The Gospel of Matthew: The Messiah of Promise 18:21-35
Preached @ Anchor Community Church on July 19th 2015
Last week Jesus walked through clear steps for the body of Christ to walk through to solve issues believers have with one another. The fact is, if we are truly going to be a church that welcomes and is working toward diversity, then peacemaking and rules of conflict management are a must.
This week Jesus turns toward a key component in making peace with one another and that is the issue of forgiveness. It is crucial for reconciliation, and it is at the heart of the gospel. Recently we have seen some high profile injustices ending with the victim(s) granting forgiveness to their oppressor(s). We saw that in the event when Ronnie Smith was gunned down by terrorist in Libya, and his young wife forgave his assailants on CNN. The same was true in the heinous hate crime in Charleston SC, when every family was represented in the forgiving of killer Dylann Roof. This was also the case in the horrible beheading of 21 Egyptian Christians at the hands of Isis.
What prompts these extraordinary moves toward forgiveness, and is it a healthy thing. Many side with the philosophy of men like Friedrich Nietzsche who believed that forgiveness was a weakness that only masked hate and bitterness. While much of the world applauds some of these acts, they struggle with it in practicality. When boys like Josh Duggar repent of their terrible actions, and are forgiven by the victims, the world often decries this as an ‘easy’ way out, that doesn’t help the victims at all. But is that the case with Jesus’ concept of forgiveness.
Big Picture: The Christian is called to forgive even their enemy with no buts attached!
From the Head…
Peter’s Question (Matthew 18:21)
The question from Peter is simple, ‘How many times should I forgive my brother who sins against me?” What’s interesting is who Peter is. He’s a zealot. Zealot’s were sort of the terrorist, pro Zionist’s that were out to right all the wrongs their oppressors (Roman Government) had done to them. They were filled with rage and hurt for many heinous things that were done to them.
Peter’s question therefore was not a trivial one, it had a lot of background to it, and it marks much of the hate, tension and bitterness we see in many parts of the world today. Peter also may have asked the question with a bit of pride. The Jewish Rabbinic view at the time was that “If a man commits a transgression, the first, second and third time he is forgiven, the fourth time he is NOT forgiven” So when Peter says seven times, he is more than doubling the norm, and may have been quite surprised at Jesus’ answer. In Peter’s mind, there was a limited scope of how much a person should forgive another. I wanted to take a brief look at how some other major world views looked at forgiveness
The Islamic view the Quran (Surah 42:40-41) says, “The recompense for an injury is an injury equal thereto (in degree): but if a person forgives and makes reconciliation, his reward is due from Allah: for (Allah) loves not those who do wrong But indeed if any do help and defend themselves after a wrong (done) to them, against such there is no cause of blame (Emphasis Mine),” indicating that forgiveness is good, but not expected if the cause was valid.
In the Buddhist view one writer said that,”When you forgive me for harming you, you decide not to retaliate, to seek no revenge. You don’t have to like me. You simply unburden yourself of the weight of resentment and cut the cycle of retribution that would otherwise keep us ensnarled in an ugly samsaric wrestling match. This is a gift you can give us both, totally on your own, without my having to know or understand what you’ve done (Emphasis Mine).” In this view, which is very close to the Christian one, forgiveness is a good thing, but it is more self centered, and its marred by the Buddhist cosmological view that everything is ultimately an illusion and therefore not connected to a real offense or the need for real justice.
While the Humanist view is hard to nail down one writer wrote that, “Rather, in granting forgiveness, a victim of wrong re-orients a relationship that has been disrupted or compromised by wrongdoing. This theme is an integral part of forgiveness common both to western philosophical and theological traditions, and is often envisioned as part of a more elaborate interaction in which people seek to atone for wrongs and secure forgiveness in the name of interpersonal reconciliation or in the pursuit of the ultimate human benefit, divine salvation (Emphasis mine).” It appears this view is based on reconciliation, and is more of the “Moral Ought” which has its foundation in the rational ‘norm’ and not in anything really intrinsic. If the oppressor is truly repentant, and has ‘paid’ his dues, then you should forgive your assailant.
Jesus’ Answer (Matthew 18:22-35)
Now Jesus’ simple answer to Peter’s question is basically “Every Time!” It’s a “Way of life!” Jesus’ 7×70 is a sort of figure of speech. He wasn’t saying that on the 491st time your free to not forgive, he was blowing away Peter’s search for a number, because in the kingdom of God the number doesn’t exist; the answer is always!
Now how does this all work our practically in Jesus’ thinking? First we need to understand that Christianity has not cornered the market on ethics and morality. Most Religions and world views, as we saw, extol the virtue of forgiveness, and unfortunately Christians are sometimes the worse transgressors of this. Christianity for too long has placed a moralistic gospel out on the forefront that is easily destroyed by skeptics of the gospel, because as followers of Jesus, we are not more moral, so we are God’s people, we are chosen by God unconditionally, and most often in spite of our brokenness. The mark of a believer is not his/her goodness, but his/hers graciousness, and thankfulness for what God has done for them.
Is Christianity Different?
The simple answer is yes, because it’s NOT motivated by our own internal Goodness or “Moral Ought.” Forgiveness in Christianity is motivated by Christ’s (God’s) actions toward us.
“Father forgive them, for they know not what they do”
“12 Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, 13 bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive”
Being able to forgive is an indication of true repentance. If we have not really seen God’s holiness and our sin, we struggle with repentance and the need to be forgiven, so we are often not that gracious to those who do not ‘measure up’ to our standard. Religious people often are the slowest toward repentance because they believe they have to maintain a veneer of righteousness, but deep in their own hearts is a seething bitterness, or a cold self-righteousness.
Ultimately forgiveness is connected to Anger and Justice. “You don’t know my pain!” is the cry. Imprecatory Psalms are Psalms that reflect this kind of hurt, and a desire for God to wipe out their oppressors. These are often the scoffing center of skeptical minds that find this off putting, but in reality, those that think these Psalms are bad don’t know real pain, because those that know real pain like the Syrian refugee I met in the middle east who lost his twin daughters to chemical weapons, and the many other atrocities I have witnessed, can understand the real emotions of these biblical authors. That’s what’s great about the bible, it’s real; it’s not a fake spirituality that western elites succumb to. It’s easy to be a pacifist when nothing really horrible has been done to you. To this Croatian theologian Miraslov Volf wrote,
“My thesis that the practice of nonviolence requires a belief in divine vengeance will be unpopular with many Christians, especially theologians in the West. To the person who is inclined to dismiss it, I suggest imagining that you are delivering a lecture in a war zone (which is where a paper that underlies this chapter was originally delivered). Among your listeners are people whose cities and villages have been first plundered, then burned and leveled to the ground, whose daughters and sisters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers have had their throats slit. The topic of the lecture: a Christian attitude toward violence. The thesis: we should not retaliate since God is perfect non-coercive love. Soon you would discover that it takes the quiet of a suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence corresponds to God’s refusal to judge. In a scorched land, soaked in the blood of the innocent, it will invariably die. And as one watches it die, one will do well to reflect about many other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind.” 
The Psalmist who wrote these imprecatory Psalms believe what Volf did, that the real hurts of humanity are either going to be healed through violence, or the belied that there is a real, perfect judge, that will take care of all of the world’s injustices either on the cross, or in eternal judgment.
We have seen Jesus teach that we are to ‘love our enemies,’ and Paul teaches us to ‘bless those who persecute you,’ which can only be done when we realize we serve a just God. Romans 12:19 Recognizes God as the one who will judge perfectly in the end; “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”
Jesus goes on to tell a story about a King who forgave a man a lot of money, and the man turned and choked out someone who owed him a little money. This Parable is told to contrast our great offense toward God and our enemies small offense to us. The wicked man owed the King 10,000 Talents, which was the highest weight measurement (Gold/Silver) of the day. On the flip side the man’s servant owed him 100 Denarii, which was bout a days wage. There was 6000 Denarii to 1 Talent.
Jesus’ point is clear, when we recognize God’s great act of forgiveness toward us, it is only obvious that it is expected when smaller offenses are made against you. There are no “Buts” to this command!! This does not diminish our real pain and hurt. Losing two daughters is painful, but this teaching is commanding forgiveness in spite of this hurt.
This sounds crazy to those sexually molested, and those that have loved ones murdered, and those that have seen their villages plundered and their sons killed. No wonder Nietzsche felt this was weak virtue, and no wonder he ran into so many believers that taught forgiveness but seethed with bitterness. But is the doctrine of forgiveness asking the victim to seethe in bitterness? No! The man’s debt to his master was an impossible debt to pay, so when he says he will repay it in verse 26, it is nothing but rhetoric. The king had every right in their culture to sell his family in slavery, because in lieu of jails, this is how this culture dealt with crimes like theft and debt. The key in all of this is the motivation. The bible tells us that “man judges appearances, but God judges the heart.” Verse 27 tells us that “Out of pity for the master…released him, and forgave him the debt.” The word “Pity” (σπλαγχνίζομαι splagchnizomai) carries with it the idea of “Compassion” or “Mercy.” The slave deserved his punishment, but instead, he was shown mercy. We are able to show compassion, when we realize the compassion that has been shown to us. What is interesting, when the master realized his servant wasn’t reciprocating this mercy to others, he didn’t say, you should have forgiven the debt, he said, “Should not you have had Mercy on your fellow servant, as I had Mercy on you?” Jesus addresses the heart issue, not the action. When we understand the gospel, and what God has done for us, and how holy He is, and how sinful we are, the cross of Jesus is really big in our lives, and we are able to give grace to others, but when those aren’t realized in our lives we struggle with both repentance and forgiveness, the two major components of the gospel. In verse 35 Jesus addresses the man’s punishment, “
“So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
Forgiveness is not a moral ought, it’s not something we should do because we are ‘good’ people, it is an intrinsic response to the grace we are given via Jesus’ cross, and God’s undeserved gift to us.
Does Forgiving Cause Anxiety and Cooped Up Bitterness?
One Philosopher (Giles Frazier) think so:
“In other words, Nietzsche is brilliant at diagnosing the hidden hatreds that lurk within the Christian breast, but he does not appreciate that these hatreds are themselves the by-product of a victory over real violence. Ressentiment is the collateral damage of forgiveness” Giles Frazier
I believe this is a sad thought from a Christian philosopher. While he may be right in practice and experience, this is the antithesis of Christian forgiveness. When our heart clings on to God’s justice and love, we can truly ‘let go,’ and be healed, forsaking the hate and the bitterness in our hearts. There is no ‘collateral damage’ in God’s kingdom. There is healing and wholeness, when we turn to His gospel, and His story for our healing.
What is Forgiveness?
The word for forgiveness is ἀφίημι (aphiēmi). Literally “To Send Away; Let go.” I’d like to define a few things about forgiveness and am primarily using an exerpt from Mark Driscoll’s sermon from his series on Ephesians. I saw this online, and felt it summed up some things well:
7 Things + 1 Forgiveness Is: (I added the last one)
- Forgiveness is cancelling a debt owed to you.
- Forgiveness is removing the control the offender has over you.
- Forgiveness is giving a gift to yourself and to your offender.
“As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.” Nelson Mandela
- Forgiveness is forsaking revenge. Romans 12:19
- Forgiveness is leaving ultimate justice in God’s hands.
- Forgiveness is an ongoing process. 70 x 7 = “keep forgiving.”
- Forgiveness is wanting good for your offender.
- Forgiveness is costly!
7 Things Forgiveness Is Not:
- Forgiveness is not denying that it happened and diminishing its evil.
- Forgiveness is not enabling sin.
- Forgiveness is not necessarily a response to an apology.
- Forgiveness is not covering up crimes committed against us.
- Forgiveness is not forgetting. It’s not bringing it back up (Like Forgetting)
- Forgiveness is not trust.
- Forgiveness is not reconciliation. It takes two people to reconcile.
We are commanded to forgive whether one asks for that forgiveness or not. Jesus forgave humanity of the cross, but reconciliation is something done between two parties, which includes repentance and forgiveness.
…to the Heart
Do you have trouble forgiving people? Our lack of graciousness is most often a sign of internal hurt and bitterness and a miscalculation of God’s holiness and your own sin. Maybe it’s time to be reconciled to God and place your hate, and bitterness on His cross, who took on all of our hate and sin, so that we could be reconciled to Him, and enjoy Him forever.
Questions To Ponder
- Do you struggle with forgiveness?
- What would be the hardest thing for you to forgive?
- Why does God demand that we forgive those that have hurt us?
- Isn’t forgiveness a weakness?
- What if the other person has done heinous things to you?
- Shouldn’t I wait until that person asks for forgiveness before I grant it?
- Is there a “Special” situation where we don’t have to forgive the offender?
For Further Reading
A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, Craig S. Keener
The NIV Application Commentary: Matthew, Michael J. Wilkins
The Gospel According to Matthew, Leon Morris
Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament 1A, ed. Manlio Simonetti
Sermon On the Mount; Sinclair Ferguson
 Volf, Miroslav (2009-07-10). Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (p. 304). Abingdon Press – A. Kindle Edition.