I have to confess that this is one of my favorite parables in all the Gospels. It’s a wonderful indication of how our Lord was able to pack so much meaning into just a few short verses.
I saw a sign outside of a church once that said “Marriage is the union of two forgivers,” and that’s true of all human relationships. We all sin, we all struggle with a sinful and selfish nature, and if two people spend any amount of time together they’re going to have something to forgive. Most people, believer and nonbeliever, readily admit that we need to forgive each other, but where Christ takes us to a whole new level is in not only why we forgive but where is the upper threshold of forgiveness.
Peter asked his Master about this issue, and actually he was being pretty generous by the standards of his day. Most rabbis taught that you were required to forgive up to three times, but he offered up the number seven. Jesus’ answer, in effect, brings us to a completely different attitude altogether. In effect, Peter was asking how much “debt” someone could enter in our ledger, and Jesus told us to throw the ledger out. He’s not telling us to forgive 77 times (or 490 times, depending on your translation). He 's telling us to stop counting.
Remember when I talked about parables, and warned that not everything in a parable corresponds to something symbolized? Well, that rule doesn’t apply here, because you can easily see how every character symbolizes something else. The king is obviously God, and the unmerciful servant represents us, at least how we tend to be. None of us could ever pay him back the debt we owe, and all of us as believers have had our slates completely wiped clean.
And of course the forgiven servant went out and found a fellow servant who owed him just a few dollars, and treated him in the exact opposite way he had just been treated. Did you notice that the second servant’s appeal is almost word-for-word the same as what the first servant had said to the king?
What does the prison symbolize? Some people (wrongly, I believe) try to make the prison out to be hell, but I don’t think so. I believe that the Bible is pretty clear that you can’t lose your salvation, and it does make sense for it to be something else. Have you ever met someone who couldn’t forgive, who was still holding onto some hurt or slight or offense from years ago? Did they seem happy to you? Any joy there? Any peace? I would nominate them as the most miserable people on earth. The worst prisons on earth are those without any physical walls.
So now we have two very good reasons to forgive. The first is an appeal to what’s right. My friend, if you’re a believer, if Christ has forgiven you your sins, then you have no right not to forgive. I promise you, no matter what they did to you, it’s nothing compared to what you’ve done to the heart of our Father. And the second reason? Pure self-interest. You'll have no joy, no peace, and no true fellowship with your Father until you let it go.
I realize that I may be talking to someone who has a lot to forgive. I’m not talking about “You dented my car.” Maybe it’s “You stole my innocence as a child,” or “You murdered my family member.” I'd never presume to tell you to forgive that person, but Jesus does. You might not feel you can, but you can. With his strength, his power, his Spirit, you can. Quite frankly, it’s not really an issue of “can” but “want to.” Some people actually want to hold onto the anger, the bitterness, the hate. Please don’t be one of them.
Lord Jesus, I have absolutely no right to hold onto this anger. You forgave me, and that’s reason enough. Please help me, give me the strength, and the desire, to do this.