In light of the parable of the unforgiving slave (Matt. 18:21–35), which of us has heard, sometimes from the pulpit, that a Christian has no obligation to offer forgiveness to one who hasn’t asked for it, to one who doesn’t seek it? Such advice, however understandable the idea is that justice limits mercy, flies in the face of God’s call for us to reflect his grace, to extend, as Jesus teaches here, unlimited forgiveness.
We’re all pretty familiar with the parable: One day, Peter asks Jesus how many times he should forgive someone who sins against him. The Lord responds with a little story about a king who forgave a servant’s ridiculous amount of debt (“10,000 talents” is equivalent to today’s “gazillion”—the largest single number Greek could express.) By first-century reckoning, the amount owed was approximately 200,000 years’ wages for one common laborer, but, being moved to compassion when the man begs for mercy, the king utterly cancels his debt (v. 26).
The debtor, unfortunately, doesn’t follow his master’s lead. When he left the king’s presence he found a fellow servant who owed him about four months wages (100 denarii). The ratio of the two debts was therefore immense—about 600,000 to 1. When his fellow laborer begged for mercy, he denied it and had him thrown in jail until the debt could be paid. The king then hears of it and summons the first, once-pardoned, debtor to his throne room. He calls out his evil deed, takes back both his forgiveness and cancellation, and sends him to the torturers—indefinitely (since there’s no way the slave would be able to pay off such an enormous debt, vv. 32–34).
The moral of the story? “That’s what my heavenly Father will do to you if you refuse to forgive your brothers and sisters from your heart” (v. 35). The implications are clear for us as we live our lives in this world, especially among the body of Christ—since we have been forgiven so much, how can we not forgive the other person, genuinely and without any guile?
If one were to respond that this parable speaks nothing about forgiving others regardless of whether or not they’ve asked for it, I’d first point them to Peter’s question (v. 21), which says nothing about the sinner seeking forgiveness, and second, I’d point them to how God has shown his grace to us in Christ: God so loved the world, despite our hate-filled, narcissistic ways (John 3:16); indeed, “God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners” (Rom. 5:8, emphasis added). Even more surprising, while the unspeakable act of murdering God’s Son was taking place, Jesus implores his Father: “Forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). In short, God forgives us without counting.
Such is our model of forgiveness. Imperfectly practiced? Yes, to be sure (thankfully, perfect human forgiveness is not a precondition for divine forgiveness!). Impossible to practice? No, for we have the Spirit of the living God within us, enabling us to follow his way (see Rom. 8).