18th Sunday after Pentecost Sermon Text: Matthew 18:21-35
Let us pray: let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
Grace be unto you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
“How often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?”
Peter’s question is not insolent or unfounded. For there was an old Jewish teaching, based on the words of the Lord to the prophet Amos, that you were to forgive someone three times, but not four (Amos 1:3; 2:6). Peter more than doubles the limit of this Jewish teaching, revealing that his understanding of forgiveness has grown under Jesus’ instruction. Yes, Peter understood that he was to forgive his brother. Yet as a son of Adam, Peter wanted to know just how many times he was to do this.
As children of Adam, we too ask this question to ourselves, don’t we? “How many times should I forgive this person; how many times, when my spouse; my friend; my brother or sister; my boss; an authority over me; in other words, how many times when my neighbor sins against me, should I forgive them?” “When is enough, enough?” “When, O Lord, may I wash my hands of them and say to my spouse, friend, brother, sister, boss, authority, – neighbor, ‘No, I will not forgive you. You have sinned against me one too many times. This time, you are not forgiven.’” We, like Peter want a limit on how many times we are to forgive.
Forgiveness is difficult isn’t it? It is a humbling experience, and we as children of Adam do not want to be humble. We want the last word. We want to place ourselves over God and say to our neighbor, “That’s it, no more.”
Or, perhaps, we say we have forgiven someone, but when they sin against us the next time, or the time after that, we remember their past sins against us and use them as fuel for our anger and sense of self righteousness.
Can you ever think of a time when you have done such a thing? I know I can. When someone sins against me, oh, I forgive them, but I don’t forget what they did. Unconsciously, I have kept a record of their sin in the back of my mind, so that when they sin against me again, I can use their sin to my advantage. Many an argument have I fought, bringing up their prior offenses of which I have previously “forgiven” them for. Do you do that? Be honest with yourself. Of course you do. Every human being who has ever lived or will ever live, save one, has done that. It is in our nature to hold a grudge. With time, our memory may lapse, but we certainly don’t forget when we have been sinned against. We bring it up over and over again, playing out the whole fiasco in our heads, or worse, to our spouse, our friends, or anyone who will listen to us rant. You and I gossip about what so and so has done to us. Not only does our flesh demand a limit to forgiveness, we do not forget the sin when we forgive our neighbor.
There is one who does countlessly forgive and who never remembers our past sins, but blots them out of His mind. He tells us here, in the 18th chapter of Matthew that no limit can be put on forgiveness. Jesus says to Peter and to us today, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.”
Some translations render this amount as: seventy seven times.” Isn’t it interesting, that even when it comes to how a word is interpreted from its original language, our sinful nature, coerced by the devil, can miss entirely what Jesus means, by focusing too much on what we think we hear. We try and determine just how many times Jesus has commanded us to forgive. We work out the numbers, and say to ourselves, “So Christ is saying here that we should forgive our neighbor 77 times or, perhaps as many as 490 times.” O wretched souls that we are, even as our Lord shows us that forgiveness is not to be counted, but given, we still want an exact number.
Hear then the truth that the devil and our sinful nature do not want us to hear: Jesus is not putting an amount on forgiveness, rather he is saying: “There is no limit to forgiveness, Peter. You can’t put a number on how many times you are to forgive someone; you are just to forgive them. You ask, ‘Is seven times enough?’ I tell you, that you should forgive someone not seven times but as many times as they sin against you. No, Peter, you cannot put a number on how many times you are to forgive, because you are to continually forgive your neighbor. There is no way to keep track, and in an attempt to do so, you have misunderstood the concept of forgiveness entirely.”
Yet because he is a patient Lord, a gracious Savior, He knows that our nature rejects such truth. He therefore, further explains that an amount cannot be put on forgiveness by telling the parable of the unmerciful servant. Through this parable our Lord makes it plain, that forgiveness is not based on an amount, but rather on the act.
In the parable, the first servant owes an excessive amount to his king. This amount is so large, that there would be no possible way for him to pay it off. Yet this servant, when threatened with being sold along with his wife and children as payment, begs of his lord to give him time, and he will pay back everything he owes. His lord has compassion on him, and mercifully forgives him this impossibly large debt.
This same servant goes out and finds one of his fellow servants. This second servant owed a fraction to his fellow servant, a small portion compared to what the first servant had owed. And while there was no possible way in which the first servant could pay what he owed, the second servant’s debt was a sum that could be paid off. Instead of requiring an involuntary offering of that which the second servant held to be precious, his family, for instance, as payment for what was owed as the first servant’s lord had, the first servant goes and chokes his fellow servant, causing bodily harm. The second servant says to his fellow servant, words that should have been familiar to the first servant: he asks for time to pay what is owed of him. But unlike the king in this account, the first servant does not have compassion, and mercilessly throws his fellow servant into jail, until what is owed could be paid back.
When some of his fellow servants saw what this first servant had done, they report to their king. The king then calls this servant back in, and judges him to be a wicked person, who, while he had been delivered from his massive debt, could not, in a like manner, forgive his fellow servant such a meager debt. He then hands over this wicked and unmerciful servant to the jailers, or, more accurately, those who would be his torturers, until his debt could be paid.
Our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ is conveying through this parable how our Father in heaven has forgiven us our great debt of sin. Because of His Son, He does not hold us accountable for our sins, but has graciously forgiven us of them. As He proclaims to the prophet Jeremiah: “For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jer. 31:34). Our Father in heaven not only forgives us our sins, but blots them from His memory. Yet we do not do likewise to our neighbor, whose sins against us are but a fraction in offense compared to our sins against God. Forgiveness is not about the amount, but about the act. Our Lord warns at the end of this parable that those who will not forgive will be handed over to the torturers.
If that warning does not have you trembling in fear, beware! For the Law of God commands: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might (Deut. 6:5); and also: You shall love your neighbor as yourself (Matt. 22:39). There is no clearer way in which to understand forgiveness than to see forgiveness as an act of love. As before, I again ask you, have you ever not forgiven someone when they have sinned against you; or have you ever “forgiven” them, but spoke about what they did to you behind their back. To put it plainly, have you ever not loved your neighbor as yourself?
Do not be fooled by the tempter into thinking that you have loved your neighbor completely and perfectly. For you have not. Therefore, repent! Turn from your ways, lest you be dealt with by your heavenly Father as the unmerciful servant was dealt with by his lord; by being turned over to the torturers. Turn your hardened heart, which would limit your forgiveness of your neighbor, or seek to remember your neighbor’s transgressions. Drown such ideas by drowning the old Adam through daily contrition and repentance in the life-giving waters of baptism, emerging a new man to live before God in righteousness and purity. Yes, dear Christian friends, repent and ask for forgiveness from your Father in heaven for your failure in showing compassion upon your neighbor.
In His mercy, He has forgiven you for your lack in forgiving your neighbor. As such, you are free to forgive your neighbor, because you are forgiven.
It was His mercy, His love for all humankind that He sent His only Son to be born of a virgin. Christ Jesus died upon the cross for your failure to forgive your neighbor. When He was nailed to the tree on Calvary, He took upon Himself the punishment of His Father for all of your sins. While you have not forgiven your neighbor for the sins they commit against you, He stood in your place, and was turned over to the torturers. He took the sentence you would have received for this, by being put to death, For you, He proclaimed His victory over your sin and the wages of your sin, which is death, to the devil and all the company of hell. Only because He loves you and has had mercy on you did He do this. He has forgiven you so that you may forgive.
Because of His sacrifice upon the cross, we can therefore forgive our neighbor. We forgive, because we are forgiven. Because of the gracious gift He has given, His own body and blood, given and shed for the forgiveness of your sins, we, through faith, do not keep count of how many times we are to forgive; we just forgive. We do not forgive our neighbor because we fear punishment, but rather, because we believe and trust in the truth that we are forgiven. We forgive, because we are forgiven.
And yet, firmly trusting in our forgiveness, paid for with the innocent sufferings and death of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, we still see that forgiving of our neighbor is a difficult thing. Thanks be to God, for He has sent us the helper, the Holy Spirit, who brings us to faith in the reality of forgiveness. We forgive because we are forgiven. For when we confess in the creed, the words: “I believe in the forgiveness of sins,” these words are spoken in faith which has been worked in us by the Holy Spirit. And when we pray the prayer our Lord has taught us to pray to our Father in heaven, and we come to the petition: “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,” it is through the Holy Spirit, who works in us the Word of God, both His Law and His Gospel, that we realize we are neither worthy of the things for which we pray, nor have we deserved them. Yet we ask that our Father would give them all to us by grace, for we daily sin much and surely deserve nothing but punishment. So we too will sincerely forgive and gladly do good to those who sin against us. It is the Holy Spirit, the comforter, who enlightens us with the Gospel – the forgiveness of sins, and as such, we are free to forgive our neighbor. We forgive, because we are forgiven.
It is that same faith which allows us to believe the words we sang earlier:
Chief of sinners though I be, Jesus shed his blood for me. Died that I might live on high, lives that I might never die. As the branch is to the vine, I am his, and he is mine.
Only Jesus can impart balm to heal the wounded heart. Peace that flows from sin forgiv’n, joy that lifts the soul to heaven. Faith and hope to walk with God, in the way that Enoch trod.
O my Savior, help afford by your Spirit and Your Word! When my wayward heart would stray, keep me in the narrow way. Grace in time of need supply while I live and when I die.
Yes dear children of God, we forgive, because we are forgiven. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
And now the Peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.