Forgiveness can be challenging. We like to believe that it is easy, but forgiveness is only easy until there is someone we are called to forgive. When someone sins against us, maybe for the umpteenth time, forgiveness grates upon us; it rubs against the common temptation to hold a grudge or to count the offense. This is precisely why Peter asks the question, “How many times should we forgive?” (Matthew 18:21).
The question itself seems reasonable enough. Surely forgiveness isn’t merited to everyone, right? Why must I forgive someone who repeatedly sins against me? Fool me once, shame on me, fool me twice, shame on you!
The call to robust and limitless forgiveness, therefore, seems completely unrealistic. It flows against the way of the world around us. Yet if we are concerned with following the way of Jesus, we must forgive in the way that Jesus forgives.
In his response to Peter’s question, Jesus shows that biblical forgiveness has three fundamental qualities.
1. Forgiveness Is Incalculable
When Peter asked how many times he ought to forgive an offending brother or sister, he believed he knew the answer. Forgiveness could occur seven times. It stood to reason, therefore, that if someone sinned against you an eighth time, they were to be rejected and condemned.
Before we criticize Peter too harshly, we must recognize that, in some way, Peter understands a gospel of grace. Peter recognized (although not fully) that Jesus expanded the Old Testament call to forgiveness.
The Old Testament depicts forgiveness as occurring only three times — the fourth sin brings judgment.
We see this primarily through the prophet Amos, who cries out, “For three sins and for four I will not relent” (1:3,6,9,11). Amos declares to wayward Israel that God would not forgive beyond three infractions.
Peter, commendably, understands that Jesus calls the disciples to a greater expression of forgiveness. So, he multiplies the number to seven — the perfect number. In doing so, however, Peter still believed that forgiveness could be calculated.
Jesus challenges the very notion that forgiveness is a calculable response. Jesus calls for forgiveness “seventy times seven” times. Technically speaking, this would be 490 times, yet Christ’s point is that forgiveness is beyond calculation.
After all, it would take a lot of effort and planning to chart 490 instances of forgiveness towards one individual. Furthermore, doing so would reveal a graceless attitude within us.
As followers of Jesus, we should not be concerned with the number of times we forgive. Forgiveness, by nature, is boundless and beyond calculation.
2. Forgiveness Is Limitless
The reason we cannot calculate forgiveness is because there is no limit to this spiritual act. To illustrate this, Jesus puts forward a parable rooted in extreme hyperbole. It is filled with exaggeration to the point of being absurd.
Jesus tells of a king who confronts a servant owing him 10,000 talents. One talent was worth roughly 20 years of wages for a common laborer. As Jesus tells it, this servant owed the king 200,000 hours of work.
If we were to convert the units of money into today’s currency, we would find that this person owed the king approximately eight billion dollars. As real-life examples go, this is ridiculous.
The extremity of the servant’s debt isn’t the most shocking part of this story. Jesus describes how “the servant’s master took pity on him, and canceled his debt, and let him go” (Matthew 18:27).
Even though the debt was insurmountable, for he could never muster eight billion dollars of repayment, the king takes the debt upon himself and lets the servant go free.
Jesus teaches us that forgiveness isn’t based on the size of our faults but on the immeasurable mercy of God. We don’t earn our forgiveness; we receive it from God based on his love for us.
When we, like the servant, fall before the Lord in confession, we receive forgiveness as an expression of God’s love.
Despite how big our debt may feel, we have a Lord who will always forgive. God takes the trespass, the debt, the sin upon himself. There is no limit to the availability of this gracious and loving response.
3. Forgiveness Is Radical
How do we express such limitless forgiveness? After all, that is the initial question, isn’t it? How many times should we forgive?
Christ’s parable is not solely about God’s forgiveness of our sins, but rather it is a story highlighting how we are to express forgiveness toward another. The forgiveness we have received by the mercy of God is to be lived out towards others.
This is what doesn’t happen in Jesus’ parable.
In the parable, the servant, having been relieved of an eight-billion-dollar debt, finds a fellow servant who owes him 100 denarii. In modern currency, this would be the equivalent of roughly 10 dollars.
The first servant demands repayment while the second servant pleads, “Be patient with me, and I will pay you back” (Matthew 18:28-29). This is a masterful part of the parable. The servant owing 10 dollars uses the exact same words that the first servant used before the master.
The cry for forgiveness is the same, regardless of the size of the debt. The point is this: sin is sin, debt is debt, forgiveness is forgiveness; There is no gradation.
We may be tempted to say, “Well, he should have forgiven the servant, for he only owed 10 bucks!” Yet, what if he owed him 10 billion dollars? Should he have been forgiven then?
To assume that the first servant should have forgiven the second based on the smallness of his debt is to suggest that forgiveness is calculable and limited. Jesus, however, fundamentally denies this understanding.
Jesus calls for a radical expression of forgiveness. The way we forgive is not based on the degree of wrong or the amount that we are owed. Forgiveness towards others is based on the forgiveness we have received.
How can we say we deserve forgiveness, but no one else does? Jesus calls us to recognize the link between receiving forgiveness from God, which is freely offered and forgiving others.
Christ’s radical forgiveness of our sin necessarily leads us to the radical expression of Christ’s forgiveness toward one who has sinned against us.
What Does This Mean for Us Today?
When we forgive, when we allow the Spirit of Jesus to move in us, we put down the desire to make someone pay, or to keep them in the doghouse, or hold a grudge. In doing so, we find that we become free and unburdened.
Forgiveness releases us from the stress of holding judgment upon another. This is backed by scientific research.
It is well documented that holding a grudge actually increases one’s blood pressure, heart rate, and muscle tension. There are physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual benefits to forgiveness.
Is there someone you are called to forgive? Do you need to forgive yourself? If you are having a hard time expressing forgiveness, then start with opening yourself to the forgiveness that Jesus offers you.
Allow his forgiveness — that free forgiveness that is so extravagant it may sound ridiculous — to come into your life.
Dare to believe you are forgiven and walk in the acceptance of that truth. Forgiveness isn’t a demand we begrudgingly follow; it is an expression of the love and the freedom we have received.
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Reverend Kyle Norman is the Rector of the Anglican Parish of Holy Cross in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He has a doctorate in Spiritual Formation and is often asked to write or speak on the nature of the Christian community, and the role of Spiritual disciplines in Christian life. His personal blog can be found here.