Matthew 18:21-35

Are there limits to forgiveness? No—and yes.

Peter asks Jesus how many times he should forgive someone who harms him. Jesus answers that he should forgive so often that he’s bound to lose count (77 times, or perhaps 490 times—texts and translations differ on that). In other words, God forgives without keeping count, and so must we.

But Jesus follows this with a parable that shows how God’s endless forgiveness can still be limited by us. A king cancels a debt of several billion dollars. The forgiven debtor refuses to cancel a mere fraction of his own debt, and when the king hears about it he throws the forgiven debtor in prison, probably for life, as he had threatened to do the first time.

So, does God stop forgiving if we don’t forgive? Remember, it’s a parable. Parables are meant to exaggerate things for dramatic effect. But it does point to an important truth: there’s an intimate connection between being forgivEN and being forgivING.

God can forgive endlessly, never keeping count, but so what? The point is not just to be forgiven. The point is to realize our forgiven-ness here and now, to glimpse the unfathomable extent of God’s unconditional embrace, and that will never even begin to happen if we refuse to forgive in turn.

If you refuse to forgive, you are refusing your own forgiveness. If you can’t get beyond keeping score, you’ll imprison yourself in your own system of rewards and punishments, and if you play by these rules the hardest person to forgive will turn out to be you. You don’t need God or anybody else to punish you, because nobody else’s punishment can be as severe as your own.

How many times must we forgive? As many times as we have been forgiven. I’ve lost count.