Is God’s Forgiveness Unconditional?

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Matthew. (18:23-35)

We would not know a single thing about God or His kingdom had it not been shared with us in His great love for us. God did not want us to be ignorant people who walk around uninformed and unenlightened. God did not want us to be blind or empty. He wanted us to be full of joy and our joy is to know God, to know His ways and to know His kingdom.

Today’s parable is yet another example of the generosity that the Lord Jesus Christ has for us as He teaches us about the kingdom of heaven. These are not things that the Lord must teach us. No one is forcing Him to do so. He does them because He is merciful to us and He wants us to be with Him in His kingdom. He wants to share the kingdom with each of us. In teaching us about the kingdom we are also being reminded or put on notice “This is not our kingdom.”

What aspect of the kingdom does the Lord share with us in today’s parable? His focus is forgiveness. If we pay attention we find many examples of this teaching about forgiveness throughout the gospels. Perhaps if something is mentioned multiple times, we should open our ears as well as our hearts and minds and hear what it is that the Lord is saying to us. In today’s reading we are told that the kingdom of heaven is to be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. Upon finding that his servant could not repay his debt, he ordered the servant to be sold with his wife and kids in order to repay the debt. But something powerful happened! The servant who was about to be sold with his wife and children dropped to his knees and begged for patience. He asked for the king to be merciful to him and to his family. We can imagine such a scene, a man at the end of his rope, pleading, begging and crying out of despair. And how does the king respond? He responds by forgiving all of the debt and releasing the servant. So far so good. The king in this story is the Lord God. And we are the servants who owe a great debt to God. Such a debt as can never be repaid. Although it is God’s prerogative to sell us or allow us to be sent to another master (that is the evil one), He graciously chooses to forgive us all of our debt. So far so good.

But now comes the trouble. That same servant who was just released from all of his mountain of debt, was walking along the way and he found one of his fellow servants who owed him just one hundred denarii. And the anger inside him welled up and he grabbed that other servant by the throat and said “pay what you owe.” So the man who owed the hundred denarii fell to his knees and asked the man to be patient and merciful to him. How would this servant who had himself owed ten thousand talents to his king and was forgiven respond? He responded by taking the fellow servant and threw him into prison until he could pay the debt. This tells us that there is a problem with us when we ask God to forgive us from the bottom of our hearts but we are unwilling to forgive others who ask for our forgiveness from the bottom of their hearts.

The Lord Jesus tells us that the one who does not forgive another is essentially putting that person into a type of prison. And I have experienced this firsthand. We feel imprisoned because someone is angry with us and they refuse to properly forgive us. Each of us has been in that situation. We feel helpless because we have done our part to try and right the situation and have been apologetic (even when we may not have had much to apologize for in the first place), but those who are angry hold all the power. They can choose to remain angry or they can choose to forgive. In addition to making us feel imprisoned, those who are angry also put themselves into a type of prison of their own making.

This type of behavior is problematic for at least two reasons. The first is that each one of us is human and none of us is perfect yet. Since we are not perfect it is reasonable for us to assume that at some point or another, we will be the ones who are in need of mercy and forgiveness from others. But the second point is much more important than the first. We each owe a great debt to God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We accumulated such a debt of sin that it reaches high into the sky like the tower of Babel. Our mountain of sin is so great that it is like the peak of Mt. Everest. We cannot even see it from the ground. It is so high it reaches above the clouds.

And what could we do with such a mountain of sin? How could we repay the great debt that we owed to God? There was no way possible. Each one of us would have been bound by our sin and sold to the devil. But God in His abundant love for us did not want to see us bound as prisoners. He paid the debt for all of humanity and all of it’s sins with the sacrifice of His own Son. In return this sacrifice offered us true freedom from bondage and in fact the Lord’s sacrifice elevates us from mere servants of the King to members of His royal family.

What does this mean for me practically? It means that God’s forgiveness is not quite unconditional. God’s love is unconditional but it seems from the parable that the Lord has generously forgiven us with one condition; That we must forgive each and every person that wrongs us in our life. In fact we say this very thing each and every time we say the Lord’s prayer. Study the words!  “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespassed against us.”  So part of our forgiveness is dependent upon our ability to forgive others.  If we forgive little, the Lord will also forgive us but a little.  Remember that this is not our kingdom. But what we do or fail to do here will have everlasting consequences. We should not approach this simply from fear of God, but even more so, from gratitude and a place of joy. We should say “If God has forgiven me for so much that I have done wrong, how could I possibly hold a grudge against people who have done so little wrong to me?” That is the message. Our forgiveness of others is a key that unlocks others from their prisons of regret, doubt and shame. It allows them to move on with life in a productive and healthy manner without emotional and spiritual roadblocks and detours. This is the mentality that is necessary to be sane in a world full of insanity, anger and misguided searches for justice. Forgiveness is key to our salvation and the salvation of our families. What a difference it makes when wives forgive their husbands and husbands their wives. What a difference when parents forgive their children and children their parents. What a difference when brothers and sisters forgive each other and never hold any grudges or keep any scores. No matter how difficult it might be, find a way to forgive and the doors of the kingdom of God will be opened wide for you. And most importantly, forgive me, the chief of sinners. AMEN.

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