Matthew 18:21-35
Luke 23:32-38

Winston Churchill and Lady Astor were not great admirers of one another. She once remarked to Churchill at a party, “Sir, if I were your husband I would put poison in your tea.” To which he replied, “Madam, if you were my wife, I would drink it.” Publically humiliated for the last time, Lady Astor vowed she would never forgive.

The issue of forgiveness touches us almost every day because we are Christians. And because we are, we value the ideal of forgiveness. We believe in the value of living by the golden rule: “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you” (Matthew 7:12). Because we would have others forgive us when we wrong them, we know we should extend the same courtesy to people who wrong us.

But as C. S. Lewis notes: “Forgiveness is a beautiful word, until you have someone to forgive.” 1

It’s not natural for us to forgive because our sinful nature rears its ugly head. Our pride would have us retaliate or at minimum hold on to the desire to pay back the person who did us wrong. Our sinful nature longs for the day to see the other person suffer and even anticipate saying, “You got what you deserve,” and “What goes around, comes around, pal.” Our self-centered sinful nature tempts us to make assumptions about the internal character of the person who wronged us: that person who hurt me is forgetful or careless or doesn’t appreciate me or they hurt me on purpose.

Forgiving someone who wronged us can often be most difficult, but the alternative can be unbearable.

Then the angry king sent the man to prison to be tortured until he had paid his entire debt. That’s what my heavenly Father will do to you if you refuse to forgive your brothers and sisters from your heart. (Matthew 18:34-35, NLT)

In commenting on these verses, pastor and author, Ray Stedman, writes:

This is a marvelously expressive phrase to describe what happens to us when we do not forgive another. It is an accurate description of gnawing resentment and bitterness, the awful gall of hate or envy. It is a terrible feeling. We cannot get away from it. We feel strongly this separation from another and every time we think of them we feel within the acid of resentment and hate eating away at our peace and calmness. This is the torturing that our Lord says will take place. 2

Because un-forgiveness is so detrimental to our well-being, we must learn to forgive.

“Lord, how often should I forgive someone who sins against me? Seven times?” (Matthew 18:21).

Peter was erring on the side of generosity, for the rabbis in his day suggested three as the maximum number of times one must forgive. “No, not seven times,” Jesus replied, “but seventy times seven”! (vs. 22); the point being, that there should be no end to forgiveness.

Peter’s question prompts Jesus to tell a grace-filled story about a servant who had somehow piled up a debt of several million dollars. The fact that, realistically, no servant could accumulate a debt so huge underscores Jesus’ point: confiscating the man’s family, and property would not make a dent in the repaying the debt. In other words, the debt is unforgivable. Nevertheless, the king, touched with pity, extends grace by abruptly canceling the debt and letting the servant off the hook scot-free.

Suddenly the plot thickens as the servant who has just been forgiven seizes a colleague who owes him a few paltry dollars and begins to choke him. “Pay back what you owe me,” he demands, and when he cannot throws the man in jail. The contrast between grace received and the un-grace given is glaring!

Immediately, the listeners cry foul, “What kind of man are you? Don’t you think you should show a little mercy and forgive the small debt in light of the fact you were just let off the hook for millions times as much?”

There we have the point of Jesus teaching: how can we not forgive those who have offended us in light of all God has forgiven us? Surely God has forgiven us more than 490 times so we ought also to forgive others. Or as Paul has it: “Be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:32). Or as C. S. Lewis put it: “To be Christian means to forgive the inexcusable in others because God has forgiven the inexcusable in us.” 3

Not only because God has forgiven us . . .

In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus taught us to pray, “Forgive us our sins as we have forgiven those who sinned against us” (Matthew 6:12). And to make sure we don’t gloss over His admonition Jesus adds: “For if you forgive those who sin against you, your Father in heaven will forgive you. But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive you” (Matthew 6:14-15).

William Barclay writes:

If we say, “I will never forget so and so for what he or she has done to me,” if we say, “I will never forget what so and so did to me,” and then take this petition on our lips, we are quite deliberately asking God not to forgive us. Human forgiveness and divine forgiveness are inextricably intercombined. Our forgiveness of our fellow-men and God’s forgiveness of us cannot be separated; they are interlinked and interdependent. If we remembered what we are doing when we take this petition on our lips, there would be times when we would not dare pray it. 4

Hey, there you go, the solution to this conundrum is don’t pray the Lord’s Prayer. If I don’t pray the Lord’s Prayer, I don’t have to worry about all this. (Ha!) Right? Wrong!

Wait a minute; I thought that my sins were forgiven based upon what Jesus did, not what I do or don’t do; forgive or not. And you would be right; salvation is based upon our faith in Christ’s death. This section of Matthew’s gospel, the Sermon on the Mount is not about salvation; if it was we’d be in big trouble. This section of scripture, particularly the Lord’s Prayer, is about Kingdom living; following Jesus, patterning our lives after the life of Jesus.

Speaking of that there is no more poignant expression of the forgiveness Jesus modeled than as He hung on the cross. Beyond the physical pain of crucifixion was the emotional pain inflicted. Think for a moment about the last words that Jesus heard.

The crowd watched and the leaders scoffed. “He saved others,” they said, “let him save himself if he is really God’s Messiah, the Chosen One.” The soldiers mocked him, too, by offering him a drink of sour wine. They called out to him, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” (Luke 23:35-36).

Bitter, hateful, irreverent words. Wasn’t it enough that he was being crucified; were the nails insufficient? Was the crown of thorns too soft? Had the flogging been too short? Peter says, they didn’t just speak or yell or scream; they “hurled” insults; verbal rocks! They had every intention of inflicting emotional pain. They had broken His body; now they were adamant about breaking His Spirit.

And in the midst of it all, “Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing’” (Luke 23:34).

Is it possible for a human being to follow in the footsteps of Jesus in this manner?

There was a Priest who was working by candlelight late on a terribly stormy Saturday night trying to finish Sunday morning’s sermon when suddenly the phone rang. It’s the hospital calling from 30 miles away to let the Priest know that they have a dying man who is asking for Last Rites, “Will you come?”

The old Priest gets in his car and it takes him 90 mins to go 30 miles in the storm. When the Priest invites the man to confess his sins as part of the Last Rites for some reason the man refuses. Instead he begins to tell this Priest that he used to work as a switchman on the railroad: “32 years, 2 months and 11 days ago I was working on a night like tonight. The whole crew was drinking and when it came time for me to check a switch to make sure the next freight stayed on the main right through town, I lined the switch wrong sending that train through the yard at 50 mph. The engines and first 10 cars derailed. One of the engines fell right over on top of an automobile sitting at the crossing. A young man, his wife and two of his three children were all killed. I have been living with that ever since that night. Do you think that God could possibly forgive me?”

After what seemed an eternity, the Priest put his hand on this man’s shoulder and said very quietly, “If I can forgive you, God can forgive you. Because in that car was my father and mother and my two older sisters.”

And we are left to wonder, How was that Priest able to pull off that kind of forgiveness? And the answer is, in part anyway, the Priest understood what forgiveness is.

Before we can forgive, we must understand what it means for it is more than merely mouthing the words, “I forgive you.”

The word employed by Jesus means to release from some type of obligation. In Greek culture, it could refer being released from marriage or a job, but it’s most common use had to do with being released from a financial obligation. That’s how Jesus most often illustrated the concept of forgiveness.

In today’s parable, the King had a legal right to be repaid, the slave had an obligation to pay the debt. However, the King voluntarily released the slave from the obligation which implies the King decided to cover the debt himself.

The story illustrates the essence of forgiveness: We acknowledge a wrong has occurred we are not going to be able to overlook. In other words, the wrong has created an obligation for repayment. So we choose to release our offender from having to repay the wrong and decide to cover the loss ourselves.

So and so wrongs us and we are not going to be able to overlook it. Perhaps someone close has said something that hurt us deeply. Or maybe a family member has borrowed some money or some item and although they have promised to return or repay, it hasn’t happened. So we have a situation where we think the person who has wronged us needs to repay us in some way.

Forgiveness occurs when we release that individual from the obligation to repay us in any way. We refrain from expecting an apology, we let them off the hook for the money or item borrowed, we release them from having to pay whatever debt we think they owe us.

The truth of the story about the Priest is that he forgave the man responsible for the death of his parents and sisters years before he met him. To be sure, there was a time when he thought that man should have been put to death and when he wasn’t the bitterness began to consume him. So he made a decision to release that man from having to forfeit his life or anything else.

And the ironic result of releasing that man from having to pay any obligation was that the Priest was released from his self-inflicted torture chamber.

Everett L. Worthington, PhD. and Chair of the Department of Psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University has studied forgiveness for years.

Ten years after initiating his work on forgiveness he was severely tested when his mother was brutally murdered in her own home on New Year’s Eve 1995. “My mother was struck three times with a crowbar, blood was everywhere. I heard myself say, ‘I’d like to have him alone in a room with a baseball bat for 30 minutes; I’d beat his brains out.’ I knew all the good reasons to forgive but as I paced her bedroom that night, I didn’t know if I wanted to. But at the emotional crest of that dark, difficult night, I wanted relief from my anger and bitterness.”

Worthington went through his own forgiveness process, drawing on all he had learned and taught others for many years. And he shares some insight he has on the surprise of forgiveness:

When we are tortured by un-forgiveness and then finally able to grant forgiveness, a transforming surprise occurs. Forgiving is like a flood of light at sunrise. Darkness has covered the sky, but the sun suddenly peeks over the horizon, illuminating giant clouds that stretch above it. Billowy clouds are lit with orange, red and purple. The sky is afire with colors. This is the relief of forgiveness after wrestling with un-forgiveness. 5

Lewis Smedes wrote: “To forgive is to set the prisoner free and to discover that the prisoner was you.” 6

That’s why in CrossPointe’s 18 years of existence I have twice preached a 7 week sermon series on the subject of forgiveness. I am not going to begin another 7 week series now (unless I get an overwhelming demand for it). But I am going to come back after Easter and preach one very practical message on just exactly how to pull this off.

But I can tell you today the road to forgiveness begins by being forgiven. “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:32).

Listen to this incredible offer made in a letter written by a Father to the person sitting on death row who was responsible.

You are probably surprised that I, of all people, am writing a letter to you but I ask you to read it in its entirety and consider its request seriously. As the Father of the man whom you took part in murdering, I have something very important to say to you.

I stand ready to forgive you with all my heart. I realize it may be hard for you to believe, but I really am. I can only hope you believe me and will accept my forgiveness.

But this is not all I have to say to you. I want to make you an offer; I want you to become my adopted child so I can share My life with you and leave My riches to you.
This may not make sense to you, but I believe you are worth the offer. I have arranged matters so that if you will receive my offer of forgiveness, not only will you be pardoned for your crime, but you also will be set free from your imprisonment, and your sentence of death will be commuted.

I realize this is a risky offer for me to make to you. You might be tempted to reject my offer completely, but I make it to you without reservation.

Finally, you may be concerned that once you accept my offer you may do something to cause you to be denied your rights as an heir to my wealth. Nothing could be further from the truth. If I can forgive you for your part in my Son’s death, I can forgive you for anything. I know you will never be perfect, but you do not have to be perfect to receive my offer. Besides, I believe that once you have accepted my offer and begin to experience the riches that will come to you from me, that your primary response will be gratitude and loyalty.

Some would call me foolish for my offer to you, but I wish for you to call me your Father.

And the letter is signed, of course, “The Father of the Lord Jesus.” 7


1 Lewis. C. S. Mere Christianity. [New York: Touchstone, © 1943] page 104

2 Swindoll, Charles. Improving Your Serve. [Waco, Texas: Word Books, © 1981]
pages 66-67.

3 Lewis, C. S. The Weight of Glory [New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996] pp. 135-136.

4 Barclay, William. The Gospel of Matthew, Volume 1. [Philadelphia: The Westminster
Press, © 1975] page 222.

5 Worthington. Everett. Forgiving and Reconciling: Bridges to Wholeness and Hope. [Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity Press, © 2003] pages 118-119.

6 Smedes, Lewis B. Forgive and Forget: Healing the Hurts We Don’t Deserve. [San Francisco: Harper Collins Publishers: © 1984] page 133.

7 Michael, Beth. Your Cry Has Been Heard. [Xulon Press © 2009]. Pages 175-176.