Scott’s dad told him many times, “Do not play ball in the street; you may break someone’s window.” Next day, Scott joined his friends in playing ball in the street. Sure enough, dad’s prediction came true—Scott fouled a ball right through Mrs. Baker’s window. Shamed-faced he walked up to the door, told Mrs. Baker he didn’t have enough money to cover the damages, and promised never to do it again. With a kind smile on her face Mrs. Baker said, “Don’t worry young man, I’ll take care of it, go out and have fun.” “And,” continued Scott, “Please don’t tell my dad.”
What a beautiful story of mercy and forgiveness! How we love Mrs. Baker. Well, this is just the first chapter of the story. Later that afternoon Scott hit another ball through another of her windows. The same conversation ensued. This time the gracious Mrs. Baker forgave Scott and even invited him and his friends into her home for cookies and lemonade. Again she promised she wouldn’t tell his dad what happened. The story is even more beautiful this second time around.
What if the story does not end here? What if Scott continued day after day to ignore his dad’s orders and take advantage of Mrs. Scott’s forgiving spirit? At what point would the elderly woman say, “One more time Scott and I will call your dad; I’ve reached my limit.”?
No matter how generous and loving a human being is, there is a point where there are limits to our capacity to forgive and forget.
Jesus tells us a similar “mercy” story (Matthew 18:21-35).
“(T)he Kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who decided to settle accounts with his servants. When he began the accounting, a debtor was brought before him who owed him a huge amount. Since he had no way of paying it back, his master ordered him to be sold…in payment of the debt. At that, the servant fell down, did him homage, and said, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back in full.’ Moved with compassion, the master…let him go and forgave him the loan.”
The king, like Mrs. Baker, was overly generous in forgiving. Even though the debt was in the thousands of dollars, his compassion moved him to let the servant off the hook.
The servant, however, was not like Scott. He didn’t go up humbly to the king’s door and admit how irresponsible he was in concurring the debt. And he lied both to the king and himself by making a promise he couldn’t keep—“I will pay you back.” There was no way this man could ever pay back such a huge debt. In spite of this the compassionate king erased the entire debt—no conditions attached.
After painting this picture of such a gracious king, Jesus then tells us about a not-so-gracious servant. When a fellow servant owed him a small amount of money, the forgiven servant choked him and had him put in prison. How angry we are with this hard-hearted servant. The compassion of the king did not overflow into his heart. He was off-the-hook but not changed.
Jesus shared this story as an answer to one of Peter’s questions. Peter asked him,
“Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him? As many as seven times?”
Peter, in effect, was asking Jesus if he expected him to be as forgiving as was Mrs. Baker. Seven times is more than even a fairy tale can handle.
Jesus then responding with shocking statement,
“I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.”
Even Mrs. Baker could not forgive Scott seventy-seven times. Jesus poses an impossible standard. Yet his heavenly Father is so compassionate and infinite in mercy that he was able to forgive seventy-seven times, even when a person keeps offending him over and over again. This boggles our imaginations!
The only condition he puts on his infinite mercy is that we admit our debt, humbly receive it, and share it generously with those who offend us. We, too, have an infinite supply of mercy as long as we keep knocking on God’s door and asking his forgiveness. In time he gives us a seventy-seven times capacity! Little by little our hearts become transformed into His heart.
Can you imagine how Scott’s encounter with Mrs. Baker changed his life? How profound the effect of forgiveness is on us. How powerful the effect on those to whom we share mercy and forgiveness–including, and, maybe above all, ourselves.
“Your ways, O Lord, make known to me” (Ps 25:4).