The challenge of unforgiveness…



Matthew 18:23 Jesus said,  “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25 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. 26 So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28 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.’ 29 Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 31 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. 32 Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35 So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

This morning I’m drawn to the very last verse in this passage. “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

The story is told in the context of Jesus’ teaching on the topic forgiveness. God the Father is portrayed here as an understanding king who forgives a slave who owes him more than the slave could possibly repay. Yet this same slave fails to forgive another slave who owes him a relative pittance. V.35 serves as a warning to the reader.

It reminds me of Jesus’ teaching on prayer. In the Lord’s Prayer Jesus taught us to pray, “Forgive us our sins… as we forgive those who sin against us.” Here again is the reciprocal nature of forgiveness. God the Father has forgiven us more than we could every repay. For us to then refuse forgiveness to another human being is unthinkable in the eyes of God.  When we act in this manner, forgiveness is withdrawn and the guilt of our sin is reinstated. I realize this sounds harsh, but I’m just interpreting the text.

As a pastor, I talk with people about life’s hurts and struggles all the time. There are many reasons why people struggle, but a leading cause (in my experience) is unforgiveness. It’s human nature to carry a grudge against those who’ve done us wrong. We want revenge. We want justice. To forgive anyone, especially an unrepentant offender, can feel seem we’re letting someone off the hook. It can seem like they’re getting away with something. However, scripture doesn’t require an offender to repent before we forgive. Why? Because unforgiveness is like a poison that sickens the heart, mind, and spirit of the one who carries it. It is toxic and will destroy us from the inside out.

I’ll admit, this is a difficult teaching. I’m human like you, so I understand how hard it can be to truly forgive someone who has hurt me deeply. Doesn’t happen very often, but it happens. Perhaps that’s why I also noticed this phrase, “forgive your brother or sister from the heart“.

It’s easy to say we forgive someone, but fail to do so in our deepest self. We might extend forgiveness for a time, but then find ourselves throwing it back in the offender’s face when it suits us. The offense can become a convenient weapon to use in the heat of an argument. This kind of behavior, and others like it, is evidence of forgiveness extended by the mouth, but not from the heart.

So this morning I’m asking myself, “Where am I holding on to the offense of another? Where am I choosing to withhold forgiveness? Where might I have extended forgiveness from the mouth, but not the heart?”

Heavenly Father, you have indeed forgiven us so much. We can never repay you for the grace extended to us through Jesus, our Lord. But genuine forgiveness is hard for us. In some cases it may seem downright impossible. Give us grace to let go of the hurts from our past. In our own strength we cannot do it, but empowered by your Holy Spirit, we can show others the grace you’ve first shown to us. We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.


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