The Twenty Second Sunday after Trinity| Rev. Rolf Preus| November 12, 2017| 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.” Matthew 18:23-35
If you refuse to forgive those who sin against you God won’t forgive you your sins. That’s clear. And that’s a hard pill to swallow. In seven petitions of the Lord’s Prayer, only one has us promising to do anything. We promise to forgive those who sin against us. If we don’t, we forfeit the forgiveness that God gives us, and without that forgiveness, we are without God and without hope.
Peter thought he was being generous when he suggested that he should forgive a man seven times. The popular teaching of that day was that one must forgive three times and could withhold forgiveness after four times. Peter wanted to do the right thing. He knew that Jesus valued mercy very highly so he more than doubled the legal requirement and waited for Jesus’ reaction. But Jesus didn’t give him the answer he expected. “Not seven times,” Jesus replied, “but seventy times seven times.” In other words, you don’t stop forgiving those who sin against you. The forgiveness you have received from God has no limits and so the forgiveness God wants you to extend to your brothers and sisters must have no limits.
Jesus tells this parable to his church. God isn’t telling the governments of the world to empty their prisons and let the criminals go. He is talking to his church. The church was born from above by receiving the forgiveness of sins won by Christ’s blood. She alone has God’s forgiveness to offer to a condemned and dying world. The civil authorities have the power of the sword. The church has the power of the Holy Spirit. That power is the gospel of the forgiveness of sins. Since we are freely forgiven by God, we live out our lives forgiving one another. We forgive those who do us wrong and we never stop forgiving them.
Our sinful flesh objects to this and comes up with a number of arguments against our Lord’s clear teaching. Let’s confront these arguments this morning and show how each is wrong. Here are four major arguments raised against Christ’s teaching that we must forgive, forgive, and forgive again.
- He doesn’t deserve forgiveness.
- What he did is too sinful to be forgiven.
- He isn’t really sorry for what he’s done.
- Forgiving him will only encourage him to continue to do it.
He doesn’t deserve forgiveness. But of course, he doesn’t! That’s the whole point! The fact that anyone needs forgiveness is proof that he doesn’t deserve it. God forgives those who cannot ever deserve his forgiveness. When we ask God for forgiveness, we don’t ask him for what we deserve, but for what we don’t deserve. When we receive forgiveness from God we receive it only as unworthy sinners who deserve punishment. How can we turn around to our brothers and sisters in Christ and demand that they deserve from us what we don’t deserve from God? The unforgiving servant in the parable was condemned because he rejected the grace of God. By demanding that his brother deserve grace before he would give it to him he was denying the grace of God. This is always and only for the undeserving.
What he did is too sinful to be forgiven. Let the parable answer this objection. A low estimate of the value of a silver talent would be $1,000. The servant owed his king at least $10 million. Jesus came up with this large amount to drive home the point that the servant couldn’t possibly repay the debt. When he cried out, “Be patient with me, and I will pay you all,” he was blowing smoke. He couldn’t have paid it all. He was broke and helpless to do anything about it.
Yet the king forgave him. How? By paying the debt himself. When I graduated from the seminary, I owed my dad about $6,000. After paying him $100 once or twice a month for a year or so he decided to forgive the rest of the debt. So who paid it? He did! Somebody has to pay. You may argue that the one who has sinned against you has done something so wrong that he cannot pay for it. You cannot argue that he has done something so wrong that God cannot pay for it. That’s the point. Jesus paid for all sins of all sinners of all times and he paid in full. His life was given as a ransom for the many, that is, for the whole human race. What is the sin that someone has done against you? How bad is it? How much pain has it caused you? What does this person deserve for doing it against you? Know this: Jesus suffered for that sin. Jesus endured the just punishment of God against that sin. Jesus took the place of the sinner who did that sin and he fully endured the righteous judgment of God against that sinner and that sin. Who dares deny this? And if we dare not deny this, we dare not claim that anyone’s sin is too great to be forgiven.
You say that the sin done against you is too great for you to forgive? Look at how God paid for that sin. See Jesus living the life of purity and innocence that God demanded of us all. See him as he resists and turns back every temptation to do wrong, to repay evil with evil or to curse those that slandered and maligned him. See him as he is raised up on the cross and becomes “sin for us” as St. Paul put it. That is how God forgives sin. We may never say that any sin is too great to be forgiven; not when Christ himself has born that sin in his body on the cross.
He isn’t really sorry for what he’s done. You don’t know this. Folks will do you wrong and not have the courage to admit it to you, even though they do admit it to God. They won’t admit it to you because they don’t trust you. They’re afraid you’ll judge them in their sin instead of forgive them. They’re afraid that you’ll use their admission against them in the future. Pride gets in the way. Pride has a way of doing that. Haven’t you confessed to God sins that you didn’t confess to anyone else?
Does God forgive us our sins because of how sorry we are? Or does God forgive us our sins because of how gracious he is? It is true that no one who isn’t sorry for his sins can receive forgiveness for his sins. Forgiveness is for sinners who regret, confess, and want to turn away from their sins. It isn’t for those who want to remain in their sins. This does not mean that our sorrow over our sin is what rids our soul of it. Forgiveness comes from the suffering and death of Jesus. Forgiveness doesn’t come from our broken and penitent hearts. It goes to our broken and penitent hearts. This is why the Psalmist says, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart – These, O God, you will not despise.” (Psalm 51:17) God doesn’t despise the broken heart. It is to the broken heart that he comes with pure mercy and speaks the words of forgiveness that heal the broken heart.
Can you see it? I mean, in your neighbor – can you see his broken heart? Can you see his knowledge of sin? Can you feel how sorry he is? Hardly. You can’t even examine your own contrition to see how sincere or deep or genuine it is. When we confess our sins to God we confess as well how poorly and incompletely we make confession. We throw ourselves on God’s mercy, begging his forgiveness, not on the strength of our sincerity, but on the depth of his grace. That grace is deeper than our sin or our acknowledgement of it. That grace is as deep as the suffering of Jesus in our place when he washed away our sins by his blood.
Forgiving him will only encourage him to continue to do it. That is an argument against God forgiving any one of us. It is an argument against the Christian gospel. It is denied and despised because it allegedly encourages sinners to continue in sin. But that’s a lie. It is the boldest and most deadly lie the father of lies has ever invented. He attacks God’s free grace in Christ by suggesting that this forgiveness only encourages people to embrace sin. Forgiveness does the very opposite. It frees people from sin. The greatest power that sin holds over us is the guilt that it attaches to our souls so that we are helpless to be confident in God’s presence. The Bible says that the guilty flees when no one pursues him. The one who needs forgiveness from you runs from you because he thinks you’re chasing him. Should your forgiveness be met with contempt and disdain, what have you lost by offering it? The only way to receive forgiveness is by taking it to heart and trusting that it is so. Those who respond to the word of forgiveness by embracing the sin even more aren’t interested in forgiveness at all. No one who receives forgiveness as forgiveness despises it. No one who receives forgiveness as forgiveness looks at it as an encouragement to continue in sin. This is a bogus charge against God’s undeserved love for sinners in Christ Jesus. It is to suggest that God doesn’t know what he’s doing when he tosses out his forgiveness so freely and indiscriminately on the wretched and miserable sinners of this world.
In response to that wicked suggestion, we confess with St. Paul that Christ Jesus came into this world to save sinners like you and me. We never have and we never will deserve the forgiveness he gives to us, but we know it is genuine. We know that it fully covers all our sins and sets us free. It was purchased by the precious blood and innocent suffering and death of Jesus our God and brother. Nothing else can enable us to love God and one another. Nothing else can make us holy. So we will treasure this forgiveness in our hearts all our lives and gladly give it freely to others just as we have freely received it from our Father in heaven, through Jesus Christ his Son our Lord. Amen.