In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Why is it that the thing that is at the heart of the Christian Faith is the hardest thing for Christians to do? At the heart of the Christian Faith is that God forgives our sins for Christ’s sake by His death and resurrection. Now He delivers us that forgiveness by His own chosen means through faith. That’s the heart of Christianity, but it’s the hardest thing for Christians to do. Sure, we can forgive little things, like if someone accidentally bumps into us. But what about the harder things?
Peter asks Jesus, how many times should I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Seven times? Jesus says, No, not seven times, but seventy-seven times—or 490 times, it doesn’t really matter. Jesus is not setting a limit on forgiveness. But even Peter is being generous. Seven times doesn’t seem like very many, but think about it: if someone sins against you in the same way seven times—if someone talks behind your back, harms your reputation, steals from you, lies about you, commits adultery against you—seven times. And then think about forgiving that same person for that same sin seven times. You’re apt to think that Peter is a little too forgiving. Seven times is a lot.
But Jesus says no. Square that, multiply it, complete that number. Because when Jesus talks forgiveness, He starts with God. How many times will God forgive you? Will he stop at seven, or seventy-seven, or 490? When you get to the 491st sin, is God going to stop forgiving? You and I have probably long ago crossed that line. What is God’s forgiveness like? Jesus tells a parable about a king and two slaves.
The king is ready to settle his accounts, straighten out his books. And he knows exactly how much each person owes him. He keeps meticulous records, down to the last penny, and he wants to be paid back. So he calls in his slaves one by one. One particular slave comes in who owes 10,000 talents. If that is a literal number, we’re talking 10,000 years worth of salary. When he can’t pay—obviously—the king orders that he and his wife and children be sold into slavery to pay off the debt. Harsh. But the slave falls on his knees and begs the king, “Have patience with me, and I will pay back everything.” It’s silly on the face of it. No amount of patience, no amount of time, is going to be enough for this man to pay back his debt. But he thinks that’s the best he can hope for.
Does the king go by his ledgers? Does he base his decision on the verdict? Is he a sort of mob boss, who tells the slave, “Okay. I’ll give you three days to get my money. After that—.” No. He has compassion on the slave, so far in over his head that he doesn’t know it, and he releases the slave from his debt completely. He’s free. The burden is completely lifted. Imagine owing so much in credit card debt that every paycheck has to go to pay it off, and having that debt completely erased. This slave is now a free man. What will he do with that freedom? Will every debt owed to him seem like nothing? How will he treat his fellow slaves when he leaves the king’s presence?
He goes out and grabs a fellows slave by the neck and says, “Pay me what you owe.” This slave owes him roughly four months worth of salary, so not a small amount. It’s not nothing. And the second slave falls down on his knees and says, “Have patience with me and I will pay you everything.” In this case, it’s a realistic request. It may take a while, but he can probably do it. But that first slave should be hearing alarm bells ringing in his head: Where have I heard those words before? But—apparently—nothing. He has the other slave thrown in prison until he can pay back the debt.
When the other slaves hear about it, they tell the king. And whereas before the king had compassion, now he has wrath. Didn’t I forgive you your entire debt? Didn’t I have mercy on you? Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow slave? And the king orders him thrown into prison until he can pay back every cent that he owes—which is to say, never. So it will be for you, Jesus says, if you do not forgive your brother—even the eighth, seventy-eighth, or 491st time.
This isn’t the first time Jesus has said something like this. Go back to chapters six and seven, and you see very similar words. In chapter six, Jesus has taught His disciples to pray “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” And then He says that if you forgive, your Father will forgive you. But if you do not forgive, then your Father will not forgive you. Does that mean that you have to forgive before God forgives you? No. It’s clear that God is always the first to forgive. While you were still sinners, Christ died for you. While you were still God’s enemies, Christ forgave. Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing. The parable makes clear that the complete and unconditional release from sin happens first. God doesn’t say go out and do what’s right, and then I’ll forgive you. He doesn’t even say, make sure you’re really sorry, and then I’ll forgive you. I suspect the slave in the parable was not really sorry about his huge debt; he just wanted to avoid the consequence of it.
No, God forgives first and always. But if you refuse to forgive your brother’s or sister’s sin against you, you’re saying that God’s forgiveness in Christ is enough for you, but not enough for them. Did Jesus die for every sin and every sinner, or not? And Jesus is clear in chapter seven: Judge not, lest you be judged. The measure you use will be used against you. Do you want to judge other people by the harshest letter of the law, hold them to precisely what their sin deserves, make them pay back every cent and make every last detail right? Then that is what you yourself will receive. Remove the log from your own eye before you try to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. Or to rephrase in terms of this parable, the gigantic log has been removed from your eye! Why are you still throwing specks in your brother’s eye, trying to keep them there? Mercy for you means mercy for him. No mercy for him means no mercy for you. Be merciful, because your heavenly Father is merciful.
And yet, we come up with all sorts of excuses for why we can’t forgive. Why is it so difficult? How can we forgive? It seems to me that that first slave needed to spend some more time in the king’s presence. Who is this king? Why has he been so compassionate to me, though I owe him far more than anyone could ever owe me? What is the cause of his mercy? How far does his mercy extend? Does it have an end or a limit? He would have learned what we learn and hear every single week: that the mercy of this King is endless. It cannot be exhausted because it flows from the crucified and resurrected flesh of His eternal Son. It is so perfect that people even take it for granted! And then comes the warning: this forgiveness is big enough for everyone or it is big enough for no one. Is it big enough? Then there is no limit, even when it comes to those who sin in horrible, egregious ways against us. And, understand: forgiveness is no excuse or rationalization or minimizing of the sin. Does the crucified Christ look like God takes sin lightly? Learn from God’s forgiveness of you just how great is His mercy. If you don’t know how large your debt is, don’t worry, God does. And still He forgives you! He knows just how much I owe: against You, You only, have I sinned and done what is evil in Your sight! And still He forgives me!
And He doesn’t only dole out His forgiveness in small doses. Oh? You’ve sinned that much? Well, here’s this much forgiveness. No. Christ’s blood is eternal. All, and all, and all. In Baptism, He delivers it all. In the Absolution, He delivers all. In the Supper, He delivers all. More and more and more, thanks be to God! Here, at the altar especially, we learn it. Jesus takes all our sin, and gives us all His mercy and life. By this Holy Supper He not only strengthens our faith in Him, but He breaks our cold hearts and fills us with more fervent love for one another. Here is the unconditional, unlimited, eternal forgiveness of God for you. Go and do likewise.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.