In Matthew 18:21-35, Peter asks how many times he ought to forgive someone who sins against him and Christ responds with a story about a servant. This servant is called to settle a debt he owes to a certain king (on the order of about $10,000,000). Since he is unable to pay, the king orders that he, his wife, his children, and everything he owns be sold in order to pay back as much as possible. However, the servant begs the king to give him more time to pay. The king is filled with compassion and cancels the servant’s debt.
Immediately after leaving the king’s presence, the servant goes and finds one of his fellow servants who owes him a debt of about $20, grabs him by the throat and demands to be paid. His fellow servant begs him for more time to pay. The servant, however, will hear none of this and has his fellow servant put in jail until payment be made. Word of this reaches the ears of the king who summons the servant back before him. He proceeds to ask the servant if he should not have shown mercy to his fellow servant after the king had shown mercy to him? Therefore, since he didn’t have mercy on his fellow, the king has him put in jail until he pays all that he owed the king. So will God deal with us, Christ says, if we do not forgive others.
Initially it seems like Jesus is making a big deal out of something rather minor. After all, isn’t the important thing that we love God? Indeed, love is at the core of our relationship with God; and the nature of this love is to effect change in our lives. Therefore, rather than focus on etymology and definitions, let’s look at the marks of the love of God in our lives.
In the story told by Jesus, the king’s act of compassion did not lead to change in the servant, as evinced by his treatment of his fellow servant. Likewise, it becomes clear that our lives have not been affected by love of God if we do not forgive others. Despite God’s work in our lives, our hearts remain hardened. We have not accepted a new heart from God that grows in His love, but have kept our hearts of stone.
This parable of the unforgiving servant serves as a reminder that God is not inviting us to have a “get-out-of-hell-free” card. God is inviting us into a life with Him. In His love and mercy, He has cancelled the debt that we have incurred because of our sin, but that is only the beginning. If we stop our spiritual growth after we accept Christ or live as we did before we accepted Christ as our Lord and Savior, we are just like the unforgiving servant. The servant’s hardness of heart in the face of the king’s compassion is revealed by his refusal to forgive his fellow servant. Our hardness of heart in the face of God’s grace is revealed by our refusal to forgive others.
Forgiving others can sometimes be extremely difficult. Fortunately, God does not leave us to do this on our own strength and willpower. He works to bring about change within us through His indwelling Spirit. For example, the Spirit bears the fruits of love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23) in our lives, which help us to forgive others.
The love at the core of our relationship with God is a love that changes. God’s love for us produces this change and our love for God cooperates with this change. The love that God has for us is constant and constantly reaching out to us. The question before us is how will we respond? Will we ignore and resist God? Will we claim to love God, but in reality ignore Him? Or will we love God and allow His love to shape us into the person we were born to be?