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Being a disciple requires an expansive perspective on forgiveness. Today our perspective is broadened by the good news that God’s forgiveness is not based on our idea of fairness, but rather on abundant, unimaginable grace. God “does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities” (Ps. 103:10). The king forgives our entire debt, no matter how enormous it is (Matt. 18:23-27). We also are challenged to stretch our perspective and forgive each other. With Peter, we learn to stop keeping score (Matt. 18:21-22).
It’s not an easy thing to do. Again and again we fall back on limited human understandings of what is “fair.” Looking at the story of Joseph and his brothers, it’s easy for us to say that his brothers really didn’t deserve forgiveness. Even their plea for forgiveness is dishonest and manipulative—have they really repented (Gen. 50:15-17)? Joseph takes the wider view and realizes that it isn’t his brothers’ intentions that matter, but God’s. God’s forgiveness is much greater than what is fair, what we deserve.
So what does this new, broadened perspective look like in the lives of Christians and congregations? Paul provides a pragmatic glimpse: “Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them” (Rom. 14:3). If all are truly welcomed by God, we are called to share the good news of that welcome in all we say and do.
Gospel: Matthew 18:21-35
When Peter asks about the limits of forgiveness, Jesus responds with a parable that suggests human forgiveness should mirror the unlimited mercy of God.
21Peter came and said to [Jesus], “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
23“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25and, 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. 26So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28But 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.’ 29Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 31When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ 34And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”