Debt-free Mercy
by Jack Wald | March 17th, 2019

Matthew 18:21-35

A Tale of Two Cities is a novel written by Charles Dickens which begins with the famous line, “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” It is a novel that takes place in the two cities of London and Paris during the time of the French Revolution when the aristocracy of France were being beheaded by the guillotine.

In this novel there is a central figure, Madame DuFarge. Madame DuFarge is one of those who are overthrowing the French aristocracy. Day by day she sits outside her husband’s wine shop knitting. People pass by on their business and all they can see is a woman knitting. But as Madame DuFarge knits, she knits into her weave the names of people who will or should be guillotined.

That is a great picture of broken relationships and unforgiveness. It is a picture of a person who sits day by day, nurturing feelings of bitterness and anger. It is a picture of a person who sacrifices the joy of life and relationships for vengeance. It is a picture of one who has chosen the way of death.

Contrast this with a scene from a novel by a Frenchman, Victor Hugo. Les Miserables takes place in post-Napoleonic France. It is the story of Jean Valjean, a criminal who has spent nineteen years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread. He comes out of prison and is rejected everywhere he goes because his identity card reveals him to be an ex-convict.

The turning point in his life comes at the beginning of the novel when he is welcomed into the house of a Catholic bishop. He enjoys the hospitality of the bishop, is given a room where he can sleep, but gets up in the middle of the night and steals the household silver.

The next day, the gendarmes bring Jean Valjean to the bishop because Jean Valjean told the gendarmes the bishop had given him the silver and they don’t believe his story. The bishop approaches the gendarmes as they enter his garden and says,

“Ah, there you are!” said he, looking towards Jean Valjean, “I am glad to see you. But! I gave you the candlesticks also, which are silver like the rest, and would bring two hundred francs. Why did you not take them along with your plates?”

The gendarmes release Jean Valjean, who is stunned. The bishop gives him the candlesticks and then speaks to him.

“Forget not, never forget that you have promised me to use this silver to become an honest man.”
Jean Valjean, who had no recollection of this promise, stood confounded. The bishop had laid much stress upon these words as he uttered them. He continued solemnly:
“Jean Valjean, my brother: you belong no longer to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I am buying for you. I withdraw it from dark thoughts and from the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God!”

Jean Valjean becomes a changed man and the rest of the novel reveals the effects of the powerful change that took place in Jean Valjean’s life and how he became a force for good in the lives of those around him.

Two scenes: Madame DuFarge who sits day by day, nurturing the injustices done to her, knitting into her weave the names of those who should die to satisfy her thirst for vengeance; and Monseigneur Bienvenu, the bishop, who chooses to forgive and builds a new life for God.

Two scenes: Madam DuFarge and the way of death; Monseigneur Bienvenu and the way of life.

As you sit here this morning, which scene best illustrates your life? Has anyone ever hurt you in such a way that you have not been able to forgive them for what they did? Have you knit into the weave of your life the names of those who deserve punishment for how they have hurt you? Or have you been able to forgive those who have hurt you deeply?

My mother had a difficult time forgiving. Her best friend, my father’s oldest sister, betrayed her in the split of a family business and she cut her and all of her family out of her life and out of our lives – literally. She went through all the photo albums with scissors and cut out the faces of all the relatives who had offended her. When I wrote my dad’s oral history the year before I came to Morocco, I had to go to one of my aunts to get her copies of family photographs.

My mother’s unforgiveness was icy cold. When I or one of my siblings did something she was unhappy with, she cut us off as if we did not exist. Because she was upset with me for a perceived offense, she did not speak to me for the year and a half before I came to Morocco. In that time I worked with my father, writing down his oral history. When my father came to my house to work on this project, my mother was furious at him for coming to see me. (A couple weeks before I left for Morocco my mother let me out of the doghouse and in the days before I left was as kind and loving toward me as she had been cold and distant before. She was a difficult woman.)

Some of us know what it is like to not be forgiven and some of us are holding on to hurt and pain and are unwilling and unable to forgive the person that has hurt us. This morning’s parable is for us.

As I mentioned last week, the parables were used to illustrate a point Jesus was making. The context for the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant begins with Peter coming up to Jesus to ask a question. It is obvious that the disciples have been talking about this among themselves. Being Jews, they were used to the Rabbinic method of study in which the fine points of Deuteronomic law were discussed. Rabbis and students would discuss this question, “How many times must you forgive someone?” The answer in these Rabbinic discussions generally regarded it sufficient to forgive someone three times. The disciples know that Jesus is more than a rabbi and so Peter, as their spokesman, asks Jesus,
“Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”
Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.

Peter wants to ask an intelligent question that will please Jesus with his piety so he doubles the number and adds one for good luck. He clearly expects, and hopes, that Jesus will commend him and consider him generous in how often he is willing to forgive.

But then Jesus blows his number out of the water and says the right number is seventy-seven times. What does this number mean? Jesus’ answer goes all the way back to Genesis, the first book in the Bible.

When Cain, the son of Adam, killed his brother Abel, he feared for his life, that vengeance would be sought against him. And God told him that if anyone killed him, that person would suffer vengeance seven times over. (Genesis 4:15)

Five generations later, Lamech killed a man for wounding him and made a boastful threat, “If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times.” (Genesis 4:24)

Jesus took this ever-increasing vengeance and transformed it into ever-increasing forgiveness. From vengeance to forgiveness. From death to life. Jesus rejects the world of Madame DuFarge and sets the path for Monseigneur Bienvenu and Jean Valjean.

And then Jesus continues with this parable, to further illustrate his point.

A king wants to settle accounts with his servants.

The king Jesus has in mind here is an oriental king, one who had power of life and death over his servants. In this system, the king had servants who themselves had quite a bit of power. The king delegated responsibility to them and they had property and their own servants to help with their responsibilities.

A servant who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to the king. What did the listeners of this parable hear when Jesus said the servant owed ten thousand talents? This was a phenomenal amount. 100 Denarii, the amount owed to the servant later in the parable, was three to four months of daily wages. This was a significant debt, but payable.

But one talent was equal to 6,000 denarii and the debt was 10,000 talents. This was equal to 60,000,000 days wages, three hundred tons of silver. King Herod collected in taxes only 900 talents a year. Ten thousand talents is an impossibly large debt, impossible to pay back.

Since the man 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, his wife and children, and their possessions would not repay even the smallest fraction of the debt, but at least a message would be sent to others, not to mismanage the king’s money.

In the parables of Jesus, there is always a twist, something that came as a shock to the listeners. It might be a Samaritan, despised by Orthodox Jews as being unworthy of God, who ends up a hero in a story that includes Jewish priests and Levites. It might be people throwing a party for one stupid lamb that got lost from the herd.

In this parable, this is the first twist. This impossibly large debt that was owed, was forgiven. The servant fell on his knees and pleaded with the king. He promised to repay the debt, something beyond his ability to do. The servant and the king both know that debt cannot be repaid. It is an unpayable debt. But the king took pity on him and canceled the debt. Instead of being sold along with his family and all his possessions, he walked away from his appearance before the king with no debt whatsoever. He walked in with a staggering debt. He walked out, as free and as light as a bird.

Now we move to Act II in this parable. The servant who has just had this impossibly large debt forgiven, walks away from the king and meets a fellow servant who owes him 100 denarii one hundred days wages. It is a reasonably large amount, but it pales in comparison with the debt that has just been forgiven. It would have taken 150,000 years of wages to pay back that debt.

This is the second twist in this parable. The servant would have been expected to cancel this debt since he was so relieved to have his huge debt forgiven. He would be expected to be walking on air, delighted, looking at the sun and sky and birds, amazed that he was not in prison but out in the open air. He would be expected to say, “No big deal. Forget the debt.”

But instead, he grabs him and begins choking him. His fellow servant falls to his knees and pleads for mercy and promises to pay back the debt, just as the servant had done with the king. But the servant refuses and has him thrown into prison where his assets would be sold with the proceeds going to repay the debt.

Now, in Act III, the other servants are disturbed by this and tell the king what happened and we come to the main point of the parable. The king calls in the servant and asks him, “Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?”

“Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?”

In anger, the king turns the servant over to the jailers to be tortured until he payed back all that he owed.

The servant was unworthy of his master’s mercy.

This is a parable that is structured like the parable the prophet Nathan told King David after David had Uriah killed so he could have Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba, as his wife. Nathan came to David, told him a story of a man who had a lot who took from a man who had very little. David was outraged and then Nathan pointed a finger at David and said, “You are the man.”

In this parable a man is forgiven much who then turns around and beats up on a man who owes a little. The reaction is outrage and then Jesus points to the disciples and says, “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”

If Peter was asking a merely intellectual question, what Jesus said did not hit very hard. But since we know the disciples of Jesus argued with each other and competed to see who would get the better position when Jesus came into his kingdom, it is more likely that this was a personal question and what Jesus said to them came with the force that Nathan’s “You are the man,” came to King David.

This is also Jesus’ word to us, “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”

Are you holding on to a grudge against someone who has offended you? Have you not been able to forgive that person?

Why should we forgive?

First, we forgive because God has forgiven us. This is not a cold, hard transaction. Jesus says we are to forgive from our heart. When the servant walked away from the king’s palace after having had his impossibly large debt forgiven, he should have been celebrating. When the fellow servant came to him, he should have said, “Come with me, let’s feast! Your debt is forgiven because my debt has been forgiven!”

We were destined to eternal separation from God and then we were rescued, forgiven, made clean, and brought into the eternal family of God. We are God’s beloved daughters, God’s beloved sons. We celebrate our good fortune and forgive from the heart because we are so grateful to have been forgiven our debt of sin.

Second, we forgive because it is healthy for us to forgive.

As is true with all of God’s commands and teachings, when we obey him, we benefit. It is not just our responsibility to forgive, forgiving those who have hurt us has a beneficial impact for us.

When I was a youth pastor in a Methodist Church in West Virginia in the United States, there was conflict between the pastor and myself. He was a very insecure person and the youth group was thriving under my leadership. The church was struggling financially and so he told me I had three months and then had to leave. I took the second of those three months as vacation and in my absence, the youth group organized events to raise money to keep me. When I returned, the pastor accused me of orchestrating those events. He accused me of trying to divide the church and start my own church, taking members of the church with me. From a rational perspective, this was absurd, but he was caught up in his emotions and made very cruel and insulting accusations about me and my character. He said he was sorry, not for me, but for my wife and daughter who had to have me as a husband and father.

This was a painful experience but I prayed and was able to forgive him. Did this mean I sought out his company and became his best friend? Without mutual forgiveness, this is difficult. But I released the animus, the feelings of anger I had toward him. In forgiving him, I chose to no longer hold on to my feelings of anger toward him for what he said to me. I felt pity for him because of his own insecurities. I chose the way of life.

Before I came to the point of forgiving him, my feelings of anger surged within me. Carrying those feelings creates a hardness of heart. We think by being angry we are punishing that person, but we punish only ourselves. When we forgive, we are freed from that burden of anger and bitterness we carry. Forgiving is a healthy act for us.

Anne Lamott wrote: “Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.”
When you do not forgive, there is a poison that infects your heart. This is what happened to my mother. Not forgiving destroyed her, but it had very little affect on my aunt, her sister-in-law.

My mother drank the rat poison and carried grudges for extended periods of time. She carried the bitterness of her sister-in-law’s betrayal for more than forty years. And she suffered because of it. She became a hardened, unhappy woman. She chose the path of Madam DuFarge, knitting into the weave of her life the names of those who hurt her, and took her bitterness with her into death.

Forgiving those who have hurt us sets us free, not forgiving keeps us enslaved to our bitterness.

We forgive because God has forgiven us. We forgive because it is healthy for us to forgive. Third, we forgive because we block God’s blessing in our lives when we do not forgive.

Do you remember this from the Lord’s Prayer? (Matthew 6:12–15)
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.’

And then Jesus continues,
14 For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.

How about this from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: (Luke 6:37–38)
“Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. 38 Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”

When you hold on to unforgiveness, you block God’s work in your life. John Wimber, in his book about prayer for healing, talks about people not forgiving someone being the block that prevents them from receiving healing. Their healing happened when they forgave the person who had hurt them.

How do we forgive?

Forgiving someone who has hurt you is going to be painful.

I’m not talking about some slight offense when you can say, “I forgive you,” without it costing you anything. I’m talking about someone who betrayed your trust, someone who you thought was your friend but then deserted you, someone who caused you pain by acting against you.

If someone has hurt me, justice demands that they pay the price for their actions. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. That is what justice demands. For me to simply say, “I forgive you,” when someone has deeply hurt me is not fair and it is not just. Who is going to pay for the injustice? Am I supposed to simply forgive and let the person who has hurt me go free? Shouldn’t I at least make them suffer before I tell them I forgive them?

The parable of the unmerciful servant tells us that we have to become the father in the parable of the prodigal son. As the father forgave his son, so do we have to forgive those who shame us and hurt us. As the father absorbed the shame created by his son, so are we to absorb the pain of the injustice that was done to us.

Tim Keller points out that:
Mercy and forgiveness must be free and unmerited to the wrongdoer. If the wrongdoer has to do something to merit it, then it isn’t mercy, but forgiveness always comes at a cost to the one granting the forgiveness.

When someone does something wrong, when they hurt you or someone you love, a pain is created and it cannot simply be ignored. Someone has to absorb the pain and Keller says that forgiving is absorbing pain, not inflicting it. Our every instinct is to strike back, make the other person suffer. But this is not what God has done for us and this is not what we are to do to others.

Don’t wait for the person who has offended you to repent and grovel in front of you. Forgive before the person ever comes to you or shows any sign of repentance.

In talking about forgiveness I have used the analogy of interconnecting hotel room doors. These are two rooms, side-by-side, with two doors between them. If two strangers are in the rooms, the doors remain locked. But if a family or friends rent the two hotel rooms, then both doors can be opened and people can move back and forth between the rooms without going out into the hallway.

When there is a dispute in a relationship and someone slams their door shut and locks it, and we respond by shutting our door and locking it, then, later when the other person opens their door to renew the relationship, they will find our door locked.

We need to choose to keep our door open so if the other person ever opens their door they will find us open to renewing the relationship. I have experienced this several times in my life. The key is that I have to forgive and keep my door open for the time the other person chooses to open their door.

When I keep my door open, that is forgiveness. I need to forgive and not hold on to an offense. The second part of the analogy is reconciliation and that requires that the person who shut their door also forgives. If the prodigal son had come back to his father and asked for more money since he had spent all he had, the parable would have a different ending. It is because the son came back in repentance that the relationship could be restored.

When I keep my door open in relationships, it does not mean that I have trust in the person who shut the door on our relationship. My door is open but I am waiting to see in what way the other person comes back to me.

If I go to the zoo and get too close to the lion’s cage so that my hand gets clawed, I can forgive the lion but the next time I come to the zoo I will not get so close to the cage. In order for the friendship to be restored, to be reconciled, there must be forgiveness and repentance on both sides.

My mother died in August 2005 and in those last five years when I was living in Rabat, I visited once per year and my mother and I would go out to breakfast. She asked me once why we did not have a better mother-son relationship and I reminded her that she had not spoken to me for a year and a half before I moved to Morocco.

I forgave my mother. I was able to love my mother, but I did not trust her. I kept my distance from the cage so I would not get scratched up again. My door was open to her but she was unrepentant and continued to try to manipulate me. I would not allow her to do that.

What do you do if the offense is too much for you to forgive? Sometimes it is so difficult to forgive someone for the way they have hurt us. And when someone forgives someone for a great offense, we step back in astonishment and awe.

My daughters had an English teacher when they were young teenagers. This teacher had a son the age of my youngest daughter who had been killed by a drunk driver several years earlier. The year my youngest daughter was in her class was a difficult year for her because if her son had not been killed, he would have been in that class.

But this teacher met the man who killed her son, built a relationship with him, and forgave him. He began coming to her class each year and telling his story as a warning to the students not to drink and drive. This teacher became a friend to the man who had killed her son.

How is it possible to forgive someone who has hurt you so deeply? How do you forgive someone who raped you? How do you forgive someone who physically or sexually abused you? How do you forgive someone who abused your child?

It is not too difficult to forgive lesser offenses. That costs not much more than our pride. But when the offense is so severe, how can you let it go? Isn’t it asking too much of us to forgive a horrible offense? For some horrific actions I think it is too much for us to forgive.

Corrie ten Boom was a Dutch woman who, during WWII, along with her sister and father, was sent to Ravensbruck, a Nazi concentration camp, for hiding Jews. Her sister and father died there, but Corrie was released due to a “clerical error.” After the war she returned to Germany to declare the grace and mercy of Christ. The following story is taken from her book, Tramp for the Lord.

“It was 1947, and I’d come from Holland to defeated Germany with the message that God forgives. It was the truth that they needed most to hear in that bitter, bombed-out land, and I gave them my favorite mental picture. Maybe because the sea is never far from a Hollander’s mind, I liked to think that that’s where forgiven sins were thrown.

‘When we confess our sins,’ I said, ‘God casts them into the deepest ocean, gone forever. And even though I cannot find a Scripture for it, I believe God then places a sign out there that says, ’NO FISHING ALLOWED.’

The solemn faces stared back at me, not quite daring to believe. And that’s when I saw him, working his way forward against the others. One moment I saw the overcoat and the brown hat; the next, a blue uniform and a cap with skull and crossbones. It came back with a rush—the huge room with its harsh overhead lights, the pathetic pile of dresses and shoes in the center of the floor, the shame of walking naked past this man. I could see my sister’s frail form ahead of me, ribs sharp beneath the parchment skin. Betsie, how thin you were! That place was Ravensbruck, and the man who was making his way forward had been a guard—one of the most cruel guards.

Now he was in front of me, hand thrust out: “A fine message, Fraulein! How good it is to know that, as you say, all our sins are at the bottom of the sea!” And I, who had spoken so glibly of forgiveness, fumbled in my pocketbook rather than take that hand. He would not remember me, of course—how could he remember one prisoner among those thousands of women? But I remembered him. I was face-to-face with one of my captors and my blood seemed to freeze.

“You mentioned Ravensbruck in your talk,” he was saying. “I was a guard there.” No, he did not remember me. “But since that time,” he went on, “I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fraulein,”—again the hand came out—”will you forgive me?”

And I stood there—I whose sins had again and again been forgiven—and could not forgive. Betsie had died in that place. Could he erase her slow terrible death simply for the asking? It could have been many seconds that he stood there—hand held out—but to me it seemed hours as I wrestled with the most difficult thing I had ever had to do.

For I had to do it—I knew that. The message that God forgives has a prior condition: that we forgive those who have injured us. “If you do not forgive men their trespasses,” Jesus says, “neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses.” And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart.

But forgiveness is not an emotion—I knew that too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. “Jesus, help me!” I prayed silently. “I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.” And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust out my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes.

“I forgive you, brother!” I cried. “With all my heart!” For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely, as I did then. But even then, I realized it was not my love. I had tried, and did not have the power. It was the power of the Holy Spirit.


The offense may be too difficult for us to forgive, but we have the power of Christ in us. Are you willing to let your hurt, your pain, die so you can have life? God can help you do what seems impossible for you to do yourself.

Jesus said, (John 13:34–35)
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

If we loved each other the way Jesus loves us, wouldn’t the church be an incredibly wonderful place? People want world peace and if we loved each other the way Jesus loves us, there would be world peace.

When someone insults you, ask yourself how Jesus responds when people insult him. Does Jesus turn a cold shoulder on the person who insults him? No. Does Jesus retaliate by saying insulting things to this person or about this person? No. Jesus absorbs the insult and continues to move toward a loving relationship with the person who insulted him.

And another time Jesus said, (John 15:12–13)
My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

Forgiveness begins with having been forgiven. (Ephesians 4:32)
Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.

Loving begins with having been loved. (1 John 4:19)
We love because [God] first loved us.

You are deeply loved. You have been forgiven. So if you are having difficulty forgiving someone, ask God for help. You know we should forgive, but sometimes it is so hard. Let go of your pride. Raise your hand – even if you raise it woodenly, mechanically – to forgive because you know you need to forgive. Ask for help and God will answer that prayer.

Who is it you need to forgive?

Matthew 5:7
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.