For this Sunday’s bulletin, click here: 17th Sunday after Pentecost 2011

This sermon’s topic is timely and pertinent, as always. There’s never a time we don’t need to hear Jesus’ message in this gospel. Failure to forgive doesn’t seem like a big deal or something God would care about, since we feel so justified when we don’t forgive someone. Usually we tell ourselves we’ve got plenty of good reasons not to forgive — but as Jesus points out here, the only reason not to forgive a fellow human being is hardness of heart, and that’s something we’re all prone to.

This sermon was an opportunity to extol the forgiveness of sins that we have in Christ. Just a few moments’ contemplation of the great debt you owed God that He paid for you is enough to bring fresh gratitude welling up. If you need help in that department, I highly recommend Johann Gerhardt’s Sacred Meditations. There are a number of translations available; whichever you choose, you will benefit. Gerhardt can touch the heart as few can, and he does it without sacrificing doctrine — yet his deep learning is not off-putting or show-offish. Very highly recommended. (You can get it for free here.)

As I noted last week, the context in Matthew 18 is particularly helpful. Each of the parts of this chapter ties in very well with all the others. It may be helpful for you to read the entire chapter before considering part of it in detail here.

For me, the burning question for this sermon was: Why? Why does God not forgive someone who doesn’t forgive his fellow man? I aimed the sermon at answering that question (at least in my own mind.) I don’t think I’ve fully answered it for myself yet, but I feel like I’m getting closer, and some days that’s all you can ask for.

May Jesus be with you as you seek to forgive those who wrong you, just as your Heavenly Father has forgiven you. Amen.

 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?”

22Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.

23 “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. 25Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.

26 “The servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ 27The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.

28 “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii.He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.

29“His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’

30 “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened.

32 “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ 34In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”

Sometimes you can’t help keeping score. Husbands and wives know exactly how that goes. “This has to be the ten-thousandth time,” fumes the wife as she picks up dirty socks that missed the hamper. “Why can’t she ever get this right?” the husband asks in exasperation as he balances the checkbook yet again. Both of them have a list a mile long in their minds, but they don’t always remember what’s on the other person’s list of grievances. You could probably guess what comes next – irritation, resentment, maybe some sharp words. They’re both keeping score, but neither of them is winning. Life isn’t a contest, so why do we keep score? It must just be part of human nature.

Scripture does tell us that the Apostle Peter was married, but it’s silent about the relationship that he had with his wife. At any rate, when he asks Jesus a question about keeping score today, he’s asking about his fellow man, but we can apply the answer Jesus gives to many different situations in life. Today Jesus reminds us of the absolute necessity of forgiveness. We’ll see why Jesus wants us to Forgive as We’ve Been Forgiven.

Peter is sometimes criticized for asking the question that he does: “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?” People try to say that Peter shows himself unwilling to forgive here – that he takes some satisfaction from keeping track of how many times someone sins against him, or that he is just itching to cut someone off if they sin against him too many times. That’s not necessarily why Peter asks. Right before this, Jesus had taught His disciples that “if your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you”; then He outlined the steps we should follow if someone sins against us. Peter naturally wonders how many times he can be expected to do that.

Think about some of the people you know who always seem to find a way to give you grief. Maybe it’s a family member, maybe it’s a coworker, maybe it’s someone else. This person picks fights, they argue, they take offense where nothing’s wrong, they say and do things that make you feel like your brain’s on fire – and they do them over and over and over again. After a certain point, you wonder: do I have to keep forgiving this person? How much of this am I expected to take?

According to the standards of his day Peter is actually being pretty lenient here. The rabbis drew the line at three. They said you could forgive someone three times in a row, but not four. Peter doubles that and adds one. Jesus’ answer still probably made the disciples’ jaws drop. He says, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” You could also say, “Seventy times seven” — almost 500. That’s a lot of forgiving. Whether it’s 77 or 490, Jesus’ point is clear: just keep forgiving so much that keeping score becomes pointless.

In order to drive that point home for us, Jesus tells a parable. A king wants to settle accounts with his servants, so he calls them in one by one. The first servant was probably the ruler of one of the king’s territories. He’s got some standing and a good position, but he’s still a slave. This slave happens to owe the king ten thousands talents. This is an astronomical sum! In today’s money it would be something like $30 million dollars. There is no way this servant will ever be able to pay it back.

Both he and the king know it, so the king goes the only route available to get at least some of his money back. He orders this servant and his family to be sold into slavery, and everything they had to be sold off in order to pay off some of the debt. This is the ancient form of declaring bankruptcy. It sounds harsh, but this was commonly done at that time. People would sometimes sell themselves as slaves if they couldn’t pay.

This servant wants to avoid this at all costs, and he knows he’s up against it here. He does the only thing he can: he begs. He throws himself on his face and pleads for more time. He doesn’t ask for the debt to be forgiven; he asks for more time – “I’ll come up with it, honest.” The king has pity on his servant groveling in front of him. He forgives the debt, wipes it out totally. That servant rises from his knees a free man. Just a few seconds before he’d owed more money than he could ever pay back, and now the master’s mercy gave him a way out from under his debt. His wife and children won’t be slaves, they get to keep their home – everything is put right in an instant by the master’s decree.

So this slave goes out and he happens to run into another slave who also owes some money. This second servant owes him a hundred denarii, which comes out to a couple of hundred dollars today. Not nothing, but not a lot, either – certainly not when you put it next to the debt that the first servant owed. How does the first servant react when he sees him? Does he let the other servant go by without mentioning his debt? Does he think, “My master forgave me so much, why would I ask him to pay me back?” Does he just let this small debt go? No! He grabs the other guy by the throat and starts to choke him. “Pay up! Pay back what you owe me!” His fellow servant pleads with him – in the exact words he just used with the master! – but he refuses to listen. He drags him off to jail, and he probably would have sold him into slavery if he could have.

What kind of a cold, heartless person would act like that? But don’t we do the same thing when someone sins against us? Somebody does something to us, and we never let them forget about it. We hold grudges with the best of them. Our memories are long and detailed. We withhold our forgiveness. We cherish the right to be aggrieved. We were wronged, for crying out loud, and we’re not going to give that up. In effect we throw our brothers and sisters into prison, lock the door, and throw away the key. We presume to do what God does not do – withhold forgiveness.

Look at everything God has forgiven you. You were born in sin. From the earliest moments of your existence, you began to rack up sins, and they only got bigger and more numerous as you got older. We can’t possibly measure or record every sin we’ve ever recorded, but God knows. You owed God a debt you could never pay. Your sins against an infinite God demanded an infinite payment – one you could never give. It’s like God sent you a bill itemizing every sin you’ve ever committed, everything wrong you’ve done and everything right you should have done but didn’t, and told you you had to pay it. You don’t have nearly enough in your spiritual bank account to cover it. In fact, you have nothing. You have not one thing to give God to pay off your debt. Even if God took your life to pay for your sins, it wouldn’t be enough.

So He paid for it Himself. The full amount was paid and the debt was canceled – but not by you. God gave His only Son, so you who were a slave to sin would be set free. The debt is canceled without anything being done on your part – but someone still had to pay. That was Jesus. The price He paid was His holy, precious blood shed in your place. The bill that you owed to God was stamped “Paid in Full”, and that’s not red ink – it’s the blood of His only Son. You never could pay, and now you don’t have to. Jesus took that debt away from you.

So why would we ever refuse to forgive someone? It doesn’t matter how bad the sin is they’ve done against you. You’ve done far worse towards God, and He’s forgiven you. Yet human nature is blind on its own. It doesn’t seem the consequences of refusing to forgive. That’s why Jesus’ warning is so necessary: “This is how My heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from the heart.” The master in the parable wasn’t angry until the first servant refused to forgive. The first servant made his punishment a lot worse by his lack of mercy and forgiveness. We need this reminder so much that Jesus made it part of the Lord’s Prayer, the model prayer that we’re supposed to use for ourselves. When you pray, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,” Jesus wants you to mean it, because He means what He says right after He taught His disciples the Lord’s Prayer: “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” Don’t lose the Father’s great grace for you by begrudging someone else a little forgiveness, even when they’re not deserving or they haven’t asked for it. Forgive them anyway. You won’t lose anything and you gain a whole lot for yourself.

We might be tempted to ask why God cares if we hold a grudge now and then. Would He really punish someone for refusing to forgive another human being? Yes, He would, because God’s glory is at stake. He wants His children to be most like Him. God gave the entire human race forgiveness when Jesus paid humanity’s debt on the cross. If we refuse to forgive someone while we’re known as Christians, then that casts doubt for the other person that God has forgiven them for that particular sin. It also casts doubt that God is merciful in general and wants to forgive us. You’re found to be lying about God if you refuse to forgive, because you give a false impression of Him. Anyone who professes to love God, whom we have not seen, yet hates his brother, whom he can see, cannot truly love God. If you trust that Jesus died for you and that His forgiveness covers every sin you’ve ever committed and every sin you ever will commit, then of course you’re going to want to forgive your neighbor. That lesser debt to you is swallowed up in the great sea of God’s forgiveness to you, a reminder of how God forgave you.

In that regard it’s not a bad thing to remember your own past sins. Not to obsess over them or to feel guilty for them, as if they’re not forgiven, but to recall what you did and how God forgave you, over and over again. Remembering your own sins helps you keep from getting on your high horse when someone does something to you.

So now the question becomes: who do you need to forgive? Take some time today and think if there’s anyone you need to forgive. Regardless of whether they’re living or not, regardless of whether they’re repentant or not – think of that person. Then ask God for the strength to forgive them. Meditate on how much Christ has done for you. Let go of your long-held pain, your anger and resentment, and forgive them. Even if they don’t care that they hurt you, forgive them, because that’s how God has forgiven you: fully, freely, totally. Stop keeping score. Forgive as you’ve been forgiven. Amen.