How many times must I forgive?

A look at Jesus’ parable about forgiveness in Matthew 18:21-35

Matthew 18 includes the story of Jesus telling a parable about forgiveness in response to Peter asking him, ‘how many times must I forgive my brother when he sins against me?’

Before embarking on the parable, Jesus answer Peter’s immediate question by saying, ‘why not seventy seven times?’ In other words, there really isn’t a point that we should stop forgiving someone. (Though forgiveness is undoubtedly a gift of grace to the person we forgive, it is, perhaps even more so, a gift to ourselves.)

In the parable Jesus tells the story of a king and a servant who owed him ten thousand talents. (So we’re clear, the size of the debt we’re talking about here is countless lifetimes of wages in repayments.) The man has no way of paying this back but threatened with slavery for him and his family, he begs for patience from the king and promises to pay up. The king, incredibly, relents. He not only withdraws the punishment, but he forgives the debt completely.

The man went away, but upon leaving he finds a fellow servant who owes him a hundred dinars. (One dinar was the equivalent of a days wages—so, though no small sum of money, a much smaller debt than he himself owed.) He threatens the man, orders him to pay up, and when the man pleads for patience, he, unlike the king, offers no forgiveness at all.

The king comes to hear about what the man had done and immediately withdraws the forgiveness he previously offered, reinstating the debt. He would have to spend the rest of his life paying what he could off.

Jesus then concludes this parable by saying, ‘that’s what my heavenly father will do to you, unless each of you forgives your brother or sister from your heart’.

Though at first glance this might seem harsh, it lines up with Jesus’ teaching in what we know as the Lord’s prayer. There we’re taught to pray, ‘forgive us the things we owe, as we too have forgiven what was owed us’. Forgiveness from God is directly connected to our forgiveness of others.

On some levels, it can appear that God is withholding forgiveness. Is it a free gift of grace if it’s dependent on us having to do something first? But maybe God just knows that if our hearts aren’t ready to give forgiveness to others, we’ll not be able to truly receive forgiveness for ourselves. An unforgiving heart can’t handle forgiveness.

Is there anyone we need to forgive today?

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