For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins (Matt. 6:14-15).
This saying of Jesus, one embedded in the Sermon on the Mount, is one of the few instances in the Gospels where Jesus states an absolute condition for receiving mercy from the Father.
Jesus extended mercy quite frequently to sinners, even without a confession of sin or display of repentance. He healed people who didn’t realize who he was. In the case of the paralytic man, he forgave and restored him, responding to the faith of the man’s companions when they lowered him through the roof of the house (Mark 2:3-5). Grace, by definition, isn’t grace unless it’s freely given and received.
Why then does Jesus issue such a strong declaration that forgiving others is mandatory if we want to receive his mercy for ourselves?
Jesus use a parable to emphasize this essential behavior and attitude. After Jesus explains to his disciples the right response to a brother who has offended them, Peter asks him how often they should forgive those who have wronged them. Jesus spontaneously spins a tale of a king and two of his servants.
The king, in a gesture of great forbearance and compassion, forgives an insurmountable debt owed by the first servant. This servant finds his fellow servant and hounds him to pay the relatively small amount owed to him, not recognizing the incredible irony and hypocrisy of his demand. When the fellow servant cannot pay the debt, the first servant sends him to debtor’s prison. This is reported to the king, who becomes enraged, saying, “You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you? (Mt 18:21-33).
This goes straight to the heart of the gospel. Disciples forgive others, knowing how much they have been forgiven by the Lord. New Covenant believers are those who live in the knowledge that the Lord has not only forgiven all iniquity but chooses not to remember it (Jer. 31:34). The prayer the Lord taught his disciples includes the admonition to “forgive our debts as we forgive our debtors” (Mt 6:12). Receiving and extending forgiveness are inseparable elements of Kingdom living.
Even prayer and worship hinge on freeing the heart from offenses and unforgiveness; we are not released from our indebtedness until we release others from their indebtedness to us (Mk 11:25-26), leaving our gifts of worship on the altar until we have done so.
Some of us are really good at this. Others find this teaching of Jesus extremely challenging. But either way, no one is exempted.
Lord, would you work in us the willingness to obey your command to forgive?