THE word ‘forgive’ occurs 81 times in the whole of the Bible. ‘Forgiveness’ occurs 124 times, while the word ‘forgiving’ occurs 11 times, ‘forgiven’ occurs 61 times and ‘forgave’ occurs 13 times. Together, they make about 290 verses on the topic of forgiveness in the Bible. Why is forgiveness so important in the sight of God? What is so amazing about forgiving someone that Jesus implied that one ought not keep count of a brother’s sins?
Before we find out why God expects the quality of forgiving in us, we will turn to Matthew 18:21-35 where Jesus gave the parable of the unforgiving servant. Matthew 18 has two parables: the parable of the lost sheep and the parable of the unforgiving servant. The chapter begins with Jesus answering a key question of the disciples. They wanted to know “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Jesus did not give them a straightforward answer. Perhaps, the disciples expected Jesus to reel out a few names of the Old Testament patriarchs and tell them indeed they are the ones counted among the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus said nothing of that sort. He called a child, made it stand in their midst and made those revolutionary statements about humbling oneself.
The parable of the lost sheep is an extension of what the Lord wanted to say about being childlike. The same parable is explained in Luke 15:1-7. However, the setting and the background of the parable there seems to be slightly different. For the sake of greater clarity on our subject ‘forgiveness’, we shall only look at the parable as mentioned in Matthew 18. Jesus prefaced the parable by saying ‘See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven’ (verses 10&11). And he wrapped up the parable in the context of the children or people who are childlike, if you will. Look at this verse: ‘So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish’ (verse 14).
Although a child is cited as an example for being the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, Jesus extends the model of the analogy to the parable of the lost sheep too. Why did he do it? To understand it better, we need to move beyond and look at the next parable on offer – the parable of the unforgiving servant that is closely connected to the parable of the lost sheep (verses 21 to 35).
What makes me think that these two parables are interrelated? There are two reasons. Let me explain: 1. Both parables talk about the act of forgiveness. 2. And forgiveness can only come out of being childlike.
The shepherd who goes after the one sheep that went astray in the first parable (or anyone who has sinned and gone away from the presence of God) and the king who settles accounts with his servants in the second parable do it out of compassion. Jesus began the second parable with this line ‘Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants…’ It’s almost like Jesus telling the disciples ‘Look, before even you get to know who will be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, you need to understand what the kingdom of heaven is like.’ The kingdom of heaven is about mercy, justice and compassion, Jesus tells us.
The Lord used up five verses to offer some practical suggestions to handling a difficult brother in the body of Christ.
“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matthew 18: 15-17).
The suggestion is to handle someone who breaches your tranquility. Remember, this advice of Jesus’ will work only if you put it into action for trespasses committed against you by a fellow believer. The assumption is that he will be reconciled to you in private, or in the presence of couple of witnesses or in the church. If there is no rapprochement at any of the three interventions, then the next way out is to treat him like an unbeliever. In other words, intercede for him in the Lord’s presence and pray for a mighty working of the Holy Spirit upon his life and your situation. Simply put, if you fail on all three levels of reconcilement, then you ought to leave it to the Lord because then the battle is the Lord’s.
Now, look at verses 19.
“Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven.”
Who are these two that Jesus talks about here? It is you and the dissenting brother in the body of Christ. To get this clear, we need to turn to Mark 11:24-25 and Matthew 5:23-24. In both places, the condition to getting our prayers answered and our gift offering accepted is laid out: reconcilement.
To understand this even better, turn with me to Luke 18:11-13. Jesus tells the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector here. In verse 9, Jesus’ intent of saying the parable is mentioned: ‘To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable’. If you look closely, you will see another reason why the prayer of the tax collector was answered while the Pharisee went home without being forgiven.
From the Pharisee’s words, we understand that both of them were present in the temple at the same time. Whether they came together or not is not our concern. They were together in the temple at the same time and their motive was the same: seeking the presence of God. The tax collector went a step ahead and sought the pardon of God too while the Pharisee does not even seem to be contrite enough to let the presence of God fill him.
In his prayer, the Pharisee condemned the tax collector among other men (robbers, evildoers, adulterers), while the tax collector simply agreed with the words of the Pharisee – that he was a ‘sinner’, unworthy of even looking up to heaven. Consequently, along with his repentance, since the condition of prayer being answered (if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask) was also fulfilled, the tax collector went home justified.
While the repentant tax collector humbled himself, his attitude was one of reconcilement. The Pharisee, on the other hand, was too full of himself to even consider himself equal to anyone leave alone seek God’s forgiveness and reconcilement with people.
A child’s anger and hurt is only for a moment, while it is adults who nurse over grudges, insults and heartbreaks for days, months and sometimes years together. The key to having the spirit of forgiveness is being childlike because the kingdom of heaven belongs to those who are childlike in their attitude of forgiving others and humbling oneself.
If our unforgiving spirit can have eternal consequences, is it worth being like the Pharisee?
Robin Sam is the founding editor of The Christian Messenger newspaper. A journalist with over 16 years of experience, he has worked with The Indian Express, Sify.com and Yahoo! besides several other publications. He quit his job in 2008 to get into full-time media ministry. You can contact him at editor [at] christianmessenger [dot] in