Forgiveness is something that all of us have to deal with from time to time. We may need forgiveness from others whom we have wronged, or we come to God and ask that he will pardon us. Sometimes we are the ones who are asked to extend forgiveness to others. Forgiveness does not always come readily. Sometimes it is a struggle.
The message of mercy was absolutely central to the life of Jesus. It was something that he taught, but also something that he lived. It was his word even on the cross. Throughout his whole active ministry, he spoke a message from the Father. The message was this: because God loves us, we are forgiven. In today’s gospel (Matt 18.21-35) the sum mentioned as owing is 10,000 talents. Biblical scholars differ in estimating its worth in today’s currency, but all agree that it was a stupendous sum. What the king forgives is not something negligible: it reflects outstanding generosity. Jesus also makes it clear that the king would have been within his rights to exact his due. The king shows mercy. God, we are to understand, forgives us.
The psychology of the story is fascinating. The servant who has been forgiven quickly turns nasty towards a man who in turn owes him money. It’s understandable. The man who had been forgiven by the king would feel that he had been vulnerable because of his debt and would not want to run this risk again. And so he seizes his fellow servant by the throat and demands payment. This man’s family end up in the debtor’s prison which is where the first servant’s family were destined until the king showed mercy. The point is that forgiveness runs contrary to our natural instinct. If someone offends you, you want them to pay for it.
The trouble is, we become trapped. Sometimes we are trapped in a cycle of tit-for-tat, giving out to others as they give to us, and more besides. Sometimes we are trapped by a sense of guilt, knowing that we have done wrong and yearning for forgiveness. Which brings us back to the huge sum of 10,000 talents. You see, such an enormous sum could never be repaid. How could the man owing this money ever raise such a colossal amount? He could not. No more, we might reflect, than we could ever atone for the colossal amount of human sin. But Jesus does what we cannot do for ourselves. He takes the burden of human wrongdoing on his shoulders when he takes up his cross. The debt, we might say, has been paid. God forgives us, because God in Christ has done what we cannot do. God takes our debts on himself and wipes them out. This generous forgiveness does not say that sin does not matter. It says, rather, that God in his mercy cancels the account.
It is God’s nature to love. Those who love, forgive. The challenge to us is to do to others as God does to us. God wants us to know the power of forgiving, so that we can create a world of new beginnings in freedom and peace.