That’s what Peter asked, in Matthew 18:21. Jesus responded with the following:
“…the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.
The servant fell on his knees before him. “Be patient with me,” he begged, “and I will pay back everything.” The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.
But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him and began to choke him. “Pay back what you owe me!” he demanded.
His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, “Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.”
But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened.
Then the master called the servant in. “You wicked servant,” he said, “I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?” In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”
What Jesus is showing Peter (and us) is that how we forgives reveals-accurately or inaccurately-the work and character of our God. If we forgive seven times, our God is one who forgives like a human being. And like a human being, that God quickly runs out of patience and wants sinners to pay for their sins themselves.
But if Peter forgives seventy-seven times in the name of the God of Peter, then the God of Peter is revealed to be a generous God indeed-one who does not forgive like human beings do. One whose forgiveness is judgment plus mercy-a force so powerful that it will eventually set right the damage that sin and death and evil have caused.
So God’s mission of righteousness-setting the world right through his judgment and mercy (which is what he means by forgiveness)-is advanced or hindered precisely to the degree that we realize that our own forgiveness of others is nothing more or less or other than part of that mission.
Debts to the servant, in other words, have become debts to the master; as the servant forgives those debts, so forgives the master.
If the servant fails to forgive those debts, the generous character of the master is shrouded or, worse, denied. And sin and unforgiveness continues to burn like acid through our human race, sinners and sinned against alike.
For more guidance in Forgiving and Reconciling, make sure to check out our free podcasts, video clips, and blog posts this month at www.ericfoley.com.