During World War Two there was a highland Scotsman named Macdonald who served as a chaplain in his POW camp. He and one other Scot served as chaplains between two camps, one filled with British soldiers and the other with Americans. Each day they were allowed some time at the gates of the two prisons to discuss matters. What their German captors didn’t know was that the Americans had snuck in a shortwave radio and were receiving news from the outside world. Something else the German’s didn’t know was how to speak Gaelic, so the two chaplains would always speak in their native language.
Once after one of their meetings the chaplain on the British side of the prison returned with news that caused the men to erupt in cheers. The Germans didn’t understand what was going on, but Macdonald had just passed on the message that the Nazis had surrendered and the war was over. They remained imprisoned for a week because the news hadn’t reached the guards yet, but the news already had liberated them.
Macdonald recalled that their attitudes completely changed. They didn’t hate the guards anymore, they pitied them. They didn’t begrudge them, but began forgiving them. This was possible because of the announcement that they were free. It was time to begin healing from the war. You see, in that single announcement of liberation their entire framework had changed even though they still were captive for a time.
It’s stunning how good news can change our entire framework for living in the present. We can suffer many things when we know that there is a greater future ahead of us. Our lesson from Matthew 18 is about how the mercy of God gives us a wholly different framework for dealing with suffering in the present. Specifically, God’s mercy empowers in us a completely new perspective on conflict and reconciliation.
Peter’s initial framing of this issue was quite generous even from the world’s standards. He suggests to Jesus that forgiving someone seven times is likely enough. We’ve all seen where someone has forgiven another person multiple times and their family and friends begin to wonder when enough is enough. This can happen even after two or three times, much less seven. So, from the average person’s perspective Peter’s suggestion sounds quite substantial and realistic.
What Peter thinks is lavish forgiveness and what Jesus says is really substantial couldn’t be any different though. Our Lord says not to forgiven seven times, but seventy times seven. His hyperbole and the parable that follows will open Peter and all Christians to an entirely new framework and perspective on three things. Firstly, Jesus’ words show us the severity of our sins. Secondly, they show us the extravagant and generous lengths of God’s forgiveness. And finally, He teaches us how God’s mercy ought to empower us to forgive too.
There is a beautiful mystery being described in Jesus “seventy times seven.” Seven the number representing the creation is multiplied by ten the number of perfect completion and is multiplied again by seven. In this gracious number all generations of humanity born in sin are represented and being forgiven. No one is left out of the full gift of God in His divine mercy and forgiveness through the Son Jesus.
Also, this number reflects that any time you come to God in repentance God is willing to forgive you. Our sins are severe. There is not a day that goes by where we do not sin. The Psalmist prayed, “If you should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” There wouldn’t be enough balance sheets in the world if God tallied every sinful thought, every wayward glance at another person’s spouse, every discontented and begrudging sigh, and every mind’s rumination on envy, revenge, and lust. The servant of Jesus’ parable had squandered his king’s possessions and accounted a debt he could never repay in one-thousand years. He is a picture of each of us should God mark iniquities and demand we give an account for each one of them. Thanks be to God that the Psalmist reminds us, “But with You there is forgiveness, therefore you are feared.” The servant begs for mercy and even while doing so says the most outrageous thing by offering to repay it all. He could never in twenty lifetimes repay this debt, but the king proves to be the most gracious and generous man in the world. He wipes the books clean. He does not mark the iniquities, but erases them. They no longer exist.
Jesus wants us and Peter to know that is what He had come to do. To clean up the books by forgiving the debt entirely. Where a debit stands for every one of your sins so Christ credits His righteousness on your account. On the cross the ledger was cleaned. All your sin was covered by Jesus. His forgiveness means you are released from any retribution that your sins deserve. In Christ your King, God has revealed the extravagant and generous lengths of His mercy. You are free!
This ought to change you. That is the third and final part of this lesson. The servant had received exceptional love and generosity from his king. So as he goes on his way he sees his fellow servant who owed him not 1,000 years of debt, but 100 days. The tension builds. What will he do now that he has become the recipient of such awesome grace? Had his perspective changed from the greedy and obstinate man he had been? Sadly, no. Rather, he deals more harshly with his peer than his superior king had with him. He not only threatens with justice, but acts violently and chokes the man. Overcome with rage he forgets the great debt of his own thievery that had just been forgiven and demands justice from his fellowman instead of forgiveness from himself. His framework for dealing with conflict and resolution, sin and forgiveness, had not changed. He chose to view himself as the victim at a loss and his fellow servant as his enemy.
Jesus wants us to contemplate this parable because it gives us a new, more enlightened, framework to view the world. The slave could have viewed himself as someone who had just been rescued and released from unfathomable, crushing debt, that, by legal right, would have destroyed him and his family. He could have inherited a new framework of grace and generosity that was bestowed on him by his gracious and merciful king. He could view himself as someone who was saved by grace and treated other people accordingly.
This is the framework that you can only adopt through faith in Jesus Christ. The prisoners of war I told you about had their perspective completely changed upon hearing the news that the war was over. They still had to deal with the guards and still were behind the fences, but they knew they were liberated and chose to live in that reality even in a prison. So, they were able to have pity on their enemy and even begin to forgive them. Jesus who paid the wages of our sin announces to us that we are forgiven. He has redeemed us from our imprisonment to sin, death, and the power of the devil. You have been liberated by the King of Heaven. In this sin-sickened and fallen world we will still see signs of our imprisonment, but those things do not determine how we shall live. We are recipients of the greatest news. The war is won. Jesus is the victor. We are free.
As servants of King Jesus, we stand in the flow of forgiveness that begins with God in Christ and then, second, by the power of the gospel, that same forgiveness flows out from us to others who need mercy. The sequence of Jesus parable is crucial. The king’s mercy came first and the servant’s mercy ought to follow. Forgiveness is a Holy Spirit lead and enabled decision in each believer. Christians decide they will forgive others. Sometimes our emotions will resist it. Sometimes our feelings will have to be drug along kicking and screaming. It does not mean you have to be a doormat, but it means ultimately you know that forgiving others is the best choice. Sometimes it takes a long time for our emotions to catch up with our spirits and intellects that know that forgiveness is the correct answer.
So Jesus gives you His mercy in abundance now so you will learn forgiveness well. How many sins did you bring with you today? Seven? Seventy-seven? Seventy times seven? Who could really count? We are unable to mark all our iniquities, but here is the good news, neither does God. He is rich in mercy to you through Jesus Christ. God’s mercy overflows in your body now as He gives you Christ’s body and blood, so that His forgiveness will then flow out of your mouth and into your neighbor’s ears.
In Jesus’ name. Amen.