Forgiven and Forgiving
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Delivered By
Rev. Jonathan Gruen
Delivered On
September 14, 2014
Central Passage
Matthew 18:21-35

Rev. Jonathan Gruen
September 14, 2014
Matthew 18:21-35

Forgiven and Forgiving

            Nothing wears on a parent’s nerves like when the children are squabbling.  One is antagonizing another.  But the way the other reacts only makes matters worse.  And then a parent steps in and hears all kinds of tattling, two very different accounts of who started it.  The present crises as well as past sins and likely future grievances are all aired, usually with much howling, whining, and sniffling.  And now, you the parent, get to sort out what should be the consequences of poor choices, how we are going to resolve the present dispute, and what courses of action for the children you will enforce and/or recommend.  Dear parent, good luck!

            I am sure that since the Bible uses so much ink to talk about how we are to relate to one another in this family of God, we can make the conclusion that it grieves God as well when he sees his children squabbling, fighting, and bickering, short on love and long on hate, full of vengeance and devoid of mercy for one another.  The difference, however, between God and an earthly parent is this: God has a solution that always works—always.  If only we would use it.  You might have heard of it before.  It’s called Confession and Absolution.  Or, put another way, it is apologizing and forgiving.  Let’s look at the text and see what we can learn.

            This text is at the tail end of the chapter I talked about last week, a great chapter about life in the family of God.  At the end of the Gospel reading last week, Jesus told his disciples how to go to a brother who has sinned against you and be reconciled.  More on that another time.

            But Peter, you could tell, was listening carefully.  He wants to take this to heart, wants to do what is right and good.  And so our text begins: “Then Peter came up and said to him, ‘Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?’” (v. 21). Now, let’s give Peter some credit here.  In research of the past, scholars have discovered that some rabbis of the day taught that you should forgive someone for the same sin 3 times.  This, of course, is generous, at least compared to our human nature that says, “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”  We naturally want to enforce a one strike you’re out policy.  We often want to demand perfection from others though we ourselves fall far short.

            But the rabbis said forgive three times.  Peter knows that Jesus has shown mercy to sinners, and is patient and loving.  Though Jesus is very strict and unyielding in communicating God’s very high standards for living, his perfect commandments, Jesus always showed himself to be forgiving.  So Peter adds a few tally marks onto what the rabbis say and asks Jesus if forgiving the same brother 7 times is adequate.  Jesus’ answer no doubt blows him away.

             “Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.’” (v. 22).  Do you think you could keep track of 490 offenses?  I think it’d be too difficult on Peter’s rock tablet, or on my apple tablet.  Surely the high number makes it impossible to keep track, so you must just keep on forgiving.  Jesus, like a confident poker player, says “I’ll see your seven, and raise you seventy times that seven!”  In other words, “You’re not even close.  Don’t even count.  Forgiveness has no limits.”

            Then, to illustrate his point, Jesus tells a parable.  The kingdom of heaven is like this.  “A king…wished to settle accounts with his servants.  When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents” (v. 23b-24).  By the way, do you know how long a common worker would have to labor to earn just 1 talent? 20 years!  Yes, 20 years!  And now you mathematicians are counting the 5 zeros, inserting the comma, and are realizing that to pay back the 10,000 talents, a common laborer would have to work for 200,000 years to pay back the king and master.  Maybe a little less if his wife and kids help. 

           Obviously, this worker didn’t have that kind of serious cash laying around, and the Powerball hadn’t been invented yet, so Jesus continues, “And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made” (v. 25).  They would be slaves.  They would lose everything they owned.  They would be indentured servants, bondservants, slaves.  They would work hard their entire life to pay back as much of the debt as they could.  But of course, to satisfy the whole debt, would be impossible.

            This parable, dear friends, shows us the great debt we owe God because of sin.  Now, there are different metaphors to describe and teach us about sin.  The word sin means to miss the mark, an image that shows we are all off target.  There is a word trespass that communicates how we by nature stray out of bounds, out of God’s intentions, and into forbidden territory.  Here, the image that is used is debt, even as some versions of the Lord’s prayer say, “And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”

            Friends, we owe a debt we can never repay.  It’s like when you buy a house that you cannot afford, and you secure a lender to cover the cost, and you sign that dotted line that says you will repay what is owed with interest.  What happens if you fail?  The bank takes your house.  We can all understand that.  But many people fail to understand that sin is the same thing.  When we disobey God’s instructions and will for our lives—his will for our possessions, for our sexuality, for our marriages, for our families, for the workplace or classroom, for all his commands big or (supposedly) small—when we disobey we are saying, “No thank you, God.  I don’t care that you made me fearfully and wonderfully.  I don’t care that you desire to be my loving Heavenly Father.  I don’t care that you desire to call me your precious and beloved son or daughter through Jesus Christ.  I don’t care even that you provide for me house and home, food, clothes, and all I need for this life.  I don’t care that you are even ready to forgive my many sins.  I am still not going to give you what I owe you.  I am not going to fear, love, and trust you above all other gods or things or people.  I am not going to walk in your ways and do your will.  I am not your child.  I don’t want your heavenly home.  Leave me alone.”  This is what unbelief says.  This is what sin has done.  This is what we have been by nature.  And what a terrible and eternally deadly thing it would be if God had not intervened.

            We owe a debt we can never repay.  But those of us who hear the warning against sin and appeal to God for mercy are what we call repentant.  We turn from sin.  We beg God for his mercy.  And even more, we trust that God is forgiving.  And so we ought always do what this servant in the story does, and that is to ask this king, who is ready and able to forgive, to cancel the debt.

            “So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’  And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt” (v. 26-27).  Notice the enormous capacity of the King to forgive debt.  He is not only rich enough in grace to do so, but he is loving enough to will it.  And he is not only loving enough to will it, but he is faithful to accomplish it.  My debt erased.  Your debt forgiven.  Your neighbor’s debt canceled.  Your neighbor’s neighbor’s sin absolved.  Your neighbor’s neighbor’s neighbor’s trespasses are pardoned.  The crimes, the guilt, the hate, the violence, the iniquity, the debt of the world gone.  So rich is the King in grace, so loving to will it, so faithful to accomplish it!  Such an infinite capacity to absorb and cancel what we owed!  How great is this King!

            This forgiveness is accomplished through God’s Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord.  And this, friends, is the ongoing work of the Church.  The Church is characterized by forgiveness.  We are a people forgiven.  You know, we are sometimes accused of being hypocrites who say one thing but live another, sometimes even by other Christians.  So be it.  It’s not a license to sin, but let’s be honest.  We are not perfect people, but a forgiven flock.  We rejoice to hear of the forgiveness of God in the ongoing reconciliation ministry of our worships services, our pastoral care, and in our mutual encouragement of one another.  We hear that our sins are forgiven in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  We hear that baptism has buried us with Christ and therefore we die to sin and walk in the newness of life.  We hear that the Body and Blood of Christ are given and shed for the remission of our sins, the canceling of our debt, now and forever.  Iniquity of the past, guilt in the present, even sins in the future that are forgiven by Christ hold no power over us.  We are a people forgiven.  And we are a people forgiving.

            The Church is characterized by forgiveness.  As we are freed from the debt we could not pay, we are empowered, and instructed, to forgive the small debts against us.   Jesus continues, “But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii”—and by the way, this is 100 days wages, only a tiny fraction of the 200,000 years of labor the first servant had owed the king—“ and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’  So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’  He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt.  When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place.  Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘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?’   And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt” (v. 28-34).  And then Jesus adds this sobering warning: “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (v. 35).

            In my sin I sometimes wish Jesus wouldn’t have worded this so strongly.  It sounds so serious, so strict, so final.  And indeed, it is.  Forgive your brother, forgive your sister, and mean it.  Forgive from the heart.

            I wish it would be softer sometimes, do you?  I mean, does Jesus really know how hard it is for me?  (Do you ever think that?)  Does he know how weak I am?  Does he know how much I hurt?  Does he know what my (fill in the blank) family member, or ex, or former-friend, or neighbor has done to me or someone I love?  Does he know how they hate me, revile me, speak all kinds of evil about me, how they steal, how they cheat, how they take advantage of me?  Doesn’t he realize that I have been abused physically or mentally or emotionally, treated like dirt and garbage?  Doesn’t Jesus know that the person isn’t sorry, isn’t apologizing, and doesn’t want to reconcile?  Doesn’t Jesus know that I couldn’t forgive this person even if they did?  Does Jesus know how hard it is to forgive?

            And Jesus with his scarred back and brow, his pierced hands and feet says, “Yes, my child.  I know how hard it is to forgive.  And I, who have forgiven you all your debts, also know how to help you to release the anger, relinquish the hate, and let go of the hurt.  I know how to soften your hard heart.  I know how to strengthen the weak.  I am able to forgive even your unwillingness to forgive.  I will soothe your pain and heal your wounds and bandage your broken heart.  And I desire that this person who hurt you also be released from pain and hurt, from guilt and slavery.  Therefore, my precious child, I will help you to be forgiving even as you are forgiven.  I know it will take time, but I will be with you along the way.”  How great is this King!

            One quick story to inspire you.  Three years ago, 6-year-old Lucy Magnum of North Carolina was at Ocracoke Island on the beach with her family.  Lucy was in water only about knee-high when a shark grabbed hold of her leg and bit down deeply.  Her mother heard her scream, picked her up and carried her out of the ocean and saw that her leg was badly wounded.  Little Lucy asked questions like, “Am I going to die?  Am I going to walk?  Am I going to be in a wheelchair?”  Then she asked her dad to say a prayer as they wrapped her leg in T-shirt.  She was taken immediately to a hospital where she was quickly treated.  It was there, before she made a full recovery, that she declared forgiveness for the shark.  Yes, she forgave the shark, she told her parents, adding, “He didn’t mean it.”  It reminds me of how Jesus prayed for those who meant to hurt him very badly, saying, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

            Friends, sometimes people take chunks out of us.  And sometimes they mean it.  But God is able to strengthen you to forgive those sharks.  Ask him for help, for he has shown an incredible capacity for pouring out oceans of grace.

            “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Rom. 5:8).  Therefore, friends, we are forgiven.  And we are forgiving.  Amen.