When someone orders us to do something, or imposes an obligation, it is natural for us to ask two questions. The first question is, “Why should I?” and the second is, “Who says so?” The why and the authority behind the mandate are very important to the question of forgiveness.
To answer the question of why we should be forgiving people, let us look briefly at the teaching of Jesus in the New Testament. In Matthew’s gospel, chapter 18, verse 21 and following, we read this account:
“Then Peter came up and said to him, ‘Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?’
“Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven. Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.
“‘But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt.
“‘So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.’”
In this parable, the point of Jesus’ teaching is clear, that the why for forgiving others is rooted in the fact that we have been the recipients of extraordinary mercy and compassion. We are all debtors who cannot pay their debts to God. Yet God has been gracious enough to grant us forgiveness in Jesus Christ. It is no wonder that in the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus instructs His disciples to say, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” There is a parallel, a joint movement of compassion, that is first received from God and then we in turn exercise the same compassion to others. God makes it clear that if we lack that compassion and harbor vengeance in our heart, rather than being ready to forgive again and again, we will forfeit any forgiveness that has been given to us.