Forgiven and Forgiving
The Twenty Second Sunday after Trinity| Rev. Rolf Preus| October 23, 2011| 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.”
God forgives sinners for Christ’s sake. Faith receives God’s forgiveness. Those who receive forgiveness forgive those who sin against them. We pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” When we forgive those who have done us wrong we are only giving what we have received. We don’t lose what we have received by giving it away freely. We received it without having to pay for it. So we give it without requiring payment for it. We are forgiven. Therefore, we forgive.
Those who refuse to forgive refuse to be forgiven. That’s the message of the parable. The faith that receives the forgiveness of sins is born in humility. We are humbled by the enormity of our sin. We are humbled by the debt we cannot pay. Jesus deliberately chose an amount of money that the servant couldn’t have paid in a dozen lifetimes. Ten thousand talents is roughly twenty million dollars in today’s money. Now where would a servant get that kind of money? He couldn’t.
It is in our humiliation that God has mercy on us and sets us free, releasing us from our debt, and forgiving us freely. We believe in the forgiveness of sins. We don’t see it. We can’t always feel it. But we believe it. God says, “I forgive you,” and we take his word for it. We believe in the forgiveness of sins. St. John the Baptist points to Jesus and says, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” We believe in the forgiveness of sins. We hear the words, “Take eat, this is my body, given for you. Take drink, this is the New Testament in my blood, shed for you for the remission of sins.” We eat and we drink and we believe in the forgiveness of sins.
This is why we forgive those who sin against us. This is why we set others free from whatever debt they owe us. A hundred denarii was one hundred days’ wages. That’s a hefty sum, but not impossible to repay. Ten thousand talents is impossible to pay. We don’t have that kind of money. But the fellow who has done us wrong just might be able to come up with a hundred denarii in time. He might be able to make it better.
Sins against God are worse than sins against the neighbor. We are to love God above all things. We are to love our neighbors as ourselves. We are to fear God first and most. We are to love God first and most. We are to trust in God first and most. False faith, false worship, and false doctrine are deadly sins that call for imprisonment, punishment, and death. “Be patient with me, and I will pay you all!” The king knew he couldn’t pay. But he forgave him. God forgives those too poor to pay.
And so it is and it must be as beggars that we live. If we live as beggars before our gracious God, relying on his mercy for our lives, that mercy informs the way to treat those who do us wrong. If we demand payment from others where God did not demand payment from us, we make a powerful statement of what we believe. Or rather, of what we don’t believe. We don’t believe in the forgiveness of sins. That’s right. We don’t believe in the forgiveness of sins if we refuse to forgive those who sin against us. It’s not a matter of forcing ourselves to do something unpleasant. Just do it! No, it’s a different sort of thing altogether. It’s a matter of what we believe. Those who are forgiven forgive. Those who refuse to forgive refuse to forgive because they don’t believe in the forgiveness of sins. They don’t receive it, either, for the only way to receive the forgiveness of sins from God is through faith – by believing the gospel in which this forgiveness is given to us.
This is why the unmerciful servant was thrown into prison where he would remain until he paid the last penny he owed. The reason is the unforgiving heart is the heart that refuses to be forgiven. It’s not as if he committed too many sins to be forgiven. He was already forgiven of more sins than a man could commit in a lifetime. No one is too sinful to be forgiven. Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Mao Tse Tung, and dozens more mass murderers could be forgiven. Indeed, the blood of Jesus was shed for them all. The Lamb of God did indeed bear and take away all their sin. But no one receives forgiveness except through faith and the unforgiving heart is faithless and cold and dead.
“Oh, I’ll forgive, but I won’t forget!” You liar! You say you won’t forget because you won’t forgive but you want to pretend that you do. Well, you can’t fool God. He sees your heart. He sees your bitterness and your hatred and your guile. He sees what you cover up. The more you try to cover it up the clearer it appears to him. He sees your refusal to forgive those who have done you wrong.
You want to hold on to hatred and judgment and anger because you want – what? Revenge? Oh, perhaps not literally. Instead, you’ll murder him in your heart. But what does the Bible says? St. John writes, “Whoever hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.” (1 John 3:15) Where there is forgiveness of sins there is life and salvation. Where hatred abides there is nothing but death and condemnation.
Can we understand this simple truth? Can we put it into perspective? Why, when Jesus teaches his Church the prayer he wants her to pray until he returns to take her home to heaven, does he teach us to make only one promise to God: that we will forgive those who sin against us? What is it about forgiving those who do us wrong that places it at the very center of our faith, our worship, and our life? It is that forgiveness is what binds us in holy and intimate communion with God. Therefore it must be that which joins us in holy love to one another.
To forgive in the Bible means literally to send away. God forgives us by placing our sins on Jesus. Jesus is the Son of God and the Son of Mary. He is the sacrifice by which all sin has been forgiven. This is why the Bible can say we are justified by his blood. His blood is his life given into death for us. This is the fount from which comes the forgiveness of sins in which we Christians trust. It is from Christ’s obedience, Christ’s merits, and Christ’s worthiness – not our own. We can know we are forgiven of all our sins and justified before God because Christ is worthy. We don’t base our belief in the forgiveness of sins on our own worthiness, but solely on Christ’s worthiness.
So we don’t make worthiness a condition for forgiveness. God doesn’t. Neither do we. The fellow who has done you wrong does not deserve your forgiveness any more than you deserve God’s forgiveness. But God forgave you when you didn’t deserve it. This is why you forgive the one who has done you wrong.
Yeah, but he has an attitude. Besides, he’s not even sorry. That may well be. But consider. Did God wait until we had an attitude adjustment before he sent his only begotten Son into this world to be our Savior? Did he wait until we were sorry for our sins before he laid our sins on Jesus, the Lamb of God, who bore them away? Or did God forgive us our sins even before we went to him asking for it? Did he not have compassion on us even when we were stuck in our sins, stubbornly clinging to what offended him and angered him? So we forgive those who do us wrong. We forgive as we have been forgiven. We don’t forgive up to seven times. We forgive seventy times seven times. We forgive and forgive and forgive until we die and when we die we die with forgiveness on our lips, as did our Lord Jesus who prayed from the cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”
Stephen was the first Christian martyr and he died praying this prayer. Forgiveness is what marks our lives as Christians. Holding grudges and harboring hatred is to embrace death and hell. It is to call the devil your friend. You want your pound of flesh? Then be prepared for God to exact it from you and be sure that his justice is stricter than yours!
But if you want mercy, and if you want to live under the forgiveness of sins, Jesus says to you, “Come unto me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” If you want to live as a spiritual beggar, knowing you deserve nothing good from God, then listen to God declare to you the full forgiveness of all your sins and see God open up for you the riches of heaven as he showers you with spiritual treasures more precious than anything money can buy. No one is wealthier than the one whose debt of sin has been forgiven by God.
There is nothing to compare with it. To toss it aside because we prefer to condemn than to forgive is a poor trade. Whatever bitter satisfaction arises from holding on to hatred cannot compare to the peace of having the forgiveness of sins from the God of all justice.
From being forgiven we can forgive. Yes, we can! We have the authority and we have the ability. We have the authority because we have the Holy Spirit. Whoever has the Holy Spirit has the authority to forgive. We have the ability because we have received the forgiveness of sins through faith. You can give what you have received. You can give it and give it and give it and never lose it because God promises that there is an endless supply.
Bitterness, worksrighteousness, self-centeredness, unforgiving hatred combine to poison the soul and drive the Holy Spirit away. But God is no sissy. He stands firm against this vile mass of sin and he loves us through it and in spite of it and by loving us purges this sin from our hearts and lives. Oh, yes, it will reappear again and again. So we will again and again bring it before God in humble contrition and faith – and with the grateful hands of beggars being made rich – receive forgiveness of all our sins, more than enough for ourselves and for those who sin against us. Amen