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Matthew 18:21-34 (NIV)
Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?”
22Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.
23“Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. 25Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.
26“The servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ 27The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.
28“But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.
29“His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’
30“But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened.
32“Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ 34In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
This to me is one of the greatest stories in the Bible. Jesus knew how Peter felt. He knew Peter felt that the person who had harmed him “owed” him something. Jesus knew for Peter (and for us) the only way out is to cancel the debt–to declare to the person that hurt us that they don’t owe us anything, not even an apology.
Jesus further states that God, the King in this story, will imprison us and torture us until we have mercy on people that we feel owe us and that have hurt us. We are forcefully instructed to forgive by canceling the debt.
Why would God propose torturing us if we don’t forgive someone that has hurt us? It doesn’t make much sense at first glance. After all, I’m the one that got hurt, now I’m going to get tortured by God? But God loves me and He knows if I don’t let the debt go, it will affect everyone and everything around me, including my own peace.
Not only is this concept at the very epicenter of what Jesus taught us that Christianity is about, it also gives us a window into how God looks at us. I had always mistakenly thought of God as being very much into justice; yet this story tells me He is, at the very least, equally into mercy. Jesus gave me that glimpse into God’s thinking with this story, just enough for me to “get it”. He is merciful on us and demands that we be merciful on each other. He is so much into mercy, He demands it be given even when it is not deserved, just as He does for us.
That explained a ton to me, all in one story. That explained why, so many times in my life, I had narrowly avoided consequences that I truly deserved. That explained why He let me pray my way out of things I had behaved my way into again and again.
And most importantly, I think it explained what He wanted me to do with that mercy that I had been freely granted. He wanted me to pass it on to the people in my life. He wants a kind and merciful world and wants me to share the mercy I was given from Him. Wow.
Now, that’s not the end of it for me. It wasn’t just conceptual; I had some real forgiving to do.
The stealthy part about this was that I thought I had been a pretty forgiving soul most of my life; some of the people around me had even told me I was forgiving. I thought I had let things roll off, if you will. I viewed forgiveness as just moving on; but according to Jesus, that wasn’t good enough. In Jesus’s story, the King didn’t just ignore the debt and not address it. The King actually canceled the debt. That meant the King thought about what was rightfully owed him and then deliberately made the decision to wipe out the debt.
Here’s the way this would go in my mind. Someone might hack me off at the office, and I’d maybe confront the person, maybe not. Then I’d decide it just wasn’t worth it, and I’d just let it “roll off”. See how forgiving I was? Well, not so fast. Very subtly, I’d always remember that person had hacked me off; and even though I’d “moved past it”, I still held him in judgment. In other words, I did most of what the King did, but not all of it. I carefully calculated what that person owed me and decided not to collect. I didn’t wipe out the debt. I still viewed it as owed; I just decided not to collect on it at that time. Again very subtly, I knew the guy owed me, and he was on thin ice in my mind. I was walking around like a loaded gun waiting to see if the same person hurt me again; and if he did, I’d ratchet up my reaction next time. I didn’t cancel the debt completely.
Holding on to that debt in my relationships at the office wasn’t good, but it probably wouldn’t destroy me. With my friends, well, I could always get new friends right? With my parents, now it’s starting to get sticky; I’d always have the same parents. With Kay or the kids though, phew, not good at all. I was warehousing debt that they and others owed me, and guess what? My family took their cue from Dear Ole Dad. They learned to harbor debt towards Kay and I and each other.
However, this also explained something that used to just baffle me. How is it that people fall crazy in love with each other, and over a number of years (or in some cases maybe even just a few weeks), they grow apart or get very combative with each other? They go from not being able to keep their hands off of each other to not being able to stand each other, sometimes in a very short period of time. In many cases, they end up purposefully hurting each other. They hire lawyers to get away from each other and to inflict some well-deserved justice.
How on earth can it go from unbridled romantic passion to war? It’s easy. They “owe me” and they’re not paying up and I’m looking at this debt and I’m trying to collect and they won’t pay. So the resentment builds, and the romance fades, and the stage is set for war.
Jesus knew we’d get let down. He knew we’d get hurt. He knew we’d be disappointed. Jesus, being Jesus, told us a story for the ages — just cancel the debt and live in gratitude and freedom rather than resentment and a self-imposed jail cell.
Here is maybe the biggest set of questions yet and certainly the toughest. Who owes you? Think of the person that has hurt you the absolute worst in your entire life. Can you cancel their debt? Do you understand that no matter how bad they hurt you, they’ll keep hurting you until you let it go?
Can you be merciful to someone even when they don’t deserve mercy, just as God is merciful to you? Who hurts you just at the thought of them? Can you forgive them for your own sake? Will you pray for them?
Can you forgive yourself for things? Do you blame God for some things in your life? Can you trust Him and let it all go?
It will change your life if you can forgive.
Phil Cate is a resident of the Atlanta, Georgia, metro area and runs a small medical equipment resale business. He is available for speaking engagements and can be reached at PhilC@ER3.biz or by phone at 678-429-0901
Printed by permission from Phil Cate, Mama told me Jesus saved my soul, but who was gonna save my butt??? Confessions, lessons, and revelations of a born rebel, © 2008.