Yesterday at Bible study we looked at the parable of the unforgiving debtor (Matthew 18:21-35).
Here's a synopsis of the story:
A man owes the king millions of dollars. The Greek says 10,000 talents of silver, which is equal to 375 tons of silver. If the price of silver is $20/ounce (it recently dropped from $30 to $19), that would come to $240 million dollars, significantly more money than most people could earn in 100 lifetimes. As a woman in my group pointed out, "You aren't going to Dave Ramsey your way out of this one."
The king calls in the debt and, of course, the man can't pay it. Therefore, the king is going to do the fair and just thing: sell the man and his family into slavery to recompense the debt.
The man fell down before the king and begged for mercy, pleading for time to pay the debt. The king felt pity for him and let him go, forgiving the debt. The king told the man that he didn't need to pay back what he owed. There was no possible way he could have, anyway.
Immediately after this, the man went out and found a fellow who owed him 100 denarii. Apparently, a denarius was a laborer’s full day’s wage. Supposing $40,000 is the yearly salary of a "laborer" and you break it down to daily wages: we're talking about $154 a day, figuring a five day week. So this debt was something on the order of $15,400. It's a significant debt, about the price of a modest car. In a few years, you could "Dave Ramsey your way out of it," if you knuckled down, tightened your belt and worked hard.
So the man who has been forgiven a debt of $240,000,000, who had his slate wiped clean, who had received mercy for himself and his family, this very man goes out and collars a fellow who owes him $15,400 and calls in the debt. He shows no mercy. He will not wait. He has the fellow thrown into prison because he cannot pay.
Other servants of the king saw what had happened and they were very upset about the injustice of what this man, this forgiven man, had done. They went to the king and told him about it.
The king called in the man he had forgiven and said to him, "You evil servant! I forgave you that tremendous debt because you pleaded with me. Shouldn’t you have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?" (Matthew 18:32-33 NLT)
The Bible goes on to say:
"Then the angry king sent the man to prison to be tortured until he had paid his entire debt. That’s what my heavenly Father will do to you if you refuse to forgive your brothers and sisters from your heart." (Matthew 18:34-35)
I once heard a sermon about how the sin we commit is measured most accurately by considering what we have transgressed against. It's like how you would rather rear-end somebody's winter-rat car than somebody's brand new BMW. It is not as disastrous to spill paint on the floor of the shed in your backyard as it is to spill paint on your great-aunt's antique Persian rug. If you're going to break a window, break the windshield of your car, not the stained glass in Notre Dame cathedral. The depth of a transgression is measured by what is required to make restitution. If you spill a bottle of make-up on somebody's blouse, you can buy her a new one (or maybe you could even just launder it for her). However, if you spill a bottle of make-up on someone's wedding gown an hour before she was supposed to walk the aisle, you are in a heap of trouble.
Notice that in all my examples, the offensive act is the same: hitting a car, spilling paint, breaking a window, spilling make-up. The offensive act is not the issue. The object of the act is what determines whether it is a major or a minor offense. Now consider that we have all sinned against an infinitely perfect and holy God. This is like being $240,000,000 in debt to someone. We are utterly helpless to make amends. There is no way that we can make this right, nothing we can do to make up for our offense against perfect holiness even if we worked with all our strength for all our living days.
Yet, in Jesus, God forgives us. Jesus paid the debt that we are helpless to pay, that we could never pay. Jesus paid it for us, and we are free from condemnation. "So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus." (Romans 8:1 NLT)
If we receive this forgiveness from Jesus, how dare we hold a grudge against a fellow human? When someone wrongs me, he wrongs an imperfect person. I am flawed by sin, and I myself have wronged people many times, both knowlingly and unknowlingly. How dare I withhold forgiveness, when I have received so much?
Besides, for those who withhold forgiveness, God has torture and punishment in store. It's a frightening thought, but it's what the Bible says (Matthew 18:34-35). I don't think this means that you can lose your salvation by refusing to forgive someone. I do think it means that if you staunchly refuse to forgive someone, you may not have experienced the forgiveness of God yourself, in which case you probably are not saved. So be careful!
We need to meditate on what it means to be forgiven by God, the depth of what He has done for us, and the way in which He has done it: the death--in our place--of His only begotten Son.
The characters in this parable threw themselves before their debtor and plead for mercy. Mercy was granted in one instance and denied in the other, but in both cases, the person who owed the debt knew and did not quibble over whether he owed a debt; he just asked for mercy. I think this indicates that we are absolutely without excuse if we withhold forgiveness from someone who asks for it.
It is harder to forgive those who don't ask, who aren't sorry. We need to forgive them anyway, but the results are not the same. We can always forgive, because it only takes one to forgive. We cannot always see a relationship reconciled, because it takes both sides to mend and heal. Jesus extends His offer of forgiveness to the whole world from the cross where He died for all our sins. However, only those who believe and receive His forgiveness will be given eternal life. Similarly, we can offer forgiveness to those who do us wrong, but only when they come to us to receive our forgiveness can our relationships be healed and reconciled. We do well to understand the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation, and to do what we can while leaving the rest in the hands of God.