Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost (A – Proper 19)
September 11, 2011
Text: Matt. 18:21-35
The forgiveness of sins is two-directional. There is first of all the vertical direction: God forgives all our sins on account of the suffering and death of His now risen Son, Jesus Christ. Then there is the horizontal direction: As those whom God has forgiven unconditionally and without limit on account of Christ, we are to forgive one another. Vertical and horizontal, forgiveness is cruciform, cross-shaped, even as our forgiveness from one another flows from the holy cross of our Lord Jesus, and lays a cross of suffering upon us, because we are called to bear the sins of our neighbor. The cross shape of the forgiveness of sins informs our prayers. We pray it daily in the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” This is not to say that God’s forgiveness is based on our forgiveness for others. In fact, the opposite is true. We forgive others because God has first forgiven us, so that when we pray the 5th Petition of the Lord’s Prayer, we are saying, “O God, since you have already forgiven me for all my sins by the blood and death of Your dear Son Christ, so now I also, by the power of that same blood, forgive anyone who has sinned against me.” After all, how can we not forgive those who sin against us when God has forgiven us so much more? Or do you believe your neighbor’s sins against you outweigh your sins against God? Let us not be foolish. In the economy of God’s overwhelming generosity and mercy, we are supplied with more than enough forgiveness to bestow upon our neighbor who has sinned against us.
Peter thinks he is being generous and merciful when he suggests to Jesus that he should be willing to forgive the brother who sins against him up to seven times (Matt. 18:21). And let’s face it, from a human perspective, he is being more than generous. Who of us, if someone sinned against us even, let’s say, twice in a day, would be willing to extend forgiveness that second time? Maybe we’d do it, but we’d probably do it grudgingly, or else feel that we had done that person a great favor, or made a magnanimous gesture. Jesus applies a different standard. “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven,” says Jesus (v. 22; ESV). And of course, Jesus doesn’t mean that you should stop forgiving your neighbor after 490 sins, but rather that your forgiveness toward your neighbor should be unlimited, as God’s forgiveness is unlimited for you. And again, remember, God has forgiven you infinitely more than you have to forgive your neighbor.
Our Lord illustrates this with a parable. A king comes to settle accounts with his servants. And there is a wicked servant who owes the king ten thousand talents. I’m not sure what the exchange rate would be with today’s currency, but ten thousand talents is an unimaginable amount of debt that the servant could not possibly pay back. The king pronounces sentence over his debtor: he and his wife and children and all he possesses are to be sold for payment of the debt. The servant falls on his knees before the master and implores him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything” (v. 26). Now, that’s a silly thing to say. There is simply no way that the servant can pay this debt. That would be like us trying to pay God for our sins with our own resources and by our own works (do you see where this is going?). But something amazing happens here in the parable. The master has pity on the servant. The master sets the servant free and forgives the whole debt. He doesn’t just give the servant time. He doesn’t tell the servant to pay what he can when he can. He forgives the debt, wipes the slate clean, declares that there is nothing to pay, not even a penny. This is mercy, beloved. Now, it would rightly be expected that one who has been shown such generous mercy would also extend that mercy to others. But this servant immediately finds a fellow servant who owes him a hundred denarii, a rather small sum in comparison with ten thousand talents, and he chokes that fellow servant saying, “Pay what you owe,” (v. 28), and when the fellow servant cannot pay, he casts him into debtor’s prison. Needless to say, when the master of them both hears about this, he is exceedingly angry: “You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” (vv. 32-33). And the master delivers him over to the jailers. You get the point of course. Jesus makes the point explicit, “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (v. 35).
Beloved in the Lord, you owe an unimaginable and un-payable debt to God for your sins. The time to give an account is coming, namely, the final judgment. But instead of condemning you to an eternity in hell for your sins, which God could justly do, He rather forgives your entire debt. He declares the debt paid in full. He credits the blood of Jesus to your account. He wipes your slate clean. He does not give you time to pay. He does not tell you to pay what you can when you can with your pitiful praises and so-called good works. He just forgives you, for Christ’s sake. It’s as if you’ve never sinned. Such is the mercy of God. Such is His love for you. He pities you and rescues you. Now, therefore, on account of all of this, when you go to your neighbor, your fellow servant, who has sinned against you, you don’t get to choke him and threaten him and demand that he pay for his sins. Your neighbor’s debt toward you is nothing compared to your debt toward God, which has been wiped out by the blood of Christ. And your neighbor’s sins, too, have been wiped out by the blood of Christ, by the way. If God no longer holds your sins against you, and if God no longer holds your neighbor’s sins against him, then who are you to hold anyone’s sins against anyone? You are to have mercy, as God has had mercy on you. If you don’t, you clearly don’t understand the full and free forgiveness God has mercifully and graciously bestowed upon you in Christ.
To be sure, it is hard to forgive. You have suffered real hurts at the hands of others. Your scars run deep. Some suffer more than others, and there are undoubtedly some here this morning who have suffered profoundly at the hands of cruel sinners. To say that you are to forgive those who sin against you is not to deny the reality or the intensity of the sin you have suffered. Still, you are to forgive them. Forgiveness is a cross to be borne, and crosses hurt. Forgive, bear that cross, as your Lord bore the holy cross to forgive you. Now, what does forgiveness mean? To forgive someone is to make the conscious decision that you will not desire or perpetrate evil against that person in payment for his sins, but that you will only desire and do good for that person. To forgive someone is to pray that God would bless them according to His wisdom, that God would not hold the person’s sins against him, that the person would ultimately repent and be saved. Forgiveness does not cancel the temporal penalties and consequences for sin. Criminals, even though they be forgiven, must still go to jail. Forgiveness does not mean pretending that nothing bad ever happened. If you abuse my children (God forbid), I may forgive you, but I will not ask you to baby-sit. Forgiveness does not necessarily mean that you feel warm and fuzzy toward the person who has sinned against you (though it’s nice when those feelings can return). Never trust your feelings. They’re sinful and unreliable. Forgiveness, remember, is a conscious decision, not an emotion.
Most of all, understand that forgiveness of others is a reveling and rejoicing in the gracious forgiveness of sins that is yours in Christ Jesus. You’ve been forgiven to forgive. You’ve been freed to set free. You’ve been given to give to your neighbor. The gifts of God always overflow in abundance so that they must be shared. Beloved in the Lord, forgive and be reconciled. Such is your joy and privilege in Christ. So you were wronged. So you were hurt. Let it be. Just bear it. Your Lord Jesus was wronged and hurt and killed for your sake, by your sins, that He might be reconciled to you. He has removed your sins from you as far as the east is from the west. And He has promised that when others intend evil against you, God intends it for your good. Love covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8). Let love cover the sins of your neighbor, even as God’s love covers your sins with Jesus. We are a community of the forgiven, forgiven and forgiving, confessing and being absolved, living under the cross. And as we gather around the altar this morning for the Feast of Jesus’ body and blood, there is no room for hostility. Having been forgiven, we forgive, and we eat and drink together in the Holy Communion. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.