Matthew 18:21-35 In 1947, at a church in Munich, Germany, Corrie Ten Boom had just finished speaking about forgiveness, assuring her audience that when God forgives, our sins are cast into the depth of the sea. As she was being greeted by the crowd, she saw a familiar face: the face of a guard at Ravensbruck concentration camp where she and her family had been imprisoned. He didn’t recognize her, but she recognized him. She and her sister had been forced to walk in front of him naked while he beat them with a club.
He admitted that he had been a guard there but had since become a Christian and wasn’t it a blessing that God forgives us and would she please forgive him too—and he put out his hand. When she told this story she recounted how she struggled in that moment but then these words of Jesus entered her mind: ‘If you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses.’ And she grasped the hand of this man who had shamed and beaten her and told him he was forgiven.
On May 13, 1981 John Paul II entered St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City. A man named Mehmet Ali Agca ran up to him and shot him four times. After the Pope recovered from his wounds recovered from his wounds he went to the prison where Mehmet was being held, took him in his arms and forgave him and asked the world’s Christians to pray for him.
On October 6, 2006 Charles Roberts IV drove up to an Amish schoolhouse in rural Pennsylvania, blockaded the door with his truck, went inside and killed five little girls, seriously wounding a number of others, and then killed himself, making his wife a widow and his three children orphans. That same day members of the Amish community came to his home. They assured his widow that they forgave him and bore his family no ill will.
To take the hand of the man who beat and shamed you and those you loved—to embrace the man who shot you and tried to kill you—to support and care for the children of the man who killed your own children—the world cannot understand these things and truth be told, we struggle to understand them as well. But we at least know why: Jesus Christ has forgiven us our sins and we are to forgive those who sin against us. St. Matthew writes that:
Peter came up and said to [Jesus], “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?”
Last week we heard Jesus tell us that we are to go to those who have sinned against us and forgive them and bring them back to God’s flock.
We understand the greatness and difficulty of that task. We live in a broken world. We are surrounded by fallen and frail people. Surely there must be some kind of limit to this call to forgive—particularly when we are the ones who are wounded.
The rabbis of the day put the number at three—three times we can be expected to forgive the same sin by the same person. And so with seven times Peter was being quite generous! But Jesus said: “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.
Several thousand years before this moment, a man name Lamech had promised that he would seek vengeance against his enemies seventy times seven. Of course we know Lamech wasn’t really talking about 490 acts of vengeance and not one more-- and neither is Jesus talking about 490 acts of mercy and not one more. Unlimited, unending vengeance and hatred is set aside by Jesus for unlimited, unending forgiveness and love. Jesus explained why. He said:
The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents.
I have seen various ways to calculate this debt but what we need to know is that the amount is beyond imagination, a debt beyond the man’s calculations-- but not the king’s. Such is our sin debt in God’s sight. Such is the ledger of our lawless deeds.
All of us can point to this failure or that in our lives. All of us can bring to mind our pet sins. All of us have some regrets about the past. But none of us can truly know the greatness of our sins. The psalmist says, “Who can discern their errors”? No one! But that we cannot reckon our sin debt, does not mean it is not owed. That we cannot pay it does not mean that a payment will not be required. Jesus said that:
Since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made.
The man in the parable owed a debt that he could never repay but that did not mean that a payment would not be required. The justice of the king demanded it and so does our own sense of justice. For example:
Bernie Madoff stole billions of dollars from investors. That money is long gone. Thousands of people will never be repaid. But that does not mean we do not want our pound of flesh. Madoff is in federal prison and will die there. Justice demands it and the law requires it.
At the close of the Ten Commandments, God says: I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me. In Romans chapter six Paul says that the wages of sin is death.
We owe a sin debt that cannot be paid by the generations that follow us. We owe a sin debt that is greater than our own life. We owe a sin debt that an eternity in hell still will not remove. Such is the judgment of the king’s law. Such is the king’s justice. Jesus said that:
The servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’
It is only because of the greatness and majesty and nobility of the king that he does not fall out of his throne, holding his sides, laughing out loud, saying, “You fool”!
The servant still had no idea as to the gravity of his situation—no real idea of what was owed—no ability to calculate what was required to pay back his debt. He thought that what he needed was just a bit more time and then he could make things right. Sounds familiar…
“Just one more chance Lord, then I will straighten out for good”. “Give me one more opportunity to love those around me and then I’ll have it down pat”. “Lift me up just this once Lord, and I’ll never fall again”. “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.”
But of course we can’t. The ledger of the law not only reveals our debt—it reveals our spiritual bankruptcy—that we have no spiritual assets to offer for our lawless liabilities. If there is any hope, it must come from outside of us. Jesus said that: out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. Please understand…
It wasn’t because the man was overwhelmed by the greatness of his debt—not because he was grieved over what his debt would do to his family—not because he was afraid of prison—not because sorrow drove him to his knees-- that the king forgave him his debt. It was because of the mercy and pity that resided in the king’s heart that the man was set free that day. A debt that the man could never repay—was wiped clean by a word from the king.
So it is for us. Our freedom and our forgiveness do not begin with us or continue with us or end with us. Our freedom and our forgiveness are found in the mercy and compassion of a king who was crowned with thorns—it flows from a heart that was pierced with a lance—it is given by word that was spoken from a cross: Father, forgive them. Father, forgive them spoken from the font and altar and pulpit. That is how our sin debt is paid. That is how the kingdom of heaven works. Jesus said that:
When that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’
Let’s be clear: a debt was owed and simple justice demanded that it should be paid. But where the first debt owed to the king was unimaginably large, this second debt owed to a fellow servant was incredibly small—especially in comparison.
Let me ask you, what debts are you owed? Is it the debt of an unkind word spoken about you by a co-worker? Is it the debt of a friend who has failed you? Is it the debt of a family who has treated you badly?
That debt is real. Justice demands that it be paid. But grace asks: what is that debt owed to you, compared to the debt you once owed to God? How do your demands for justice sound compared to the king’s words of forgiveness? Jesus said that:
his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt.
What is so shocking about this scene is the complete inability of the first servant to see himself in the second servant. But they were mirror images of one another. They had the same need for forgiveness of a debt. They take the same posture of a supplicant. They spoke the same words begging for mercy. All of us stand as equals at the foot of the cross, beggars all.
In that moment, the first servant had a remarkable opportunity to extend the mercy and generosity of the king into the life of a fellow servant-- but all he could see, was not the love of the king for this servant too, not the desire of the servant to be forgiven, but only what he was owed. It is an ugly but familiar picture.
Christian spouses alienated from one another. Congregation members at odds with one another. Battle lines drawn through church bodies. Fellow Christians who won’t speak to one another at church. And you can be sure that those around us take note. Jesus said that:
When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place.
When Christians forgive—the world takes note. A book was written about Corrie Ten Boom and her ministry of forgiveness after WWII. Newspapers all over the world carried the stories about the forgiveness of John Paul II and the Amish in Pennsylvania.
But as much as people take note when Christians forgive—they also take note when we don’t. The world may not know all the details of Christian doctrine—but even unbelievers know that forgiveness is at the heart of the Christian faith. They know that we Christians are supposed to be different than the angry, vengeful world around us.
How much more do we Christians know that what defines us and makes us who we are, is forgiveness—forgiveness received and forgiveness given. And so, when the world howls in protest at our lack of forgiveness—when a brother cries out to God because we hold a grudge against him—you can be sure that the complaint makes its way to the king. Jesus said:
Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
Our text today began with a question: how often do we have to forgive others when they sin against us? And the answer of Jesus is that we are to forgive and keep on forgiving. As long as there are sins against us, there will be forgiveness from us.
That is a difficult thing to do! Our flesh rebels against it. We are tempted to fall back into the pattern of the world: standing in judgment over others—demanding a strict accounting of every word and action—and seeking to hurt rather than to heal. In essence, living just like this unforgiving servant.
With this stern warning that concludes the parable, Jesus wants us to make sure we understand that when we choose to live like that, we are also choosing to leave his kingdom, outside of which is only judgment and punishment and death.
How much better to live under our King’s gracious rule and receive his forgiveness and extend that to others! May we forgive as we have been forgiven! Amen.