The Twenty Second Sunday after Trinity| Rev. Rolf Preus| November 17, 2019| Matthew 18:21-35
Then Peter came to Him and said, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven. 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 18:21-35
You don’t have to forgive anyone. You can hold a grudge. You can do your best to make those who have wronged you regret it. You can harbor in your heart righteous indignation against those who have done you wrong. You can try to make them pay. You can construct a prison out of your own judgment and put the wrongdoer into it. But know this: you will be imprisoned in the prison you are building. You will never leave this prison, not in this life or after you die. The road to heaven is paved by the forgiveness of sins. The road to hell is paved by the refusal to forgive. Hell is where forgiveness does not enter. Only judgment remains. That’s what makes hell so hellish.
At the heart of the Christian faith is the forgiveness of sins. God forgives sinners freely by his grace. This means he forgives people who don’t deserve to be forgiven. No sinner can earn forgiveness. Only God can win it. God forgives sinners because he loves them. Love forgives. God is love. Where is God’s love? Look at Jesus. We sing, “Of the Father’s love begotten, e’er the worlds began to be.” He is begotten of the Father before all worlds. He was born of the Virgin Mary. God’s love is revealed in Jesus. Jesus not only teaches us about forgiveness, he is the source of forgiveness. He is the One who paid sin’s awful debt. We were too poor to pay for our sins. He paid the price of his own precious blood and innocent suffering and death. He who purchased forgiveness and freedom for us teaches us to forgive those who sin against us.
To forgive is to forget. God says in Hebrews 8:12, “For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more.” Forgiveness is complete. It isn’t partial. It is total. Here is how David describes God’s forgiveness in Psalm 103:10-12,
He has not dealt with us according to our sins,
Nor punished us according to our iniquities.
For as the heavens are high above the earth,
So great is His mercy toward those who fear Him;
As far as the east is from the west,
So far has He removed our transgressions from us.
Forgiveness comes before faith. Faith depends on forgiveness. Where there is no forgiveness, there can be no faith. Beware of those who say that God doesn’t forgive you until you believe that he forgives you. Consider the story Jesus told. The king forgave his servant who owed ten thousands talents because he had compassion on him. Forgiveness comes before faith. Forgiveness produces faith. Forgiveness is how the Holy Spirit creates faith in our hearts. The Holy Spirit elicits faith by forgiving us. The faith that the Holy Spirit produces in our hearts receives the forgiveness of sins. Faith is the only way to receive God’s forgiveness.
God doesn’t force faith. He makes the unwilling willing. But God’s love can be resisted. The servant who owed his master ten thousand talents illustrates this. He wanted to be free from his debt. He owed millions and millions of dollars that he did not have. He was so desperate that he made the ludicrous promise, “Be patient with me and I will pay you everything.” Where was he going to get that amount of money? He couldn’t pay. He would promise anything to avoid being sold into slavery. The king had compassion. He forgave him. Forgiveness is God’s grace. God’s grace produces faith. But grace can be resisted. This man is an example of that.
The king forgave him but the man didn’t actually receive what was given. He had no faith. He showed his unbelief by how he treated his fellow servant. He wanted the freedom that forgiveness provides, but he didn’t want forgiveness. There is no forgiveness except the forgiveness that faith alone receives. And faith is born in repentance. If the man had repented, he would have had compassion for his fellow servant. Faith is impossible without repentance. It is impossible without a change of heart. To repent entails two things. First, it is to be sorry for your sin. Second, it is to believe that God forgives you all your sins for Christ’s sake. Repentance means you wish you hadn’t done what needed to be forgiven and that you don’t want to do it again. Repentance means that you believe that the sins that burden your conscience are washed away by Christ’s blood. The unmerciful servant had no faith. That’s why he had no mercy in his heart.
In this parable, prison is a metaphor for hell. The man is sent to prison until he pays everything he owes. That’s hell. You must pay what you owe, but you cannot. You cannot pay for all your sins. Only Jesus can. This is why Jesus is the only way to heaven. Jesus is the only source of God’s forgiveness. God’s forgiveness gets you to heaven. If you don’t have God’s forgiveness you go to hell.
Jesus teaches us to forgive those who do us wrong, not once, twice, or seven times, but as often as they need our forgiveness. He does not teach us to approve of the wrong they do. To forgive someone is not to approve of his sin. Forgiveness is not approval. Literally, it means to send away. All sins are forgiven on Calvary where Jesus died for the sin of the world. Jesus died for all sinners. He did not die only for those who believe in him. He died for all. Since Jesus died for all, all sins of all people are forgiven. This is the gospel truth. When we forgive those who do us wrong we are confessing this truth.
We are powerless to earn the forgiveness God graciously gives. We do have the power to forgive. We don’t have the power to change the hearts of those who have done us wrong. We only have the power to forgive. We cannot work repentance in our neighbor. We only have the power to forgive.
Jesus gave the power to forgive to his church on earth on that first Easter Sunday after he was delivered over for our sins and raised again for our justification. He said, “Receive the Holy Spirit, whosever sins you forgive they are forgiven, whosever sins you retain they are retained.” (John 20:22b-23) Jesus also taught his church to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” We have the power to forgive.
Forgiveness is freedom. Without God’s forgiveness we are in spiritual slavery. We may think we are free, but we’re bound by our sin. Death looms as divine judgment against us. With God’s forgiveness we are free. We have no debt to pay. We have no fear of death. We feel no need to vindicate ourselves, defend ourselves, or make the guy who hurt us suffer. We are free from all that. We can forgive. We can set others free.
But there lies within each one of us the old, sinful, flesh. He cannot be redeemed, forgiven, or set free. He can only be killed. By daily repentance we drown him in our baptism. Should we give him his way, the devil will manipulate our sinful flesh to lay claim to us. He will insinuate himself into our affections. He will lay claim to our souls. He will replace love with hate as the primary Christian virtue.
You think that’s too brazen a thing to get away with? He gets away with it all the time! He panders to our pride. The wrong done against us cannot be excused! Our pain may not be ignored! The injustice, the indignity, and the affront we have suffered require taking a stand! If we won’t defend ourselves, who will? So we grab the culprit who has done us wrong and lock him up in the prison of our judgment, reveling in tearing him down, delighting ourselves in savaging his name, until, lo and behold, love has been overwhelmed by hate and we are imprisoned by it.
We need to forgive those who do us wrong. We need to do it, not just for their sake, but for our own. What is it that when you keep giving it away you still have it? Forgiveness! What is it that when you refuse to give it away you lose it? Forgiveness! What it is that identifies our God as the only true God, with all other so called gods being nothing but worthless idols? It is the free forgiveness of all our sins that he gives us for Christ sake. What is it that marks our lives, defines our love, drives hatred out, and drives the devil away? Forgiveness! The forgiveness we receive freely through faith is the forgiveness we give. Freely we receive. Freely we give. We received forgiveness when we didn’t deserve it. We forgive those who don’t deserve it. This marks us as Christians.
The central truth of the Christian religion is that God freely forgives us undeserving sinners by his grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone who has made full satisfaction for all our sins. This is the center of our faith. This is the center of our lives. We forgive, not reluctantly, while holding a grudge, but freely, fully, and from our heart. The center of the Christian faith is the center of the Christian’s life. The joy of freely receiving forgiveness from God becomes the joy of freely forgiving those who sin against us. Faith and love are bound together. Amen.