This parable, and that of the Good Samaritan, as has been justly suggested by Fred. Arndt, although historically separate, are logically related, like two branches that spring from one stem: together they express a Christian's duty to his brother in respect of injuries. When a brother inflicts an injury on you, forgive him; when a brother suffers an injury from another, help him. Forgiving love is taught in this parable; helpful love in the parable of the Good Samaritan.
The immediate occasion of this parable is obviously Peter's question, "How oft shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him?" but how Peter's question springs from the preceding context does not so readily appear. The Natural History of the process in that apostle's mind was probably something of this sort: The Master had instructed his disciples how they should act in the event of a brother doing them an injury: three distinct steps are indicated, rising one above another like courts of appeal; first, a private remonstrance; if that prove unavailing, then a remonstrance in the presence of one or two witnesses; and lastly, an appeal to the Church. These rules are very specific, and together constitute a complete code on the branch of the subject to which they refer. In the matter of dealing with an offending brother with the view of bringing him to a better mind, you can no further go: if all these efforts fail, you must separate yourself from the offender, lest by continued intimacy you should seem indifferent to his sin. After this the Lord proceeds to give instruction on other subjects, and especially on united prayer. Peter, I suppose, had allowed his mind to be so completely occupied with the question of forgiving injuries, that he failed to follow his Teacher when the lesson glided into another theme. I could suppose him to have been so busy with the thought of injuries received, and the difficulty of forgiving them, all the time that the Lord was discoursing on united prayer, that he scarcely observed his Master's words. All the more readily might this happen, if the impetuous fisherman had a quarrel with some of his neighbours on hand at the very time, and was exercised in conscience about the duty of bringing it to a close. At the first pause, the current which had been for a time flowing under ground, burst out on the surface. Taking up and again abruptly introducing the subject which had been for some time dismissed, he asked, as if unconscious that the theme had been changed during his reverie, "Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Till seven times?" He wanted to have a number specified, beyond which he should not be bound to forgive repeated offences. In suggesting seven he seems to have had in his mind some Pharisaical formula: probably he thought the allowance was liberal, and expected to be approved for his magnanimity.
The formula, seventy times seven, while it serves to intimate that there is in the law no limit to the exercise of a forgiving spirit, seizes upon Peter's narrow proposal and makes a show of it openly. It is possible that he may have fallen into a mistake here through the misapprehension of a lesson on the same subject given by the Lord. He may have heard the Master teach, as at Luke xvii.4, -- "If he trespass against thee seven times in a day, and seven times in a day turn again to thee, saying, I repent, thou shalt forgive him." But evidently the number seven in that discourse has substantially the same meaning with seventy times seven here: seven times a day, even when literally understood, includes as much as the absolute seventy times seven. The doctrine in both cases is that it is not lawful to set any limit to the principle and the practice of forgiving injuries.
To repeat, expand, and enforce this lesson, the parable is introduced. The kingdom of heaven is like a man king -- [Greek: anthropo basilei]. Expressly the divine is in this respect analogous to the human. This ruler proposed to take account of his servants. It was not the final reckoning, but a periodical balance. A king is in this respect like a merchant: he takes account from time to time of his own affairs, and the intromissions of his servants. "Short counts make long friends."
These servants were not slaves, the property of their master; for afterwards it is assumed that he may sell them, not as an ordinary right, but as the special penalty incurred by an insolvent debtor. A king, in ancient times and oriental regions, entered into pecuniary transactions with his servants on a great scale. One man, who owes all to the personal favour of the sovereign, is the governor of a wealthy province. Bound by no written law, and living at a distance from the seat of government, that servant possesses always the power, and too frequently seizes the opportunity of oppressing the people on the one hand, and defrauding the royal treasury on the other. In many cases fortunate or powerful dependants farmed the taxes of a district, paying, or at least promising to pay, a certain sum yearly to the supreme government, and obtaining authority in return to levy contributions on the inhabitants for their own behoof, sometimes almost according to their own pleasure. Vast sums passed through the hands of these great officers, and vast sums also remained in their hands that should have passed through them.
The amount specified in the parable -- ten thousand talents -- is very great, of whatever species you may suppose the talent to be. The inquiry which has been prosecuted with a view to determine precisely the value of the talent in this case is difficult, and does not lead to any certain or important result. The question is interesting to Biblical scholars and antiquarians, but the solution of it is by no means necessary to the perception or the application of our Lord's meaning in the parable. The sense is completely obtained by taking the ten thousand talents as a vast but indefinite sum. A hundred talents of silver constituted the hire of a great army, 2 Chron. xxv.6; and notwithstanding the lavish use of gold in the construction of the Tent-Temple in the wilderness, only twenty-nine talents were employed in all (Ex. xxxviii.24). Besides the distinction between gold and silver, other variations occur in the value of a talent, depending upon time, place, and other circumstances. In any view of its worth, however, the disparity between the sum which this servant owed to the master, and the trifling amount which a fellow-servant owed to him, is as great as the imagination can effectually grasp; larger numbers would not sensibly intensify the impression.
"One was brought to him:" this servant would not have come to the king of his own accord; but he could not escape the interview and the reckoning. Aware of his enormous debt, he would fain have kept out of his master's way, but could not. God looks on the heart, and grasps the conscience, whether the man will or be unwilling.
The punishment is very severe, but in accordance with law and custom. No complaint is made against the sentence as if it were unjust in principle, or excessive in degree: the culprit appeals only to the mercy of the judge, and thus the righteousness of the verdict is tacitly acknowledged.
His promise to pay means nothing more than his desire to escape. He made the promise, not in the expectation of being able to perform it, but as the most likely means of escaping from punishment. His worship was prompted by selfish fear, not by filial love. He did not know his master's heart: he thought he would gain his object most readily by leading the king to expect payment in full.
The king did not grant his servant's request: he did more; he forgave that servant all. The absolved debtor, as soon as he obtained his liberty, went out, and met a fellow-servant, who owed him an hundred pence. I suppose, if that fellow-servant had come to him while yet he was in his master's presence, he would not have dared to act the tyrant; but "out of sight, out of mind." He forgot his own prayer, and his lord's compassion. He grasped the fellow-servant by the throat and threw him into prison, until he should pay. The amount is comparatively small, as is fit between servant and servant: the smallness of the debt brings the cruelty of the creditor out in high relief. His neighbour's pleading is expressed in the same terms as his own: the sound should have reminded him of his duty.
 Die am meisten geschont sind erweisen sich als die Schonungslosesten. Unter den Fluegeln der Zaertlichkeit wird die Grausamkeit ausgebruetet. (Those who get most mercy give least; and cruelty is hatched under the wings of tenderness). -- Draeseke vom Reich Gottes, ii.141.
Fellow-servants observing the outrage were at once indignant and compassionate. They informed their master. The master displeased, pronounced his condemnation in full. He who showed no mercy to his brother, received judgment without mercy for himself.
Before proceeding to the exposition of the parable in its spiritual meaning and application, I shall submit a remark of a general character, bearing on the parables at large, as well as on this in particular, which can be made more conveniently now than at the close.
The more I examine the structure and use of the parable in the teaching of the Lord, the more I am convinced that men make a great mistake when they betake themselves to a single feature of the natural scene as a defence of some specific and controverted dogma. The rule may be made absolute, or if there are exceptions they are few, that the parables are intended to expand, illustrate, and enforce what is elsewhere clearly taught in the Scriptures, and not themselves to constitute the grounds or evidences of the doctrines. But to whatever extent such a general rule may be applicable, it is most certain that those who run to a corner of a parable and take their stand on it, as impregnable evidence of some doctrine which they hold, are in all cases egregiously mistaken. The controversies, for example, on the question of Church discipline, which were made to turn on the tares among the wheat, and the net that caught all kinds of fishes, are a mere waste of words. Those parables do not afford material for the decision of the question; they do not speak to the point.
In like manner, when theologians gravely refer to this parable in order to prove that after a man's sins have been all freely forgiven by God, he may yet fall from grace, and the guilt of all his sins be laid upon him at the last, they waste their own time, and trifle with the scripture. True, in this picture you see one whose great debt was all freely forgiven by the master brought back into judgment, and made answerable for the whole amount; but this incidental feature of a human procedure will not bear the weight which men would fain lay on it. This king, whose conduct is represented in the parable, is expressly called a man king. No doubt his procedure in that case is employed to illustrate some laws of the kingdom of heaven; but this is done by analogy. Analogy is not identity; the very essence of it lies in coincidence in some points, with diversity in others; if the two were identical, there were no longer an analogy. Take two pictures of a person printed from the same negative photograph; you do not say they are like each other, they are the same. It is most dangerous to fasten on any point of the depicted human procedure, and found on it the affirmation that the divine must be precisely the same.
But besides this general consideration demanding caution, there is enough in the parable itself absolutely to refute the notion, that God may forgive a man all his sins, and thereafter lay these very sins all to his charge. It is indeed said in the earlier portion of the parable that the lord of that servant forgave him the debt; but it is as clearly indicated in the close that the debt was not forgiven. The man was cast into prison until he should pay it all; he was held bound for all the original debt, and was punished accordingly. If he was forgiven all that debt, not one penny of it can afterwards be placed to his account; and if it is afterwards placed to his account, the fact proves that it had not been forgiven.
The meaning of the phraseology must be determined by the necessary conditions of the fact. That word of the king, "I forgive thee," was not a discharge; if it had been, mere justice demanded that the debt discharged should not be charged again. The fact that it was all charged again, proves irrefragably that it was not discharged. The meaning in the light of the facts must be that these terms were offered by the king. His terms are free forgiveness, bestowed in sovereign love by the giver, and accepted in grateful love by the receiver. The servant, as is shown by his conduct, did not accept these terms, and so there was no transaction.
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The key-notes of the parable are found at the beginning and the end. It was spoken in order to show that a man should set no limit to the forgiveness of injuries; and in order to show this, the parable goes into the deep things of God. It shows that the motive power which can produce in man an unlimited forgiveness of his brother, is God's mercy forgiving himself. At the close it lays down the law, that the act or habit of extending forgiveness to a brother, is a necessary effect of receiving forgiveness from God. If you get pardon from God, you will give it to your brother; if you withhold it from your brother, you thereby make it manifest that you have not gotten it from God.
As the king determined to take account of his servants during the currency of their work, and before the final winding up of their engagement, so the King Eternal in various ways and at various periods takes account of men, especially of those who know his word, and belong externally to his Church. One by one the servants are brought into their Lord's presence. The messenger that brings them may be a commercial crisis, a personal affliction, or a revival in the neighbourhood. The King has many messengers at his command, and he employs now one and now another to bring a professing Christian forward to his presence. When one who has contrived to keep out of the way, both of his own conscience and of God, is at length compelled to open his heart to the Omniscient, and fairly look into it himself, he discovers that his debt is unspeakably, inconceivably great. The sum of ten thousand talents in the picture is not an exaggeration; it does not indicate all the guilt which God detects in the conscience, and which the awakened conscience detects in itself. It is a dreadful moment when a sinner is brought face to face with God, and charged with his guilt; it is then that the law performs its terrible yet merciful work of conviction.
The first purpose that springs in the heart of the alarmed transgressor is to satisfy the demand: Give me time, and I will pay all. Whether he deliberately expects to be able to pay it may be doubted; but one thing is clear, he thinks that nothing else will appease the Master, and he makes the promise accordingly. This is, in point of fact, the first proposal of an alarmed conscience, "I will pay thee all." The natural history of the process is here.
God does not hold the convicted transgressor to his own rash promise. Treating the criminal, not according to his desert, but according to his need, the Judge announces the terms of his own covenant -- a pardon immediate, complete, and free.
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"The same servant went out:" the moment of close dealing between God and the soul has passed: the man who has trembled at the sight of his sin, and the prospect of judgment, has heard the Gospel, and gotten a respite. He goes out from that solemn and searching communion: he is released for the moment from the presence of the Judge, and from the sense of his sin. He glides again into the world. He has not been converted; he has only been frightened. He has not been forgiven; he has only been respited. He has not accepted God's grace, and therefore is not under law to God. The fright is past, and faith has not taken its place. The heart, after terror had driven the evil spirits out, does not open to the Lord, and therefore the evil spirits come back, and possess the empty room in sevenfold power. As soon as he comes in the way of temptation, the unsubdued carnality of his soul asserts its life and power. A fellow-servant who has in small matters offended him, begs for pardon, as he had done from God, and begs in vain. He shows no mercy; the fact proves that he has not himself accepted the mercy that was offered by God. If the channel of his heart had really been inserted into the fountain-head of mercy for receiving, mercy would infallibly have flowed in the way of giving, wherever the need of a brother made an opening; if the vessel had been charged, it would certainly have discharged. No compassion flowed from that heart to refresh a fellow-creature in distress, because that heart had never truly opened to accept mercy from God; the reservoir was empty, and therefore the outbranching channels remained dry.
 Draeseke expresses the same conception in his own peculiarly terse and antithetic way: -- So gewiss kein Gottesreich ohne die Schulderlassung die wir empfangen; so gewiss kein Gottesreich ohne die Schulderlassung die wir leisten. (As certainly as there is no kingdom of God without the forgiveness which we receive, so certainly there is no kingdom of God without the forgiveness which we bestow.) -- ii.147.
Beyond all question, the design of the Lord in this parable is to enforce the duty of forgiving one another. In teaching this lesson, he touches matters greater than itself; but these occupy here only a secondary place. The drift of the parable is to take off the artificial limit laid by Peter, and by the Pharisees before him, on the disposition to forgive an offending brother, and to leave it limitless, -- infinite, as far as the faculties and the time of men can reach.
I think the substance of the lesson may be expressed in these two words, the practice and the principle of forgiving injuries. These two are in effect the ultimate act and the secret power that produced it. They are at once distinguished and united in that new commandment which Jesus gave to his disciples, -- "That ye love one another, as I have loved you" (John xiii.34). The first part of that commandment tells what they ought to do, and the second part tells what will make them do it. It is when they place themselves under the power of Christ's forgiving love to themselves, that they are impelled in turn to forgive each his brother. The duty corresponds to the moving machinery, and the motive to the stream of living water which makes the machinery go.
1. The PRACTICE of forgiving injuries. The terms employed indicate clearly enough that the injuries which man suffers from his fellow are trifling in amount, especially in comparison of each man's guilt in the sight of God. There is a meaning in the vast and startling difference between ten thousand talents and a hundred pence. Even when the injury is the greatest that human beings are capable of inflicting on the one side, and enduring on the other; even when an enemy has killed the body and ceased then, because he has no more that he can do, it is still a measurable thing. Love in a finite being's heart may swell high over it, and exult in bestowing forgiveness on the murderer with the victim's dying breath. In the beginning of the Gospel a vivid example of that very thing stands recorded: "Lord," said Stephen with fainting heart and failing breath, "Lord, lay not this sin to their charge." Great as the injury was, according to earthly measurements, the imperfect love that lived in a man's heart was more than a match for it, and the martyr with his dying breath forgave his murderers. But how rare are those injuries that rise to this extreme height! Most of the injuries with which we are called to deal are small, even in relation to human capacity: they are very often precisely of the size that our own temper makes them. Some people possess the art of esteeming great injuries small, and some the art of esteeming small injuries great. The first is like a traveller who throws a great many stones out of the burden which he carries, and so walks with ease along the road; the other is like a traveller who gathers a great many stones on the way-side, and adds them to his burden, and is therefore soon crushed by the load.
But more than this: the foolish man who made his burden heavier, retains the redoubled weight upon his back; while the wise man who made his burden lighter, contrives to throw off even the smaller weight that remained. The same spirit that induced the suffering Christian to diminish his estimate of the injury, induces him to forgive even that which remains, and thus he gets quit of it altogether; for to forgive it, is equivalent to throwing it away, in as far as it had power to burden or irritate you. On the other hand, the same spirit which in an irritable man magnified and multiplied the actual injury which he received, prevents him from forgiving the great and exaggerated mass; thus in effect he is crushed under the accumulated weight of all the real injury he has sustained, and all the imaginary injury he has added. The compassionate, loving man, who counted the great injury small, was relieved even of that small remnant by forgiving it: the selfish, unloving man, who counted a small injury great, could not forgive his neighbour, and so was compelled to bear the heavy burden on his heart. In this case that sublime rule of the Scripture takes effect: "To him that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance; but from him that hath not shall be taken even that which he hath." 
 Fred. Arndt puts the lesson warmly and well; his appeal is in substance this: -- "A man without compassion has all against him, God and the world; and meets as many adversaries in judgment as he had associates in life. Woe to him who is arraigned in secret by the tears of the feeble and oppressed! The sighs which he has pressed out, the plaints which he has generated, cry up to heaven against him, and their echo clangs horrid from heaven down again upon the life of the loveless and revengeful.... And can we sleep in peace another hour, as long as there are men upon the earth with whom we live in unpeace and enmity? Cannot be written the happiness, the inward bliss of the peaceful and peace-making. Revenge, indeed, seems often sweet to men; but, oh, it is only sugared poison, only sweetened gall, and its after taste is bitter as hell. Forgiving, enduring love alone is sweet and blissful; it enjoys peace and the consciousness of God's favour. By forgiving, it gives away and annihilates the injury. It treats the injurer as if he had not injured, and therefore feels no more the smart and sting that he had inflicted. Forgiveness is a shield from which all the fiery darts of the wicked one harmless rebound. Forgiveness brings heaven to earth, and heaven's peace into the sinful heart. Forgiveness is the image of God, the forgiving Father, and an advancement of Christ's kingdom in the world. Your unalterable duty is clear: as surely as we are Christians, men who have experienced great compassion, who see in every man a brother in Christ, and are going forward to God's righteous judgment, so surely we must forgive. Of no commandment will the fulfilment be demanded of us with such stringency, no divine rule so strictly enforced as this, without the slightest exception to leave a loop-hole of hope to the transgressor. If we forgive not those who injure us, neither will our heavenly Father forgive us; and this would be the greatest calamity that could befall us in time and in eternity." -- Die vergebende Liebe; oder Gleichniss vom Schalksknecht.
But we must carefully discriminate here, and ascertain what the Lord means by forgiving a brother. There should not be a little, narrow, grudging forgiveness; it should be large, loving, and free. But parallel with forgiveness there must be faithfulness. Faithfulness to the evil-doer himself, and to the community, comes in here to modify, not the nature, but the outward form of forgiving.
For example, there is no virtue in simply permitting a man to wrong you as often as he chooses, -- forgiving him and doing nothing more. In the immediately preceding context the Lord has taught that the injured should tell the injurer his fault. Tell him faithfully in secret his sin: if he repent, thou hast gained thy brother: if he do not listen, tell it in the presence of two or three witnesses: if he is still obdurate, tell it to the Church: and if he refuse to hear the Church withdraw from his company; let him and all the world know that you do not make light of his sin.
Again, in some kinds of injury, it becomes your duty for the sake of the community to aid in bringing the criminal to justice. To bring the discipline of the righteous law upon the criminal, is not revenge: to shield him from its stroke is not love. So far from being necessarily inconsistent with forgiveness, such faithfulness in action may be associated with a Christ-like love to the sinner, and a thorough forgiveness of his sin, as an injury inflicted upon you.
Here is a side on which there is much room for advancement: let us forget the things that lie behind us on this path, and reach forward to higher attainments. In as far as Christians unite faithfulness and tenderness in their treatment of evil-doers, they become "imitators of God, as dear children."
2. The PRINCIPLE of forgiving injuries. Suppose that the methods for practice are accurately laid down, where shall we find a sufficient motive? Suppose that an unexceptionable machinery has been constructed, whence shall we obtain an adequate force to set it in motion? From an upper spring in heaven the motive power must flow; it can be supplied only by God's forgiving love, on us bestowed and by us accepted. When, like little closed vessels, we are charged by union with the fountain-head, forgiving love to erring brothers will burst spontaneously from our hearts at every opportunity that opens in the intercourse of life.
The express command of Him who redeemed us is, "Love one another, as I have loved you." In teaching his disciples how to pray, he linked their promise to forgive with their plea for forgiveness, so that no prayer of theirs should rise to heaven for receiving pardon unless it were accompanied by an engagement expressed or implied to bestow pardon: "Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors."
But there is much more in the connection between receiving and bestowing forgiveness than can be expressed by the conception of yielding to the pressure of a motive. It is not only obedience to a command enjoined; it is the exercise of an instinct that has been generated in the new nature. The method in which this and other graces operate is expressed by an apostle thus: "It is no more I that live, but Christ that liveth in me." When Christ is in you, he is in you not only the hope of glory, but also the forgiving of an erring brother.
A traveller in Burmah, after fording a certain river, found his body covered all over by a swarm of small leeches, busily sucking his blood. His first impulse was to tear the tormentors from his flesh: but his servant warned him that to pull them off by mechanical violence would expose his life to danger. They must not be torn off, lest portions remain in the wounds and become a poison; they must drop off spontaneously, and so they will be harmless. The native forthwith prepared a bath for his master, by the decoction of some herbs, and directed him to lie down in it. As soon as he had bathed in the balsam the leeches dropped off.
Each unforgiven injury rankling in the heart is like a leech sucking the life-blood. Mere human determination to have done with it, will not cast the evil thing away. You must bathe your whole being in God's pardoning mercy; and these venomous creatures will instantly let go their hold. You will stand up free.
Two wheels protrude from a factory, and are seen in motion on the outer wall by every passenger. They move into each other. The upper wheel is large, the under small. From without and at a distance, you cannot tell whether the upper is impelling the under, or the under moving the upper. This question, however, might be settled by an inspection of the interior. By such an inspection it would be found that the larger and higher wheel communicates motion to the lower and smaller. If the upper wheel, which communicates the motion, should stand still, so also would the lower: but more than this, -- if the lower wheel, which receives the motion, should by some impediment be stopped, the upper wheel also would stand still.
It is in some such way that God's goodness in forgiving freely for Christ's sake our sins, impels us to forgive from the heart those that have trespassed against us. The power is all from above; yet, though we by our goodness do not set the beneficent machinery in motion, we may by our badness cause it all to stand still. It is not our forgiveness accorded to an evil-doer that procures forgiveness to ourselves from God; the opposite is the truth: yet our refusal of forgiveness to a brother prevents the flow of pardon down from God to our guilty hearts. Such is the structure of the covenant. It is only a small part of that covenant that we can comprehend; but, as far as we are able to perceive its provisions, behold, they are very good!
While a few acres of cold barren moorland constitute all your heritage, if a neighbour encroaches on it by a hair's-breadth, you assert your right and repel the aggression: possibly you may, in your zeal, accuse him of an intention to trespass, if you see him digging his own ground near your border. While your property is very small, you are afraid of losing any of it; and perhaps you cry out before you are hurt. But if you become heir to a broad estate in a fertile valley, you will no longer be disposed to watch the motions of your neighbour, and go to law with him for a spadeful of moss that he may have taken from a disputed spot.
Thus, while a human soul has no other portion than an uncertain shred of this uncertain world, he is kept in terror lest an atom of his property should be lost; he will do battle with all his might against any one who is, or seems to be, encroaching on his honour, or business, or property: but when he becomes a child of God, and an heir of an incorruptible inheritance -- when he is a prince on the steps of a throne, he can afford to overlook small deductions from a possession that is insignificant in itself, and liable to be taken away at any time without an hour's warning.
In this aspect it is eminently worthy of notice that the disciples, when their Master on another occasion (Luke xvii.3-5), taught them a similar doctrine on the forgiveness of injuries, immediately exclaimed, "Increase our faith." They seem to have been surprised by the extent of the demand, and conscious of their inability to meet it. As soon as the duty of forgiving injuries was laid before them in its true magnitude, they were brought to a stand; but they had sense to know wherein their weakness lay, and simplicity to seek in the proper quarter for renewed strength. It was a true instinct that led them, then and there, to plead for an increase of faith. A wider, freer channel for the inflow of God's compassion into their own hearts, -- this is what they need in the emergency, and this is what they get from the Lord.
The miller, finding that some of the lumps are large and hard, and that the mill-stones are consequently almost standing still, goes quietly out and lets more water on. Go you, and do likewise. When injuries that seem large and hard are accumulated on your head, and the process of forgiving them begins to choke and go slow under the pressure, as if it would soon stop altogether; when the demand for forgiveness grows great, and the forgiving power in the heart is unable to meet it; -- then, enter into your closet and shut your door, and pray to your Father specifically for more experience of his forgiving love; so shall your forgiving love grow stronger, and overcome every obstacle that stands in its way. Your heart, under the fresh impulse of pardon to you through the blood of the covenant, will toss off with ease the load of impediments that obstructed for a time its movements, and you will forgive even as you have been forgiven.