Pastoral Commentary: The justice of forgiveness sounds like a juxtaposition
I have called this article “the justice of forgiveness.” That title may sound odd. Forgiveness means releasing another person from guilt. Assuming that the guilt is real, justice demands conviction rather than forgiveness. Forgiveness would then be an act of mercy which is an alternative to justice. If forgiveness is mercy, how can it also be justice? The answer is that, while forgiveness is merciful to the one forgiven, it is just in relation to God.
In Matthew 18:21-35 Peter comes to Jesus with the question “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?”
1. The religious law of the day required a person to forgive a repentant coreligionist up to three times.
2. Thus, Peter doubtless believes that he is being quite generous to offer forgiveness up to seven times. Jesus immediately corrects him, however; “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.”
3. Obviously, Jesus does not expect anyone to actually keep count up to seventy-seven and then stop forgiving. Rather, by picking such a large number, Jesus is saying that his disciples are to forgive without measure. He then goes on to illustrate this with a story about man who owed his master 10,000 talents. A talent is 6,000 denarii and a denarus is a day’s pay for a skilled laborer, so this is a tremendous amount of money. When the man could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold along with his wife and children, but when the man fell to his knees and begged for mercy, the master felt compassion and released the man from his debt. Immediately, the man went and found a fellow servant who owed him a 100 denarii-- One six-hundred-thousandth (1/600,000) the debt that the man himself had just been forgiven. He began choking the second man and demanding the money and would not remit the debt even when the second man begged in exactly the same fashion as he himself had done.
Clearly, the second servant did genuinely owe a debt. The second servant had no right to demand that the debt be forgiven. The first servant was within his rights, relative to the second servant, to demand payment of the debt. He could have argued that justice was on his side. The injustice comes from the fact that the first servant had himself been forgiven of a debt 600,000 times greater than the one he was now asked to forgive. When he refused to pay forward a small part of the forgiveness he had received, he was being unjust relative to his master.
We all recognize the practical need for forgiveness. We can clearly see that a lack of forgiveness leads to quarrels, divorces, church splits, wars, and unrest. The problem is that we are unwilling to forgive when we know that the other party does not personally deserve forgiveness. We must recognize that when we each trusted Christ as savior we were forgiven a greater wrong than anyone will ever commit against ourselves. Our debtor may indeed have no claim on our forgiveness, but God our savior has a right to demand that we grant it anyway, for he has granted far more grace to us.
1 All references unless otherwise noted are taken from The New American Standard Bible (La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1977). 2 Richard T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 700. 3 The English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Good News Publishers, 2001).