You’ve heard the stories. A young person is murdered and, incredibly, the parents declare that they forgive their child’s killer. In some cases, like this one here, they even go out of their way to provide for him when he is released from prison. What motivates and empowers a grieving mother or father to reach out to the one who took the life of their precious child with forgiveness and even love? In every such story that I’ve ever heard or read, it was their faith in Christ and the belief that as they were forgiven, Jesus calls them to forgive others.
Ever since we’ve been old enough to know right from wrong, we’ve done wrong. Some of us have done more than others, but all of us know that our historical record is multiply marred by sins of commission and omission. We may never have murdered anyone, yet for all our lies, rudeness, disobedience, thefts, malice, envy, greed, selfishness…and the list goes on…we know no jury trial is necessary. We undeniably stand convicted.
But how magnificently wonderful is the love and mercy of God that all our sins are wiped away, cast into the depths of the sea1, removed from us as far as the east is from the west2, when we turn to him in repentance and faith. We are forgiven. Not because we deserve it, just as your child’s murderer is completely undeserving of your forgiveness. But because of God’s mercy and grace, which we then are enabled to extend to others who wrong us.
Jesus gives a powerful depiction of God’s magnanimous forgiveness and our responsibility to forgive others in a parable recorded in Matthew 18. He likens the kingdom of heaven to a king settling accounts with his servants who owed him money. One owed him what amounted to 150,000 years’ wages, which at $8 an hour and a 40-hour week totals over 2 billion dollars today. It was an unrepayable debt. Yet the man begged for mercy and time and promised he would pay it in full. And what did the king do? He didn’t berate him for his poor money management. He didn’t take him to court. He didn’t set him up with a payment plan. He forgave the whole thing. Wow.
But the story doesn’t end there. After being completely released from this insuperable burden, the servant hunts down another servant who owed him about a hundred days’ wages and demands immediate repayment. When that servant pleads with him for patience and mercy, he angrily throttles him and has him thrown in prison. The king, upon learning of the servant’s refusal to pass along the mercy he had received, rescinds his cancellation of the servant’s 2 billion dollar debt and hands him off to the jailers.
However sordid or saintly our lives have been, we owe a debt that we cannot repay. But the King of kings stamps a clear and decisive Paid in Full on our sin note when we humbly acknowledge our debt and put our faith and trust in him. For those who consider themselves more saintly than sordid and resist being depicted as hopelessly indebted, Jesus gives us another lesson in Luke 7. Here Jesus is dining at the home of a Pharisee when a woman who is a known sinner, probably a town prostitute, comes and with much sorrow and weeping washes and anoints Jesus’ feet. When Jesus discerns the Pharisee’s self-righteous thoughts about who this woman was, he tells him a short parable and then asks him a question: “A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?”3 The Pharisee answers rightly that the one who had the larger debt forgiven would love more. Then Jesus contrasts the woman’s devotion to him with the Pharisee’s comparative disregard, and tells him that her love is great because “her sins, which are many, are forgiven…But he who is forgiven little, loves little.”4
Jesus’ point here, that our love for him will be proportional to the magnitude of debt that we acknowledge we have been forgiven of, is meant to teach that the evidence of a proud, self-righteous heart is a lack of devotion to Christ. But more so, that we are mistaken if we think our sin debt is not as unpayable as anyone else’s and that our proper response to Jesus’ redemptive work and forgiveness is a humble attitude of love and gratefulness.
Forgiveness is a beautiful thing. For a murderer to be forgiven by his victim’s family is an indescribable, almost unbelievable gift. It’s like that 2 billion dollar debt cancellation, and it’s how we need to see our own forgiveness…immeasurably great, totally undeserved, and wonderfully free.