Matthew 18 is arguably the most thorough and robust teaching that Jesus gave his followers on the difficult subject of forgiveness. It was also one of the most difficult things he asked us to do.
When I was a child I grew up in a conservative neighborhood church in Little Rock, Arkansas. And it was common to witness one of the tenderhearted members of that church repeatedly respond publically at the altar call to ask for forgiveness for a particular besetting sin. It was also common to see fellow church folk roll their eyes and say, “S/he’s just looking for attention. They’ve already asked for forgiveness.”
Two things come to mind as I think about that early experience, and the first is that it takes a lot of courage to ask for forgiveness. It is, in many ways, humiliating and embarrassing. It is also impossible for those witnessing repentance to know what that person is thinking or feeling at that moment — totally impossible.
Yet, our nation is becoming more and more judgemental and unforgiving. Maybe it’s because we have been hurt by the offense and we want revenge. “I’ll never talk to you again.” Or I hope they throw the book at you.” But in all the options that Jesus lays out for us in Matthew 18, those two are not there.
In this great teaching about forgiveness, Jesus lays out five general principles that are necessary for the person wanting a relationship with Christ.
- The first principle is that Jesus’ makes us responsible for the well-being of another. Don’t ever make it difficult for another person to follow Jesus. Jesus calls this a “stumbling block” that we place in front of another.
- Second, there is no cost that should be spared in redeeming another. Jesus tells the outrageous story of s shepherd who leaves 99 perfectly safe sheep in order to go find one lost one. We are directed in this parable to think about the utter love of the shepherd for every sheep.
- Third, we should be intentional and focused on restoration when something comes between two people. Jesus describes the threefold process of trying to secure the forgiveness of the Other. In this strategy, the “bad guy” is the one who refuses to listen and respond graciously. Sin is not the subject of this strategy; it’s the way we treat each other.
- Fourth, and most difficult, there is no end to forgiveness. Jesus told Peter to forgive 70 X 7 times. Brothers and sisters do not give up on each other.
- Fifth and finally, Jesus’ wrath is particularly hot for someone who will not forgive another. In this point, Jesus tells the parable of a servant who had an enormously large debt forgiven by his master. Immediately after that, the servant went to find a fellow servant and demanded repayment of an insignificant debt. In teaching about prayer, Jesus said that we should not ask for forgiveness if we are unwilling to forgive another.
What Jesus commands in Matthew 18 is difficult beyond words. But I think that Jesus knew that in the maturity of forgiveness, one is no longer a slave to anger and is freed from the chains of victimhood. Those so freed are able to understand and enjoy God’s grace that all of God’s forgiven experience.
Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “God, forgive us when we sin but only to the degree that we ourselves are willing to forgive others.” Matthew 6:12.
Seems like a fair contract.