What debt?

The gospel teaches us two things: the enormity of sin and the abundance of God’s forgiveness.

The letter carried a visceral punch. It was a demand from an attorney that I pay up a certain debt within two weeks. My television license fee, the letter said, was in arrears for two months. If I didn’t settle it in two weeks, my credit rating and credit cards would be in jeopardy. This, to me, was tantamount to a national disaster.

Furthermore, there was a fine of 10 percent for each month I was in arrears. Worse still, I could be taken to court. I was in trouble!

I checked my files. What a relief it was to find that I had paid the dues on time. My fear turned to anger. I called the attorney’s office four times before I could get through. I informed the lady on the other end that I owed nothing. She was apologetic. It seemed that the television corporation had lost its records and had sent letters of demand to everyone. Bureaucracy has its ways, and in due course, they sent me a letter of apology.

However, for the first time, I learned what it means to be in debt and to be called to account. Jesus once told a story about being in debt (Matthew 18:21-35). A king summoned one of his servants to pay his debt, a debt so enormous he could not possibly pay it. It was 10,000 talents, more than 10 times the annual tax income of the government of all four provinces in Palestine at that time. What a terrible situation to be in! The man fell on his knees and begged for mercy and more time. The king took pity on his servant and canceled the entire debt.

Ironically, the servant did not quite understand the enormity of the debt forgiven. He thought time was all he would need to repay the debt, but he could not have cleared it in a hundred years. In reality, he did not understand the meaning of forgiveness.

This same servant had a debtor who owed him a small sum, just a fraction of what he had owed the king. Coming from the king’s court with his debts canceled, he demanded from his debtor immediate repayment. In fact, he grabbed his fellow servant and began choking him. When payment was not forthcoming, the king’s servant had the unfortunate debtor thrown into jail.

Forgiveness has its dynamics: an element of gratitude and transference. What Jesus was trying to teach in this story is that it is not enough to receive forgiveness—it is essential to offer forgiveness. The unmerciful servant failed to experience this dynamic, and hence he could not experience the joy of forgiveness.

The gospel shows us two things: the enormity of our debt and the magnitude of God’s grace and mercy in setting us free. All of us are sinners under the sentence of death (Romans 6:23). There is nothing we can do to help ourselves. But then there stands the cross. Jesus’ sacrifice is a perpetual reminder of the lengths to which God was prepared to go to forgive our sin and cancel our enormous debt. In His infinite mercy and love, God remits in full and gives us hope.

If I recognize how much God has forgiven me, I will not keep a count of the number of times I need to forgive my brother (Matthew 18:22). Peter thought that forgiving a person seven times was generous enough. After all, the Pharisees had taught the principle of “thrice to forgive, fourth to punish.” The gospel of Jesus is abounding grace. In it forgiveness has no numerical limit.

Often we are like that evil servant. We have no concept of the enormity of the debt canceled or the generosity of the One who had to bear the cross. Therefore we find it difficult to forgive our fellow humans their small debts. How frequently we collect all the hurts of the past and the present, and withhold forgiveness, not realizing what we have been forgiven!

Only a vision of Jesus on the cross and the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit can help us understand what God has done for us. Only then will we gladly and freely forgive others.

David Birkenstock (Ed.D., Andrews University) served until recently as rector of Helderberg College, South Africa. He is now dean of the School of Graduate Studies at Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies, in the Philippines. His address: AIIAS; P.O. Box 7682; Domestic Airport Post Office; 1300 Pasay City, Metro Manila; Philippines.