Cruce Tectum

Cruce tectum, hidden under the cross, a blog for Epiphany Lutheran Church, Dorr, Michigan

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Location: Moscow, Idaho

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (A)
September 14, 2008
Text: Matt. 18:21-35

Forgiving someone who has wronged you is among the most demanding, difficult, and painful aspects of the Christian life. To forgive someone who has wronged you is to die to yourself, to take it on the chin, to turn the other cheek, to forego your own rights in the interests of others. And this is why we pray so earnestly in the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” It’s not as though we are asking God to forgive us because we do so well at forgiving others. We don’t. The fact is, we do not have the power or ability within us to forgive others as we should. The source of such forgiveness must come from outside of us. So when we pray in this petition that God would forgive as we forgive others, we’re not only asking forgiveness for ourselves, but His help in forgiving those who have wronged us. And so also we confess that because our sins are washed away by the blood of Christ, because we are forgiven, because Jesus has fully paid our debt to God, it is on this basis, and this basis alone, that we are free to forgive our neighbor, and even love him.

But this forgiveness is always a struggle in this life. And in our sinful flesh, we always want to put limits on the extent of our forgiveness. We always want to qualify our forgiveness. “I’ll forgive, but I can’t forget.” Or, “How can I forgive someone who has sinned against me so many times?” Or, “This person has certainly not earned my forgiveness.” We like to be known as forgiving people, but there is always a boundary beyond which we are not willing to cross. And so we look like Peter in our Gospel lesson. Peter thinks he’s being awfully generous when he says, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” (Matt. 18:21; ESV). Now, we have to admit that if our brother sins against us seven times, and we forgive him seven times, that sounds pretty generous to us, too. After all, it’s not only baseball that operates on a “three strikes, you’re out” rule, and seven times is much more generous than that. But our Lord has a way of pointing out that our idea of generosity is hardly a drop in the ocean compared with the generosity to which He is calling us. He is calling us to be generous as He is generous, to forgive as He forgives. “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven” (v. 22). And no, He doesn’t mean 490 strikes and you’re out. He means perfectly perfect forgiveness. The kind of forgiveness that God, in Christ has given us. It is without limit. It is without qualification. It is the kind of forgiveness that led Christ to die to Himself, die on a cross, for the sins of the whole world, for your sin and mine. As a Christian, you are called to be a “little Christ” in the world, forgiving your neighbor’s sins as you have been forgiven, loving your enemies, praying for those who persecute you, dying to yourself, and if necessary, literally dying for the one who sins against you.

We forgive because God has first forgiven us. He doesn’t stop at three times, or seven times, or 490 times. His forgiveness is unlimited. We simply pass on what we have been given in Christ. Jesus illustrates this with the parable of the unmerciful servant. It seems the king is balancing his budget, and he’s calling his debtors to account. One of his servants has an astronomical debt, ten thousand talents. It’s difficult to translate that into today’s money, but to give you some idea, let’s say a talent, which is a measure of silver, is worth about 15 years of servant’s wages. That means that for this servant to pay off his debt to the king, he would have to work roughly 667 years, and that’s if there’s no interest on the debt, which is hardly imaginable. In other words, this servant’s debt is impossible for him to pay off. The king therefore threatens to throw the servant and his family into prison. But the servant begs for mercy. Now, the silly thing is that the servant says to the king, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything” (v. 26). It’s obvious that the servant cannot possibly make good on such a promise. It’s sort of like how our sinful flesh thinks it can pay off God with our good works… It’s a ridiculous thought! This servant deserves prison just like you and I deserve hell. But the king does something that no one expects. The king has mercy. He doesn’t ask the servant to pay what he owes. He doesn’t even ask him to pay what he can. He forgives the whole debt! It has nothing to do with the servant’s worthiness. There is no worthiness in the servant. He’s a rascal! The forgiveness has everything to do with the gracious heart of the king. He forgives because he is merciful. And so God is to us. He forgives because He is gracious and merciful, because He loves us, and so He sent His Son for us.

That’s how we should forgive the neighbor who sins against us. But aren’t we often just like the servant from the parable? After being forgiven so much, an unimaginable amount of sin, we go quibble with our fellow servants over trivial offenses. The servant in our text goes out and finds another servant who owes him a little money, pocket change really in comparison with his own debt, a hundred denarii. Again, it’s hard to translate into today’s money, but we’re talking a couple thousand bucks at most! This is more than payable over time, and the debtor promises the servant that he will pay him back. But instead of having mercy, instead of forgiving the debt as he had been forgiven, instead of even setting up a payment plan, the servant had his fellow servant put in prison until he paid the last penny. Now what do you suppose the king did when he heard of this abominable injustice? He grabbed the wicked servant and threw him in prison for the rest of his life! Hurray, we think! Way to go, king! Justice is served! But brothers and sisters, you are the wicked servant. When you have failed to forgive as you have been forgiven, you are doing just what the wicked servant did. And this is a warning for you. Jesus says, “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (v. 35). Only the prison is hell. Repent.

Again, this is why we pray so earnestly for help in forgiving our neighbor’s trespasses. Because we can’t do it on our own. The source of such forgiveness must be the forgiveness we receive in Christ Jesus. His forgiveness alone is perfect. His forgiveness covers even our lack of forgiveness. He dies on the cross for our forgiveness because we are unforgiving. “The Lord is merciful and gracious” even when we are not. He is “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love,” even when we are not. “He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us” (Ps. 103:8-12). Not only so, but he gives us the power and ability to do likewise for our neighbor, granted, imperfectly in this life, but perfectly in heaven. That is to say He gives us His Holy Spirit, who sanctifies us, makes us holy, helps us in our weakness, prays for us in our sin, and gives us power to lead the new life that is ours in Christ. Only one who has the Holy Spirit can forgive as God in Christ forgives. And God has poured out His Holy Spirit upon you in abundance, indeed, does so every time you hear His Word and receive the blessed Sacrament of Christ’s body and blood. The Holy Spirit is yours in Baptism, and you are His. So do not believe Satan’s lie that forgiveness is too hard. When the Holy Spirit reminds you of all that God in Christ has forgiven you, an unimaginable amount of sin, you have the power to turn to your neighbor and forgive what, in comparison with your debt to God, is nothing.

And you also have God’s promise that “for those who love God all things work together for good” (Rom. 8:28), including your neighbor’s trespasses against you. With Joseph in our Old Testament reading, you can say to those who sin against you, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Gen. 50:20). And so as Joseph did, you can comfort your neighbor and speak kindly to him (v. 21). In fact, when your neighbor sins against you, the very best thing you can do, both for you and for him is to forgive him. It is good for you, because it takes a great weight off your shoulders. You no longer have to carry around your neighbor’s sin. You no longer have to live with that grudge gnawing at your heart. And it is good for your neighbor, because it will have done one of two things: Either you will have gained your brother (c.f. Matt. 18:15 ff.), leading him to repent of his sins and receive the forgiveness and life of Jesus Christ, or you will have heaped burning coals on his head, in which case God will take care of meeting out justice. Either way, holding on to your grudge will help neither you nor your neighbor. In fact, obstinately refusing to forgive him will do untold damage to you, not only in terms of stress in this life, but remember that warning Jesus gives at the end of the parable: “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (Matt. 18:35).

Thanks be to God for the forgiveness He so freely and generously bestows on us in Christ Jesus, without any merit or worthiness in us, out of pure grace and mercy. And thanks be to God we don’t have to live life holding on to grudges against our brothers and sisters who sin against us. We can forgive because we have been forgiven. God’s forgiveness in Christ flows through us to our neighbors. And so we live out our faith in relationship to others. What God gives us we give to others. We live for God by living for others. We worship God when we forgive and love and serve our neighbor. Every Sunday we kneel together before the Lord’s altar with those who have sinned against us, sinners just like us, receiving together the forgiveness we all so desperately need from Christ, sharing that forgiveness with those kneeling next to us. And then we take that forgiveness into the world. Forgiving one who has sinned against us is hard. But here God generously doles out His gifts and His Spirit. These strengthen us and enable us to do what is impossible on our own. We pray, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” God’s answer is always, yes, you are forgiven dear child. I forgive you all your sins, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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