One of the strongest evangelistic messages I have ever heard in my life was on the Parable of the Unforgiving Debtor. I am sure that I had read this story before hearing it preached during a chapel at my Christian college many years ago. But I had never understood it as a lesson about salvation. Peter has just asked Jesus how often he needs to forgive someone who sins against him. Jesus replies by saying that we must always forgive others (“seventy times seven” was an idiom that basically meant “infinity”). He then illustrates His answer with a story about a man who was forgiven a tremendous debt by his master, only to go out afterwards and refuse to forgive a much smaller debt owed to him by a fellow servant. The main point of the parable is simple but deep. God (the master) has forgiven all of our sins against Him through our faith in Jesus Christ. Therefore, we must be willing to forgive our fellow Christians when they sin against. Forgive as you have been forgiven. Got it.
But the evangelistic nature of this passage shot me right in the heart that morning in college chapel when the speaker highlighted two key details and then drove home a painful application. First, the debt was not just great, but astronomical, totally unpayable. A talent was equal to about 15 years worth of salary for a working man back then. And this guy owed his master 10 thousand talents! We’re talking billions or trillions of dollars in today’s money. National governments couldn’t pay this debt, let alone a poor slave. But more amazingly, the second detail I had never seen was that the guy says, “Be patient with me – I am going to pay it all back.” Pay it back? Impossible! But this is how we try to deal with the sin debt that we owe God. In our fallen minds, we fail to see to grasp the enormity of our sinful offenses against God. We think that our sins are not as bad as other people’s sins. We think that if we just try a little bit harder, be a little bit nicer, be a little bit more serious with our religious devotion, do a few more good deeds, then we can some how pay off the debt and make things right with God. Wrong. Jesus is saying here that the only way to God is through forgiveness by the blood He would shed on the cross. Our only hope is to throw ourselves at His feet and beg for His mercy and grace.
That day in chapel, I see now that God was awakening me to my need for salvation. He was working hard on me. We heard a lot of evangelistic messages that year, powerful stuff that drove the gospel home to my heart (and I would bet the hearts of many of my classmates, too.) My Christian college in south Florida had a lot of students like we have at NRCA – students with some or a lot of biblical knowledge from families with some or a lot of money and a commitment to moral values. But a lot of us were blinded to the wickedness of our own hearts and our deep need for God’s forgiveness and spiritual renewal from the inside out. The salvation application of this story is seen in the servant’s harsh treatment of his colleague and friend. He did not forgive his friend and ended up being punished by the master, which I believe is a metaphor for hell, being outside God’s salvation. The debtor was not condemned because of his refusal to forgive his brother. Rather, his refusal to forgive his brother was proof that he was already condemned because he had never truly understood the great debt that he owed the master. He had never really received God’s forgiveness and been given a new heart, so he was not able to forgive others. The real message of this story is that if you find yourself always full of bitterness and unable to lovingly forgive others, watch out! That could be a sign that you’ve not yet understood with your heart the astronomical debt that Jesus paid for YOU on the cross.
The Text (Matthew 18:21-35)
21 Then Peter came to Him and said, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?”
22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven. 23 Therefore the kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 And when he had begun to settle accounts, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. 25 But as he was not able to pay, his master commanded that he be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and that payment be made. 26 The servant therefore fell down before him, saying, ‘Master, have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ 27 Then the master of that servant was moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt.
28 “But that servant went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and he laid hands on him and took him by the throat, saying, ‘Pay me what you owe!’ 29 So his fellow servant fell down at his feet and begged him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ 30 And he would not, but went and threw him into prison till he should pay the debt. 31 So when his fellow servants saw what had been done, they were very grieved, and came and told their master all that had been done. 32 Then his master, after he had called him, said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. 33 Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?’ 34 And his master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him.
35 “So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses.”
Questions to Think About
1. Are there any people in your life right now that you are having trouble forgiving? The speaker I mentioned above also said that when we forgive others, we set a prisoner free. That prisoner is ourselves. How do you think forgiving these people might change you?
2. When do you find it easier to forgive someone? When do you find it harder?
3. Why do think that forgiveness is such an important concept for Christians to understand and accept? (The New Testament and in fact the whole Bible emphasizes forgiveness and grace a lot.)
I pray that all of us will let God change our hearts this week to be able to forgive as we have been forgiven in Christ.