In Matthew 18:21, Peter asked Jesus how many times he should forgive someone who had sinned against him. I suspect Peter thought he was being generous when he suggested forgiving them up to 7 times. And I am sure he was quite taken aback when Jesus responded with a much larger number; either 77 or 490, the text is unclear which. Regardless of the number, Jesus essentially told him that he should continue to forgive, not keeping track of how many times forgiveness had occurred. Then he related a parable to reinforce the lesson.
In the parable, a king forgave the debt of a servant who owed him a very large amount. The forgiven man then demanded payment of a much smaller debt from a second servant. When he was unable to pay, the first servant threw the second into debtor’s prison until he could make restitution.
“Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled 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 handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.Matthew 18:32-35 NIV
“This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
When word of this got back to the king, the king rebuked the unforgiving servant, reinstituted his debt, and tossed him into prison. The punchline for the parable is that we can expect to be treated similarly by God if we are unwilling to sincerely forgive those who harm us.
Mercy and Forgiveness
Forgiveness can be hard, especially when it needs to be repeated over and over again. But Jesus gave us two reasons why we need to forgive. The first is because we have been shown mercy by God. And in like manner, we also should show mercy to those around us. Showing mercy is expected from those who have been shown mercy.
The second reason he gives is that my forgiveness is in some way dependent on my willingness to forgive others. As challenging as that might be, Jesus is pretty explicit about it. Unless we forgive others from our heart, God will hold us accountable for our sins.
As those that have received mercy and forgiveness from God, let us, in turn, show mercy to others, and be willing to forgive the hurts they cause us.
Thoughts About Forgiveness
Should my forgiveness be contingent on the other person asking for forgiveness? While that would be ideal, it is not required. My need to forgive is not dependent on the other person. They may be remorseful. Or they may still be hurtful toward me. I should forgive anyway.
Forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation. Forgiveness is a necessary step toward reconciliation. But reconciliation requires interest from both parties. Forgiveness only requires one.
And, finally, forgiveness is beneficial to me. Holding a hurt towards another person generally has little impact on them. But it keeps the pain fresh in my own life. And it can poison my spirit, making me unhappy and bitter. Forgive, and be done with it.