Although we can never forgive as completely or as perfectly as God does, we are required to follow the example He has set. In our natural strength we will always fail because such humility and compassion do not come naturally, but we are still expected to extend the same mercy to others that Christ continually extends to us. After all, how can we so willingly receive God's mercy, yet be unmerciful to others? Jesus was very clear that if we want to be forgiven, we must forgive others.
In Matthew 18:21-35, Jesus tells a perfect parable to illustrate this point. It goes like this: "Then Peter came to Him and said, 'Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?' Jesus said to him, 'I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven'" (vv. 21-22).
I wonder if Peter was feeling a little smug when he asked that question. He could have asked it sincerely, or it could be that he thought forgiving someone seven times was generous. Either way, I'm sure he was more than surprised at Jesus' response. There is a big difference between forgiving someone seven times and forgiving them 490 times! The point that Jesus was making is that we shouldn't be keeping score anyway, but that we should always be willing to forgive.
Then Jesus begins His parable:
"Therefore the kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. And when he had begun to settle accounts, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. But as he was not able to pay, his master commanded that he be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and that payment be made. The servant therefore fell down before him, saying, 'Master, have patience with me, and I will pay you all.' Then the master of that servant was moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt" (vv. 23-27).
The story begins straight to the point. We have a servant who owes his master a considerable sum of money that he cannot repay. His master holds the future of the servant and his family in his hands; yet, rather than enforce his right to punish and collect the money, the master has compassion and forgives the entire debt.
What is interesting to point out is the sum of the debt itself. A denarii was the wage for one day of work for an average laborer. One talent was worth about 6,000 denarii, or 6,000 days of work. So, ten thousand talents would take the servant about 60 million days to work off the debt! It would have taken him countless lifetimes to have paid back such a debt. Obviously, this was an impossible amount of money to repay, which the master clearly understood.
The parable continues:
"But that servant went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and he laid hands on him and took him by the throat, saying, 'Pay me what you owe!' So his fellow servant fell down at his feet and begged him, saying, 'Have patience with me, and I will pay you all.' And he would not, but went and threw him into prison till he should pay the debt" (vv. 28-30).
Unbelievable, right? The servant who was forgiven an impossible debt he could not repay, turns right around and refuses to forgive another man who owed him a significantly lesser amount, equal to 100 days wages. Using today’s economy we’re talking about comparing tens of thousands versus hundreds of millions—that’s how far apart these two guys were from one another. Yet, the one who owed the greater debt would not forgive the one who owed less.
Now check this out:
"So when his fellow servants saw what had been done, they were very grieved, and came and told their master all that had been done. Then his master, after he had called him, said to him, 'You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?' And his master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him" (vv. 31-34).
So in the end, the unforgiving servant lost the grace and mercy that was bestowed upon him because he refused to forgive another person. Jesus finished the parable by saying, "So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses" (v. 35).
The reality is we have all sinned against God and we owe an impossible debt to repay. Paul wrote in Romans 6:23 that "the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord." The payment for our debt is our very life, but rather than hold us to that debt, God has given us the gift of eternal life. He has forgiven that impossible debt to repay. That’s why Jesus said, "If you have anything against anyone, forgive him, that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses. But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses” (Mark 11:25-26). Therefore it is absolutely necessary for us to forgive one another.
On our own we will always fail, but if we ask God to teach us to forgive and to give us the strength to do it, He will provide us with all that we need as we grow to become more like Him!