Sermon for Michaelmas 3 / Trinity 22
Deuteronomy 7:9-11 + Philippians 1:3-11 + Matthew 18:23-35
We have before us in the Gospel an illustration of the second half of the Fifth Petition of the Lord’s Prayer: Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. Do you find it difficult to forgive the one who has sinned against you? You’re not alone. Jesus’ disciples also found it difficult. In the words before our text begins, Peter asks Jesus, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.” And lest we take this command of Jesus as a mere suggestion which His Christians can choose to either obey or disobey, if they find it too difficult, He tells a parable to show how serious He is about it.
The kingdom of heaven is like… First, understand the context. Jesus is talking about the kingdom of heaven, the Church, those who have been baptized. He is not concerned here with those who are outside the Church, but with those who call themselves Christians. He speaks of the King and “His servants.”
Now, lest anyone should think that our forgiving others comes first, and only then will God forgive us, we have the King dealing first with his servant who owes a great debt to the king. Our debt with God comes first. You can forgive your neighbor a million times, and you haven’t bought an ounce of God’s forgiveness with it. The debt each one owes to Him has to be dealt with first.
God sends out His holy law that demands love toward Him and your neighbor. “You shall, you shall not.” We have sinned against that law with words, deeds, thoughts, and our very self. Sin is part of our very nature. Meanness, unkindness, love for our own self, for our own ideas. Those sins add up to an enormous debt before God, like 10,000 years worth of wages.
God’s Law not only sets the standard for what we owe to God, but it also sets the punishment for disobedience: death for the debtor.
The first servant in the parable acknowledges his debt and asks for mercy, not even imagining a complete forgiveness of his debt, but seeking a little bit of mercy.
The King demonstrates great compassion, mercy. He forgives the entire debt that would have cost 10,000 years wages to repay. It’s gone. That’s a picture of how God forgives us when we seek His mercy for the sake of Christ. Christ’s death satisfied the demands of the Law for all people, so that all who seek God’s mercy for the sake of Christ are forgiven by Him through Holy Baptism.
You would expect that the forgiven servant would depart in peace and joy. Instead, he immediately goes and finds a fellow servant in God’s kingdom and demands payment for the debt owed to him. Now, demanding payment is what the King also did at first. If we are to behave toward others as God behaves toward us, then telling someone, “You have sinned against me. You owe me a debt for the wrong you did,” is not only excusable, but is part of imitating God.
But the forgiven servant does more than the King did with him. He “laid hands on his fellow servant and took him by the throat.” This is not just about collecting a debt. This is about rage, bitterness, anger, and hatred toward his fellow servant. Even if someone sins against you, you are not free to beat him up or hate him in return.
The fellow servant speaks the same words as did the forgiven servant. He fell down at his feet and begged him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ This is important. The scenario that Jesus presents is of your fellow servant, your fellow Christian, who, when confronted with his sin against you, begs for mercy and patience. He tells you that he is sorry for having sinned against you. This parable says nothing about forgiving your impenitent brother.
The forgiven servant behaves far differently than the King. “He would not.” He refused. He didn’t want to have mercy, much less forgive his fellow servant. He threw him in prison. Isn’t that ugly? Isn’t that perverse? To have the King’s forgiveness for such an enormous debt, and then to refuse to have mercy on your fellow servant who owed you so little. How could a Christian behave that way?
This happens when a Christian allows the devil, the world, and his own sinful flesh to rule him, when he stops struggling with them and gives in to their hatred and becomes self-centered. He no longer considers his own sins to be that great, and so he no longer considers God’s forgiveness to him to be that big of deal. He begins to look at his own works and earning him some favor from God so that, even if he sins, he thinks he deserves God’s forgiveness because, overall, he’s a pretty good person. So the picture is skewed in his heart and turned upside down. He thinks that his debt to God is only “this big,” while the debt owed to him by his fellow Christian is a million times bigger. He expects that God will continue to forgive him his “tiny debt” because he deserves it, while he views his fellows Christian as dirt.
It won’t work that way. Jesus issues a powerful warning in this parable. He who despises mercy and refuses to forgive his neighbor, especially his fellow Christian who apologizes for his sin and asks for forgiveness, will have his whole debt reinstated and will be tortured for all eternity. So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses.
How can this be? Because such a Christian has fallen away from the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. Faith in Christ does not behave this way, does not despise mercy and refuse to forgive. The flesh does want to behave that way, and the world tells you you’re justified in acting that way, and the devil tempts you to act that way. But faith struggles against the voices of the devil, the world, and our sinful flesh, and does not allow them to get the upper hand. Faith says, “I know that my debt to God is 10,000 times greater than the debt this person owes to me, and God, out of pure grace and mercy, has given His Son for me and has forgiven me my great debt in Holy Baptism. So even though my flesh wants to remain angry and bitter toward the one who sinned against me, if he will just acknowledge his sin and repent of it, I will gladly forgive him. His sin against me is nothing compared to my sins against God.”
Where is the comfort in this Gospel? There is no comfort for the one who stubbornly refuses to forgive those who repent of their sins. There is only judgment here for that one. But for the one who hears these words of Christ and is afraid, for the one who hears these words of Christ and recognizes the bitterness in his own heart, there is great comfort. Because once again, today, the King, through this Gospel, calls in his servants and exposes their great debt. Once again, today, you have confessed unto Him all your sins and iniquities with which you have ever offended Him and justly deserved His temporal and eternal punishment. But you said that you are heartily sorry for them, and you have sought His mercy and forgiveness for the sake of the holy, innocent bitter sufferings and death of His beloved Son Jesus Christ. And once again today, the King has pardoned you and forgiven your debt. And here in His Holy Sacrament He once again seals that forgiveness to you. And if anyone wishes to receive Absolution in private, one on one, come and see me. We still practice private confession and absolution in the Lutheran Church.
“Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” So we pray in the Lord’s Prayer. Don’t despise God’s forgiveness to you by refusing to forgive your brother who sins against you. God’s great mercy toward you in Christ is all the strength you need to now go forth and forgive your brother or sister, and that, not just once, not just seven times, but seventy times seven. This is the will of God for those who are His servants in His kingdom. And as you remain in Christ, as branches in the Vine, you will be enabled to produce this good fruit of forgiveness, by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.