Pastor Eric Schroeder - The Eighth Sunday After Pentecost - Sunday, August 4, 2019

Text:  Matthew 18:21-35

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See if you can guess the answer to the riddle. We all think we understand it, but it’s one of those things we might find difficult to define clearly and concisely.  We all desire it—and even expect it at times—but we are hesitant to hand it out to others. We use it on a daily basis, sometimes without even thinking about it; other times we refuse to spend it, because we don’t want to be taken advantage of.  Sometimes we obsess about it too much; most often we take it for granted.

Do you know what I am talking about? I suppose there can be more than one answer to a riddle. The truth is that this riddle is designed to have two answers; one, however, is infinitely more valuable than the other. I’m talking about money and forgiveness.  For two ideas that are so different, they turn out to have a lot in common; I suppose we could think of them as physical currency and spiritual currency. In every case, their value comes from a transaction between two parties, and so often Jesus uses the one to illustrate the other.

The Lord’s Prayer is a great example. Let me explain. For those of us who have been around a while, the 5th petition might be one of the places where we are most prone to stumble in our words. Many of us grew up saying, “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  The updated version, however, uses the more common terminology, so now we say, “forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.”  But you may or may not know that there is a third version out there; the one that is in the Bible. In just about every single modern translation of the Bible in the English language, do you know what the wording is? It’s Matthew 6:12 (in case you want to look it up…).

And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”  Money and forgiveness--Jesus uses the one to illustrate the other. He employs the same exact terminology in this familiar lesson that serves as our gospel reading for today. Most often it is called the “parable of the unmerciful servant.”  The story Jesus tells is simple enough, and we’ll look at it more closely in a little bit, but first let’s remember the context. 

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?”

Even as we pray for forgiveness, Jesus teaches us to make a connection between our spiritual transactions with God and our spiritual interactions with one another. Peter wasn’t making that connection when he asked Jesus for a number—“how many times should I forgive?”—and even suggested a possible answer: is seven times enough? 

Peter thought he was being generous. Forgiving someone who hurts us once is hard enough. The second time is even harder, because we might tell ourselves that if he or she was really sorry the first time, they wouldn’t have done it again.  And the third time? Three strikes and you’re out!  Long before baseball was invented, the Jewish rabbis taught that an offended person needed to forgive his brother three times; that would be sufficient, that was enough. But Peter knew that Jesus went above and beyond the rules of men, so Peter took that “three-strikes-and-you’re out” policy, doubled it, and added one more for good measure. Seven sounds like a good bible number…Peter thought he was being generous.

But Jesus gave him an answer he didn’t expect.  Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. Maybe you have seen the note in the margin of your Bible that says that a better translation might be “seventy times seven.”  Either way, Jesus gives us a number that encourages us to quit counting, quit keeping score. He then gives us the parable, a story that illustrates the point he is trying to get across.

It’s the story of a man who owes his master and king 10,000 talents.  How much of today’s money would that be? I can’t give you an exact dollar amount, but it’s well into the millions, if not billions.  It was a debt that would take the average worker about 160,000 years to pay off. In other words, it was an unpayable debt. But what happened? 26 “The servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ [Of course, he would never be able to…but Jesus goes on.] 27 The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go. No payment plan, no rate adjustment or term extension. The debt is simply wiped out. The balance is immediately zero—free and clear. That’s one definition of forgiveness: cancelling the debt, wiping out whatever might be owed. 

Sadly, this same servant acts like it never happened. He shakes down a fellow servant for a much smaller amount. Please understand that it’s not nothing—a hundred denarii were roughly three months’ wages.  But the figures Jesus uses are not accidental. The servant was owed far less than he had been forgiven. And yet he was unwilling to forgive. In the end, he forfeited his own forgiveness because he took it for granted and in so doing, he greatly offended the king. 32 “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ 34 In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

In other words, he suffered because he was so much like us. Each one of us has a sinful nature that wants to be the master of our lives. We all know what it’s like to be hurt—some of us more than others.  As much as we like to put up a tough exterior, words do hurt us when we are insulted, or made fun of, or laughed at. It hurts to be betrayed, belittled, or criticized. It hurts to be rejected, ignored, or disrespected. Repeated abuse, whether it is physical, verbal or emotional, can leave us with some nasty scars that impact our lives greatly. In a world full of sinners, the reality is that you’ve been hurt, and you will be hurt again.  And the temptation every single time is to try to take control of the situation and make someone pay for what they’ve done to you.

Are you willing to forgive? If not, maybe it’s because we have mistaken ideas about what forgiveness is in the first place.  Forgiveness doesn’t mean we pretend that a sin never happened.  Forgiving someone isn’t excusing their behavior or saying it’s not a big deal.  Forgiveness doesn’t even mean that sin has no consequences in the future.  What is forgiveness then?

Forgiveness is a conscious decision to show mercy, let go of anger (even if it is well-deserved), and cancel the debt. Just like God did for you. Will it be easy? I don’t know that we can expect it to be.  Isn’t that why Jesus taught us to pray this way? When we struggle to forgive, we ought to remember this parable. We ought to remember our place in the transaction. What I mean is this. Where we have been wronged, where we have been hurt, we can either think of ourselves as the Master of Justice or as a forgiven servant. Which one would God say that you are?

God, our righteous and almighty judge, gave his own son so that we could be his forgiven servants. It’s what we love best about him, that he gives us grace and forgiveness in Christ instead of the eternal justice we deserved.  Jesus poured out his holy blood so that our debt could be paid in full. Now he invites us to share what we have been so freely given, to forgive as we have been forgiven.

God forbid that we should rebel against his grace by withholding our own forgiveness. Instead, let’s all respond with the joy and appreciation that moves us to forgive from the heart, relying only upon the cross of Jesus Christ as our power and our motivation to forgive.  The only limits to our forgiveness ought to be the limits God has set on his forgiveness. We are called to forgive with the love God has for us, as often as God forgives us, and as completely as God has forgiven us. So…forgive one another.

Forgive one another in the home, whether it’s the little things that add up, or the big things that cut deeply.  Forgive the people that lie to your face and forgive those that stab you in the back. Forgive the ones who ask for forgiveness and forgive the ones that don’t. Forgive the people who aren’t very forgiving and forgive even those who have done what seems unforgiveable.  ...just like God did for you.

Our Lord and King has forgiven all of our sins, and now we are blessed with the opportunity to imitate his forgiveness. When we pray the fifth petition and rejoice in God’s mercy, he will empower us to forgive our debtors, because all our debts are cancelled in Christ. May God bless us all to do his will as his forgiven servants. In Jesus’ name. AMEN.