The kingdom of mercy
How wide and long should our forgiveness be?
This week’s edition features a meditation on forgiveness, as seen through the lens of Matthew 18 and Peter’s question to Jesus, “How often must I forgive my brother?”
We also have an extended answer from Phillip to an interesting question one of you wrote in with, about tribalism, Sydney Anglicanism and Phillip’s own role in all of that. More on that below.
But first …
The kingdom of mercy
In managing to segue so effortlessly from the sublime to the ridiculous, the apostle Peter stands for all of us. In Matthew 16, he’s the one who identifies Jesus as God’s Christ, only to use his very next breath to tell God's Christ to stop speaking nonsense.
In Matthew 18, he's at it again, but in a more subtle mix of insight and complete misunderstanding.
In verse 21, Peter asks Jesus how many times he has to forgive his brother—as many as seven times?
It's quite a bold and insightful question. Peter has been listening to Jesus saying that when your brother sins against you, you’re supposed to go to him and try to win him back (in Matthew 18:15-20).
“So what if I do that”, thinks Peter, “and my brother repents, and I forgive him. Okay fine—but you don’t know my brother. This could be happen a lot. Is there any limit on how often I have to forgive him?”
It's a very understandable question, but at the same time a stupid one, as Jesus goes on to demonstrate through the famous parable of the unmerciful servant—the story about the slave who is forgiven a vast debt by his master, but then immediately refuses to forgive a much smaller debt owed to him by a fellow slave.
I've been pondering this passage again recently (in preparation for a sermon), and have noticed four very striking things in it.
The first is how the story clarifies what forgiveness is.
Forgiveness is a big and rich concept. But somewhere down deep, at the heart of it, is the waiving or cancelling of a debt.
Wrongdoing always generates some kind of debt or obligation between people. It might be very tangible—like the stupendous sum of money the servant owes in the parable. It may be a less tangible obligation, such as when you’ve hurt me or insulted me or disadvantaged me by your behaviour.
When I forgive, I decline to call that debt in. I won’t insist on payment; I won’t take an eye for an eye; I will forego the pleasure of tearing strips off you; I won’t cut you off from relationship with me as you deserve. In fact, I will open my heart to you again, even though that really costs me something now, and will very likely cost me again in the future.
This is why forgiveness is so hard. It always costs the forgiver something. In the case of the parable, it costs the king the stupendous sum of money he is owed, and he bears the entirety of that loss himself.
This brings us to the second thing I saw in this parable. Perhaps I am just thick, but I had never noticed before just what a perfect picture of Jesus’ kingdom the first half of the parable is—even though that is exactly how Jesus introduces the story (“…the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts …”).
What Peter needs to be taught is that to enter the kingdom of heaven he himself must be forgiven a monumental debt that he owes to the king, a debt he could never repay. In the story, this debt is captured in the almost comical sum of 10,000 talents that is owed by the servant. In Jesus’ day, a talent was equal to 6,000 denarii. A denarii was a day’s wage for a labourer. So the servant owes the king 60 million denarii. In today’s dollars, given the average day’s wage for a labourer—let’s say around 9 billion dollars.
How a humble servant could rack up that kind of debt with a king is not the point—the point is that it is a debt beyond imagining, a debt that could never, ever be repaid.
When the king compassionately waives and cancels this monumental debt, he is bearing that entire cost himself.
Peter doesn’t yet grasp that this is what the kingdom of heaven is like; that this is why Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem to be rejected and killed by the elders and chief priests and scribes (as he keeps telling them); that he is about to die to pay this stupendous debt; to give his life as a ransom for many (as Jesus says a couple of chapters later).
Peter grasps neither the size of the debt that is on his ledger—it is vast beyond imagining, and will render him liable to judgement when the king comes to ‘settle accounts’. Peter also doesn’t yet understand the equally stupendous cost that the king will bear in cancelling that debt so that he can enter the kingdom of heaven.
If he did, he wouldn’t be asking silly questions about how many times he has to forgive his brother.
To those who have been shown such extravagant mercy, it’s outrageous and appalling to be unforgiving towards others. This is the point of the second half of the story, with the outlandishly wicked behaviour of the servant. The servant fails to see the implications of what has been done for him by the king, and Peter doesn’t yet understand it either—or else he wouldn’t have asked his question.
That leads to the third thing that struck me afresh in this parable—just how seriously Jesus condemns the unwillingness of kingdom members to forgive others. If we don’t forgive others their debts, we won’t have our own debts forgiven.
Verses 34-35 of the passage are pretty shocking in the way they put this:
And in anger his master delivered him (the wicked servant) to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.
This is not new teaching from Jesus. Back in the sermon on the mount, he says the same thing after the Lord’s prayer. To be forgiven by our heavenly Father, we must also extend forgiveness to others.
This is stark and a bit disturbing. It feels almost good-worksy, as if we earn (or keep) my forgiveness by being forgiving towards others. Could Christians lose their salvation by being unforgiving towards others?
This is to ask the parable for a level of soteriological detail that it doesn’t give.
Jesus’ point is simple and stark. The kingdom of heaven is a kingdom of extravagant mercy. If we reject that, by refusing to embrace forgiveness in our relationships with others, we’re rejecting it for ourselves as well. We can’t have forgiveness for me, and not for thee. We need to decide whether we wish to be part of the kingdom of mercy, or not. To receive mercy but not to extend mercy is just outrageous.
This has a very real and practical edge. Many of the deepest hurts and wrongs that we experience will come from those who are close to us—from our families and friends, and from our church families, including our pastors. We will inevitably wrong each other, and generate obligations and debts.
If that happens—no, when that happens—we must forgive our brother from our heart, with the same kind of unrestrained mercy that we have been shown by God. To do otherwise is as appalling as the actions of the unmerciful servant.
But (comes the common question) what if the person won’t acknowledge their wrongdoing? What if they don’t or won’t repent? Can I still forgive? Must I still forgive?
This is the fourth thing that I noticed for the first time in this parable. The key response to this frequently asked question is really given in the previous episode in Matthew 18:15-20, in which Jesus talks about what we should do if our brothers sins against us. The two stories are a pair.
If my brother sins against me and doesn’t come to me for forgiveness, then I should go to him, and show him his fault, and seek to win him back. And if he won’t listen to me, I should take some others with me and seek to convince him. And as a final effort to win him back, it goes to the church.
However, in this previous episode, mercy and compassion are still the driving motives—that’s why we go to such lengths to win our brother back. Even when the brother is faced with the witness of the whole church, and still refuses to acknowledge his fault, the response is not judgmentalism or harshness. We are to treat him “as a Gentile and a tax collector”, and we know how Jesus treated such people. Unlike the Pharisees, he didn’t write them off. He repeatedly preached mercy and grace to them.
We sometimes think of repentance and forgiveness as existing in a little formula:
sin + repentance = forgiveness;
sin – repentance = no forgiveness.
And this is true in one sense. We can’t be forgiven our sins (by God and by each other) unless we acknowledge our sins and repent and seek forgiveness.
But the values of the kingdom of mercy always apply, even when our brother is unrepentant. Even when our brother is stiff-necked and unwilling to acknowledge his fault, we still relate to him in a spirit of grace and mercy—even if we cannot forgive him per se (because he won’t acknowledge that there is any debt to forgive).
And when our brother does acknowledge his debt, there can be no limit on the mercy and forgiveness that we extend. It may be a sizeable debt that we are being asked to waive—the amount that the unmerciful servant was owed by his fellow-slave was not trivial. It was about $15,000 in today’s money.
But we must forgive, because in the kingdom of heaven it’s forgiveness all the way down.
Tribalism and Sydney (and Phillip)
Please keep getting in touch with your questions and feedback. It’s been a great encouragement. (Just hit reply to this email.)
More than one person emailed after our post on ‘tribalism’ with some version of the following question (which is from Lindsay):
I appreciated the most recent tribalism episode, but I was wondering if you missed the elephant in the room that might deserve some reflection, which is the nature of tribalism within the church, and Sydney Anglicanism in particular? I’m not in Sydney anymore, and haven’t been for almost six years, but it’s been an interesting journey as I’ve readjusted who I consider in my tribe from when I was in Sydney.
When I was there, I felt like my tribe was UNSW/Matthias peeps. We had stronger theology on complementarianism and vocational ministry, pushed back against others (in the Sydney world and further afield).
But where I am now, there’s no-one anywhere close to where I’m at, and so my tribe is basically anyone who believes the Bible is authoritative and is the way God speaks to us today, let alone any kind of reformed theology or complementarianism.
I’m just wondering if some reflection on the good and the bad of tribalism that I guess has largely centred around Phillip’s ministry within Sydney Anglicanism wouldn’t be helpful?
I asked Phillip this question during our podcast conversation (you can listen to the whole above), and here’s an edited summary of his answer:
PJ: We all live in tribes, in the sense that we all have friends with whom we agree and share common tasks and purposes. That’s a good and right and unavoidable thing. And within such tribes, there are always leaders that we look to—think of people like Jim Packer and John Stott, whose teachings we agree with as evangelical ‘tribal members’, and who help unite us as a tribe, so to speak. There’s nothing wrong with that.
Where it goes wrong is when we hold loyalty to our tribe over loyalty to God or to the truth. And that’s the problem with tribalism—that we will not allow the truth of the gospel to direct our lives, but take the shortcut of allowing our gospel tribe to direct what we should or shouldn’t be doing.
If we go to another part of the world to preach the gospel—and I’m very glad Lindsay has—the fact that there are fewer people with whom we share common ideas than we did at home in Sydney … well that’s part of being a missionary. We might find ourselves having less in common with our friends than we did at home, but we still have certain fundamentals in common. And so our ‘tribal relationships’ may be a little looser.
But to go back to Lindsays’ question—our tribes can be dangerous to us, because our friends can be a danger to us. We don’t want to lose friendship or to disagree with our friends—with people who are so important to us—and so we avoid speaking up.
But a tribe built on the gospel of Jesus Christ has great freedom in disagreement, because we all know that we haven’t got everything right. And when a tribal leader shows that they’re sinful, we should never be surprised—disappointed, yes—but never surprised, because that’s what the Bible teaches us that we’re like.
TP: It’s certainly true of you, Phillip …
PJ: The only reason I haven’t sinned more is lack of opportunity!
TP: So the danger in our Christian tribes is that we become sycophants; that we fail to question or argue because we don’t want to rock the boat, or to lose the advantages or benefits of tribal membership?
PJ: Yes, that’s right. As 1 Timothy 4 reminds us, we need to see our leaders’ progress—in life and doctrine. We’re to follow leaders not because they have all the answers, but rather by watching his progress in understanding and life. The pastor who supposedly has everything together—well, he doesn’t exist. But also, it’s an arrogance that won’t help anyone.
We need to see our leaders changing and growing in Christ-likeness because that’s the encouragement to me to grow in Christ-likeness as well.
It’s that time of year when we’re casting around for thank you gifts for people, or Christmas gifts for friends and family. Matthias Media has some fantastic books out at the moment that would make excellent presents (including The Manual, Al Stewart’s book on masculinity that we reviewed here a couple of weeks ago). Check out the MM online Christmas catalogue here: