Forgiving from the Heart
Topic: Church Passage: Matthew 18:21–35
Four years ago, a Dallas police officer named Amber Guyger was off duty when she entered someone else’s apartment, thinking it was her own. Seeing a man she thought was an intruder, Amber shot and killed him. That innocent man was Botham Jean. The jury sentenced Amber to ten years in prison. But at her sentencing, the world witnessed a remarkable act. Botham’s younger brother, Brandt, took the stand and forgave Amber after she apologized. He then requested to give Amber a hug, later saying this was his way of letting her know he truly forgave her.
Many rejoiced at Brandt’s forgiveness, especially since he pointed Amber explicitly to Jesus. What surprised me, though, was the outrage from others. Some viewed Brandt’s forgiveness as a problem that will only perpetuate “white power.” Others mocked him, implying that he had betrayed their race. I was shocked. Not just Christians, but even secular studies have shown the benefits of forgiveness to relationships as well as to one’s ongoing mental health. There have been historical precedents where forgiveness played a key role in mending communities. Yet some hated what he did.
Now, there were others, more careful, quick to point out specific ways that forgiveness often goes misunderstood, or how some perpetrators of real wrongs have used forgiveness to excuse sin and escape accountability. But others were pushing ideas that made those who viewed themselves as victims exempt from forgiveness. That’s why they responded so negatively to Brandt forgiving Amber.
But Brandt later responded this way: “I want people to have the heart that God has. This may have just been about God and what God would want me to do in this situation, without even looking at race.” That’s exactly what our passage is about today: having the heart of God in forgiving those who’ve done us wrong. The world may be confused about forgiveness. But our Lord Jesus is not. So, let’s learn from him today, that we too might have the heart that God has.
In Matthew 18, Jesus has been explaining the communal life of those who belong to his kingdom. In verses 21-35 Jesus next addresses forgiveness. Forgiveness must characterize his people. But watch out, lest you assume, “Ah, piece of cake!” The forgiveness he calls us to is just as boundless as his Father’s; and those unwilling to grant it should fear for their soul. Let’s read it together, starting in verse 21…
21 Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times. 23 Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. 24 When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. 25 And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. 26 So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. 31 When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. 32 Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. 35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
Peter’s Question about Forgiveness
Our passage has three parts to it. First is Peter’s question about forgiveness in verses 21-22. Peter asks about forgiving “my brother.” The focus is still the community of faith. We may draw inferences from this passage on forgiving those outside the church. But the immediate concern is how forgiveness must characterize the church. Also, given the context of correction and repentance in verses 15-17, it’s safe to assume that Peter’s question is about forgiving those who repent and ask forgiveness. That’ll become clearer in Jesus’ parable as well. Both servants cry for mercy: “Have patience with me…”
But this leads Peter to a question: “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Peter recognizes the need to forgive. But surely there’s a reasonable limit. Some Jewish teachers were saying three times was sufficient. Peter goes for seven. In the Scriptures, seven often represents completeness. Surely seven times was generous. But Jesus goes higher…
“I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.” Some translations use “seventy times seven.” But the wording here appears one other place in Scripture. Genesis 4:24—Cain’s revenge is sevenfold, but Lamech’s is seventy-seven fold. It was a way of saying that Lamech’s vengeance was without limits. He wouldn’t hesitate to kill anybody. Quite the opposite—Jesus is telling Peter to forgive his brother without limits. Forgive without hesitation. The point isn’t once you’ve hit seventy-eight, forgiveness is no longer necessary. The point is stop counting at all.
Jesus makes a similar point in Luke 17:3-4. “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.”
But what does that mean—to forgive someone? The word itself has to do with, releasing someone from a legal/moral consequence.[i] That doesn’t mean all temporal consequences are immediately eliminated. Take David having Uriah killed, for example. God puts away his sin, but there were still consequences he endured. Still, the idea of “releasing someone” is helpful to understanding forgiveness.
In 6:12, Jesus illustrates forgiveness with releasing a debt. He taught us to pray, “[Father] forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” A person who sins against you is in your debt, so to speak. But to forgive them means to release that debt. You no longer count it against them. You no longer hold that wrong against them.
We find the same thing illustrated in Jesus’ parable. In fact, I think the parable also helps us see that forgiveness is not a way of sweeping things under the rug. It’s not pretending like nothing wrong happened. It’s not making excuses for sin. No, in the parable, the king acknowledges that there’s a debt to pay. If forgiveness means ignoring sin, then that would undermine Jesus’ teaching in the previous section. Forgiveness comes to terms with the sin that’s been committed. It looks at it truthfully.
But then what else do we learn about forgiveness in the parable? Verse 27, “the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.” Instead of requiring him to pay it off, the king absorbs the loss himself and lets the man go.
We also shouldn’t miss the relational component in forgiveness. Nowadays forgiveness is often reduced to something done privately for one’s psychological well-being. But forgiveness is always relational. Notice how the king has pity on the servant. Forgiveness grows from a compassion for the person who sinned against us. And throughout Scripture, forgiveness is always in service of that relationship. When God forgives us, it serves our reconciliation to him. Likewise, our forgiveness serves the purpose of reconciliation. Again, that’s not to say that all consequences of sin are immediately eliminated. But in forgiveness, we’re still making a commitment to pardon the offender, to no longer use the incident to push them away.
So, in sum, we could say that forgiveness has several components. In forgiveness, we acknowledge the debt (i.e., the sin committed). We show compassion to the person in our debt, who’s asking our forgiveness. And we release that debt to serve the relationship. How many times must we be willing to do this? An unlimited number of times. The Christian must forgive his brother or sister without limits. Stop counting.
Apart from God’s grace changing us, that’s contrary to the way our flesh thinks. Our flesh doesn’t want to release our offender; our flesh wants to punish them. Our flesh doesn’t want to absorb their debt; our flesh wants them to pay up. Our flesh wants to keep a record of wrongs—locked and loaded—just ready to decimate our offender. As I mentioned earlier, some view forgiveness as yielding power to the oppressor. They would say, “Make them pay!” That’s where our flesh goes, apart from God’s grace. We want to limit forgiveness. But those who belong to Jesus’ kingdom must forgive without limits. To withhold forgiveness endangers your soul.
Jesus’ Parable about Forgiveness
That’s where Jesus goes next. In the second part, Jesus tells a parable about forgiveness to reinforce why our forgiveness should be so boundless. In the first part of the parable, we find a king who forgives an impossible debt.
Jesus says, “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents.” Don’t miss that. To hear “ten thousand talents” would be like us hearing “a bazillion dollars.” A talent was worth 6,000 denarii. One denarius was a day’s wages. You could work 20-25 years and pay off only one talent. In other words, paying off the debt was impossible. But that’s the point. Jesus wants us to feel the impossibility of paying off this debt.
He then continues: “And since [the servant] could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.” Out of pity for him—same word has already appeared three times to describe Jesus. 9:36, Jesus “had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless.” 14:14, Jesus “had compassion on them and healed their sick.” 15:32, Jesus had compassion on the crowd since they had nothing to eat.
So also here: the king hears the man’s cry for mercy and his heart goes out to him with compassion. Forgiveness will always begin there, with compassion. He’s filled with compassion and releases him from the impossible debt.
But look what happens next: the servant refuses to copy the forgiveness shown him. Verse 28, “But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii…” That’s equivalent to .00000167 of what the first servant owed. It’s nothing in comparison to the debt the first servant owed.
But “seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’” It’s even worded the same way—maybe it’d remind him of the same words he had pleaded before. But unlike the king, we find no compassion in the first servant. It says, “He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt.”
In the final scene, Jesus then pictures the severe consequences for those who do not forgive. Verse 31, “When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers…” Don’t think normal jailer; the word refers to those appointed to torture. “His master delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all his debt.” Point being, he never would. The debt he owed was impossible to pay off.
Jesus’ Point about Forgiveness
That brings us to the last part of this section. In verse 35, Jesus’ explains the point of his parable: “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” A few things to consider…
To begin, the compassionate king who forgives an impossible debt illustrates what our heavenly Father is like. As I said before, Jesus compares sin to a debt in 6:12. Our sins against God have earned us an impossible debt. He has shown us in his law what is right and holy and good. Yet every infraction of God’s law has sunk us deeper and deeper into debt. James tells us that to fail in one point of the law is to become accountable for all of it. More than that, God is infinitely holy. To sin against him is a crime deserving highest penalty. There’s no way we can pay off our debt.
Yet God—in his pity for our helpless state—found a way to cancel our debt and forgive our sins. Later in the Gospel we learn that God does this by the sacrifice of Jesus. He gives his own Son, whose worth is of infinite value. Jesus sheds his blood for the forgiveness of our sins. Through Jesus’ death, God absorbs our debt himself. He cancels our debt and releases us from everything hindering our relationship to him.
The Bible has some great images to describe God’s forgiveness. Like “blotting out our transgressions” in Psalm 51:1. Imagine a list of accusations, but God then wipes them all away. Psalm 103:12 uses a vast separation: “as far as the east is from the west, so far does [the Lord] remove our transgressions from us.” Micah 7:18 is another: “[God] will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea.” In Christ, he puts away our sins such that they’re gone forever and forgotten about. But this parable gives us another picture. God’s forgiveness is like cancelling an impossible debt and releasing us from it. If you trust in Jesus Christ and take him at his word, that’s what God does for your debt.
This parable also keeps things in perspective. The debt owed by the second servant was nothing compared to the debt owed to the king himself. Likewise, the debt we’re required to forgive others is nothing compared to the debt God has forgiven us. In no way does this minimize the horrific ways that humans can sin against one another. At the human-to-human level, some sins are incredibly more heinous than others. Some will have consequences that last for decades in this life. But that’s not the only level we must consider when it comes to forgiveness. At the divine-to-human level, even the most serious sins against us pale in comparison to our sins against God.
It’s much harder to forgive others when we’ve lost touch with how much God has forgiven us. But this parable adjusts our outlook. It reminds us that those who are forgiven much love much. Those who experience God’s boundless compassion, will show the same compassion for others. Those who know the depth of God’s forgiveness of them will find joy forgiving the lesser debts of others.
Notice too how Jesus adds “from your heart” at the end. Forgiveness must come “from your heart” or it’s not genuine forgiveness. Meaning forgiveness isn’t done begrudgingly, reluctantly: “Fine, you’re forgiven.” It’s not mere words that paper over ongoing bitterness. No, much like the king’s heart fills with compassion toward the servant—much like God’s heart fills with compassion towards you—your heart must fill with compassion toward others who’ve wronged you. Forgiveness must be heartfelt, with a genuine desire to reconcile and see things restored. By forgiving others, you get to display the very heart of God in the way he has forgiven you.
Brandt Jean was right: “I want people to have the heart that God has.” That’s the point of this parable. Those who know God’s forgiveness will have the heart God himself has; and it’s one that forgives all who cry to him for mercy.
But if that’s not your heart, Jesus’ parable threatens terrible punishment: “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” It’s much like the point Jesus made earlier in 6:14-15. “If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
The point? Forgiven people forgive others. If you don’t forgive others from your heart, you’re proving that you don’t really know God’s forgiveness. You’re proving that your heart remains unchanged. It’s scary when people say things like, “I just can’t forgive him,” “After what she did, I will not forgive her.” Others are tempted to believe some of the ideas being pushed nowadays that exempt people from forgiving others. But Jesus’ warning is clear: those unwilling to forgive should fear for their soul. James 2:13, “Judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy.”
Think about the various relationships you have. Think about the people who’ve hurt you the most. It could be a spouse. It could be a son, a daughter. It could be a parent, a sibling. It could be someone who was once a close friend. It could be a pastor, a leader you once trusted. It could be a church member. It could be a coworker. Are you still holding their debt against them? Are you harboring bitterness against them? Are you still counting all the times you’ve forgiven them already? It could be that you’ve forgiven them many times, and then you just stopped. The number got too high.
If that’s you, you need to cry out to God for a change of heart. You need to ask him to help you look on them with compassion and release them from their debt? Then, you need to take a long look at the enormous, impossible debt that God forgave you in Christ. Take a long look at the pity God showed you in your sinful state.
Brothers and sisters, we are sinful people. We are going to hurt one another. Forgiveness is a must within the body of Christ. I’m so thankful to be the recipient of your forgiveness over the years when I’ve failed you. Such forgiveness is crucial to healthy relationships in the church and in marriage and in family and in care groups. That’s why Colossians gives the general instruction: “if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Col 3:13). In 2 Corinthians 2:6-7 the church is slow to forgive someone who had repented; and Paul tells them, “the punishment…is enough…turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow.” He then warns them about Satan’s schemes when there’s a lack of forgiveness. Forgiven people forgive.
Insofar as it depends on you, is your disposition toward others one that stands ready and willing to forgive? Some cases of sin are so bad that you might be thinking that such forgiveness is impossible. But God can bring this about in you.
As we close, consider this testimony from Corrie ten Boom. She’s known most for her book The Hiding Place. She and her family helped many Jews escape the Nazis during World War II. They would hide them in their homes. Eventually, though, she was caught and the Nazis sent her to a concentration camp in Ravensbrück. She survived and, after the War, went around speaking about God’s forgiveness. But there was a moment when she’s brought face to face with one of the guards who asks her forgiveness…
It was 1947 and I had come from Holland to defeated Germany with the message that God forgives. It was the truth they needed most to hear in that bitter, bombed-out land, and I gave them my favorite mental picture. Maybe because the sea is never far from a Hollander’s mind, I liked to think that that’s where forgiven sins were thrown. “When we confess our sins,” I said, “God casts them into the deepest ocean, gone forever.” The solemn faces stared back at me, not quite daring to believe. There were never questions after a talk in Germany in 1947. People stood up in silence, in silence collected their wraps, in silence left the room.
And that’s when I saw him, working his way forward against the others. One moment I saw the overcoat and the brown hat; the next, a blue uniform and a visored cap with its skull and crossbones.* It came back with a rush: the huge room with its harsh overhead lights, the pathetic pile of dresses and shoes in the center of the floor, the shame of walking naked past this man. I could see my sister’s frail form ahead of me, ribs sharp beneath the parchment skin…
Betsie and I had been arrested for concealing Jews in our home during the Nazi occupation of Holland; this man had been a guard at Ravensbrück concentration camp where we were sent. Now he was in front of me, hand thrust out: “A fine message, fräulein! How good it is to know that, as you say, all our sins are at the bottom of the sea!” And I, who had spoken so glibly of forgiveness, fumbled in my pocketbook rather than take that hand. He would not remember me, of course—how could he remember one prisoner among those thousands of women?
But I remembered him and the leather crop swinging from his belt. It was the first time since my release that I had been face to face with one of my captors and my blood seemed to freeze. “You mentioned Ravensbrück in your talk,” he was saying. “I was a guard in there.” No, he did not remember me. “But since that time,” he went on, “I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fräulein”—again the hand came out—“will you forgive me?”
And I stood there—I whose sins had every day to be forgiven—and [I] could not. Betsie had died in that place—could he erase her slow terrible death simply for the asking? It could not have been many seconds that he stood there, hand held out, but to me it seemed hours as I wrestled with the most difficult thing I had ever had to do. For I had to do it—I knew that. The message that God forgives has a prior condition: that we forgive those who have injured us. “If you do not forgive men their trespasses,” Jesus says, “neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses.” I knew it not only as a commandment of God, but as a daily experience. Since the end of the war I had had a home in Holland for victims of Nazi brutality.
Those who were able to forgive their former enemies were able also to return to the outside world and rebuild their lives, no matter what the physical scars. Those who nursed their bitterness remained invalids. It was as simple and as horrible as that. And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is not an emotion—I knew that too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. “Jesus, help me!” I prayed silently. “I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.”
And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes. “I forgive you, brother!” I cried. “With all my heart!” For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely as I did then.
I don’t pretend to know the depth of hurt that some of you have experienced from the sins of others. But if you’re struggling to forgive, God can do a work like this in you too. He can give you the heart that he himself has. As we turn to the Lord’s Supper, use this as a time to reflect on the impossible debt God has forgiven you in Christ.
[i] BDAG, s.v., aphiēmi.