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No forgiveness for the unforgiving?

Hard Sayings of the Bible 18:35 No Forgiveness for the Unforgiving?

No Forgiveness for the Unforgiving?

This is a very hard saying. The so which introduces it refers to the severe punishment which the king in a parable inflicted on an unforgiving servant of his. The parable arises out of a conversation between Jesus and Peter. Jesus repeatedly impressed on his disciples the necessity of forgiveness; they were not to harbor resentment, but to freely forgive those who injured them. “Yes, but how often?” Peter asked. “Seven times?”—and probably he thought that that was about the limit of reasonable forbearance. “Not seven times,” said Jesus, “but seventy times seven” [RSV] (or in NIV, “seventy-seven times”). Perhaps by the time one had forgiven for the seventy-times-seventh time, forgiveness would have become second nature!

Some commentators have seen an allusion here to the war song of Lamech in Genesis 4:24. Lamech was a descendant of Cain, who (surprisingly, it may be thought) was taken under God’s protection. “If any one slays Cain,” said God, “vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold” (RSV). Lamech boasted in his war song that no one would injure him and get away with it: “If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold” [RSV] (or perhaps “seventy times sevenfold”). Over against seventy-times-sevenfold vengeance Jesus sets, as the target for his followers, seventy-times-sevenfold forgiveness.

The gospel is a message of forgiveness. It could not be otherwise, because it is the gospel of God, and God is a forgiving God. “Who is a God like you, who pardons sin?” said one Hebrew prophet (Mic 7:18). “I knew,” said another (protesting against God’s proneness to forgive those who, he thought, did not deserve forgiveness), “that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love” (Jon 4:2). It is to be expected, then, that those who receive the forgiveness that God holds out in the gospel, those who call him their Father, will display something of his character and show a forgiving attitude to others. If they do not, what then?

What then? Jesus answers this question in the parable of the unforgiving servant, which he told to confirm his words to Peter about repeated forgiveness “until seventy times seven.” A king, said Jesus, decided to settle accounts with his servants, and found that one of them (who must have been a very high officer of state) had incurred debts to the royal exchequer which ran into millions. The king was about to deal with him as an Eastern potentate might be expected to do, when the man fell at his feet, begged for mercy and promised that, if the king would be patient with him, he would make full repayment. The king knew perfectly well that he could never repay such a debt, but he felt sorry for him and remitted the debt. Then the man found someone else in the royal service who was in debt to him personally—a debt that was minute by comparison. He demanded prompt repayment, and when this debtor asked for time to pay he refused and had him consigned to the debtors’ prison. The king got to hear of it, summoned the man whom he had pardoned back into his presence, revoked the pardon and treated him as he had treated the other: “In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.” “So,” said Jesus, “in this way my heavenly Father will deal with any one of you if you do not forgive your brother (or sister) from your heart.” Revoke a pardon once granted? God would not do a thing like that, surely? Jesus said he would. A hard saying indeed!

That this emphasis on the necessity of having a forgiving spirit had a central place in the teaching of Jesus is evident from the fact that it is enshrined in both versions of the Lord’s Prayer. In Luke 11:4 the disciples are told to pray, “Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive every one who is indebted to us” (RSV). It is difficult to believe that anyone could utter this prayer deliberately, knowing at the same time that he or she cherished an unforgiving spirit toward someone else. In the Aramaic language which Jesus spoke the word for “sin” is the same as the word for “debt”; hence “every one who is indebted to us” means “everyone who has sinned against us” (NIV). In the parallel petition of Matthew 6:12 this use of “debt” in the sense of “sin” occurs twice: “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (RSV) means “Forgive us our sins, as we for our part have forgiven those who have sinned against us.” This wording implies that the person praying has already forgiven any injury received; otherwise it would be impossible honestly to ask God’s forgiveness for one’s own sins. Immediately after Matthew’s version of the prayer this is emphasized again: “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Mt 6:14–15).

The meaning is unambiguous, and it is unwise to try to avoid its uncomfortable challenge. One well-known annotated edition of the Bible had a comment on the clause “as we forgive our debtors” that ran as follows: “This is legal ground. Cf. Eph. 4:32, which is grace. Under law forgiveness is conditioned upon the spirit in us; under grace we are forgiven for Christ’s sake and exhorted to forgive because we have been forgiven.” But forgiveness is neither given nor received on “legal ground”; it is always a matter of grace. What Paul says in Ephesians 4:32 is this: “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” But if some of those to whom this admonition was addressed (and it is addressed to all Christians at all times) should persist in an unforgiving attitude toward others, could they even so enjoy the assurance of God’s forgiveness? If Jesus’ teaching means what it says, they could not.

Jesus told another parable about two debtors to illustrate another aspect of forgiveness. This was in the house of Simon the Pharisee, who neglected to pay him the courtesies normally shown to a guest, whereas the woman who ventured in from the street lavished her grateful affection on him by wetting his feet with her tears (Lk 7:36–50). The point of the parable was that one who has been forgiven a great debt will respond with great love, whereas no great response will be made by one whose sense of having been forgiven is minimal. (It might be objected that the man who had been forgiven a colossal debt in the parable in Mt 18:23–35 showed little love in return, but the two parables are addressed to two different situations, and forgiveness and love are not subject to cast-iron rules of inevitable necessity.) Where there is a genuine response of love, there will be a forgiving spirit, and where there is a forgiving spirit, there will be a still greater appreciation of God’s forgiving mercy, and still greater love in consequence. Some commentators find difficulty with Jesus’ words about the woman: “Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much” (RSV); the logic of the parable would suggest “She loves much, for her sins have been forgiven.” But if that had been the meaning, that is what would have been said. Love and forgiveness set up a chain reaction: the more forgiveness, the more love; the more love, the more forgiveness.

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