Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times. Matthew 18:21-22
The kingdom of Heaven is like when you’re driving home on Friday evening and the interstate is a parking lot with cars bumper to bumper for like miles and miles and there is this one pitiful car trying desperately to get in line but nobody will let him in because everybody is being a jerk and this poor guy is sitting there with his blinker on waiting and waiting and waiting and so you decide to be the good guy and you let him get in front of you. Good job. You are a Christ-like person. But then along comes another pitiful soul in the exact same situation and he pulls up along side the first guy hoping the first guy will let him get in front of him because he’s thinking, “this guy just had mercy shown to him so surely he will show a little mercy as well” and, frankly, you’re thinking the same thing which is why you are so angry when the first guy WON’T BUDGE and will not show any mercy at all to the second guy. Suddenly, you’re not thinking nice things anymore. You just want to do physical harm to the first guy’s car for being such a jerk. You’re thinking, “Hey, I showed you some mercy, what’s your problem!?” And that is like the kingdom of heaven.
As a church mediator working with conflicted congregations, I have come to believe that the sin posing the most significant threat to church unity today is the sin of unforgiveness. I cannot even count the number of otherwise good, Godly Christians who I have seen struggling at deep, deep levels with unforgiveness. Payback, it seems, is one of the first and deepest seeds of the flesh sewn into our human fabric, and it is tearing our churches apart.
Make no mistake, God takes unforgiveness very seriously. We must never underestimate the seriousness with which He views unforgiveness. That, I believe, is the point of Jesus’ parable of the unmerciful servant in Matthew 18:23-35. In bringing closure to His discussion about His ekklesia, i.e., in casting the vision for the disciples of exactly what “the church” would be and how it would operate, He concludes with a parable about forgiveness…because forgiveness would become a hallmark of His church. It would be a distinctive feature which would separate His church from every other community the world would know. Forgiveness, as embodied in the crucified Christ, would be the “cornerstone” of the church. That makes it a pretty fundamental concept for Christians.
Naturally, then, Jesus concludes his parable of the servant who would not forgive by explaining that the servant was thrown into the dungeon to be tortured, “and so my heavenly Father will do to you if you do not forgive your brother.”
Can you even imagine Jesus looking into the eyes of these men who had given up their livelihoods for him and had followed him for more than two years now and saying those harsh words? Again, the point is clear…God takes our unforgiveness seriously.
There is so much more to say about forgiveness, what it is, how it works, etc. Those are all future posts. For now, let’s establish this simple truth: you do NOT want to be the unmerciful servant in Jesus’ parable (or the unmerciful driver in our own little parable). You want to make forgiveness one of the personal characteristics people see in you. It is an identifying feature of Christ’s church…or at least it is supposed to be.