I saw a man who was holding the hand that had fired a gun at his heart / Oh, will we live to forgive? / I saw the eyes and the look of surprise as he left an indelible mark / Oh, will we live to forgive? / Come, find release / Go, make your peace / Follow His lead – let the madness recede – as He shatters the cycle of pain…” – Steve Taylor, To Forgive, from the 1986 album “On the Fritz”
The above song was inspired, according to Steve Taylor, by the incredible photo of Pope John Paul II sitting in a prison cell with the man who tried to assassinate him. I can’t honestly say I would have done the same in the Holy Father’s place. But I like to think I might.
Jesus is hammering away on the subjects of sin and forgiveness in this chapter of Matthew’s gospel. And since He had so much to say, I would hazard a guess that perhaps they were of some importance to Him. Maybe we should pay careful attention.
He makes an interesting statement in verse 18 that I suspect gets misinterpreted quite a lot. “I tell you the truth, whatever you forbid on earth will be forbidden in heaven, and whatever you permit on earth will be permitted in heaven”. It follows the instructions of the church being an authority during conflict. “This forbidding and permitting refers to the decisions of the church…Among believers…ideally the church’s decisions should be God-guided and based on discernment of His word [because] handling problem’s God’s way will have an impact now and for eternity” (Study Bible, p. 1581). The problem is when the church starts legislating rules and doctrine that’s not in Scripture and that God, if they knew Him, would never authorize. It happens. A recent example is the splitting of the United Methodist Church after holding a vote to exclude members and clergy who identify as LGBTQ+. My suspicion, from what I know of Jesus so far, is that excluding anyone for any reason is not His idea.
But I digress. Jesus then goes on to tell a parable about an unforgiving debtor. Basically, a man owes a king millions of dollars, which he can’t repay, and he begs the king to forgive him. The king takes pity on the man and agrees not to throw him in prison. The man promises to pay the king back and he goes on his way. Somewhere between the castle and his home, the man runs into someone who owes him a few thousand dollars. He grabs the man by the throat and demands instant payment. The debtor’s pleas for more time fall on deaf ears and the first man has the second man arrested and thrown in prison.
Now, you can imagine how well this went over with the king – who immediately calls the first man before him and reams him out. “You evil servant! I forgave you that tremendous debt because you pleaded with me. Shouldn’t you have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?’ (v. 32b-33). The end result? “The angry king sent the man to prison to be tortured until he had paid his entire debt” (v. 34).
What’s the point? You and I stand before God with an enormous debt of sin we can never in our wildest dreams hope to repay with enough good deeds. On this side of the cross, our debt has been forgiven in Jesus. God cancels our debt when we ask Him to. Why should we then walk around on this planet berating each other to pay the debts we owe which are small potatoes in comparison?
It all goes back to something I wrote earlier, we shouldn’t hold grudges against each other because someone sins differently than us in light of how much God has forgiven us. But we do. And this world suffers for it. The Kingdom suffers for it. God suffers for it.
I may never have to forgive someone for trying to assassinate me, but I need to be more mindful of my reactions to how people drive around me. I tend to get frustrated with them at best and downright angry at worst. I need to be more patient with people at work who call but don’t know what they want to order. I need to be more forgiving of people who attack my beliefs on social media. And so on…
Steve Taylor ends his song by asking if we will live to forgive. Since I see that as the primary reason for Jesus walking the planet as a man, I should make it my mission too. The greatest thing about practicing that throughout my life is that I will find a prisoner (me) is set free each time.