SERMON FOR THE 22nd SUNDAY AFTER TRINITY, 10-21-2018
LUTHER MEMORIAL CHAPEL, SHOREWOOD, WI
Rev. Michael Larson
Then Peter came to Jesus and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven times.
We are normally pretty quick to pounce on Saint Peter and call him out on his foibles and shortcomings. But let’s give him some credit where credits due. He’s at least listening closely to Jesus. He is learning that this forgiveness of sins stuff is really, really important to Jesus. So Peter wants to make some sense out of it – understand it – and at least set up some reasonable boundaries.
So Peter, to his credit, throws our a good biblical number, and really a rather charitable number too, “Lord, how often should I forgive my brother who sins against me. As many as seven times?,” he asks. Peter is no slouch. He’s attempting here to be pious and good. And forgiving a brother seven times for a repeated offense well that’s actually pretty impressive, compared with how quickly we normally write people off. Peter knows something of the Scriptures. Seven is a good number – it’s the number of perfection and completeness.
But it’s always the way of the law that measures and quantifies. How far do I need to go? How many times do I need to forgive so that I know I’ve done enough. I’ll go so far with this Jesus but hey, there must be limits, and parameters with this talk of forgiveness.
Well, Jesus of course obliterates Peter’s proposal. “Not seven,” says Jesus, “but seventy times seven.” Which is to say “Forget about your math. Lose the score card. Tear it up and throw it away. Don’t even think about measuring forgiveness toward one another. Let it be without measure.”
Just imagine the perplexed and astonished faces of his disciples. Unconditional, and constant forgiveness on this level is fanatical. It’s officially gone overboard at this point. But the parable he soon lays out makes it all crystal clear what he means. Because it comes down to this: Do you want your Heavenly Father to limit the number of times He forgives you when you sin against him? Do you want his grace, his kindness, and his love to be carefully meted out – to extend only so far. How terrible! What trouble and misery that would put us all in.
So Jesus tells us a parable: The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. So a man who owed an extraordinary debt was brought before him. He was on the verge of total ruin, imprisonment and loss of wife, and children and all he had. He fell on his knees. He begged for patience and mercy. He begged for kindness for a debt he could never repay, even if he had a 1,000 life-times.
And strangely, the master who heard his pleadings, had compassion on him, and cut his chains. H released him, and even forgave that astronomical debt. That man walked off scot-free.
Well, that’s not the end of the parable. That fella who had just had that debt lifted from him, barely hit the street when he spotted someone who owed him a good chunk of change. That smile he wore quickly turned into a scowl. His face clouded over and all he could think about is what he is owed. So he went after him, put his hands around the man’s throat, and demanded that he pay up, or else! Well this man also fell down on his knees and pleaded for patience. But this was an altogether different scene. Because this time there was no compassion and no mercy here. The man who had his enormous debt cancelled, is riddled with rage at his brother, and calls out “pay what you owe” and hauls the man off to prison.
Well, word got out to the Master eventually. “You wicked servant,” he said, “I forgave you all your debt because you pleaded with me. And shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” In furious anger, the master handed him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt.”
Jesus called out “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
The Lord means what he says. This is both a warning and an encouragement to us. How we ought to live as ones called by the Gospel to the holy life of faith.
And just so no one is left behind here. We must know this about the parable: Dear Christian, YOU were the one with the astronomical debt you could never repay. You were the one lost and condemned – deserving temporal and eternal punishment. You were the servant, who should have been hauled off to the devil and his jailers, but instead your master had compassion for you. You were pardoned, released, and set free. The debt that you owe was all forgiven.
But that unforgiving servant is also you, still keeping score and holding a grudge. You’ve become a masterful mathematician of moral arithmetic. You keep a scorecard of those who have wronged you. You play mind games, and say you forgive them, when in fact you avoid them like a plague, and give them the cold shoulder. You harbor resentment and anger. You keep others in chains, shackled by your constant disapproval.
Like Peter, you’ve slipped into the awful habit of measuring out your forgiveness by way of the law. No sense in getting too carried away with this forgiveness stuff. Hey, there’s parameters here, you say. I’ve got my limits.
But the truth is that there are none – not for Christians – and not in the kingdom of God. Because if God was not in the business of constantly, abundantly, and lavishly forgiving you your sins, you would be completely and utterly lost. That’s the truth.
And that’s what that wicked servant forgot all about. He forgot what an undeserving scoundrel he was. He forgot about that enormous debt he owed. He was quick to forget about the undeserved mercy and compassion that he had received when his debts were all cancelled. He withheld mercy from a brother in need. And so off to the jailers he went. To be punished and condemned.
Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us – fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer. What does this mean? We pray in this petition that our Father in heaven would not look at our sins, or deny our prayer because of them. We are neither worthy of the things for which we pray, nor have we deserved them, but we ask that He 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.
Forgiving the sins of others is not adiaphora. It’s not an extra or add-on in the Christian life. It’s the heart and center. And just so we’re clear – this isn’t some demand upon us – it’s not the law. It’s the Gospel.
Paul writes in our epistle today “It is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.” The fruit of righteousness – such as the ability to truly forgive others and pray for those who hurt you – this comes “through Jesus Christ.” This is important and this must be clear. This forgiveness that we enjoy and speak it’s not something you have to work up. It’s not some feeling you must muster, or effort of your will, no! This is a gift that your Savior gives you. The gift of His forgiveness, his grace, that embraces you, along with the whole world.
Hear and believe this blessed Gospel: That “you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.” He triumphed over it all in His resurrection in which we have forgiveness, full and free.
So don’t be like that wicked servant, and forget what your gracious master has done for you. He let it slip from his mind and heart. And that's when forgiveness to his fellow servant became impossible.
Well, the truth is you have some memory lapses too when it comes to God’s patience and compassion toward you. So because your Lord knows how easy it can slip from your mind or heart, He has set His Supper before you, where you might ever receive the price of your redemption. Here you might never forget how much it cost Him to absorb your debt, and where His love might thus grow within you to turn you into a forgiver of those who have sinned against you. Your debt is gone. Your sin wiped out - cancelled on a cross - blotted out in the broken body and shed blood of the Son of God. Taste and see that the Lord is good.
So tear up the score cards, and turn from keeping count. Remember and rejoice in the words of St. Paul who simply wrote: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” In the name of Jesus. Amen.