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When to forgive (and when NOT to forgive) Matthew 18:21-35

Is there a limit to forgiveness? Should a family say about the hardened murderer of the one they loved, “We forgive him.” Should a woman to say to her unrepentant, wife-beating husband “I forgive you.” Perhaps you are struggling with a family relationship where there’s bad blood. Someone has wronged you and you are carrying a grudge because of what was said or done. Should you just “forgive” that person and move on?

Maybe you thought to yourself as St. Peter expressed it to Jesus, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him?” (Matthew 18:21-35). Peter wonders whether there might be a limit to forgiveness, a time to to say, “That’s enough. I will never forgive you for what you’ve done!” Look at the context of Peter’s question. Jesus had just given the disciples a “how to” on dealing with someone who has sinned against another. Peter asks the follow-up question: “What happens when I talk to my brother who has wronged me or whom I have helped to confess and receive forgiveness for a sin and he goes right back to that sin or wrongs me again? I can envision him or her taking advantage of forgiveness.”

And therefore he wonders about a limit to forgiveness: “Would seven times be enough?” Peter thought that he was being generous. After all, the rabbis of his day taught that only three times were required. Peter was taking what the rabbis commanded, multiplying it by two, and adding one more for good measure! “Seven times,” Peter thought, “seven times should be plenty enough forgiveness.” But it was not enough for Jesus. In answer to how many times we should forgive, Jesus said, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” In other words, be always willing to forgive.

By nature we aren’t willing to forgive, are we? We’d rather get revenge. We don’t have a spirit of forgiveness that is ready, willing, and able to say, “I forgive you” and really mean it. It is a physiological fact that holding a grudge and hating people can cause ulcers, heart attacks, headaches, skin rashes, asthma, and even death! But what is most deadly is God’s attitude toward an unforgiving heart. Look in your heart right now and see if there is a grudge you need to confess and repent of.

To teach this point, Jesus told a story about a servant who owed his king ten thousand talents. That’s about the equivalent of ten million dollars. The king was ready to have the man, his wife, their children, and all their possessions sold to satisfy the debt. The man came to the king begging for more time to pay him back. The king was moved with compassion and so completely forgave the man his debt. What relief! What joy! But wait . . . That same servant had someone who owed him about twenty dollars. He seized this man by the throat and told him to pay up. And when his coworker asked for more time – just as he asked the king – this man who had been forgiven his debt of ten million dollars threw him into prison for failing to pay his debt of twenty dollars. When the king heard about this, he was enraged, called the man in again, and said, “Here I forgave all your debt because you pleaded with me, should you not have had mercy on your fellow servant as I had on you?” And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. Jesus’ conclusion to the story was no exaggeration: “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”

Why do we forgive? Because it is eternally deadly not to forgive. It can be a hard teaching for many people. You may say to yourself, “I just can’t forgive him. What he did to me is just too heinous, too horrible, done too often to forgive.” Sometimes our hurt can go so deep, we feel we cannot let go of it. But we can forgive and mean it. Why? Because God forgives and means it. The psalmist sang in Psalm 130, “If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness.” God’s pardon has no limits. And that’s a good thing, isn’t it? Just look at our lives. We have ruined our relationship with God by repeated failure to live up to his standards. And yet he forgives us again and again.

Forgiveness is at the heart of Christian faith. It is at the center of everything we believe about Christ. But is Jesus saying we should forgive someone who is not sorry? Let’s understand something about when to forgive because there is some confusion in our society and in Christendom about how we get forgiveness. Is there a time when we shouldn’t forgive someone? Jesus instituted the Ministry of the gospel by telling the apostles “if you do not forgive sins, they are not forgiven,” (John 20:23) and that means there will be a time when a Christian does not forgive someone. When would that be?

First, we should be sure not to confuse being ready to forgive someone with actually forgiving someone who is impenitent. When people speak of forgiving someone who doesn’t want our forgiveness, we’re really talking about letting go of a grudge and loving someone whether they love you or not, whether they have asked for forgiveness from you or not. Forgiveness is more than that. Forgiveness is a proclamation of a reconciliation that puts differences aside, that everything is OK. Those who were estranged from each other, now are at peace with each other.

Second, receiving forgiveness requires repentance. That’s how it reads in the Bible. Whenever the word “forgiveness” is used, somewhere in the context is repentance. Look closely at the story of the unmerciful servant above. There was a desire to receive pardon. The story is about forgiving from the heart someone who has wronged us, not about forgiving someone even if they don’t ask for it. If someone has hurt you, wronged you, sinned against you, and that person is not repentant, does not admit sin or a desire for reconciliation, then we do not forgive, either when speaking to that person or when speaking to others about that person.

When do we not forgive someone? When someone is not bothered by a sin and would do it again without remorse. To forgive someone who is not sorry misleads that person into thinking God doesn’t take sin seriously. It’s not love to make someone think their relationship with God is OK when it is not because of impenitence. It’s really a selfish thing to forgive someone who is impenitent. It’s not so much an absolution of the offender as it is an excuse to avoid calling someone to repentance so that he might ask for forgiveness. Repentance and faith always precede the words, “I forgive you.” Forgiveness has not been received by everyone whether they know it or not, whether they believe it or not. Forgiveness is only received by faith.

To refuse forgiveness to someone is not the same as hating that person. We are always willing to forgive. We love the person who has wronged us. We even love our enemies. St. Peter later put it this way in his first epistle, “Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing” (3:9). Try this some time: Pray for blessings for your enemy. Pray that his children succeed. Pray that he get a raise at work. Pray those kinds of things and see how long you can hate your enemy. But that’s not the same as forgiving your enemy.

Forgiving someone, speaking a word of absolution, is the means to restore a broken relationship. It restores our relationship with God and with one another. To say “I forgive you” is to bring peace, harmony, and comfort to someone who is bothered by an offending sin. In the 5th Petition of the Lord’s Prayer we say “as we forgive those who trespass against us.” What that means is that God forgives us through the Word of another person. Like the bread and wine in Communion which communicate to us Jesus’ body and blood and along with it the forgiveness of sins, the words “As we forgive those…” is the sign that God speaks through person-to-person conversation, a verbal word where sound waves hit ear drums to communicate the forgiveness it speaks, hears, and receives through faith.

What a life-changing message that God has unlimited forgiveness! He sent his only Son to pay the penalty for our sin. He suffered hell so that we might enjoy heaven. The Word of forgiveness in Christ changes us because when we look at our failures, we can’t help but wonder if there should be a limit to God’s love for us. We know what he has done for us, and yet we keep on sinning. We keep on going back to those things which offend him. And when we realize and admit we have done wrong — again – we come to him in repentance and he tells us through a person who speaks his Word and administers his Sacraments: “I forgive you.”

Be ever willing to forgive. God is and God does by grace, through faith, and through the Word alone.

+ Pr. Jim Schulz


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“God is Known” Bible classes
Beginning Thursday September 11th at 7:00pm, we’ll be offering a series of Bible studies under the theme “God is Known.”

Often in life we ask the questions, “Where in the world is God? Why doesn’t he seem to care? Why won’t he do something about my life?” These studies help us see that God does indeed care about us. He is not far away, but very near. He is not an unknown, but is known. He knows us and we can know Him as he reveals himself to us in Word and Sacrament. Join us Thursdays at 7:00pm for this study on the knowable God!

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