Commentary by Walter Albritton


July 24, 2005


An Understanding Heart Frees Us to Forgive Others


Matthew 18:21-35


Key Verse: Out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. – Matthew 18:27


Our Lord did not mince words when it came to forgiveness. He leaves us no “wiggle room” as to whether or not we forgive others. If we do not, our heavenly Father will not forgive us. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. Unless we are willing to forgive those who have wronged us, we cut ourselves off from God’s forgiveness.

I have been reluctant to give up the King James Version of the Bible. Some of its passages, such as Psalm 23 and Psalm 100, are superior to any newer translations. However, I must admit the new translations do help us better understand the Scriptures. One example is the statement of Jesus found in Matthew 18:22.

Peter asked how many times he was required to forgive his brother. He was hoping that seven times would be enough. Imagine his chagrin when Jesus replied, in the King James Version, “seventy times seven,” or 490 times. Such an answer implied that he could never stop forgiving his brother.

Evidently the more accurate translation is given in the New Revised Standard Version: “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” Clearly the number was not significant. Jesus was not establishing a limit to forgiveness but using a large number to indicate that there can be no limit. Indeed he wants us to understand the foolishness of keeping score of our offenses.

My wife would probably say that if 490 times is indeed the limit that she has gone over it in forgiving me! Fortunately for me, she has not used a calculator to keep up with my offenses. Instead she has forgiven me time and again and I am forever in her debt. Her generosity in forgiving me has made possible the beautiful relationship we now enjoy as a husband and wife bonded to each other under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

The unforgiving servant in today’s lesson was not only merciless; he was foolish in not showing the same mercy he had received. He received mercy but was unwilling to give it. This caused his master to restore his debt and even more to require that he be tortured until he repaid his debt.

Among the lessons we may learn here is surely this: it makes sense to obey God! When will we learn that we have a choice: we can choose a blessing or a curse? We choose a blessing when we obey God’s rules; we choose a curse when we refuse to obey. When we break God’s commandments, we actually “break” ourselves. Punishment is built into disobedience. Blessing is built into obedience.

Years ago I offended a man who became quite angry with me. As I reflected on what I had done, I realized that I had been wrong. My attitude and my behavior were reprehensible and I knew it. Feeling guilty and wanting to make amends, I went to the man, admitted I had been wrong, and asked his forgiveness.

He replied, “No, I will not forgive you. In fact, I enjoy disliking you too much to forgive you.” Stunned and rejected, I said, “I am sorry you feel that way.” We were never reconciled. I suppose a lawyer would call this an irreconcilable difference.

I mention this incident because there are sometimes broken relationships that we may not be able to mend even if we try. I wrestled with the matter described for a long time. I sought the Spirit’s guidance to put it to rest. The Spirit’s counsel was to forgive the man for his unwillingness to forgive me. I did. It was the only way for the lingering guilt in my heart to be resolved.

God does not protect us from those who hurt us deeply. Christians are not immune to cruelty, hatred, and evil. Jesus even promised us that in this world we will have tribulation. Nonetheless, no matter how much we may be hurt by others, we must forgive, forgive, and forgive. We can never stop forgiving. We must do all we can to make reconciliation possible. Then we must leave our wounds in the Lord’s hands, and rest assured he will grant us the healing we need, even if it seems sometimes slow in coming.

At the end of the day there is nothing more important than receiving God’s mercy. Without it we cannot live at peace in this world or expect to receive God’s forgiveness for our sins and live forever in heaven.

We cannot prevent others from offending us; we can forgive them when they do. In our own strength forgiveness is often impossible. That is when we must plead for our Lord’s forgiveness. Since he never refuses us his forgiveness, we can then share it with those whom we could never forgive in our own humanness.

More than once I have had someone say angrily, “I can never forgive that person!” That is a terrible conclusion for a person to make. It has eternal implications. One cannot go to heaven nursing such an attitude. It is like saying, “Hating that person is more important to me than receiving God’s forgiveness for my sins.”

Once we see the dire consequences of an unforgiving spirit, we can hopefully pray, “Father, I realize I am a sinner in need of your forgiveness. Please cleanse me of this bitterness and give me an understanding heart so that I can be free to forgive those who have offended me.”

For 50 years or more my favorite verse in the New Testament has been Ephesians 4:32 – “And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you” (KJV).  

Perhaps, as you mull over this lesson, you can understand why I love this verse so much.

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