Peter Misselbrook's Blog
Jan 28 2013 - Matthew 18:21-19:12 – Forgive as the Lord forgave you

In response to Peter's question concerning how often he should forgive someone who sins against him, Jesus tells a parable concerning a king and his servants. The king forgives one of his servants who owed him an immense debt which he could never repay. That same servant then went out of the king's presence to lay hold of a fellow servant who owed him a small amount and threw him in prison until he could pay the debt. When the king heard of it he was very angry and, in turn, threw the servant who had owed him an immense debt into prison. This, says Jesus, is what the kingdom of heaven is like. And, "This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart" (Matthew 18:35).

This is a complex and challenging parable. On the one hand the basic message is clear: God has forgiven us a great debt which we could never repay; in response, we should freely and gladly forgive those who sin against us. This much is clear, yet how difficult we find it to forgive from the heart. How easy we find it to harbour resentments against those who have hurt us. Hurts and injustices from years back seem somehow indelibly stamped on our minds and the memory of them floods back when we meet the person again. The only remedy to such resentments and feelings is a deep awareness of our own offences against God and the wonder of his forgiveness of us. We need also to remember the cost of our forgiveness; our great debt was fully paid by another. It is out of the heartfelt awareness that we are a forgiven people that we become a people who forgive others from our heart. Paul urges the Christians to whom he is writing, "Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you" (Colossians 3:13).

But there is a sting in the tail of this parable. Jesus suggests that if we do not forgive one another, neither will God forgive us (Matthew 18:35). This is a hard saying for we are all aware of our own imperfection. We know that we ought to forgive others as we have been forgiven, but we know also that we are not yet all that we should be – and hope yet to be. Is it really true that if we fail in the smallest regard to be like God we will for ever be condemned? I do not wish to dilute the seriousness of this saying of Jesus, but neither do I want to leave us without hope. I think that Jesus is telling us that if we harbour a resentful and unforgiving spirit we show ourselves to be those who have not been touched by the grace of God. Jesus' parable is not told to condemn us but is told to Peter and to us as a call to continual forgiveness, even as God forgives us.

Mutual forgiveness is essential if we are to live well with those closest to us. The harbouring of resentments against a spouse destroys a marriage even as self-denying love strengthens the bonds of family and friends. We need to keep guard over our hearts that they may not become hardened through the imagination that others have not treated us as we deserve; they need constantly to be softened through the wonder that God has not treated us as our sins deserved.

Loving Father, help me to see more clearly the marvel of your grace towards me in the Lord Jesus Christ. Help me by your Spirit always to treat others in ways which reflect the love and forgiveness you have lavished upon me. Help me to value and nurture my relationships with others rather than undermine them through dissatisfaction, bitterness and resentment.

Peter Misselbrook