Matthew 18: 21-35
My brother Mark preached here last week, and he addressed where Jesus says it would be better to cut off our hand or our eyes if they cause us to sin, that it would be better to enter eternal life blind or with one less hand than it would be to have those members but face eternal torment. Mark taught that the key to understanding Jesus was understanding perspective; Do we understand remaining faithful is far more important than our bodies, than our money, than our jobs, than even our family and friends? It’s not that any of those things were sinful of themselves, but nevertheless they could be what leads us further into sin and farther away from our Lord. Perspective, understanding the big picture of entering eternal life, and being willing to cut out anything else that would compromise our faith, is the key.
I’ll lean on my brother’s preaching from last week and say that again this week, where the theme is on Forgiveness, how much and how often we ought to forgive, again perspective is the key to our learning here. It is far too easy and often that we all lose sight of the big picture when it comes to forgiveness.
Peter asked Jesus what we all so often wonder about, whether or not we ask the question out loud. Thanks be to God that Peter was bold enough to ask aloud what many of us would be too timid to ask. “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” And if you put yourself in Peter’s shoes, and insert the person in your life who has wronged you too many times, then you can fully understand Peter’s question. How many times can you be burned by someone and still be reconciled? Sometimes we wouldn’t even forgive 7 times, let alone what Jesus responds with: “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.”
Now let’s be clear about what forgiveness is. Forgiveness does not mean we wipe away the past. Forgiveness doesn’t even exactly mean a clean slate. Forgiveness doesn’t mean there aren’t still consequences for what one has been forgiven of. Jesus is not telling you here that you must allow people to take advantage of you. Now, you must forgive them, especially if they show genuine repentance, but even if not, you must be ready to.
To forgive someone is not to pretend that their sins against you don’t matter and that they can repeat them. That would be unloving to allow someone to continue in their sin. No, we expect that when someone repents of their sins that they also want to turn away from them, which involves discipline, it involves learning and a desire to not repeat. But even with a change of heart, it involves slipping up and often repeating sins that we had no intention of repeating.
The obvious example is a substance addict , alcohol, drugs, fill in the blank. But even if we’re not all substance addicts, we all habitually return to sin. And if you turn away from that sin, you might have unintentionally faced yourself towards a new sin. We’re sinful by nature. An alcoholic can go to AA meetings, work the 12 step program, and by the grace of God they might spend years, even decades sober. Thanks be to God through Christ Jesus for that.
But there is no Sinners Anonymous. Well, I suppose that’s what we’re all doing here now, but there is no sobriety from our sin that we can achieve. It’s who we are by nature now since the fall. We all constantly need forgiveness, and we constantly need to forgive each other. And it’s going to be more than 7 times or 77 times or 7777 times. Anyone who thinks otherwise is missing the big picture, they need perspective. And so Jesus helps us with this matter of perspective with the parable he shares:
We’re like a servant to the king owing 10,000 talents. Forget trying to do the math of converting talents to US dollars, for most of us, who cares if it’s hundreds of thousands, millions, or billions, we can’t pay the debt. But it’s our debt that we racked up. So, the king rightfully would bring us discipline for racking up this debt we cannot pay. Yet in our pleas for mercy, he has compassion on us, and forgives the debt.
That doesn’t mean the debt just goes away, that means the King’s treasury takes the hit. Even if we think the king can afford to pay it with his deep pockets, that’s still thousands, millions, billions of dollars he could have invested into the kingdom to benefit all people. The forgiveness of debts isn’t free.
But then that servant who has just received the gracious forgiveness, goes to a fellow servant, who owes him only 100 talents, literally a 100 times less what the first servant owed the king. The first servant wanted to strangle the debt out of him, and had him thrown into prison for not paying this much smaller amount, just like the king had originally threatened him to do.
When the King heard, he showed that just as much as he is a gracious and merciful king willing to grant forgiveness, he also shows he is a good and righteous King who will not tolerate evil. ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. 35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
I hope these verses make you at least slightly uncomfortable in your pews there. It does for me here in the pulpit. But it’s only a matter of perspective. Do we understand what we have been forgiven of? Do we understand that debt forgiveness isn’t free? We don’t owe 10,000 talents, we don’t owe thousands, or millions, or even just billions of US dollars, we owe our lives and souls because of sin. Thanks be to God that our King paid the debt of life we owed with his own life. That’s how much compassion our King has on us as his servants. And even has he paid this debt for all mankind, what did he say about those actively crucifying him? Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do.
We heard a foretelling of Jesus’ sacrifice in our lesson from Genesis with Joseph and his brothers. They almost put Joseph to death out of jealousy towards him, but at the last second sold him into slavery instead. God worked through this wicked act to save Joseph and his brothers, making Joseph a leader in Egypt and able to save his family from the famine. Joseph said to them: As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. Perspective is everything.
So for us Christians today, if we take Christ’s payment of our debts for granted, then it will be difficult to forgive, arguably it is impossible. This world is an incredibly unforgiving place apart from Christ. In this world, if you mess up once, if you’re caught on video saying or doing the wrong thing even once, you’re done for the world. But that is not who we are in the Church.
Jesus is in the business of forgiving any and all sins. And if we are in Christ, if we are Christians, then that means we’re in the business of forgiving sins too. It’s no coincidence that Jesus is having this discussion with Peter, the same leader he called the Rock on which he will build his church, the same one that he said he would give the keys of the kingdom of heaven to, that whatever sins he binds on earth are bound in heaven, and whatever sins he looses on earth are loosed in heaven. Jesus doesn’t give the keys of forgiveness to the church in order for us to be chintzy. We’re to be ready to unlock forgiveness for everyone! And if we would stand in the way of a sinner receiving Christ’s forgiveness over some personal beef with them, that is not a fruit of the Holy Spirit but a thorn of the Devil sprouting from us. Let us repent of such nonsense, lest our Heavenly King treat us accordingly and lock us out of paradise for our wickedness.
We are sinful by nature. Though we can and should seek to turn from specific sins, especially those that are habitual and harm those around us, we cannot remain sober from all of our sin. If you O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord who could stand before you? But with you there is forgiveness, therefore you are feared.
So let us daily remember our Baptism and birth into Christ Jesus, the King who had compassion on each one of us, facing death in our place to give to us his life.That’s the perspective and big picture of our faith. And regarding the need to forgive each other, let us daily pray to Our Father: Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.
In Jesus’ Name, Amen.