I recently heard the question, “Where in the New Testament are we ever told we should ask God for forgiveness?” What about you? Can you think of a single verse in the New Testament where we are told to ask God for forgiveness? I can almost see where the Lord’s prayer could be taken as a request: “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” But is that really a request for forgiveness, or is it more of an acknowledgment of how the forgiveness principle works?
Let’s go back to Matthew 18 for the rest of Jesus’ story:
28 But that slave went out and found one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and he seized him and began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay back what you owe.’ 29 So his fellow slave fell to the ground and began to plead with him, saying, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you.’ 30 But he was unwilling and went and threw him in prison until he should pay back what was owed. 31 So when his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were deeply grieved and came and reported to their lord all that had happened. 32 Then summoning him, his lord *said to him, ‘You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way that I had mercy on you?’ 34 And his lord, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him. 35 My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart.” Emphases mine
In case you missed the first installment, a slave owed his master an enormous debt (he basically embezzled – or misappropriated – like 10 million dollars). The slave foolishly asked for time to pay it off (a ridiculous proposition given the amount of the debt and his limited means as a slave). His master had compassion on him and forgave the debt.
Now in Part II we find the forgiven slave continuing to live out his paradigm of debt/repayment in his relationship to others in spite of his master’s generosity. He didn’t ‘get’ what the master had done for him, I guess…? Or maybe he did get it and decided he didn’t want to imitate his master’s behavior (that might have been too major of a paradigm shift for him to make). It was okay with him if the master wanted to forgive his debt. No sweat off his brow. He had offered to pay it back, after all. But when it came to the $10 his buddy owed him, well, that was another story. I mean, it’s not like his fellow slave couldn’t come up with the money, right? It was $10, for pity’s sake!
I’m fascinated by the fact that the fellow slave asked exactly what the first slave had asked of his master:
Have patience with me and I will repay you.
Did you notice that neither of the slaves asked for forgiveness from their debt? They both insisted they needed time to pay it back. It was compassion for the first slave’s foolishness which motivated the master to forgive his debt. But when that slave failed to treat a fellow with the same compassion… The forgiven slave could have easily given his fellow slave time to repay such a small amount. But he was unwilling even to wait for repayment, never mind forgive the debt like his master had done for him. It turns out his fellow couldn’t pay it back immediately, so the first slave had him thrown into [debtor’s] prison until the debt should be repaid. Jesus tells us the forgiven slave’s behavior toward his fellow made the master angry enough to let him have his way and pay his own debt back at the hand of torturers.
Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.
A speaker I heard recently stated that there is only one time in the Bible that God imitates us. He was talking about forgiveness, specifically the ‘formula’ in the Lord’s prayer (Matthew 6). All of Matthew 18 expands on the forgiveness concept, while in Matthew 7 Jesus says it yet another way:
“Do not judge so that you will not be judged. 2 For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you.” Emphases mine
Are you starting to catch a theme here? In the area of forgiveness (and judgment, it would seem), you get the god you expect or imitate. You know, I used to do that with my children – give them their behavior back. What better way to let them see what their behavior looked like than to imitate it? Excellent teaching tool. The same teacher said he believes God Himself will be to you what you expect Him to be; and, the way we show how we think God behaves toward us is by how we treat the people around us. Some extra food for thought.
But Jesus didn’t end the story with the master giving his slave the treatment the slave gave to others. He went a step further and clearly explained the ‘moral’ (or point) of the story: How you forgive (or don’t forgive) others is how your heavenly Father will forgive you.
I don’t think I can remember any other parable that ends this way, with Jesus stating such a direct application of His meaning. Now I can hear all of my Evangelical friends sputtering: “Wait just a minute, are you saying that we can earn God’s forgiveness by forgiving others?? That can’t be right. We only have to accept God’s forgiveness, believe Jesus died for our sins…” Maybe we truly reject Jesus when we take God’s compassion and forgiveness for ourselves, simultaneously refusing to give the same to others.
33 Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way that I had mercy on you?’ 34 And his lord, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him. 35 My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart.”
So, what real-life application can we take away from Jesus’ story? I think it’s simple, really.
Asking God to forgive you is not a prerequisite to receiving His forgiveness …
forgiving others is.
If you’re looking for at-one-ment with God, I suggest you first consider the compassion and forgiveness of God towards you, and then look at how well you are giving the same to others. According to Jesus, unforgiveness (not unbelief) will find you on the wrong side of God’s anger and land you in a torture chamber.
Lest any of you think that the end of this parable can be used to teach something about eternal hell, consider the phrase “until he should repay all that was owed him.” I read a few commentaries which stated that because the debt was too large to pay, the torture must have been unending. However, I would counsel strongly against putting words into the text that may match your traditions, but which Jesus clearly did not say. This parable is not teaching about hell, it is teaching us how to treat the people around us here and now.
Furthermore, Matthew 18 contains a great parable, but it is still just that: a parable. While Jesus says that God will treat us thus-and-so if we do not forgive others from the heart, trying to find a literal meaning to being handed over to torturers would be a stretch. Even trying to figure out what it means to repay a debt when you’re talking about sins and forgiveness is impossible. The parables Jesus told were designed to teach truths about God within the context of the everyday life experiences of his hearers. In this case, the Jewish sources I read explained that first century debtor’s prison guards were known to torture prisoners into confessing where they had hidden stolen goods or who they might have given the money to. This was most often how the extorted were repaid. I would counsel even more strongly against taking this (or any) parable literally. The meaning of Jesus’ story is clear enough: If you have received God’s forgiveness, you should respond by forgiving others. The being thrown in prison part, the paying back the debt part, the torture part, it all could just as easily have been said this way: You reap what you sow. In other words, God will treat you the way you treat others when it comes to forgiveness. Simple, isn’t it? I hope you will not become distracted from the plain meaning of the words by the vain exercise of trying to literally apply the words themselves. That practice alone can land you in all kinds of mental prisons you may find impossible to wriggle out of. 🙂
~ ~ ~
I have a confession to make. In Part I of this ‘mini-series’, I committed what is close to being (to me) a grievous sin: I left out the opening phrase, “For this reason…” completely ignoring the overall context of the parable (I did this on purpose, actually, due to space constraints). But it is of vital importance to look at any Bible story in light of its context. We’re out of space here, so …
(To be continued, again …)
Until next time, God bless you on your search for Atonement.