STUDY EIGHTEEN: A CHALLENGE TO RADICAL MERCY, FORGIVENESS AND COMPASSION [Matthew 18:15-35; 25:31-46]
© Rosemary Bardsley 2012
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus called us to mercy [5:7] and forgiveness [6:11, 14-16]. In fact he made our reception of mercy and forgiveness from God conditional on our expression of mercy and forgiveness to others. Now that is a challenge! – not only to put into practice, but also to understand in view of the Bible’s teaching that salvation is by grace not by merit or performance.
What does Jesus mean by these ‘terms and conditions’?
Is salvation by ‘works’ after all?
How can we be as merciful or forgiving to others as we need God to be towards us?
Part of our difficulty with these questions is that we do not fully comprehend either our own spiritual destitution or the nature of our salvation. Jesus calls us to a level of forgiveness, mercy and compassion that can only flow out from a deep understanding of who we really are in ourselves, and what God has done for us in and through his Son. In his parables he challenges us to pass on his mercy, his forgiveness and his compassion.
A. THE PARABLE OF THE UNFORGIVING SERVANT [Matthew 18:21-35]
This parable was Jesus’ answer to Peter’s question in verse 21: ‘Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?’ Perhaps Peter, knowing that the tradition of the Rabbis required a person to forgive three times, and having just heard Jesus’ teaching that one should endeavour to be reconciled with one’s brother [18:15-17], was wondering just how often this effort was to continue. How many times should he try to restore a right relationship between himself and his fellow believer who kept on sinning against him in one way or another?
William Hendriksen comments:
‘Jesus, though in manner of expression falling in line with Peter’s quantitively worded question, completely destroys that apostle’s underlying assumption. He takes the two perfect numbers – ten and seven – multiplies them together, and then once again multiplies the result by seven. He does this to show that the spirit of genuine forgiveness recognizes no boundaries. It is a state of heart, not a matter of calculation. One might as well ask, “How often must I love my wife, my husband, my children?” as to ask, “How often shall I forgive?” Everyone immediately senses that when Jesus said, “up to seventy times seven times.” He did not mean “exactly four hundred ninety times, but not four hundred ninety-one”. Clearly what he meant was, “Forgive without ever stopping. Be kind toward your brother … always.” ‘ [p704, ibid]
Why does Jesus demand this over-riding attitude of limitless forgiveness? The parable gives the answer.
A.1 We have an unpayable debt
In the person of the first servant, Jesus identifies every single one of us. By this servant’s ‘debt’ Jesus identifies our sin debt – our real guilt in the presence of a holy God who is also our King and our Judge.
Here, in this servant, we each stand before the King. He looks at our ‘account’, and finds there a debt running into ‘millions of dollars’. Our sin and guilt, as God sees and knows it, is enormous. It is beyond our comprehension to conceive or visualize. He knows, as we will never know, the extent of our sin, the extent of our rebellion and our failure. We measure our guilt and our sin in terms of particular actions. He sees the big picture – not just the particular actions but the underlying and over-arching mindset and attitude, the whole sad story of human rejection of God-as-he-really-is that is described in Romans 1:18-32 and 3:9-18. He sees that even our ‘righteousness’ that we consider righteous, is as putrid as menstrual cloths [that is the meaning of the word in Isaiah 64:6] or excreta [which is the meaning of the word in Philippians 3:8]. Our sinfulness hides the extent of our sin and guilt from us. God, in his perfect holiness, sees and recognizes it all.
So we stand in the presence of the King, and he tells us the size of our debt.
Then, in the parable, Jesus reveals an additional factor: not only do we have an enormous, inconceivable debt, we also are ‘not able to pay the debt.’ The Greek actually puts it more strongly: we have nothing with which to pay. Nothing.
We have an unpayable debt. And we have nothing with which to pay.
This is a picture of our spiritual destitution as we stand before God, the King, the Judge. Totally, utterly destitute. More than destitute, for that would just mean we had nothing. But here we stand with nothing in our hands, and a debt of sin and guilt that is so huge that we cannot even imagine its size.
A.2 We are faced with a terrible judgment
The culturally just outcome of this impossible situation was that the king would sell the servant and his family and whatever he might own, as a punishment for the failure to repay the debt. [Where payment was perceived possible, the debtor was thrown into prison, with the possibility of some relatives perhaps paying the debt.] It was a terrible judgment for the servant to have to face. But he had amassed the debt, knowing that failure to pay the debt would result in such an outcome.
Similarly we each face a just but terrible judgment from God the righteous Judge. Sin bears a penalty; God has made that clear from the beginning of the world [Genesis 2:17]. The ‘wages’ of sin has always been ‘death’ [Romans 6:23] – the agony of eternal separation from God and from life.
A.3 We have an inadequate understanding of our destitution
But this servant had no comprehension of either the size of his debt or his inability to pay. He asked the king to give him time – ‘be patient with me’ – fully believing that he could pay back everything he owed. He simply did not understand the size of his debt.
Similarly, we stand before the King convinced that out of our own spiritual resources we can ‘make up’ for our sins, that we can tally up enough spiritual credit to outweigh the debit. We come into the presence of the King with our pitiful handful of ‘righteousness’ and think that thereby we can merit his acceptance and wipe out our sins.
If we knew how much we owed, if we knew the extent of our sins, if we understood that even our righteousness is polluted by sin, we would not stand and make such a foolish offer in his presence.
A.4 We are the recipients of an immeasurable and undeserved compassion
But the king knew. He knew that this servant, even given extended time, could never repay the debt. He knew it was an ignorant and impossible offer on the part of the servant. So he gave to the servant, not the time he asked for, but compassion. [Many English translations fail to capture the strength of the master’s response. The Greek word – splanchnisthes – means to be moved towards a person in or from the depths of one’s gut. It is a very strong word.]
Here in this unexpected and unheard of action of the king, Jesus gives us a picture of the immeasurable love of God. Here the deep meaning of the words mercy, compassion, forgiveness and grace are demonstrated. Here we understand why Paul used superlative descriptions when he spoke of what God has done for us in Christ:
‘In him we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding’ [Ephesians 1:7,8]
‘… in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus’ [Ephesians 2:7]
‘I pray that you … may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge …’ [Ephesians 3:17-19]
God knows our inability. God knows our wretched poverty. God knows that we can never provide the perfect righteousness that alone could cancel the debt and wipe out our guilt. In deep and overwhelming compassion, he takes the initiative and himself bears our debt.
A. 5 God set us free completely
The king’s compassion is two-fold. Instead of demanding payment, he cancelled the debt, which means he bore the cost himself. Instead of exacting punishment, he set him free. This is an incredible gift: one moment owing millions, the next moment owing nothing. One moment headed for slavery, the next moment given freedom.
Like the King in the parable, God cancels our debt, setting us free from both the repayment and the punishment of our spiritual debt. Again, like the king, he himself bore the cost. In distinction from the king, this divine King also bore the punishment. He lifted the burden of it all off our backs, cancelling our debt, forgiving our sin and setting us free.
This liberation is behind Charles Wesley’s words:
‘My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed thee.’
A.6 Forgiveness not received
But the servant didn’t get it. He heard the words but he didn’t receive them. He went out from the king, not with joy, not with appreciation, not with freedom. The grand and liberating action of the king did not touch him.
Because he had not understood the enormity of his debt, because he had not understood his utter destitution, because he had not understood his utter inability to pay – he also did not understand what it was that the king had done for him. He walked out, not as one whose debt has been cancelled, not as one who has been set free, but as one who still owes the debt, as one who still has the responsibility, out of his own resources, of paying the debt.
He goes out, not with the exuberant and generous joy that one would expect, but with a calculating heart that is still bound by the debt. He has not received into his heart and mind the forgiveness declared by his master. He does not even see the compassion. He does not see the mercy. He does not see the grace. In his blind lack of understanding of his dilemma, he is blind also to the reality of his master’s generosity and compassion. He is still focused on working out how he can pay the debt.
A.7 Forgiveness not expressed
How do we know this? We know it by looking at the action of the servant. Why else would he look for a servant who owed him money?
His own inane request is still motivating his actions: ‘be patient with me … give me time … and I will pay you everything.’ With this perception of his own ability filling his mind, that is all he sees in the master’s action – time in which to find the money – and so he goes looking for it.
He cannot express mercy and forgiveness to this fellow servant because he has not received it. The master had declared it, but he has not received it. If he had received it, he would have passed it on to this other servant whose debt was a mere pittance, and, unlike the other debt was very payable. Instead of mercy, he acts with threatening menace; instead of forgiveness he demands payment; instead of compassion he imposes punishment.
A. 8 The challenge to mercy, forgiveness and compassion
It is here that Jesus’ answer to Peter’s question becomes clear: mercy is always appropriate in those who have been shown God’s mercy. Forgiveness is always appropriate from those who have been forgiven by God. It is not something that can be measured and meted out: it is a state of mind and heart; it has no limit: it is a way of life.
Peter’s question was asked on the wrong level. It was asked on the level of ‘what is just?’ or ‘what is legally required of me?’
The right question emerges on a totally different level: the level of ‘what is appropriate for one who has received from the hand of the righteous Judge the free gift of a forgiveness that includes both the cancellation of sin’s guilt and the cancellation of sin’s punishment?’
The question we should ask is not ‘How much should I forgive?’ but ‘How can I not forgive?’
B. THE CHALLENGE TO RADICAL FORGIVENESS
By this parable Jesus challenges us to a mindset of forgiveness, mercy and compassion towards one another. It is not an easy challenge. It brings us into conflict with the mindset of our society; it brings us into conflict with the tit-for-tat bent of our own hearts. It does not come naturally. It does not sit well with us. Yet Christ commands it; more than that, he indicates clearly that if we do not express this forgiveness and mercy, we will not receive forgiveness and mercy from God. Is this a ‘works-based’ salvation? No. It is simply this: those who have received his forgiveness will forgive. If we don’t forgive it is a clear indication that we have not yet received his forgiveness, for no one who really knew his mercy could fail to pass it on. The person who cannot express mercy is still outside the mercy of God.
Reflection: What is common to all of these texts? What is the measure and example of forgiveness?
Matthew 18:33,35; 6:14,15; Luke 6:36; Ephesians 4:32; Colossians 3:13
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, commenting on ‘blessed are the merciful’ (Matthew 5:7), wrote:
‘No distress is too great, no sin too appalling for their pity. If any man falls into disgrace, the merciful will sacrifice their own honour to shield him, and take his shame upon themselves. They will be found consorting with publicans and sinners, careless of the shame they incur thereby. … The only honour and dignity they know is their Lord’s own mercy, to which alone they owe their very lives. He was not ashamed of his disciples, he became the brother of mankind, and bore their shame unto the death of the cross. That is how Jesus, the crucified, was merciful. His followers owe their lives entirely to that mercy. It makes them forget their own honour and dignity, and seek the society of sinners.’ [p101, The Cost of Discipleship]
It is this example of Christ that is the motive and the measure of mercy, forgiveness and compassion. But too often we look around us for our motive and our measure, and instead of following the example of Christ we are pressed into the mindset and pattern of the world around us. We take our cue not from our Lord, who forgave us, but from our society or our churches that hold us accountable.
Reflection and response: Discussion questions:
How does his demand to forgive compare or contrast with attitudes observable in contemporary society?
How does his command that we forgive compare or contrast with attitudes observable in contemporary Christianity?
Why is it so hard to forgive?
What is the significance of the fact that in three of the references above, forgiving is linked with compassion?
What is compassion?
Personal questions: [only to be discussed in class by mutual consent]
On a 1-10 scale how do you rate yourself in forgiving?
What kinds of things do you find it most difficult to forgive? Why?
What kinds of people do you find it most difficult to forgive? Why?
C. THE PARABLE OF THE SHEEP AND THE GOATS [Matthew 25:31-46]
This parable takes us to an entirely different scene, or so it seems at first glance. But a second glance reveals two areas of distinct similarity:
 that the parable depicts a day of reckoning, and
 that how we fare on the day of reckoning appears to be directly related to how we have treated other people.
In the previous parable it was our attitude towards the sins of others against us that was in question. Here in this parable it is our actions towards the needs of others that are in focus. There it was compassion and mercy expressed in forgiveness. Here it is compassion and mercy expressed in human kindness.
Reflection and response: Read the parable. Discuss the questions below and record your conclusions.
What radical significance does Jesus give to acts of human kindness done to others?
What radical significance does Jesus give to the failure to show mercy to people in need?
In what way does Christ’s identification of himself with the person in need challenge us to compassion and kindness?
Discuss this quote from Leon Morris: ‘The works we do are the evidence either of the grace of God at work in us or of our rejection of that grace’ [p634]
Discuss this statement: True faith in Christ will be accompanied by compassionate kindness to those in need.
Does this parable mean that all people who do kind deeds are disciples of Christ and will be accepted into heaven?
C.1 Practical challenge
As a disciple of Jesus Christ we are challenged by this parable to do ‘good deeds’ towards others. This is not theory. This is practice. By this challenge we are challenged at two other levels, the levels of faith and obedience.
Do we believe this word of Jesus Christ? Do we trust that he means what he says?
Will we obey this word of Jesus Christ?
Our answer to the second question decides our answer to the first.
With good reason Karl Barth wrote:
‘So faith means trust. Trust is the act in which a man may rely on the faithfulness of Another, that His promise holds and that what He demands He demands of necessity.’ [p18, emphasis added]
Faith that only believes the promises is not Biblical faith. It is a kind of faith that only believes for what it can get for itself. It does not believe in the Christ of the Scriptures. The Christ of the Scriptures demands not only our trust, he also demands our obedience – our submission to him as our God. This response – trust and obedience – comprises Biblical faith.
So here he challenges us. Is our faith true faith? Does it believe his command as well as his promise?
Reflection and response: In response to the challenge of Christ in this parable, which calls us to compassionate acts of kindness and mercy, determine and list ways in which you are challenged to express your love for Christ in acts of compassion towards others in trouble and need.