Tit for tat. It’s the American way. I work for you, you pay. You hit my car, you pay. You hurt me, you pay. You take something that’s mine, you pay. You cheat me, you pay. We are an individualistic society so the center of every dispute is the individual. We want what is fair, for the person wronged, especially ourselves.
When Jesus finished up his discourse on community life with his closest followers in Matthew 18, it seemed to ruffle Peter’s feathers a bit. Read Matthew 18: 21-35. “Wait a minute…” you can almost hear him say, “Community life is hard. Surely I don’t have to deal with difficult people forever. Let’s simplify this. Just tell me how many times I have to forgive my brother. Surely seven times would be a good, Scriptural number.”
Jesus must have chuckled. “Not seven, but seventy-seven.” (More like to infinity and beyond my friend!) Then, in typical Jesus fashion, he puts this in words that his followers, to include Peter, can understand. He tells them a story.
Basically, one man owes his master what it would take 20 years of working every single day to repay, a lifetime of work for a Galilean fisherman. The man knows that he cannot possible repay this, but he begs for more time to try to work and pay it off. The master takes pity, compassionately empathizes with the man, and goes from ordering him to be thrown in prison to canceling the debt for good, and letting him go free. Jaws would have dropped, for this was an extravagant act of mercy.
Then, Jesus continues, this same forgiven man goes out and demands one day’s worth of wages from a man who owes him this measly amount. The forgiven man refuses to forgive, and instead throws the poor man in prison until he can repay his small debt. This would have seemed outrageous to Jesus’ audience! How could that man do such a thing?!
So the original merciful master, the one who had been so compassionate and forgiving, hears of what has happened and is outraged! He harshly rebukes the man who refused to forgive. He takes back what he said, and throws the first man into prison to be tortured until he can pay back every cent he owes!
“This,” Jesus said, “is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
What it boils down to, friends, is that forgiveness is God’s prerogative. We want it to be fair, but our perspective is skewed. We’re the sinners. We’re the ones that brought shame to the reflective image of a perfect God when sin commenced. He restored honor to his name by canceling the debt we owed but could never, in a million years of trying, repay. He scorned the shame of sin on the cross, his way! He cancelled the magnanimous debt, himself, in the form of Jesus Christ. What was left was a family of believing recipients, adopted children, living together now as a collective unit, no longer individual entities. He left his own Spirit to convict and transform each person so that together, they would form a collective whole, his very body, the church, for His glory! We die to ourselves in God’s economy. Our life is now hidden with Christ in God.
Individualistic societies care about what is fair for each individual. Collectivist societies don’t function this way. The center of the dispute is the family unit, and honor for the family name takes precedent over what is fair for each person individually. As honor bearers for our Father, forgiven beyond measure, we accept abundant grace so that it overflows from a receptive heart to others around us. Forgiveness is God’s way. As ambassadors, we are the forgiving ones. We’re debt free, so we invite others to live debt free alongside us!
Lighten up, Peter. You’re going to be forgiving for a very long time!