Faith In Real Life Blog: “Pay it Forward”

Sharing Christ’s Love Worship Series

Rev. Vernon Gramling

Decatur Presbyterian Church

September 14, 2023


Matthew 18:21-35

21 Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ 22 Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but I tell you, seventy-seven times.

23 ‘For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25 and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26 So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” 27 And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow-slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, “Pay what you owe.” 29 Then his fellow-slave fell down and pleaded with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” 30 But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he could pay the debt. 31 When his fellow-slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32 Then his lord summoned him and said to him, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?” 34 And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he should pay his entire debt. 35 So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.’


This text immediately follows Jesus’ directions for handling conflict within the community.  Since Jesus has acknowledged that sometimes disputes cannot be reconciled and tells the disciples that they should then view an offending person as an outsider (a gentile or a tax collector).  The important caveat is that this does not mean these ‘outsiders’ are outside of God’s love—just that we are limited in our ability to be like Jesus.  In real life, it is hard to imagine that God’s love extends to people who continue to do harm and more personally, to people who continue to harm us. 

Surely there is an upper limit of tolerance.  We can’t be expected to tolerate the intolerable forever. This is Peter’s question: ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’  Peter chose a number (seven) that would have been unheard of.  Two or three maybe but conventional wisdom would not have gone higher.  Peter was moving in the right direction, but he vastly underestimated God’s willingness to forgive.  Jesus answers: ‘Not seven times, but I tell you, seventy-seven times.’  We have now moved outside of human plausibility.  And that is the point.  There is no end point to forgiveness.  If you are counting, you’ve missed the point. If you are counting, you are accumulating points on a score sheet to either prove you are the ‘better person’ or to justify losing it when your forbearance has not evoked reciprocity.  Neither have anything to do with forgiveness.

Forgiveness is hard. It is easily misunderstood and misused. It becomes an unobtainable standard. It is used to bind people in unacceptable relationships and the concept is used to bully and coerce.   Here are a few such examples.  There are many more but these will suffice to make my point.  

1. I have had multiple people in my counseling office who felt they were failing if they could not forgive.  They fail to realize that God forgives us in our inability to forgive.  God will grieve our hardness of heart, but God will not and does not withhold forgiveness.  Our failure to trust God’s refusal to hold our sins against us separates us from God.  God’s forgiveness is beyond our ability to imagine. There is no question about God’s steadfast love.  Our question is whether we will enjoy it.   

In real life, if someone offers a gift, we are typically uncomfortable unless we can reciprocate.  If someone offers us a favor, a meal, or an invitation, most of us want to find some way to repay the courtesy.  There is nothing wrong with such reciprocity, but it turns gift giving into a transaction in which we attempt to stay in balance with one another.  That is not how God’s forgiveness works.  It is the way our secular notion of forgiveness works. All too often we confuse the two. (Such misunderstanding is at the heart of this parable we will be discussing shortly).

2. I have had men who used this passage as a weapon against their wives to guilt them into compliance.  One man righteously informed me that he had apologized to his wife (for embezzling $80,000 from her business).  He had asked her for forgiveness.  But, instead of being forgiving, his wife remained angry and distant. He accused her of being a ‘bad Christian. Forgiveness does not mean there are no consequences for our actions.

3. In another case, a woman felt it was her obligation to stay married to a man who showed little, if any, care for her welfare. She cared for their four children, took care of the house and worked a full-time job.  When asked about his role in the family, he said: “I study the Word”.  She was on her last nerve, but it was hard for her to claim her own needs in the relationship. She was ‘supposed’ to forgive. She substituted obedience for love and regard. She could not grasp that it was possible to trust God’s care for her husband—and her—even while she was unable to offer such care. She was operating as if her obedience would translate into a ‘reward in heaven’.  Rather than doing the work of discernment of her responsibilities to herself and family, she chose unreflective obedience—-at her own expense. And to be fair, it was hard to argue with a man who justified his self-centeredness by saying he was doing the work of the Lord.  He went so far as to inform me that he did not believe I understood what a Christian marriage was.  He was quite stunned when I told him that in my opinion, he was neither a good husband nor a good Christian.  She suffered because of her obligations, and he bullied because he could get away with it.  Neither way of coping had anything to do with God.

This brings us to the parable. Jesus uses the parable to illustrate his ‘seventy times seven’ answer to Peter’s question.  A servant owes an astronomical sum to the king.  Without taking the numbers literally, it would be akin to any of us owing a billion dollars.  Even if we could repay at the rate of $10,000 per month, it would take over eight hundred years to pay off the debt.  It was not possible to repay.  The king had every right to recoup whatever he could by taking everything the servant owned, selling off his entire family and sending him to prison.  That is the way of the world.  Then the servant begs and makes a promise he cannot possibly honor— “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” He suggests that the debt is actually repayable through his own efforts.  The king, against all secular logic, forgives the servant’s debt. The servant receives new life.

Unfortunately, he failed to grasp, much less enjoy what he had been given.  Instead of enjoying an inexplicable grace, he holds onto a secular, transactional view of the world. He thought he had ‘earned’ forgiveness through his cunning and guile.  There was no room for humility or gratitude. It would not occur to him to be as ‘gullible’ as his master. Just because his boss could be tricked didn’t mean he would be. We see this in the way he treats a servant of his who owes a much lesser debt. Ultimately, his transactional view of the world dooms him—as it will all of us.  In real life, if we actually believe we are self-made and self-sufficient, we will miss the gift entirely.  We will spend our lives trying to explain and justify the unexplainable.  

In real life none of us can explain the lives we have been given, much less the forgiveness we have been offered. A client of mine spun out of control as she merged onto I-75. The car spun several revolutions, across multiple lanes of heavy traffic before she hit the median. She did not hit another car. She was uninjured. She could not and cannot explain why she is alive. Her first reaction was to try to explain what happened.  After briefly wondering if God was trying to send her a message— (perhaps he was trying to frighten her into returning to church), she responded with humility and gratitude. The response to grace is to pay it forward because we can never pay it back.  

Now, several years later she is trying to get pregnant.  She has had two very painful miscarriages.  Once again, she tried to explain why.  Was there something wrong with her body?  Was God punishing her?  I commented to her that the same God who was with her as the car was spinning out of control was with her in the pain of her miscarriages.  Forgiveness and grace are not transactional in God’s kingdom. We can’t earn it and we can’t repay it.  Forgiveness is a gift which allows us to live in the present.  It is a gift that gives life.  We can only stand humble and grateful when it occurs.  My client reports that her prayers have shifted to asking for the strength and courage to face life as it comes—rather than trying to explain or prescribe outcomes.  

It is a radically different way to live and if we fail to understand the gift of forgiveness, we will be doomed.  It will be as if we were thrown into prison and tortured for life.  Though the parable says the king is angered by the hard heartedness of the servant and angrily casts him into prison, I am not willing to make the easy allegorical substitution of God for the king.  That would suggest there is an end point to God’s care; the loving, ever-forgiving God can become fiercely punitive.   We insist that if we fail to do our part, we will be punished.  There are plenty of scriptural references that suggest this is the case.  Repeatedly we expect God to act in human ways. Such thinking sounds very much like a human projection. It is certainly the way most of us have sometimes acted as parents.  

It remains very difficult to realize how radically different God’s love is.  As I see it, the problem is not with God, it is with our insistence upon turning love, grace and forgiveness into something we can explain, control or earn. That was the error of the unforgiving servant. Such a belief will have us pushing a large rock up a steep hill for eternity.  We cannot explain or justify the gifts of life.  Nor can we explain or justify the hardship and suffering of life. The first job in the Christian faith journey is to learn how to receive love—with humility and gratitude. 

We can only use what we have been given and trust that nothing can separate us from the Love of Christ. We cannot pay that back.  Our job is to pay it forward. Live like you are loved and live like love matters.  

Let it be so.