Jesus taught many hard Kingdom truths that are difficult to practice like loving your enemies and giving your possessions to someone who would otherwise steal them. Many of us conveniently ignore these teachings, or at best make grudging obligatory attempts. On the other hand, a majority of Christ-followers would probably say they understand the concept of forgiveness, and try to practice it, because Jesus forgave us. But is that really true?
Jesus taught on forgiveness multiple times, highlighting different points each time. One teaching that is particularly popular is recorded in Luke 17:3, “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.” It would appear Jesus is giving us permission to call out an offender, AND if he/she doesn’t repent, then we’re not required to forgive. Oddly enough, that interpretation is why forgiveness is often messy. Most offenders don’t want their sins thrown in their faces, so saving face presents as denial of- or justification for- wrongdoing without any apology. That adds insult to injury making the wounded party feel justified in being angry and not forgiving. But then, Jesus goes on to say in verse 4, “If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, ’I repent,’ forgive him.” What?? If someone does that to me seven times in one day, he’s not sorry no matter what he says. He is a brazen, self-righteous liar, and now I feel hurt, resentful, bitter, and shut off from God’s presence.
I believe Jesus’ disciples felt the same way: they knew Jesus only spoke truth, but what He was saying was incredulous. “The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!” (v. 5) This was obviously one of those impossible things like healing the Centurion’s servant that required great faith to be able to do. But Jesus continued in the outrageous by saying all they needed was faith as small as a mustard seed. In addition, He gave the illustration of a meal being prepared for a master by his servant who would never expect praise for his labor as it was merely part of his job description. Jesus was saying to his disciples that forgiveness doesn’t require great faith, nor is it eligible for praise because it is part of our duty; it is obedience. Mustard seed faith is needed to obey, and once accomplished, we shouldn’t think highly of ourselves for doing as commanded. I suppose that also means we can’t make a point of letting the offender know that we have graciously and magnanimously forgiven him or her.
No wonder we have an epidemic of unforgiveness in the church and in our families! This is hard! We tend to focus on the injustice of letting the offender off the hook through forgiveness without remembering that it was Jesus Who forgave what was truly unforgivable in us. We forget because He never reminds us what He has put into the sea of forgetfulness. But when we forget the magnitude of His work, we, in self-righteousness, elevate ourselves above His sacrifice. Remembrance and acknowledgment should be so humbling that we would respond, “We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.” (v. 10b) So, if forgiveness is obedience, then we shouldn’t need to wait for the offender to repent, much less hold him in contempt and unforgiveness because of the number of times he has sinned against us. Forgiving others is our assurance that we are forgiven (Matthew 6:12). Isn’t that worth the price of obedience?