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Basic Christian Life Skills 3: Forgiveness – Setting a prisoner free (transcript)


Reading: Matthew 18:21-35

“The servant’s master took pity on him, cancelled the debt and let him go.”

A Methodist minister and popular author and conference speaker in South Africa, Trevor Hudson, once told the story of how, on his last day at seminary where he was trained for ministry, he approached his favourite professor and asked him, “Professor, do you have a word for me?” His professor immediately answered: “Yes, I do have a word for you. Whenever you stand before your flock, leading worship, be aware that every person in the pews is sitting in a pool of his or her own blood.” I have discovered that this is a great truth. We have all been wounded by others, somewhere in our lives. And from time to time these wounds open up again – sometimes without us even knowing. In my pastoral work I have constantly been surprised when some of the most mature and capable individuals have let me in on the hurts they have to keep in check.

God, the healer of our wounds, has a way for us to rid ourselves of this painful burden. And this is by way of forgiveness. It is not a cheap or quick fix, but it is the only sure way to resolve the nagging and debilitating residue of undeserved wounds we have been dealt over the span of our lives. It is such an important part of Christian life that Jesus returns to the theme after the Our Father with the remark that God’s willingness to forgive and our willingness to forgive cannot be separated.

The passage we read today is the last part of a conversation between Jesus and his disciples that reads a bit like a chess game. Jesus was known to communicate his most important messages by an indirect approach instead of a frontal attack – especially if there is some danger that his message might be rejected. At the beginning of the chapter the disciples ask him who the greatest, the most important in the kingdom of heaven, are. Pawn to king 4. Jesus flips the question on its back by setting a little child before them and expounding on the importance of even the least among them in the kingdom of heaven. It is like a shepherd who goes looking for one sheep that is lost from his flock of 100 and does not rest until he finds it. Not the answer they expected! He moves a piece on the board that catches them off guard – probably the Sicilian defence.

Then he continues and lures them into territory on the chess board where they are bound to make a mistake: “If your brother or sister sins against you…” how do you respond? Ah! Now the disciples thought they knew. The rabbis said that you gave this person three chances to fix the problem, after which you were within your rights to condemn him or her. Three strikes and you are out – like in baseball. And then Jesus gives them the well-known three step process of church discipline: First you speak to the individual in person. If the person does not respond favourably you take two or three witnesses with you and try again. If that does not work, you announce it to the whole church. If that does not work you treat him or her like a pagan and a tax collector. “Ah,” the disciples probably thought, “now we’ve got it. You try to address the wrong three times and, if that doesn’t work, you let them have it.” Knight to bishop 3. But, no. The sting is in the tail of Jesus’ proposition. You don’t treat them as the Pharisees would treat a pagan or a tax collector; you treat them as Jesus would. You dine with them, engage them in conversation, show concern for them. Jesus had outflanked their pieces on the board. Check!

Now Peter comes with a move he thinks would turn the tide. If the Rabbis proposed that we forgive someone who wronged you three times, he would trump them. “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” You can see Peter leaning back and congratulating himself on his shrewd move. But Jesus’ face lights up as he makes his last move, the one that he has been heading for from the start and that leads to checkmate: “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times,” he says, and continues to tell the parable. “No, Peter,” he says, “there is no limit to the number of times we forgive.” Seventy-seven is a way of saying ‘an unlimited number of  times.’ And when he gets into the parable, we learn that there is not even a limit to the seriousness of the deed that we need to forgive. The servant (a very high-ranking official in the king’s court) is found to have a debt of 10 000 talents (10 000 bags of gold in our translation). A talent was the highest monetary unit of the time. A talent was worth about 20 years of a day labourer’s wages. 600 talents a year was the amount of tax from the whole area that was the old Israel. In our terms, this was billions of pounds. Clearly, it was impossible for him to pay back. How did he even rack up such a huge debt? He has been found out and he has to face the music now. The king demands justice. And so, the servant pleads. He even promises to pay the money back (which is, of course, impossible.)

And now comes the big moment, the God-moment. The king looks at the man and sees not a crook who has robbed him of a fortune (as we would fully expect him to do), but a flawed human being, at rock bottom, after having messed up on an unimaginable scale. No, the king looks at him and compassion stirs in his breast. And, here’s the thing: The Greek word Matthew uses for the compassion of the king is the word Matthew constantly uses for Jesus’ compassion – splagchidzeis – literally, to feel your innards move. And, so, the king cancels the debt. Can you believe it! What an unexpected turn of events. What compassion! Again, Matthew uses a loaded Greek word. Literally, the king “forgave” him his debt. He can walk away as a free man, owing not a penny!

Unfortunately, this is not the last surprize in the parable. The servant seems to completely misunderstand the king’s motives. He seems to miss the fact that the king acted out of compassion. Maybe he thought that the king was merely giving him time to pay up. (An absurd notion when one considers size of his debt.) Maybe he thought that the king had simply excused him, basically saying that it was not a big issue. (Again, an absurd notion in the light of the massive debt.) His conduct towards another servant who owed him a small amount of money – negligible compared to his debt that had just been cancelled – is not the conduct of someone who had just been pardoned out of the greatest compassion you could imagine. The thing is, forgiveness and grace come from a transformed heart. And hearts are transformed when grace is received and the Spirit is allowed to do its work, to bear fruit. Without this transformation, we cannot forgive nor be truly gracious. Forgiveness is a response to God’s grace. This is the only way it truly occurs.

The parable ends harshly. The king bundles him off to jail where the torturers (common in jails of the time) would have their way with him. And then Jesus draws a parallel between this and how the Father acts towards those who do not extend mercy to others. We should not mistake this as judgmental. This would be completely out of tune with the Lord’s approach so far. It is rather an indication of his seriousness that such a stern warning is inserted when he gets to checkmate in his teaching on forgiveness. The reason for this is plain to see. A lack of forgiveness, a lack of grace towards others is an indication that you have failed the only requirement to enter the kingdom: You have not opened up to the grace and forgiveness of our wonderful God. By refusing God’s grace you have excluded yourself from the kingdom of heaven. Jesus sounds the warning in the hope that they would respond to God’s compassion.

I would normally be cautious to dissect a parable and give meanings to every component, but this parable seems to be a little different. The message is clear: God forgives us out of his great compassion, no matter the size of our debt. When we open up to God’s grace and accept his forgiveness, we are transformed into forgiving persons, people with grace in our hearts. Yet the process of forgiveness is also spelled out in the story line with great clarity and seems to offer us a very practical course to follow when we need to forgive. So, this is the process I see:

First: Naming the wrong you were done. This is very important. If we do not do this well, we will struggle to forgive. We Christians tend to confuse excusing someone and forgiving someone, and tend towards the first. Excusing someone is something we do for minor offences and offences committed unintentionally. These offences do not need forgiveness, but only a bit of maturity on our side. But some offences are too serious and too damaging to simply be shrugged off as insignificant or as something you had coming. They can only be responded to with vengeance, holding grudges or forgiveness. Forgiveness needs a proper process and it starts with naming the wrong. Do this with precision, almost like a charge sheet for the accused in a court case. Also, add what it did to you, what the effect of the offence was on you. Doing this will most probably make anger surface, but this is a normal part of the process.

Doing this at the beginning of the process does something important: It gives a clear and specific definition of the person’s guilt that limits the guilt and prevents blanket condemnation. You cannot forgive someone for who they are or for something fuzzy and undefined. Clarity in your charge sheet is vastly important. The king in Jesus’ parable first pronounces an angry indictment before he is moved to compassion. This is also where God’s forgiveness starts out. We are forgiven, not merely excused.

This opens the way for the next part of the process:

Compassion. Look at the person who did you wrong as a flawed human being and look with compassion. The person is not defined by what he or she did to you. This is still a human being, created in the image of God and loved by God. And so, look at the person with Jesus’ eyes, with the kind of compassion that moves your innards. Also remember, on the scale of what we have been forgiven by God, the wrongs we have been done are comparable to the debt of the second servant in Jesus’ parable.

The third step: Make the conscious choice for forgiveness, against vengeance or carrying a grudge. Vengeance is not sweet. It demeans you in ways you had not expected. And vengeance mostly bears bitter fruit. Carrying a grudge is also not a constructive response. It continues the original pain and embitters you in the long run. It can be a slow poison that warps you in time. The only constructive choice we have is to write off the person’s debt, like the king in Jesus’ parable did. It is not an easy thing to do and it might take a while before we can honestly do it. It might also be something we need to repeat if the dark emotions return.

Lastly: Wish the person well. Pray for the person and ask God to bless her or him. It might be difficult at the start, but once you have done it with no desire for vengeance and without the negative emotions that wounded you before, you will discover a new freedom and life can begin again.

Much, much more that can be said, but I will limit myself to one thing: When you forgive as you have been forgiven, you make a startling discovery: When you forgive someone, you set a prisoner free. And the prisoner is you. And here I am back to Trevor Hudson’s professor telling him that we all sit in church in a pool of our own blood. Forgiveness can heal the wounds when nothing else can.


  • Even if the person is not there anymore to receive my forgiveness. It only takes one person to forgive.
  • Even if the person will not accept my forgiveness or even admit to having done anything wrong. It only takes one person to forgive.
  • Forgiveness can heal the wounds even if reconciliation is not possible or wise. It only takes one person to forgive.

Best of all, when I forgive, I open my own heart wider to receive God’s grace and love and the Holy Spirit takes me deeper into my journey towards the person God created me to be. I enter a world of grace, where I receive more of God’s grace and respond by dispensing more grace to others. In the process I am transformed. And as I grow older, I can enter the deep peace only available at God’s loving feet. Why wait?