Imitators of God: Forgiving Iniquity, Transgression, and Sin

God told Moses he is “YHWH, the gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger, abundant in hesed and faithfulness.” He “keeps hesed to the thousands, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin” (Exodus 34:6-7a). If we are to be imitators of God (Eph. 5:1), it means we must be compassionate and gracious, abundant in love, and to use Paul’s words, we must “forgive each other, as the Lord forgave you” (Col. 3:13). We are a forgiven people, and forgiven people ought to be forgiving people.

So what does it mean to forgive iniquity, transgression and sin?

First, what is iniquity, transgression and sin? Are they just synonyms meaning the same thing? Sort of.

Iniquity (Hebrew awon): to turn aside from a straight course.

Transgression (pesa): rebellion

Sin (hata’a): to miss the mark [1]

Or, to use the Babylonian Talmud’s distinction: “‘Wrongs’ [or ‘iniquities’] are deliberate misdeeds… ‘transgressions’ are rebellious deeds… ‘sins’ are inadvertent omissions” (b. Yoma 36b)

So while there may be nuance to the different words, the point is not to explain God will forgive (and by extension what he won’t- which is too often our concern, usually focusing on the “other’s” actions which God presumably won’t forgive), but to suggest that the totality of our misdeeds are capable of being forgiven. Whether it’s coming up short of God’s standard, or deliberately choosing to do something God has called us to avoid, God offers forgiveness. This threefold reference to iniquity, transgression and sin is used frequently throughout the Hebrew Scriptures (e.g. Lev. 16:21, Ps. 32:1-5; 51:1-2, Mic. 7:18-19). So we know that God’s faithful love make possible forgiveness of all varieties of misdeed- intentional rebellion or inadvertent shortcomings. All can be forgiven because God is gracious and compassion. 

God “forgives”. The Hebrew nasa literally means “lifts, carries, takes away”. We tend to think of forgiveness as the release of a grudge; “It’s ok, I’m over it.” Yes we should do that. And yes, we are called to do that. Paul, in Colossians 3:14 uses the Greek charizomenoi which means “show grace/favour.” Paul says bear with one another, and even though they sin, show grace. Show grace as you have been shown grace.

Jesus calls on his hearers to “forgive people for their trespasses” (Mt. 6:14) but he uses the Greek aphiemi which means to forgive or release. It means to let it go or can even mean to send away.

But in Exodus, God says he “forgives iniquity, transgression and sin” but the Hebrew there nasa, means to lift, take or carry. God doesn’t just release, but he takes it away from us. He removes it. He tramples it under foot and hurls it into the sea (Micah 7:18-19). It is gone. It’s not just there and not being counted. It’s done. You are completely free of it.

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free (Gal. 5:1). We are free indeed. Our sin was taken, not so we would owe a debt to God, but that we would find freedom in his grace. Our debt is gone. God has removed it from us; “as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us.” (Ps. 103:12).

So when we read Ex. 34:7, we see God is “lifting iniquity, transgression and sin”

And then in Mic. 7:18-19, “Who is a God like you, lifting iniquity and passing over the transgression. He will again have compassion upon us; he will tread our iniquities under foot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea.”

The same is true in the Greek: “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away (airo lifts, takes up) the sin of the world.” (John 1:29).

The Parable of the Wicked Debtor

We saw in Paul, “forgive as you have been forgiven.” But sometimes, it looks like Jesus says forgiveness is only given to you in relation to the forgiveness you give; “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”. See, here’s why I only occasionally use the Lord’s prayer in worship. We need to stop and think for a second, what is Jesus giving us here? We are asking God to forgive us to the extent to which we are forgiving. Is that not terrifying? I don’t want to be evaluated based on the extent I evaluate others. If God only forgives me as much as I forgive others, I’m in big trouble.

Obviously Jesus is using a rhetorical device here to drill home the need to be gracious. At several points in the Gospel According to Matthew we read tough words from Jesus about the forgiveness God shows and its relation to the forgiveness we show. Immediately following the Lord’s Prayer, we read (Mt. 6:14-15), “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Then in the next chapter, Jesus says, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.” (Mt. 7:1-2). It appears on the service that Jesus is suggesting that God’s forgiveness is conditional on our forgiveness to others. So we have to tread carefully.

And then we come to a shocking parable. A parable one theologian calls Jesus’ “darkest” parable [2]. This parable is in some ways disturbing, and Jesus tells it in a way which would presumably be meant to intentionally stir up a response. Jesus uses extremes to highlight a poignant issue.

Matthew places this parable immediately after Peter’s question about how many times one should forgive. Jesus’ response of seventy seven or seventy times seven launches into a parable about extravagant forgiveness.

Jesus tells of a man who goes before a king, who owes 10,000 talents. He promises to pay it back, but needs more time. He pleas for clemency and patience. The king in a strange move cancels the debt. He doesn’t just give an extension, he wipes out the debt.

Now, let’s stop there for a second, and clarify what has actually happened, but already this story in shocking to the ears of Jesus’ audience. The servant in this story owes 10,000 talents. With inflation and currency fluctuations the value of a talent varied. But it averages out to be about 6,000 denarii to one talent, so 10,000 talents is about six hundred million denarii. One denarius is a days wage for the average servant. So, the debt this servant owes comes out to about 275,000 years of salary. No one servant could possibly accumulate this kind of debt. It’s ludicrous. No one would possibly loan this kind of money. In fact, just to give some perspective. Josephus records the taxes paid to Rome the year after the death of King Herod the Great (the Herod of the Nativity story not the crucifixion). The provinces of Galilee, Judea, Samaria and and Perea’s combined tax revenue was about 800 talents. 10,000 talents is basically all the money in circulation in Judea.[3]

This debt is mammoth. It’s monstrous. It could never possibly be repaid. So the king, who is owed enough money to keep his government going for a while, decides to forgive the debt. Perhaps because he knows it can’t be repaid. Or perhaps he knows that although he is entitled to demand the servant be sold into slavery, even that would not recoup the loss. The highest price ever recorded for a slave was 1 talent. Basically the extravagant nature of the debt is only topped by the extravagant forgiveness of this debt.

This newly forgiven debtor leaves, and runs into another servant who owes him 100 denarii. This is still significant amount for a servant- roughly four months wages. But it is theoretically possible to pay off. Many of us (especially those with mortgages) have paid off more debt than this. It may take a while, but it can be done. But the forgiven debtor grabs his colleague by the throat and demands repayment in full. When the second debtor cannot repay, the first servant turns him in to be thrown in jail. This is not out of the ordinary in ancient cultures. But the irony is of course, a servant in prison can’t earn wages to pay of any debts.

But the contrast of the debts is incredible; roughly 600,000:1. But the forgiven man refuses to be forgiving. Those who saw that scene were disgusted and reported back to the king what had happened, and not surprisingly, the king is outraged. He grabs the man he had forgiven and has him handed over to the jailors (literally “tormenters”) to be punished until paid in full. I’m not sure how physical torment repays the debt, but that’s not really the point, and it’s way too big an issue for this space.

So, is Jesus saying God will punish us, and take back his forgiveness if we are unforgiving? Probably not. Given the obvious exaggeration with respect to the size of the man’s debt and the extent of forgiveness offered by a king we recognize this parable is hyperbole, intentional exaggeration to illustrate the central message- that God is forgiving. And we his people must also be forgiving. We should be serious and committed to being forgiving. God has forgiven us of much. When we refuse to offer forgiveness to others we look as foolish as the first servant who ran up ridiculous debt, but refused to forgive a modest debt.

When we hold onto a grudge, we need to remind ourselves that the forgiveness we received probably does outnumber the forgiveness we refuse to give 600,000:1. Can we not forgive a fraction of that which we’ve been forgiven?

This isn’t to say forgiving is simple and straightforward. It’s something easier said than done. It’s hard to release someone who has hurt you. Jesus doesn’t call us to stick to easy things. Quite the opposite in fact. It is difficult to look at someone who has wounded you, and say I release you from this. The ill-will is gone, the grudge is over, we are free to be reconciled. Your sins are trampled underfoot and hurled into the sea. That is incredibly difficult. But what’s the alternative? Being miserly, grouchy, bitter, angry. Refusing to forgive is toxic to us. When we release others, we are also freeing ourselves. We give up feeling angry. We give up being burdened by resentment, and we can move on to enjoy the unity and love and restored relationship.

So, although it seems like Paul and Jesus (through Matthew) differ on which came first the chicken or the egg (God forgiving us or us forgiving others) the parable today clearly shows that God’s forgiveness precedes and exceeds our own and always will, and clearly Jesus is saying that our forgiveness is ultimately inspired and empowered by God’s. Although our forgiving of others is vital and inter-related, God is the mover of the whole process and the model by which we forgive. We imitate God by forgiving. We bear the image of God by offering forgiveness. By bearing that image we confirm our adoption as children of God and co-heirs with Christ. Being children of God requires sharing a “family resemblance”.

Forgiven people are forgiving people. We are to be marked by the gracious attitude we take when dealing with each other’s misdeeds, whether unintentional or deliberate. This doesn’t mean we invite abuse, or we ignore sin. It means when sin happens, we identify it, we call it what it is, and release the other person from it. By refusing to forgive we bind both the offender and ourselves. We bind ourselves to anger, bitterness and hostilities. We trap ourselves in a never-ending cycle of broken relationships.

Our call as imitators of God is to offer the grace in the manner we have been offered from the one who is by his very nature “compassionate and gracious”. We are to forgive- to lift up the sin of others and free both ourselves and them. Can we commit to hurl some sins into the sea?

[1] Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus. Quoted in Knowles, Michael. The Unfolding Mystery of the Divine Name. Downer’s Grove: IVP, 2012. 168.

[2] Ruth Etchells, quoted in Craig Blomberg. Interpreting the Parables. 2nd Edition. Downer’s Grove: IVP, 2012. 318)

[3] Keener, Craig. Matthew (IVPNTC). Downer’s Grove: IVP, 1997, 291-2. cf. Blomberg, Craig. Interpreting the Parables, 314ff, & Hare, Douglas R.A. Matthew (Int.). Louisville: John Knox Press, 1993, 216-7.

One Comment on “Imitators of God: Forgiving Iniquity, Transgression, and Sin

  1. I am sorry I am not the most talented blog reader. I just read your blog on Nate Pyle’s post on depression and being a pastor. WELL done! I too suffer from this wretched problem, but have seen how I have been put in places to spread God’s love because I suffer this. ioften explain it as I explain my son’s diabetes, both are chemicals that the body has in insufficient supply but requires for life. No amount of sunshine, exercise, good food, sleep or prayer will change my son’s pancreas or my serotonin level.
    Strong Christians are those who rely on God and the Saviors death and resurrection, not on good speaches and activities. You are a strong Christian because of your constant reliance on Jesus, despite the deep pit days.
    if I can add one “motherly advice”, the new meds are wonderful. for 10 years on Citalopram was ok, but new life that I never thought possible on cipralex. I don’t count the hours until sleep and I don’t feel like I am dragging around a 200lb weight and see the world in a whole new way.
    A trial period is worth it and won’t leave you sleepy or yucky.
    anyway, thanks and hugs

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