“For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
Matthew 6:14-15 (NRSV)
One of the problems with systematic theologies is that you inevitably run across something that refuses to fit nicely into the system.
Into our bold statements about the relationship of faith and works, grace being unconditional, and the inability to merit forgiveness, Jesus points out that there is, in fact, something his followers needed to do to receive God’s forgiveness, and if they did not do this thing, God would not forgive them.
To be forgiven by God, they needed to forgive others.
If this were the only time this sentiment came up, we could perhaps write it off as another instance of hyperbole to make a point. However, this particular sentiment comes up several times. For instance, Jesus makes it part of the Lord’s Prayer:
“And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”
Matthew 6:12 (NRSV)
and a parable:
“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
Matthew 18:23-25 (NRSV)
That parable was given as a response to the question: “How many times should I forgive my brother?” The clear answer is: “As many times as you want God to forgive you.”
As I alluded to in the Lord’s Prayer, we have to understand that this concept of God forgiving Israel of her sin isn’t just some spiritual transaction handled before bed – it is a concrete historical outcome that affects everything in Israel’s world. Israel has been under a series of pagan rulers and at times forcibly exiled from her land by them. This is viewed by Israel herself as the just punishment for breaking their covenant with YHWH.
Israel was supposed to be a set-apart people special to YHWH and, in doing so, be a light and a blessing to the other nations. Instead, they turned to idols and assimilation. They adopted the practices of the people around them. They lost their saltiness. As a result of reneging on their end of the deal, they got the penalty for breaking the contract – exile.
To forgive Israel of her sins would mean that she would no longer be under the curse of the Law. Instead, she would be restored to her identity, mission, and privileged role in the world. Her exile would be ended. Her land and prosperity would be restored. She would no longer be under the thumb of pagan oppressors. Righteousness would govern the land. The people would return to true worship and receive the Lord’s Spirit. These are the hopes held out by the last of the Old Testament prophets – that the day would come when Israel would repent and she and her God would be reconciled. Everything about her present troubles would pass away and all things would be made new.
This is a day that faithful Israel longed for and, with the advent of Jesus, was about to see.
But just as Jesus instructs faithful Israel to love her enemies so as to be like her Creator who gave good gifts to all, Jesus also instructs them to be like her Forgiver and forgive those who have done evil to them. You cannot expect your Lord to forgive you a great debt if you are unwilling to forgive a small one.
And Jesus will walk this road before Israel, being faithful. As the Roman Empire executes him, he does not condemn them with the words of an insurrectionist before the gallows, but instead pleads, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” It is a prayer Stephen will repeat as he is killed by the Temple authorities.
Unless you are in a truly singular situation, no one reading this will have been under Israel’s covenant with God at Sinai, nor been exiled for breaking it. The great forgiveness and restoration of Israel’s covenant breaking has come and gone.
But we see something else happen in history as well – that Gentiles who believe in what God has done in Jesus are now made one people with His faithful Israel and partakers of the same promise to the patriarchs – even receiving the Holy Spirit promised to Israel! They were not under a special covenant like Israel was with special penalties, and yet, they were part of that mass of nations in darkness, serving idols and living out lives dedicated to their own pleasures and prosperity. Israel’s God calls them out of that world into a new one – one that is populated by those holy to Him, walking the path of a new law of love under Christ as King.
Can any of us expect so great a gift if we are unwilling to imitate God in this? Israelites are forgiven their broken covenant. Gentiles are taken from their wild growths and grafted into God’s cultivated, cared for tree. This is a phenomenon that continues even unto the present day, and ought we to expect that such grace is ours if we refuse to extend it to others?
Surely, there are some difficult situations to work through. Forgiveness does not always mean a lack of consequences. Forgiveness does not mean justice does not need to be done. Forgiveness does not always mean “go on as if nothing had ever happened.”
But the presence of difficult situations to work through does not free us from the obligation. If we want to be the recipients of God’s graciousness, we have to be a people willing to extend it, even to enemies. Even to people who don’t ask for it. Especially to people who don’t deserve it. In this way, we are like our Father in Heaven, and we profess that Jesus is our Lord.
- What does forgiveness mean in practical terms? Does it look different from situation to situation? Is it more than just saying you forgive someone?
- It has been said that, if we are not a forgiving person, we perhaps do not truly realize what God has forgiven us. How are those two things connected?