The Twenty Second Sunday after Trinity
November 16, 2014
“Forgiveness: Freely Received and Freely Given”
St. Matthew 18:23-35
Therefore the kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. And when he had begun to settle accounts, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. But as he was not able to pay, his master commanded that he be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and that payment be made. The servant therefore fell down before him, saying, ‘Master, have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ Then the master of that servant was moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt. “But that servant went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and he laid hands on him and took him by the throat, saying, ‘Pay me what you owe!’ So his fellow servant fell down at his feet and begged him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ And he would not, but went and threw him into prison till he should pay the debt. So when his fellow servants saw what had been done, they were very grieved, and came and told their master all that had been done. Then his master, after he had called him, said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?’ And his master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him. “So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses.”
Forgiveness is not the government’s job. If you don’t punish the bad guys they’ll keep doing bad things that hurt people. Thieves, murderers, rapists, and assorted thugs will keep on stealing, killing, raping, and terrorizing unless they are required to pay the price for their crimes. If someone you loved was murdered, what would you think of a judge who let the murderer off scot free without punishing him? Crime calls for punishment. This is deeply embedded in the human conscience. There has never been a people so uncivilized that they did not have any code of law that included punishment for crimes.
God instituted the civil authorities to punish criminals and thereby to keep peace. It is the peace of the law. It is not perfect. But we thank God for whatever justice there is. We pray to God for it. We pray for domestic tranquility, law and order, whenever we pray the fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread.”
But there is something greater than the domestic tranquility established by a fair administration of civilized laws. There is the peace and fellowship of brotherly love that is established by the preaching of the gospel. The hymnist writes:
To me the preaching of the cross
Is wisdom everlasting.
Thy death alone redeems my loss,
On thee my burden casting.
I, in thy name, a refuge claim
From sin and death and from all shame
Blest be thy name, O Jesus!
The preaching of the cross is wisdom to those who believe. To those who are perishing, it is foolishness. It is a scandal. They attack the gospel as a harmful and destructive teaching that promotes lawlessness, rewards criminal behavior, and blasphemes God by accusing him of justifying the guilty so that he may commit more crimes. No doctrine taught anywhere has been as strongly condemned as the teaching on which we Christians rest our hope: the gospel of God’s free forgiveness of all our sins for the sake of the vicarious obedience and suffering of Jesus our Savior.
The Bible teaches us that God forgives us our sins freely. Jesus paid for them. God doesn’t require us to pay for them. Free forgiveness flies in the face of all human religions. What distinguishes the Christian religion from all other religions is that only Christianity teaches that forgiveness and eternal life are gifts from God that are given freely. Only Christianity teaches salvation by grace alone.
“Be patient with me, and I will pay you all.” That’s the religion of this world. But it’s a fool’s game. It cannot be done. Listen to the story Jesus tells. A servant owed his master ten thousand talents. A talent of silver is worth ten thousand dollars. Ten thousand talents are one hundred million dollars. Where is a servant going to get one hundred million dollars? It’s impossible. The servant says to the king, “Be patient with me, and I will pay you all.” No, he won’t. He can’t. That’s obvious. He’s desperate, so he promises to pay what he cannot pay.
Payment must be made. That’s the problem with forgiving sin. Payment must be made and we know it. This is why guilty sinners who fear the judgment of God come up with various ways of pacifying him. Sin has consequences and somebody must be held responsible. But here’s the problem. Before God we are too poor to pay. We don’t have a hundred million dollars. Our cry, “Be patient with me, and I will pay you all” is a bogus promise. Even if we make allowances for the fact that we make it in desperation, in fact it is a lie.
But God is full of compassion. He forgives the debt. The king forgives his servant because he begs him to, not because he promised to repay. That promise was absurd. It was a promise of desperation to do the impossible. When God sees us in the misery we have created for ourselves by our sins he is moved with compassion. The just God, the holy God, the God of justice who punishes crime and criminals, is full of mercy and forgiveness. When he sees us burdened with sin he is moved with tenderness and love. He forgives us.
Payment must be made. He doesn’t forgive us without payment being made. Those who rail against the Christian gospel rail against the most holy obedience, suffering, and death of the God-man who bore our sins in his body on the cross. There is the payment! Nobody can pay what he owes to God. Only God can pay the debt. The Son who proceeds from the Father from eternity becomes man in the womb of the Virgin Mary. He shares our nature. He becomes our brother. He pays our debt. He pays actively and he pays passively. He pays actively by actively doing the goodness we did not do, obeying the commandments we failed to obey. He pays passively by suffering the punishment for our sin. He becomes sin for us that we might be made the righteousness of God in him. Payment must be made and he makes it. This is how God can in justice freely forgive us all our sins.
“Be patient with me” is no confession of sins. As long as it remains our cry we remain under sin’s burden. The only way to accept forgiveness freely given is to offer nothing for it. We don’t come to God making promises. We come to God confessing sins. That’s how to receive forgiveness. We confess. We confess that we deserve God’s punishment, both in time and for eternity. We express our sorrow and we appeal to God’s mercy in Christ. He forgives us for Christ’s sake.
The man in the parable was forgiven a debt of many millions of dollars. He refused to forgive a debt of a few hundred dollars. What was his problem? He never went beyond his plea, “Be patient with me, and I will pay you all.” He did not repent. He did not confess his sins and acknowledge his spiritual poverty and wretchedness. He refused to see himself as a poor, miserable sinner who rightly deserved punishment from a just and holy God. So he would not release his fellow servant from his debt. He could not put himself in his shoes.
What do you do when you are being hammered by the injustices of life? When people blame you unfairly, speak lies about you, cheat you out of what is yours, twist your words, and abuse their authority to do you harm, what should you do about it? Here’s what you should do: repent. Repent of your sins. Go to God with your broken and contrite heart, and confess your sins. Consider your station in life according to the Ten Commandments and examine your life, your conduct, your words, and your thoughts. Have you hurt anyone by speaking falsely or thoughtlessly? Have you wasted what belonged to others? Have you broken a promise you gave to a friend? Have you neglected God’s Word? Have you misused God’s name? Have you wanted what you had no right to want? Confess these sins to God with sincere sorrow and repentance and ask him to forgive you. Don’t make promises. Make a sincere confession. Don’t ask for patience. Ask for forgiveness.
Listen to God’s answer. Listen to his answer in your baptism where all your sins were washed away in Christ’s blood. Listen to his answer in the absolution where the voice of a mere man is God forgiving you all the sins you confessed, even those you could neither remember nor articulate. Listen to his answer at the altar where he gives you the very body that bore your sin on the cross and the very blood by which all your sin was forgiven. Listen to God’s word as he forgives you. Take his word to heart. Know that you are free. Your debt of sin is paid in full. You have no debt to pay.
Freely give what you have freely received. Forgive those who speak lies about you, who cheat you out of what is yours, who twist your words, and abuse their authority to do you harm. Forgive those who sin against you not once or twice or seven times – but seventy times seven times. Forgive them from your heart, because God’s forgiveness has won your heart.
If you will not forgive those who sin against you, what are you? What are you if you will not forgive? You’re an unbeliever, that’s what you are. The reason you won’t forgive those who sin against you is because you don’t believe in the forgiveness of sins. You don’t trust in it. You don’t believe that God, for Christ’s sake, has forgiven you. You are still holding on to your sins, making foolish promises about paying a debt you cannot pay, running away from making an honest confession of sin.
Listen to the Psalmist and take his words to heart. He writes,
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit,
A broken and a contrite heart—
These, O God, You will not despise. (Psalm 51:17)
God does not despise you for admitting your sin to him. He is moved with compassion when he sees you in your spiritual helplessness and pain. He loves you. He forgives you. For Christ’s sake he sets you free. Believe it and it is yours. Then forgive those indebted to you. If you insist that they pay for their sins you deny God’s free forgiveness for you. You cannot pay the debt you owe to God. Forgive as you have been forgiven. Freely give what you have freely received. Amen