by Mike Phay
Jesus once told a story (Matthew 18:23-35) about a servant who owed his master a ridiculous amount of money—billions of dollars in today’s currency. In order to recoup at least some of this astronomical debt, the master—well within his legal rights at the time—commanded the sale of this servant and his entire family. In desperation, the man fell to his knees and pleaded with his master: “Have patience with me. I will pay you everything.”
You can imagine the collective eye-roll in the room because in reality, there was absolutely no way this man could repay his debt. It just wasn’t possible. And it was clear that the man simply did not understand the enormity of his debt and his inability to repay. He was clearly asking for the wrong thing. He didn’t need patience so that he could repay; he needed forgiveness because he couldn’t repay.
And that’s exactly what his master granted. Touched by the man’s desperate plea, he felt pity for him and extended mercy. He didn’t offer a payment plan or reduce the man’s debt to a manageable amount. He completely wiped it out, down to the very last penny.
One would expect a response of deep gratitude from this servant, akin to a convict strapped to the electric chair receiving a midnight pardon. However—perhaps still thinking he was on the hook to repay his debt—the servant went out, free now to make collections of his own.
He promptly tracked down a fellow-servant—someone on his own level—who owed him an insignificant fraction of what he had owed his master: the equivalent of about $10,000. In his intense self-interest, the servant greeted his fellow-servant by seizing him, choking him, and demanding immediate repayment. In response, this man’s debtor fell to his knees and pleaded, “Have patience with me and I will pay you!” But instead of pity, this man’s pleas were met with the cold demands of justice: he threw the man in debtor’s prison until he could repay.
Word quickly returned to the master that the recently-forgiven servant had treated his fellow-servant in this way, and the man quickly found himself once again before his master. This time, greeted with fury: “You wicked servant,” the master said, “why didn’t you extend the same kind of mercy you had received?” In anger, the master threw him into prison until he could repay his own debt: which, the story makes clear, was impossible.
Jesus ended the story with these words: “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (Matthew 18:35).
Jesus’ story makes clear the severity and depth of our obligation to God, due to our sin, and the magnanimity of God’s astounding offer of forgiveness. We are like the death-row inmate, receiving the 11th-hour pardon. And one test of whether or not we’ve truly received that forgiveness is our own willingness to forgive others. Forgiveness is transformative—it allows those who have received and understood it to graciously and freely extend it to others. Those who withhold forgiveness are essentially like the newly pardoned inmate staying in the electric chair, begging for execution regardless of the pardon which has been offered.
It’s true that forgiveness is no easy task. When we’ve been wronged, it feels like the only possible and right avenues of response are bitterness, resentment, and revenge. Unfortunately, without realizing it, these become the self-made prisons we lock ourselves up in. And we know it. Yes, forgiveness will cost us. We will have to take a loss and lay down our right to be repaid. We will have to drop the grudge we are so closely nurturing, releasing our right to dispense justice. We will have to let go of these things, but in the end, we will be free.
Martin Luther King, Jr. once wrote:
“Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend. We never get rid of an enemy by meeting hate with hate; we get rid of an enemy by getting rid of enmity.”
If you struggle to forgive, the starting place is a recognition of your own desperate need for forgiveness. God pursues us by offering infinite forgiveness and thereby removing the enmity between us and him (Romans 5:1-11). He transforms enemies into friends (John 15:15) and even calls them children (1 John 3:1). To receive and be transformed by this forgiveness provides us with the currency needed to forgive others, as difficult as it might be. We can begin to find the freedom that belongs to those who have not only truly experienced forgiveness themselves but are able to release others from the bondage of their misdeeds, that they too might experience the freedom of forgiveness.