How Far Forgiveness Goes

MATTHEW 8 of 12

We’re going to be in Matthew 18 today. This is our eighth of twelve weeks reflecting on the gospel according to Matthew. Matthew preserves some bits of Jesus’s teaching and talking that no other gospel-writer preserves for us. What we’re looking at today is a great taste of Matthew.

Like most of the passages we’re looking at during this series, virtually everything we read today only shows up in Matthew. And through this passage, the living Jesus—the resurrected and forever alive Jesus—is summoning all of us—inviting all of us—into a new kind of life. A better life. Resurrection life.

Jesus says:

“What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.

“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

“Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”

Matthew 18v12-20

Matthew is the only gospel where we’ve got Jesus talking about the Church—about how his community should be living. The Church, after all, is called to learn to live the life of heaven here on earth.

This language of “binding” and “loosing” (v18) is an ancient Jewish way of talking about saying “yes” and saying “no” to certain things. The image is tying cords or rope tight or untying or loosing them. But it’s an ancient Jewish way of talking about saying “yes” to certain things and “no” to other things. And Jesus is saying:

“When you pay close attention to me, what you say Yes and No to will line up with what heaven says Yes and No to. Your lives will be lives where the reality of earth and the reality of heaven begin to match each other.”

Jesus is not saying that we can can get God to enforce anything we get a unanimous vote on. That if we can just get two or three people together (v19) and agree on anything with a strong enough intensity, then God pulls out a big rubber stamp and says: “Healing a sick child? Got a unanimous vote? Alright. Bound. Yes. Oh!—no stop human trafficking? Got a unanimous vote? You got it. Loosed. No.”

Jesus isn’t saying that heaven will say “yes” or “no” to whatever we can get a unanimous vote. Because groups of people—even groups of people gathered in the name of Jesus—will sometimes want what heaven could never say “yes” to. There’s a church from Topeka, Kansas that’s become famous for it’s protests. For their big, simple signs that say that God hates people. God hates… homosexuals. God hates… muslims. God hates… everyone except them, it seems. They’ve got two or three people. Gathered in Jesus’s name. They’re binding and loosing—they’re saying Yes and No—they’re making decisions—here on earth. Do they get a big rubber stamp from heaven approving whatever they happen to agree on?

Well, obviously no. Because they’ve got the order mixed up. Jesus is talking to people who are following him. Who are learning to obey him. A lot of times we want heaven to agree with us. In reality—Jesus is teaching us that when we pay attention to him and follow him, we will begin to agree with heaven. The reality of heaven and the reality of earth begin to match when we start letting Jesus teach us what to say Yes and No to.

Heaven is never going to “bind”—God is never going to say Yes to—a group of people who say: “We want nothing to do with forgiving people.” Just won’t happen. It runs counter to everything Jesus reveals to us about God. Again and again—especially in Matthew—Jesus has been teaching what we to say Yes to:

We say Yes to is the life of mercy. The life of love. The life of forgiveness. Especially in this passage, forgiveness is what we say Yes to. And this is a little lesson from Jesus on what it looks like—on how you get there.

Matthew is the only gospel-writer to record this painfully practical teaching from Jesus. If someone sins against you (v15)—if someone isn’t living in the way of love—then you should go to them. Directly. They hurt you? They sinned against you? They’re not living in love? Talk to them. Chase them down. Pursue them. Chase them down to forgive them. If it’s worth talking about with other people, it’s worth talking about with that person.

It’s an incredibly vulnerable and humbling thing to actually bring your hurt to another person. To expose yourself, your pain, the way someone else has sinned, and seek reconciliation. It takes courage to—in all humility—learn to be vulnerable with each other, to listen to each other, to trust each other, and to forgive each other. And that’s Jesus’s point. That we would approach each other like our Father who goes chasing down his lost sheep.

Much of the time, forgiveness is going to start taking root right there. It’s only if that doesn’t work that the circle widens. That we approach a couple of other people about helping healing to take place. And if that doesn’t work, the circle widens again to include more people—people who will ask God to bring forgiveness and healing between you and another. When two or three people (v19) are dead-set on begging God to bring forgiveness and unity, God will be at work.

That’s always the point of chasing down someone. We are to be lost sheep finding and forgiving each other. Even if you can’t agree—even if you wind up living in two kingdoms—even if you have to treat them like the tax collectors Jesus ate with (v17). True Jesus-people always pursue peace with others. And Jesus promises us—with a shockingly God-like claim—that when two or three people are pursuing peace and forgiveness, Jesus himself is right there in the middle of that.

Matthew keeps going:

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”

Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.


Could Jesus possibly say anything more disturbing than this? Forgiveness is important, sure. Every religion—every therapist for that matter—would agree that forgiveness is important. Every single day there’s someone or something we need to forgive. And every single day we need others to forgive us.

The question isn’t whether forgives is important; the question is one of degrees: how far does forgiveness go? How loudly does heaven say Yes to forgiveness? Peter, the ring-leader of the disciples—who in Matthew’s gospel who walks on water—who is learning to follow Jesus into the impossible—may think that he’s about to be congratulated by Jesus.

“How many times should I forgive someone who sins against me?

Up to seven times?”

Matthew 18v21

There’s something marvelous about the number seven. It just feels like a good number, even if you’re not religious. And in the biblical imagination—in the tradition of Israel—seven is a divine number. The number of completeness. The number of wholeness. The number of creation. And if the driver in front of me cuts me off on the interstate, I’m doing well if I can move past it—if I can let it go—if I can forgive them—one time:

“Breathe. It was probably a mistake. They probably didn’t see me.”

But if they cut me off seven times?! That driver knows what they’re doing. After the third time, I’m pretty sure that co-worker knows what they’re doing By the third or fourth time that my parent, my spouse, my child, does that thing—wrongs me—sins against me—hurts me in that way—I’m pretty sure they know what they’re doing.

But I’ve heard, Jesus—I’ve heard what you’ve been teaching and talking about—about letting love in deeper, about love burning away my hate and my lust and my anger, about being merciful to those who don’t deserve it. And I’m going to live in love. I’m going to extend mercy.

“Up to seven times? That might even be overkill, but it’s a nice biblical number. Pretty good, huh, Jesus? I’m getting it, aren’t I?”

It’s like Peter is under-handing a ball down the center of the plate, and Jesus absolutely crushes it:

“I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.

Matthew 18v22

Jesus picks up on Peter’s nice biblical number and puts it on steroids. It’s not a literal number that Jesus is giving here. “Ten more sevens” has the effect of saying: “Add ten more sevens to that, Peter. Your mercy—your forgiveness—needs to be more and more and more complete.”

In effect, Jesus is rephrasing what he said in the Sermon on the Mount: “Be perfect… as your Heavenly Father is perfect Your Father in heaven is perfect—he’s merciful to all people, he gives their crops rain and sunshine, he loves even his enemies. Be perfect like him.”

Peter comes to Jesus thinking that he’s “getting it”and says: “I should forgive a lot, right?” And Jesus answers: “More than a lot. Try always.” Love never fails. The love, the mercy, the forgiveness—it all never runs dry with your heavenly Father. So too with you. Be like him. Seemingly endless sevens. Always forgiving.”

Could Jesus possibly say anything more disturbing than this? The answer is: “Why yes. Yes he could.” Because he goes on to tell a story—a story only recorded by Matthew:

“Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.

“At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.

“But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.

“His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’

“But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.

“Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

“This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

Matthew 18v23-35

The terrible tale of un-forgiveness. It’s a haunting story. Those who have already been forgiven everything
cannot be people who refuse to forgive others.

The man in this story (v24) owes the king 10,000 bags of gold. A lot of translations say “10,000 talents” and a “talanton” is between 60-90 pounds. This guy owes the king ten thousand 60-90 pound bags of gold. And “ten thousand” is the largest number available in ancient Greek. It’s a crazy kind of number—like zillion or bajillion. You can’t even wrap your head around it.

And suddenly—in the blink of an eye—this guy finds himself forgiven. No strings attached. Debtors prison no longer looms over him or his wife or his household.

But how exactly does this man use this forgiveness? How does he use his release? How does he use the freedom given to him? No. He goes chasing down his fellow servant—someone who legitimately does owe him something—a hundred silver coins—like the value of car or something—and grabs the guy and throttles him (v28). He begins to choke him. That’s the word in Greek—pnigo. We actually have a one-to-one direct English translation of the Greek. That frequent occurrence when Homer Simpson grabs Bart by the neck. (“Why, you little—!”)

This guy—this guy who has been given his life back—uses his freedom to chase down someone else to try to get even. To tie someone up. To find healing by hurting someone. This guy refuses to forgive. He is hell-bent on getting what he’s owed. And by the end of the story, this guy is handed over “to the torturerers” (v34, that’s literally what the Greek says).

Jesus is warning his community at the end of this story—he warns Peter—he warns us—that unforgiveness is hell. And our Perfect Father won’t stop it. He’ll give us what we want. If we want to live in a world without mercy—he’ll hand us over to that torture until we learn to give what we’ve already been given.

Jesus warns us: we don’t just count to seven. The life of love—the life of heaven—demands that we stop keeping score. Because if we keep calculating and tabulating and keeping score, eventually it’s going to be torture. Unforgiveness will poison us—it will consume us, it will ravage us. Eventually unforgiveness will torture us.

Jesus lets the end of the story hang there… “until we pay what we owe” (v34). The guy in this story doesn’t owe bags of gold anymore. He doesn’t owe the king anything anymore. The debt has been forgiven; the king has absorbed the cost himself. God never never never un-forgives anyone. What this guy now owes… is gratitude. What this fellow now owes… is love. That’s what all us of owe.

The heart of the Christian faith announces that forgiveness has already come to every single one of us. Before we ever gave him a thought, our king has absorbed every debt we have ever owed God. That thing you’re ashamed of. That sin you could never tell anyone. Those thoughts, that addiction, that secret—it’s all been absorbed by Jesus on the cross. Every atrocity of the human race—every homicide and suicide and genocide—forgiveness for all of it came through regicide. Through the death of the king, every sin has been forgiven.

It’s all been absorbed. It’s all been atoned for. The cross shows us that God has paid—that God has absorbed the cost and the pain of every debt we have ever owed. Because of Jesus, the world is forgiven and free. All we owe is gratitude and love. That’s the good news that everyone everywhere is always invited to believe. That’s what this table is about. It has come at a tremendous cost to the king, but we are free. We are forgiven. That’s the good news proclaimed by crackers and juice. Heaven has said Yes to free forgiveness… God is holding no grudges. All we ever owe now is gratitude and love. We’re free.

The question is “How will we use our freedom?” Will we live in the real world? Will we be reconciled to the God of mercy? Will we become like our perfect Father? (That’s what real life looks like!) Or will we continue the torture of keeping score? Will we keep nursing our grudges, and how we were wronged, and what so-and-so owes us? Do we really want to be united to the God of limitless love and grace? Or will we allow bitterness and anger and resentment and unforgiveness to torture us?

(You will never find healing—you will never find justice—by hurting them. )

May we believe the good news of the king’s forgiveness. May we believe that God is always chasing his lost sheep. May we be a community who uses our freedom to be like our Father and chase down others in mercy and love.

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