their emotions and thinking processes, and how the situation appeared to each of them as the story moved along.
How do you feel after reading Jesus' parable about the unforgiving servant? Is the story powerful enough to make you forgive someone who has wronged you?
Is there a conflict between Jesus' admonition to forgive without limit and the king who revoked his forgiveness because his subject showed no mercy? What is the bottom line Jesus wants us to understand? Is forgiveness ever wasted? Do you forgive because someone is deserving, because Jesus commanded you to, or is there another reason?
When you forgive, what's in it for you? What does it do for your body, mind and soul?
Consider some images associated with forgiveness: erase the debt; bury the hatchet; mercy and compassion; reconciliation; a clean slate or a new beginning; a handshake or hug; . . . (add your own). In your mind, think about someone who has hurt you. Then try to visualize what it would look like if you took one or more of the images of forgiveness and tried to apply it to your relationship with that person. Forgiveness doesn't depend on the other person, it depends on you so you can forgive regardless of what the other person does or thinks about it. Are you willing to take a chance on forgiveness--receiving and giving?
In another situation, Jesus said that the one who is forgiven much, loves much. Although that's what the king in this story expected, it didn't materialize. How about you? Were you ever on the giving or receiving end of forgiveness that produced an abundance of grateful love?