21 Then Peter came up and said to [Jesus], “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.
23 “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. 24 When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. 25 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. 26 So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. 28 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.’ 29 So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. 31 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. 32 Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. 35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” (ESV)
In St. Matthew’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, our Lord teaches us to pray: forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. Jesus then says: 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 (6:14-15).
Your heavenly Father forgives you all of your sins for the sake of His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. And now He calls you to forgive those who have sinned against you. If you refuse to forgive those who trespass against you, then you are cutting yourself off from God’s forgiveness. Clearly, forgiving others is our calling in Christ. It may not always be possible or appropriate to speak a word of forgiveness directly to others. However, it is always salutary to pray “Father, forgive them”, as our Lord Himself prayed from the cross.
Before we consider what it means to forgive others, let us first consider what it does NOT mean.
To forgive does NOT mean that we will necessarily start having happy feelings about those we are forgiving or that they will stop being our enemy. The truth is that forgiveness does not always result in restored and reconciled relationships, for it is possible that the other person may not want to be reconciled.
To forgive does NOT means that we only forgive those who ask for our forgiveness and that we are free to hold grudges against those who do not ask. The truth is that we must forgive everyone. That is how our Lord taught us to pray, as St. Luke records the Lord’s Prayer: and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us (Luke 11:4).
Now perhaps you might think that you have to actually say “I forgive you” to everyone who has hurt you. But to forgive definitely does NOT mean that! To say “I forgive you” to someone who has not asked for our forgiveness may at times be appropriate, especially when forgiveness is spoken in the hope that the pre-emptive forgiveness would encourage both parties to work toward full restoration and reconciliation. But sadly, sometimes, to say “I forgive you” to someone might make them think they do not need to repent and that they can persist in their sin. Jesus Himself did not say “I forgive you” to the Pharisees and soldiers on Good Friday, and neither are we required to say “I forgive you” to those who are not asking for our forgiveness.
And finally, to forgive does NOT mean we will automatically forget the pain and hurt inflicted upon us by those whom we have forgiven. God does indeed forgive us our sins and He remembers them no more. But the truth is that we sinner-saints may never completely forget the torment we once experienced at the hands of those whom we have forgiven.
Having considered what forgiving others does NOT mean, let us consider what it does mean to forgive others.
We truly forgive others when we do not hold their sins against them, so that we do not seek retribution. That was the problem with the unmerciful servant. Out of pity, the king had forgiven him. But now, this forgiven sinner wants to withhold this same pity, this mercy from another sinner. Instead, he wants retribution, payback; he wants to inflict punishment against a fellow sinner as vengeance for past transgressions. But those who are baptized into Christ are not to seek payback.
Of course, when it comes to criminal conduct, a person may have to serve time in prison, but that is for the courts to decide and not a matter of personal retaliation. When it comes to personal offenses, we are to be like Joseph, who forgave his brothers for selling him into slavery. Now it was appropriate for Joseph to put his brothers to the test, to see whether they were truly repentant, but Joseph stood firm in his resolve to forgive rather than to seek payback. So too, in Christ, you and I show our resolve to forgive when we refuse to take personal vengeance against our fellow sinners. In this way, the Holy Spirit keeps us from acting like the servant who showed no mercy.
A second way we show that we truly forgive others is by our willingness to help those who have hurt us when they are in need. Remember how our Lord said: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you (Luke 6:27-28).
Perhaps we sometimes secretly hope that bad things would happen to those who hate us and we inwardly rejoice when they are struck by tragedy. But our Lord tells us to love and do good to and bless and pray for our enemies. This does not come naturally to us; rather, it is by the power of the Holy Spirit that we hope for the best for our enemies and even do what we can to help them. If we see our enemy’s car stalled on the side of the road, rather than driving past, we are to pull over and offer to drive him home or to the garage. If we see our enemy stumbling to the ground, we are to help her back up to her feet. Hoping and praying for our enemies’ well-being and even offering to help them when in need is a sure sign of our forgiving them their trespasses against us.
And then third, you and I show that we truly forgive others when we forgive them from the heart, praying for their salvation. As they were nailing Jesus to the cross and mocking Him, none of the soldiers and Pharisees asked Jesus to forgive them. And yet, Jesus prayed: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do (Luke 23:34). The same is true with Stephen, the Church’s first martyr. Those stoning Stephen did not ask for his forgiveness. And yet, Stephen prayed as he was being killed: Lord, do not hold this sin against them (Acts 7:60). And so it is with all who are baptized into Christ: from the heart, we forgive those who trespass against us by praying for their salvation. That is exactly what Jesus and His servant Stephen were doing, praying that their enemies be forgiven, and thus saved.
Now, your praying such a prayer does not mean that in every case your enemies will be saved. As it was on Good Friday and at the stoning of the Church’s first martyr, so it is with you. You forgive your enemies and you pray that God would forgive them. But it may be that your enemies will reject the gift of forgiveness, both yours and God’s. But that is NOT what you are to wish for. Rather, your calling is to follow the example set by your Lord and by your fellow servant Stephen and to yearn for the salvation of your enemies. That is the very heart of what it means to forgive those who have sinned against you.
The deep compassion of Christ—that is the only way we can truly understand the call to forgive others. If you look only at the hurts and pains inflicted upon you by others, then you will never forgive them. But if you look at these offenses from the perspective of Christ’s compassion, by which He forgives you, then you cannot help but forgive others in His Name. It does not matter that your enemies do not ask for your forgiveness. In Christ, you yearn for their salvation, and so you do not seek retribution; rather, you pray for their well-being; you help them when you see them in need; you pray for their salvation.
Forgiveness is not a feeling; rather, forgiveness is always tangible. Forgiveness is the tangible act of choosing not to seek retribution. Forgiveness is the tangible act of praying for the well-being of your enemies and offering to help them in their time of need. Forgiveness is the tangible act of praying for their salvation. Does this not remind you of another tangible act of forgiveness recorded in the Bible? Yes, the greatest and most tangible act of forgiveness the world has ever known—the act of Jesus stretching out His arms upon the cross and embracing a whole world of lost sinners in His love and mercy.
Our forgiving others always flows from God forgiving us for Christ’s sake. Jesus has atoned for all sin in His death upon the cross. This is why we forgive those who trespass against us. Christ has taken away their punishment, and so we have no right to hold their sins against them. And in Christ, we do not even want to hold their sins against them. Rather, we pray that they would know the same joy that we know—the joy of being cleansed from all sin and unrighteousness, the joy of being washed clean in the blood of Jesus.
The unmerciful servant owed the king such a staggering amount that it would have taken him a thousand years to pay it off. We see the folly of his unbelief when he refuses to forgive a fellow servant, who owed him just a few months’ wages. But that is how unbelief works. Unbelief holds on to the sins of others and insists upon retribution. This is why the refusal to forgive is so serious. The refusal to forgive is a denial of our faith in Christ’s forgiveness of the world by grace alone. And that is NOT the way we are to follow. For every aspect of our lives is to be lived by faith in the mercy and forgiveness of God in Christ.
And so, in the Name of Christ, we forgive those who have hurt us. For we know that in the death of His Son, God has forgiven us a debt that we could never pay. God has forgiven us in Christ, and now that forgiveness flows through us as a life-giving stream to others. But the source of that stream of forgiveness is Christ. God forgives us freely by the merits of Jesus alone; and now, we forgive others as God in Christ forgave [us] (Ephesians 4:32).
What if Jesus had asked His Father the same question Peter had asked of Him: “How often shall they sin against Me and I forgive them, seven times?”? Thanks be to God, Jesus did not ask that question! Thanks be to God that on the cross Jesus died to forgive the whole world, and way more than seven times. It was seventy times seven times infinity. There is no limit to Jesus’ forgiveness. There is no sin anywhere that Jesus did not die for. There is no sin that is not paid for by Jesus—not yours or anyone else’s. And so, in the Name of Jesus, we forgive those who have sinned against us. And as God gives us opportunity, we tell others that because God does not hold our sins against us, we also do not hold their sins against them.
You and I are baptized into Christ, and each Lord’s Day, we feast on the Lord’s Holy Word and Supper. Baptism and the Word and the Lord’s Supper are God’s promises that your sins will never be left unforgiven but are covered by Jesus. And these gifts of Jesus—Baptism, the Word, and the Holy Supper— are also the unending source of forgiveness in our lives. All of our sins are covered by the Blood of Jesus; yes, we are washed clean in the Blood of the Lamb of God. And so we give to others what we have first received; we forgive as we have been forgiven in Jesus! Amen.
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