This is based on a sermon preached 11/12. You can also download the PDF.
From Matthew 18:21-35 (ESV)
Do you have someone locked in debtor’s prison? Your father? A fellow believer? Your spouse?
One of the hardest things to do is to keep forgiving people close to us who have repeatedly sinned against us, asked for forgiveness, been forgiven, and than do it again. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus teaches about forgiveness by telling a short story—a parable—about financial debt.
Debt’s a powerful analogy because we’re Americans, and most of us carry debt. We may have student loans, a mortgage, credit cards, car payments, a home equity line … and we know that debt is a master: it controls us financially.
But, what if you woke up tomorrow morning and it all was gone and you were suddenly debt-free? How long would it take before you arrived at this thought … Wow, now I can afford to … fill in the blank. The old constraints are gone.
The same is true of God’s forgiveness. When you’re debt-free before God, you can afford to be merciful and to keep on forgiving people—especially your church family and your blood family—over and over again. In fact, you can’t afford not to.
The question that prompted the parable is found in verse 21.
Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.
Earlier in this chapter, Jesus had just finished teaching his disciples—then and now—to confront people who sin against us so that we can forgive them. Peter, essentially says, “Ok, I hear you. But Jesus, what are we to do when it keeps happening?” We might wonder, is there a point when forgiveness becomes enabling?
In Luke’s version of a similar exchange Jesus says, “if a brother sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” … to which the apostles replied simply … “Increase our faith!” Jesus answered Peter’s question with a resounding, “yes”, but then increases all of our faith in God’s will for forgiveness by showing us why debt-free Christians can afford to keep on forgiving, and can’t afford not to.
Read the first part of the parable:
“Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.
So, how much is ten thousand talents? Consider this: Jeff Bezos is the CEO of Amazon. According to a quick internet search, his net worth is $95.5 Billion dollar. It’s hard to get your head around that much money. If he spent $1 million a day, it would take him 261 years to spend $95 billion.
That’s how much the servant owed. (Apparently, it was easy to get a loan back then!) In all seriousness, the point Jesus is making is not how he got the money—the point is that the loan has come due. The king wished to settle accounts with his servants … and this servant is brought to him with this impossible loan.
And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made.
This is what happened back then. There are passages in the Bible and other ancient records that verify the practice. It didn’t stop with losing your home, like modern bankruptcy, but you lost everything. You and your family would be sold into slavery. The king was selling them off, and that’s when the servant begs on his knees and makes a heart-felt, but ridiculous offer: ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’
And right here is where the mercy of God shines so brightly. The mercy of God is the “throughline” of Scripture; it holds the whole thing together. God is compassionate, merciful and gracious. Do you know God that way?
“According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the debt…” (1 Peter 1:3) Without God’s mercy there is only God’s judgment. There is no salvation, no eternal hope, without God’s mercy.
Micah chapter seven reads in part: “Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in steadfast love. He will again have compassion on us; he will tread our iniquities underfoot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea.”
And how does God do that?
He casts our sins into the sea by paying the debt himself. “the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” (1 John 1:7). Even as Jesus tells this parable, he knows that in the kingdom of heaven, real debts don’t vanish. Real debts get paid. God doesn’t clear the guilty (Exodus 34:7). Rather, the mystery of the gospel is this: he becomes the guilty.
Just as we would expect, if we were paying attention to Scripture, the king—representing God—is moved to pity and compassion, and forgives the whole enormous amount.
The servant was now debt-free. What about you? You may now be thinking one of two things about yourself.
Not me. The sins I did, the wickedness I indulged in is too big to just be wiped clean by the mercies of God. I’ve got to pay back something on my own.
Or, not me, my debt isn’t that large. I recycle, give to the poor and forgive other people. I’m kind to my spouse and love my kids. I volunteer with meals-on-wheels, etc., etc., etc.
My friend, Jesus wants you to know this: the debt you owed was enormous. And if you have received God’s mercies, then all of it has been paid. Every single cent. Remember, he was talking to his disciples, not a bunch of murderers and child-abusers. His disciples had an enormous debt. So do you.
Consider your life: isn't it sin-stained? You want to be good, but you also want to feel good. And so you take turns, being good one day, so you can feel good the next—tell God you're sorry, then repeat the cycle.
We lie about things—by what we say and what we withhold. We hurt our own children and spouses with our tempers and threats. We indulge our own sins and condemn everyone else really loudly, so that people won’t think we do stuff like that. We pray but without faith. We worship in distraction. But none of that makes the debt enormous.
What’s make the debt enormous is not what we did, but who we did it against. How dare we ever sin against the Holy God of the universe? How dare we not obey him perfectly every second of our lives? How much we need God’s mercy, and oh the joys and soul-freeing truth of knowing we have been forgiven. We are debt-free before our God—because of his mercy! Is Jesus your savior? Then you are debt-free!
So what can you now afford to do? You can afford to stop collecting the debts other people owe you, and you can keep on forgiving them. But do you? Are you truly merciful?
Let’s keep reading the story:
But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place.
Before we get all “high and mighty” about this merciless servant, let’s look back at Peter’s original question. He asked Jesus, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him?”
Notice that he asks about ‘his brother,’ not his enemy. I’m not sure if he meant his fellow disciples, fellow Jews, relatives—or simply meant, someone close to me, someone I trust. Because, most of the time, the most painful sins come from either our blood family or our church family—because they’re supposed to love us. They should be safe people. Do you live with pain because of the sins committed against you by fellow Christians or by family members? Would your question to Jesus be …
Jesus, how often will my spouse curse me and mock me and I have to forgive them?
Jesus, how often will church leaders ignore me or criticize me and I have to forgive them?
The reality is that every time someone close to us sins against us, confesses, and we forgive them, it costs us something. It’s like they take another piece of you—your ability to trust, or love, or look forward. And just like the servant in the parable, you want to grab them by the neck and scream, “Pay back what you owe! You took my joy. You took my innocence. You took twenty years of my life. You took my hope and dreams and trampled them on the ground. And then you did it again. I’ve already had to forgive you before, how on earth can I keep on forgiving you when you keep taking what’s rightfully mine?”
And so you lock them away in debtors prison. Are you ready to let them out?
Have you locked certain people … repentant people … out of your life? An abusive father who now is sorrowful and wants to make it right? An ex-spouse who has seen their sin for what it is? A former church member who reached out to you, convicted and seeking restoration? Let them out. Set them free. Forgive them. You can afford it.
Christians should be the most merciful people on the planet because we know that Jesus Christ has paid our enormous debt. But are we? Are you? I want to offer two “steps” in becoming a more merciful forgiving person.
You must refuse to hold on to the “dark benefits” of forgiveness. Paul Tripp writes about the “dark benefits” in his book, So What Did You Expect? The “dark benefits” of unforgiveness are dirty money, which anyone living life in the overflow of God’s grace does not need. These “dark benefits” include:
The power you feel you have in any relationship when you bring up a past hurt.
The feelings of superiority you maintain because they sinned against you—and not vice versa.
The ability to keep someone a permanent beggar in your life.
Forgiving a repentant brother or sister, again and again, is a refusal to traffic in the “dark benefits” of unforgiveness.
You must remember God’s mercies for you. He has forgiven your enormous debt by paying it on the cross. “the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” (1 John 1:7) Your sins have been thrown into the depths of the sea: forever gone. I love how Paul puts it in Ephesians 1:7-8, “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight.” The riches of God’s grace overflow to your account. You are an heir to the kingdom. A child of God’s family. An ambassador of Jesus Christ who has been sent out to show the world what is it to be freed and forgiven by the mercies of God … together.
So we come to the last part of the story. The warning that Jesus leaves us with is the closing thought. We can afford to forgive people who keep on sinning against us … and we can’t afford not to.
Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
Jesus moves beyond the metaphor of money to the reality of the heart. He says to us—do you claim God’s mercies? Do you follow me? Do you call me, Lord? Then you will be merciful and forgiving. You will keep forgiving those closest to you who keep on sinning against you and repenting. And you will all need to do that, because that is what the kingdom of heaven is like. It is ruled by mercy.
Jesus is not saying it’s possible to be saved, then become unsaved. Rather he’s saying what John went on to say in his epistle to early Christians written about 50 years later:
“If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” (1 John 4:20)
Jesus teaches that ultimately, there are no merciless people in the kingdom of heaven. The merciless have chosen God’s wrath. Their debt is now their own.
Don’t play the very dangerous game of thinking you can somehow love God and not love others. Instead, refuse the “dark benefits” of unforgiveness, remember God’s mercies lavished on you and take time this very week to unlock the doors of your own debtor’s prison. You can afford it. And you can't afford not to.