In the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:21-35), Jesus tells of a servant who owed his king a great sum of money. The king ordered the man be sold, along with his wife and children to pay the debt. However the servant fell on his knees imploring the king to have patience with him, and the king ended up forgiving him; the servant now completely released from the debt. But then that same man went out and seized a fellow servant who owed him a relatively small sum and demanded he paid back what was owed, throwing the man in prison until the debt was paid. Having witnessed this, several people went and told the king and the unforgiving servant was himself thrown into prison until he could pay his debt in full. Jesus brings this parable to a point by declaring “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
When Jesus teaches his disciples about forgiveness, he tells Peter to forgive his brother “[not] seven times, but seventy-seven times.” It can be hard for us to accept such an unqualified statement. Perhaps if we were there, we would have countered Jesus’ global statement on forgiveness with some caveats of our own, such as “but Jesus, what if they keep doing the same thing?” or “Hey Jesus, some sins are bigger than others though, right?” or even “Jesus, surely it would be different for crimes involving children?” The fact is, Jesus made no such qualifiers. In teaching his disciples how to pray in Matthew 6, they learn to pray “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors”. Jesus ends the lesson with words worth heeding:
“For if you forgive others their trespasses,
your heavenly Father will also forgive you,
but if you do not forgive others their trespasses,
neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
Now don’t get me wrong; I’m not advocating blind acceptance of ongoing, sinful circumstances here. While forgiveness is commanded, wisdom in harmful situations is also required. Moreover, nowhere in the gospels (or anywhere else in scripture) do we read that forgiveness will always be an easy or cheap decision. On the contrary, forgiveness can often be very costly, especially when the pain or trauma caused by the offender has left open, lasting wounds. However, we take courage to know that Jesus was made like us in every respect, and that included enduring the most horrific agony imaginable at the hands of cruel, sinful men. We have a Saviour who suffered as we suffer, and who knows what it feels like to be wronged. And yet the scandalous truth of this gospel is that Jesus Christ not only prayed for forgiveness for those directly responsible for his death, but he paid in full our debt of sin – all sin – and now we who have been forgiven for our daily and hourly wronging God are called to forgive those whose sins he also died for.
As we come to grasp more fully the forgiveness that has been granted to us through the finished work of Christ on the cross, we realise that while it isn’t always easy, forgiving isn’t optional because it’s what Jesus gave his very life for. This is a radical statement. But it goes hand-in-hand with the reality that we don’t get to define the categories for big sins and small sins; when we do that we’re saying that God isn’t doing a good enough job, and we’re putting ourselves in the place of God as judge. We are commanded to forgive regardless of the perceived size of the sin because however we choose to view it, we must look to the cross and see that in Jesus God’s infinite love found a way to conquer our infinite sin.
Forgiving flows from forgiven-ness.