Much of my Bible reading today was about forgiveness. Jesus spends the last part of Matthew chapter 18 teaching on forgiveness. He tells a story of a man (lets call him Fred) who owed billions to a king. His debt was so great that in a lifetime, he could never pay back what he owed. The king calls Fred in and asks him to pay up. Of course Fred can't pay so he falls on his knees and begs for mercy. Miraculously, the king has a change of heart and decides to not kill Fred but to instead forgive his entire debt. Fred leaves the palace completely forgiven and debt free!
You'd think Fred would go home and write the king a thank you note. Maybe even send him a Starbucks gift card or a box of chocolates. But no. On his way home, Fred runs into a buddy (lets call him Tom) who owes him a pittance - maybe ten bucks. He asks Tom for the money, but Tom doesn't have his wallet. He tells Fred, "Sorry man. I don't have it today, but I'll catch you the next time I see you." In that moment, Fred does the unthinkable. He grabs Tom, starts choking him, and demands payment on the spot. Tom falls to his knees and begs for mercy, but heartless Fred refuses and instead has Tom thrown into prison until he can pay the debt.
Word gets back to the king who is livid. He brings Fred back to the palace, rakes him over the coals verbally, and in his anger throws into prison to be tortured until he can pay back the debt (which is never). Jesus concludes the story by saying, "This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart."
It's easy to read this story and think, "What an idiot. Who behaves like that?" But it doesn't take much reflection to realize that we all behave like this. The parallel Jesus makes to real life is the debt we owe for our sin. There is no way to ever repay the billions of ways we sin against a holy and just God. Without Jesus, we are destined for death. But Jesus takes on human flesh and willingly dies in our place - paying our debt with his blood. If we choose to receive the salvation Jesus offers, we walk out of God's court room completely forgiven and debt free.
You'd think we'd go home, write Jesus a thank you note and spend the rest of our lives serving Him. But in our humanness, we so quickly forget. We run into our nemesis on our way home to write that thank-you. We forget all we've been redeemed from and instead, remember only what they owe us. An apology. Money. Another chance. The pain blurs our ability to think clearly and we find ourselves refusing to extend forgiveness. Forgiveness is a choice. We either choose to forgive. Or we refuse. There is no "I'm going to think about it." We forgive. Or we don't.
Forgiveness is also a command. Jesus makes it clear as he concludes his story that if we want to call ourselves Followers of Jesus, forgiving others is part of the game plan. Jesus empowers you to forgive the person who is supposed to love you unconditionally, but all they give is pain. Jesus empowers you to forgive the person who cheated you. To forgive the person who owes you money. To forgive the person who betrayed you. To forgive the person who abandoned you. Choosing to forgive is one of those "deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow" moments. Obeying is painful, but it's part of following Jesus.
My assigned reading in Genesis continued the theme of forgiveness. It just happened to be the end of the story of Jacob and Esau, two brothers who spent their entire lives fighting and deceiving one another. Their rivalry and bitterness got so bad that Jacob ended up running for his life. Years later (and where I picked up the story today), the two brothers cross paths. Jacob is terrified for his life so he sends his servants ahead of him with loads of gifts to pacify Esau. With his family divided into groups, Jacob fearfully and timidly approaches Esau. But Esau "ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept." What a beautiful story.
Esau chose to forgive Jacob and his warm reception thawed Jacob's fearful heart. The brothers shared an intimate afternoon reconnecting, but then they went their separate ways. They opted not to travel together or live by each other. The pain from years of dysfunction was too great to allow for frequent interaction. Sometimes forgiving requires distance. Jacob and Esau chose boundaries and put physical distance between them to enable their relationship to function well. They were smart about the way they reconstructed their relationship and they didn't allow a history of pain to be an excuse not to extend forgiveness.
I'm going to bed mulling this over and asking God to examine my heart. I want to proudly bear the name "Follower of Jesus" even if it means taking the hard road. What about you? Is there anyone you need to forgive?