This past Sunday I talked at some length about the connection between forgiving others and receiving forgiveness. This is a sensitive topic, in part because our minds immediately go to the most extreme cases: Are families of victims of 9/11, for example, supposed to forgive Osama Bin Laden? Worse, if they won’t or can’t forgive Bin Laden, will they go to hell (taking Matthew 18:35 very literally)?
I don’t know the answer to the first question. (My answer to the second question is a resounding no!) Jesus directs all of his words about forgiveness in Matthew 18 to people inside the church—people who know each other personally, who are supposed to live together as a close-knit community. Moreover, as is clear from Matthew 18:15-20, Jesus is talking about a kind of forgiveness that takes place after the offending party owns up to the sin. Notice in the parable that both the first and second servants ask for forgiveness first.
(This is why, by the way, when someone apologizes to us for doing something that genuinely hurts us, we should never say “It’s O.K.” or “Don’t worry about it.” These responses trivialize the sin. It’s not O.K., and we should be deeply concerned about it. A truly Christian response is to say “I forgive you.” Saying “I forgive you” takes seriously the wrong that was done.)
Regardless, I can’t see how this passage applies to people we don’t know and who wouldn’t view their own actions as sinful anyway. The Osama Bin Ladens of the world are too abstract to me. Jesus is speaking here about flesh-and-blood people that we know. Let’s start there for now. Surely that will keep us busy.