The most pointed words in the Bible on the subject of forgiving others come directly from the lips of Jesus. They’re so pointed, in fact, that we’re tempted, for various reasons, to dull their razor sharp barbs.
I want to look briefly at two examples from Jesus’ teaching on the subject of forgiveness. These are genuinely hard sayings—not in the sense that they’re hard to understand (they’re actually easy to understand), but in the sense that they’re hard to accept at face value, and hard to reconcile with other truths we hold dear.
The Unforgiving Servant
In Matthew 18, Jesus told a parable that’s familiar to most of us. A servant owed his king a tremendous sum of money, well beyond his ability to pay, so he and his family and all that he had were to be sold in lieu of payment. But he begged for mercy, and the king had pity on him and forgave his debt.
That servant promptly went out and demanded from a fellow servant repayment of much smaller debt that he was owed. The fellow servant couldn’t pay and pleaded for mercy but was denied it and thrown into prison.
The king found out about it and was enraged. The first servant was thrown into prison, where he was to remain until his debt was fully paid. In essence the king reversed his original decision to forgive the debt. And not only was his decision rescinded, but Jesus concluded the parable with these words:
So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart. (Matt. 18:35)
Dire consequences await us if we will not forgive our brothers from our hearts.
The Lord’s Prayer
If you grew up in church you probably know the Lord’s Prayer by heart. You know the phrase, “and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” But what I find even more sobering is what Jesus said immediately after the prayer, to underscore the absolute necessity of forgiving others.
For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. (Matt 6:14-15)
If you don’t forgive, you won’t be forgiven.
Don’t you find yourself already wanting to soften the force of those words? Why do we feel compelled to revise Jesus’ teaching? I realize those words stand in sharp tension (some would say as a paradox, i.e., an apparent contradiction) with other doctrines we hold dear, but why do we think we have to be more systematic or logically consistent than Jesus himself?
For whatever it’s worth, I have some advice. Don’t change the meaning of Jesus’ words. He knew exactly what he wanted to say, and he said it.