“For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you: but if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” —Matthew 6:14,15

WHEN Jesus taught his disciples (and us, too) how to pray, he included in that prayer the need for forgiveness. The prayer (which we call the Lord’s Prayer), recorded in Matthew 6:9-13 and Luke 11:2-4, states very simply, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” It is interesting to note that, after presenting this model prayer, Jesus made a further commentary on forgiveness in the words of our theme text, “For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you: but if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” And this is the only elaboration he made on the Lord’s Prayer. He wanted to make certain that we recognized the need for forgiveness; he also emphasized that our being forgiven is conditional upon our forgiving others.

In considering the practical approach to fulfilling this admonition, many questions could be asked. How do we go about doing this? Is it difficult? Or is it easy? Is there some way that will make it easier? How can we be sure that we have truly forgiven our debtors and, in turn, are forgiven? Some of the answers to these questions might be simple; others need elaboration. For example, when considering the question, “Is it difficult to forgive?” the answer is, “Yes, it is difficult.” But by applying other Christian principles we can learn how to explain and understand the human failings we encounter daily which can cause us trouble and require forgiveness.

Forgiveness is an important quality of the Christian character. It is not a natural, inherent quality that any of us possess. Rather, it needs development in every child of God. God alone possesses this marvelous quality inherently in its fullness. To the extent that any of us can display the quality, we restore in ourselves, to a limited degree, the image of God. If we can comprehend this truth, we will likewise see the need for reconfirming the simple contract that all Christians make with God daily when they pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” It is a most important contract. We are the beneficiaries. But God insists that it be conditional. Being frail human beings, we are apt to gloss over this conditional feature. Perhaps it would be impressed upon our minds much more indelibly if it were stated in the negative, “Do not forgive our debts, if we do not forgive our debtors.” Who can afford to pray in this manner? Not one of us, because there is “none righteous, no not one.”—Rom. 3:10; Ps. 14:3

It was the Apostle Peter who asked Jesus a question that led to Jesus’ telling of a parable which bears directly on our lesson. When Peter asked the question he had a desire to do what was right, but he also revealed his own human tendencies. The incident is found in Matthew 18:21,22. “Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times? Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven.”

Peter’s viewpoint, typical of most human viewpoints, was that there must by a limit to forgiveness. Surely this would apply to a situation where a genuine effort was made to tolerate and forgive transgressors! After a time (human reasoning would say) one should be justified in cutting off all relationships with that individual. It would be proper to ignore him, shun him, perhaps even return evil for evil. Certainly an apology would be in order, and some reparation should be received for the wrong done.

And yet Peter had been with Jesus long enough to know that forgiveness is essential. Jesus had not only taught his disciples how to pray but had included the need for forgiveness in that prayer. He would also often emphasize the need to be reconciled to one another when wrongs were committed.

Just prior to this incident Jesus had made this very point: “Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.”—Matt. 18:15-17

It is possible that Peter had mulled over in his mind the simple but conditional contract as he said the Lord’s Prayer, and he may have wondered how far-reaching it could be. Certainly it could not mean that we were to go on and on receiving transgression without taking some positive action. Yet, knowing Jesus, he knew he would have to try. The only question in his mind was, “How long did he have to try?” Was seven times enough? Peter thought that seven times was being liberal. Jesus did not think so and made it 490 times.

Jesus did not have in mind that 490 was a top figure and that 491 times would permit one to stop forgiving. Rather, Jesus knew that if we were to keep records of wrongs by any individual (with 490 times as a goal), long before we reached that point in our record keeping, we would either tire of so doing, or our curiosity would be piqued as to why such behavior occurred in that person. It might even lead to self-examination, as to whether we were the one responsible for the behavior. Hopefully, this procedure would lead to the realization that the irritation was an integral part of our friend (an idiosyncrasy) and we would need to make an adjustment so that it would not trouble us.

The parable which Jesus cited on this occasion is both ironic and pathetic, and it has a most forceful lesson: “Therefore is the kingdom of heaven likened unto a certain king, which would take account of his servants. And when he had begun to reckon, one was brought unto him, which owed him ten thousand talents. But forasmuch as he had not to pay, his lord commanded him to be sold, and his wife, and children, and all that he had, and payment to be made. The servant therefore fell down, and worshiped him, saying, Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay thee all. Then the lord of that servant was moved with compassion, and loosed him, and forgave him the debt. But the same servant went out, and found one of his fellow servants, which owed him an hundred pence: and he laid hands on him, and took him by the throat, saying, Pay me that thou owest. And his fellow servant fell down at his feet, and besought him, saying, Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all. And he would not: but went and cast him into prison, till he should pay the debt. So when his fellow servants saw what was done, they were very sorry, and came and told unto their lord all that was done. Then his lord, after that he had called him, said unto him, O thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all that debt, because thou desiredst me: shouldest not thou also have had compassion on thy fellow servant, even as I had pity on thee? And his lord was wroth, and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due unto him. So likewise shall my Heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses.”—vss. 23-35

In the parable the king represents our Heavenly Father. The servants represent those who have consecrated to do God’s will during the Gospel Age and become his stewards. The parable does not go into detail about all the servants and how the king reckons with them. It picks one who, through possible carelessness and neglect, had become indebted by a great sum of 10,000 talents. (Some years ago this sum was estimated at $10 million—today it is likely to be $40 to $50 million.) Although it is possible that all the servants were indebted, the Lord picks this one of great debt, who could represent any one of ‘us. When the king commands that this servant and his family be sold into slavery and all his possessions be taken, to bring back some return for the debt, the servant pleads for mercy and is forgiven his entire debt. There is no sum of money that can be used to represent what we owe to God. Hence we should all daily give thanks to God for his mercy and forgiveness for our sins. But how can we repay God for this great favor?

This is why Jesus told the unbelievable part of the story. This man, upon leaving the king after having been forgiven his huge debt, happened upon a fellowservant who owed him a hundred denarii. (Several years ago this would have been equal to $20—today it would be $80 or $100.) He seized him by the throat (note the violence) and demanded payment. This fellow servant begged for mercy and time to pay, just as the unmerciful servant had begged before the king. But that servant refused him mercy and had him cast into prison till the debt should be paid.

The debt contrast is noteworthy—$50 million versus $100. Jesus wanted us to see by this contrast how small the offenses of our brethren toward us are when compared to our offenses toward God. Yet in the parable the unmerciful servant would not pardon his fellow servant. Therefore, when his actions were reported to the king, the king summoned him and asked, “Should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” (RSV) As a consequence, his condition was reversed and he was jailed until he could pay all his debt.

Slavery or imprisonment for repayment of indebtedness was practiced in western civilization for centuries, until in the 19th century both England and the United States passed laws to eliminate this procedure. Of course, far before this happened, the people of Israel, who were supposed to observe the fiftieth year as a Jubilee year, were required by the Law to forgive all debts at that time. They should have been more advanced than other nations because of their instruction by God. Why was imprisonment used in this parable as an illustration? Perhaps there was to be no significance other than to use the same punishment for one as intended for the other. And then again, perhaps it can signify how we can be imprisoned by our own weaknesses if we do not receive God’s forgiveness. The meaning of our Lord’s words is the more emphatic at the conclusion of the parable: “So likewise shall my Heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses.” Jesus suggests that any one of us can be abandoned to his sins if there is not a real heartfelt (genuine) forgiveness of our brethren when they trespass against us.

Many questions can come into our minds as we contemplate the significance of this parable. How could this unmerciful servant forget so quickly the great mercy he received from the king as to behave so abominably toward his fellow servant? How could he have such a distorted sense of values as violently to demand payment of a debt so small in comparison with his (a ratio of 1 to 500,000)? If in this parable we see the possibility of ourselves being pictured, when we fail to carry out the simple contract of our Lord’s Prayer, then we have well learned the lesson of the parable. Let none of us ever think of the situation described in this parable as being so absurd that we would never be represented by this pathetic figure of the unjust servant. It is because we can become so absurd that Jesus gave the lesson.

There must be a desire to be forgiven before forgiveness can be granted. The parable teaches this point. Every day there is much wrong committed for which the perpetrator does not desire forgiveness. In some cases, because of a seared conscience, those involved are unaware that they have committed wrongs. Then, too, the desire to avenge a wrong (the “getting even” principle) is so strong that wrongs come about under the cloak of vengeance. We who have entered into His marvelous light know that we must change from “rendering evil for evil” to becoming forgiving. But is it possible that someone could be forgiving of others and not recognize his own shortcomings and seek forgiveness from God? This would be a distortion of the mind. Only pride of heart would make one believe he is incapable of doing wrong. The Apostle John clearly wrote: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” (I John 1:8-10) Hence, a first requirement is that we recognize and confess our sins.

The unjust servant of the parable is represented as wanting forgiveness by his plea for mercy. But what caused him to forget so quickly the great benefit he received? The answer involves the mind and its oft strange and mysterious behavior. The mind is the battlefield of the Christian and varies from one person to another. In some cases it can have outstanding characteristics. For example, we speak of the “photographic mind” which is able to memorize minute details in a single glance, to store information. We speak also of the forgetful mind which finds it hard to remember. We all desire the photographic mind and laugh at those who are absentminded, when in reality the latter can be the more blessed.

It might come as a surprise to many, but competent scientists analyzing the many sounds and thoughts that the ears transmit to the brain tell us that it is very fortunate that the brain does not choose to store all of this information. Our brains, like complex computers, have the capability of storing all the information received; but so much of it is useless and of no value. Unfortunately, there are times when we wish our “memory banks” worked better and we could accurately retrieve information we need. But too often we store the wrong information. Because this happens so often, one analyst asked, “What causes more trouble in the world: the things forgotten which should have been remembered, or the things remembered which should have been forgotten?” How would you guess? The analyst’s opinion was that it is the latter. Many times what we need is not a good memory but the ability to forget.

This function of the mind (to enable us not to remember but to forget) is especially helpful in the matter of forgiveness. True forgiveness cannot exist if the matter forgiven remains alive in the memory of the forgiver. We sometimes find it difficult to forget. Yet it is possible to train our minds to forget; but it doesn’t come easily; it takes willpower and discipline. Furthermore, if we can subdue resentment, self-pity, and vengeance, it will help to make any painful experience less indelible upon our memories.

The Scriptures tell us that when God forgives, he forgets. Perhaps the most specific scripture of this type is the one concerned with the New Covenant, in Jeremiah 31:34: “And they shall teach no more every man his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the Lord: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”

As men come back from the grave and learn about God, they will learn first of his great mercy: how God will forgive sins and will remember these sins no more. Men from all walks of life will be included (the wicked and unrighteous, too), as mentioned in Isaiah’s prophecy, “Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.” (Isa. 55:7) God’s great mercy was recognized by King Hezekiah, who spoke in appreciation of God’s sparing him from death, saying, “Behold, for peace I had great bitterness: but thou hast in love to my soul delivered it from the pit of corruption: for thou hast cast all my sins behind thy back.” (Isa. 38:17) In so doing he was prophesying of the time of God’s kingdom and the resurrection, and of how God will indeed cast the sins of all mankind behind his back to remember them no more.

We can’t even begin to comprehend the magnanimity ascribed to our Heavenly Father in these Old Testament scriptures. God has suffered much wrong throughout the centuries of man’s existence. Think of all the wrongs suffered by God through blasphemy—tortures, atrocities, and murders performed in his holy name—the defamation of his character, attributing to him what no one would do to his own children by claiming that he is the Author of eternal torment. These gross injustices attributed to him make us wince with pain. Yet Jesus plainly said that God is kind to the “unthankful and to the evil” when in Luke 6:35-37 he told us: “But love ye your enemies, and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again; and your reward shall be great, and ye shall be the children of Highest: for he is kind unto the unthankful and to the evil. Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful. Judge not, and ye shall not be judged: condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned: forgive, and ye shall be forgiven.”

Jesus himself was the perfect reflection of the Father. He has “shown us the Father” by his personal example, and we should follow his steps. The Apostle Peter sums up the example of Jesus well when he writes: “For this is thank-worthy, if a man for conscience toward God endure grief, suffering wrongfully. For what glory is it, if, when ye be buffeted for your faults, ye shall take it patiently? but if, when ye do well, and suffer for it, ye take it patiently, this is acceptable with God. For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps: who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth: who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously: who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed.”—I Pet. 2:19-24

Though the words Jesus is said to have spoken on the cross, “Father forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34) are not found in the oldest manuscripts, they represent a spirit which Jesus manifested throughout his earthly pilgrimage.

One of the most outstanding and moving scenes of forgiveness is found in the Old Testament. The incident involved the attitude and disposition of Joseph, a picture of our Lord Jesus. The story of Joseph weaves through several chapters of Genesis (from the 37th chapter to the 47th chapter). Joseph was hated by his ten older brethren, who, when overcome with anger and jealousy, conspired to kill him. Instead, they sold him to a caravan of Ishmaelites headed for Egypt. We learn later in the narrative (42nd chapter, 21st verse) how Joseph, stunned by this display of malice and animosity on the part of his brethren, had pleaded with them. But they ignored his pleas. Nevertheless, Joseph survived this terrible experience, and God was with him. He rose to great prominence in Egypt.

Years passed, and Joseph’s brothers were sent by Jacob to Egypt to purchase grain because of the widespread famine in the land. Unknowingly they found themselves dealing with Joseph, who was governor and in charge of all grain sold to the people of the land. Joseph recognized them. He questioned them extensively, accusing them of being spies, and he even imprisoned them for three days. But finally he gave them the grain, holding Simeon hostage, and making them promise to bring Benjamin to Egypt to prove that they were not spies. His brothers must have sensed a retribution was forming against them because of what they had done to Joseph, and they said one to another, “We are verily guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the anguish of his soul, when he besought us, and we would not hear; therefore is this distress come upon us.” (Gen. 42:21) They spoke in Hebrew and did not think that the governor understood them. But he did and was so moved by their confession and change of heart that he turned away from them to weep.

Joseph did not reveal himself to his brothers at that time but forced them to bring Benjamin to Egypt. This caused great distress to Jacob, who was fearful of losing Benjamin. Both Joseph and Benjamin were his youngest sons, children of Rachel, whom he had loved so very much. Joseph and Benjamin were close as brothers because of these circumstances. Hence, when Benjamin came to Egypt and Joseph saw him, his heart yearned so much for his brother, whom he loved, that he went to his chambers to weep.

When the time came for Joseph to reveal himself to his brothers, he dismissed all the Egyptians in his house and wept aloud. His brothers were dismayed at knowing that this man was Joseph, because they had ill treated him; and now that he had great power they were fearful. But Joseph made it plain that he could see beyond the hate and malice of his brothers and knew that God’s hand was in those events which befell him, saying, “So now it was not you that sent me hither, but God: and he hath made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house, and a ruler throughout all the land of Egypt.” (Gen. 45:8) Finally convincing his brothers that he was indeed Joseph, he fell on Benjamin’s neck and wept; and Benjamin fell on Joseph’s neck and wept. Such display of emotion would be expected between these two brothers. His other brothers could not expect such a demonstration of love and emotion toward them. But Joseph did not stop there. As the Scriptures tell us, “Moreover he kissed all his brethren, and wept upon them: and after that his brethren talked with him.” (Gen. 45:15) Such forgiveness is rare. Forgotten was the hate and malice of his brethren; forgiveness was complete.

This disposition of forgiving and forgetting which God and Jesus have revealed to us and which is illustrated by this example of Joseph should be helpful to us. Forgiveness is not merely of the lips but of the heart. It is the manifestation of love. Let us cultivate it, even as admonished by the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 4:32, “And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.”

Dawn Bible Students Association
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