In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Forgiveness is a nice idea. We like the idea of forgiveness, especially when it is us who want to be forgiven. We like the idea of forgiveness when we’ve been caught doing something which we wish we had not been caught doing. We like the idea of forgiveness when it concerns someone in our group, someone on our side, someone we like. We like the idea of forgiveness until it comes down to actually forgiving someone.
Peter had heard Jesus talking about forgiving. He had heard Jesus talk about showing someone his sin, just between the two of you, so that that person might hear you—hear the Word of God from your mouth—and confess; be reconciled and restored to Christ and to the whole congregation. Then you will have gained your brother. But if he refuses to hear the Word of God from your mouth, go further, and bring along another Christian or two, so that every charge may be established by two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to all of you, go further and tell it to the Church. And if he refuses, let him be to you as a tax collector or pagan, that is, someone who has to be converted again. Go as far as you can to gain back your brother, not for your sake, but for his. Peter has heard all that, and so he says to Jesus, “Okay, but how many times is it necessary for me to forgive my brother who sins against me? Seven times?” Which is pretty generous, right? Imagine: someone sins against you, and says, “I’m really sorry for that.” And you say, “I forgive you.” Then they do the same thing a second time, “Man, I messed up again, please forgive me.” “I forgive you.” And then a third time, “I’m sorry! Please forgive me!” With gritted teeth: “I forgive you.” And so on, again and again and again and again. Seven times is a lot of times to forgive. But Jesus says, “No, not seven times, but add another seven: 77 times.” And Jesus doesn’t mean that on the 78th time you don’t have to forgive. He means that forgiveness must be infinite to actually be forgiveness. Why? Well, Jesus tells a parable.
There was a king who wanted to settle his accounts. He calls his slaves in one by one so they can pay back what they owe. He comes to one particular slave who owes him ten thousand talents. Not the sort of talents that are special things you can do, but a measure of money. A talent was roughly what someone would make in a year. So whatever the average person would make in a year is a talent. And this guy owes ten thousand of them. Ten thousand years worth of debt. Which makes it all the more ridiculous when he falls on his knees before the king and says, “Have patience with me and I will pay you everything!” No, no you won’t. It’ll never happen. More time isn’t going to help in this case. But does the king agree to give him more time? That would have been lenient. If you owe money to the bank for a house or car, and the note comes due, and you ask for more time and they give it to you, that’s pretty good. But the king doesn’t give the slave more time. He doesn’t lower the interest rate or lower his payments. He releases him from it. He forgives it all. No more debt; go in peace.
It should be obvious by the fact that Jesus is telling this story, that the King is God. And that this is how He acts toward His slaves. He doesn’t give second chances. He doesn’t give more time to get things right. He doesn’t give you more time to pay back what you owe Him. And what you owe, like the slave, might as well be infinite. Ten thousand years of debt is something you and I are never paying off. It can be forgiven, or nothing. We have another picture of this mercy in Genesis 50. Joseph was taken from his family, sold into slavery, wrongly accused, and imprisoned, all because his brothers were jealous. And when they come to Egypt because of the famine, Joseph doesn’t throw them in prison so that they can get a taste of what he’s had to endure. He doesn’t demand that they give him back his coat of many colors. He says to his scared, lying brothers, “Don’t be afraid. You meant all of this for evil against me, but God meant it for good, that very many people would be alive, as they are today. And don’t worry, I’ll take care of you and your little ones.” And Joseph comforted them and spoke kindly to them. This is a picture of your Lord. From the cross He says, “Father, forgive them because they don’t know what they’re doing.” All the evil that they and we meant against Jesus, all our sin, God means it for good to you. We confess, with David, that it is against God and Him only that we have sinned, and done what is evil in His sight. All the evil we mean against each other is actually evil against God, and our debt is multiplied far beyond what we could ever pay. But He speaks kindly to us and comforts us. All of this evil I have wrapped up in the flesh of Jesus so that it becomes good for you. His resurrection means good for you. His life means good for you. His body and blood mean good for you. And now, with this infinite kindness and mercy, what shall we do? Well, what did the slave do? See, forgiveness is an idea that we like, until it comes down to actually forgiving someone.
This slave, no longer under the burden of ten thousand years of debt, goes out and finds the frist guy who owes him money, grabs him by the neck, and tells him to pay what he owes. And when he can’t, the first slave has him thrown in jail until he can. Notice that Jesus uses almost exactly the same words for the second slave as the first slave said to the king. He falls down on his knees and begs his fellow slave, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” But he not only does not have patience, he has no mercy at all. No time, no forgiveness, nothing. The point is clear: the guy who was forgiven all that debt should have forgiven his fellow slave the smaller debt.
But let’s be clear about a few things: the debt owed by the second slave is not small. It is roughly 4 months of wages. That’s not a small amount. If someone owed you 4 months of pay, that would probably be a pretty large amount. But 4 months is not ten thousand years. Compared to the first debt, the second debt is nothing. But in itself, it’s not nothing. So it is that some of you—most of you? All of you?—have been sinned against in grievous ways. You are carrying around a bitter weight and wounds that don’t just go away, not even with a lot of time. The sin that we commit against each other is not nothing. It’s not always small. Are some things small? Shouldn’t we just let some things go, because they really are small? Yes. But that’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about the horrible, serious sins that are difficult, if not impossible, to forgive. Even so, hear the Word of Jesus: the King finds out what the slave has done, and says to him, “Didn’t I forgive you all that debt? Shouldn’t you have forgiven your fellow slave his debt to you?” And so, Jesus says, My Heavenly Father will also do to each one of you if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.
Let’s not rationalize or minimize Jesus’ words. Let’s not pretend that He doesn’t say what He clearly says. If you refuse to forgive someone for whom Jesus died, then you will not be forgiven. He doesn’t say, Go forgive, and only then will I forgive you. The King forgave the slave first, without strings, without conditions, without exception. But then that slave went out and pretty much forgot that he had ever been in the King’s presence. And what if you don’t have it within you to forgive? Well, to tell the truth, you don’t. It’s no more within you to forgive than it is to love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and strength and mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself. None of it comes from you. So if you have unforgiveness in your heart, if you have bitterness, if you have anger, if you have hatred, don’t turn first toward that other person. Don’t go to your fellow slave. Come and fall down at the feet of the King. And don’t ask for patience. Don’t ask for a second chance. Don’t ask for more time. Plead the mercy of the King’s Son. Plead His blood. Confess all of it, including your inability to forgive. And hear again His verdict: you are released. Your whole debt is forgiven. You owe nothing. Go in peace. Only God in Christ forgives fully and infinitely. But He forgives you. And because His mercy is enough for your infinite sin, it’s enough for your brother’s or your sister’s finite sin against you. If His mercy, His cross, His blood is not enough for that person, then it’s not enough for you. And that is a dreadful thought; it is indeed a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the Living God apart from the mercy of Jesus. The slave is thrown into prison to be beaten until he pays back the last cent. And, as we said, that’s never going to happen. The infinite mercy of the King has become the infinite punishment of the slave. But if you hear the command of God to forgive, and you cannot find that forgiveness in your own heart, then that is only evidence that you still need the heart of Christ. Do you need to forgive? Be forgiven again. Still have more to forgive? Be forgiven still more. Still need to forgive again? There’s still more. It is only at the cross of Christ that we receive what we need to give. Only here does Christ give us His infinite and unending mercy, which flows through us into the ears of our brother or sister. What you cannot repay give to the one who cannot repay you. That is the only direction mercy and forgiveness can flow, both for you and for your brother.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 9/13/14