As We Forgive Our Debtors

Matthew 18:28-35 “But when that servant went out, he found one of his follow servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded. His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’ But he refused. Instead he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened. Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I cancelled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master turned him over to the jailors to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”

I can imagine a scene like this in a crime drama. A petty criminal, maybe a drug dealer or a loan shark, gets shaken down by his crime boss. So he goes out and shakes down one of his customers because he is behind on his payments. Otherwise Mr. Big is going to stick it to him if he doesn’t come up with the cash.

But that’s not what happened here, is it–nothing like it at all. The servant had just walked away free of all debts for the first time. What does he need money for? In a sense, he has just been given an enormous fortune. The debt he is owed isn’t tiny–about three or four months of paydays. But you might expect him to be in a generous mood.

We all know that people are going to hurt us. They are going to take advantage of us, be rude or inconsiderate, trample on our rights. But add it all together, and it will never add up to a tiny fraction of the ways we have offended our God. One of those ways is our failure to let his forgiveness transform us into forgiving people as well.

The interaction between the two servants looks familiar at first. One is pleading with the other using almost the exact same words between the first servant and his master. He isn’t defending or denying his debt. He wants to make it right. But this ends horribly different. The first servant throws the man into prison until the debt is paid.

Think about that for a moment. What is the first servant going to get from his fellow servant while he languishes in prison? How much is his friend going to be making in jail? Nothing. What do we get for holding grudges and withholding forgiveness? What does it pay other than high blood pressure and ruined relationships? Our refusing to forgive gets us nothing good and invites God’s attention, this time with judgment rather than forgiveness.

“Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I cancelled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master turned him over to the jailors to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.” God’s grace and forgiveness is a little like my car. It has no cost, but it does have consequences. The car I drive cost me nothing. It was a gift from a friend. It was free. But it needed some maintenance when I got it. There was something I needed to do once I had it if I wanted to keep it, a consequence of ownership, if you will.

The consequences of free grace are never negative, but they do impact our lives. God has empowered his gift of forgiveness to change our hearts. In general, those changes make us more like him.

One of those changes is to make us more forgiving. It’s not so much a rule to follow, an expectation we feel obliged to fulfill: “Okay, I get it. God has forgiven me a lot so I ought to forgive others a lot, too.”

When grace has had its way with us, we are more compassionate people, we pity those who sin against us, and we want to forgive them like God has forgiven us. When we are unforgiving, something has gone horribly wrong. We are guilty of a sin as serious as any other moral lapse or scandal.

Refusing to forgive is a slap at the God who has forgiven us so much. Thank God his forgiveness is still available to us when we repent of our unforgiving hearts as well.

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