Sermon for Trinity 22
Deuteronomy 7:9-11 + Philippians 1:3-11 + Matthew 18:21-35
“I forgive you.” Those are pleasant words to hear after you’ve offended someone; difficult words to say to the one who has offended you. The Apostle Peter knew that as well as you do. He and the other apostles struggled with it as much as you do. Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times? No, Jesus told him. I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.
Our sinful flesh is not a forgiving being. Our Old Adam hates to be wronged and insists on justice for himself and punishment for whoever dares to offend him. Jesus teaches us to pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” What our sinful flesh would rather pray is, “Forgive us our trespasses, even though we refuse to forgive those who trespass against us.” But the Holy Spirit shows us in today’s Gospel that it doesn’t work that way. He teaches us in Jesus’ parable of the unmerciful servant about God’s astonishing cancellation of our immense debt to Him, and how God’s forgiveness to us on that immense scale is to be reflected on the much smaller scale of how we forgive our brother who sins against us. Refuse forgiveness to our brother in Christ? Don’t you dare!, says Jesus. The forgiven must forgive.
Therefore the kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. First, let’s understand that Jesus is talking about how things are in “the kingdom of heaven.” He isn’t talking about the heathen, pagans, atheists, the world in general. He isn’t talking about bank accounts or mortgages. He’s talking about the Church on earth, where Christ reigns through His Word, and where His servants call Him “King.”
The King wants to settle accounts with His servants and calls one in who owes Him an immense amount of money—millions and millions of dollars in today’s money. That’s referring to the immense heap of our sins against God in thought, word and deed. His Law, like a mirror, reveals our sin to us and the lovelessness of our sinful heart. The Commandments reveal the perfect righteousness that God demands, the perfect love toward Him and His Word, the perfect love toward our neighbor and his well-being. But the same commandments reveal how far short we fall of those requirements. They reveal our greed, our love for ourselves, our apathy toward God and His Word, and our antipathy toward our neighbor. Worse, God’s Law reveals that it’s not just the sinful things we do, but the by-nature-sinful-and-unclean creatures that we are that offends God and drives us deeper and deeper into debt. And worse still, that debt is racked up, not over the course of a lifetime, but over the course of a day.
Back to the parable. But as he was not able to pay, his master commanded that he be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and that payment be made. For all of our offenses against God’s Law, the holy Law of the holy God demands payment, but not a single one of us can pay. So it should be slavery and debtor’s prison for all of us.
The servant therefore fell down before him, saying, ‘Master, have patience with me, and I will pay you all. Desperate because of the debt he cannot pay, afraid because of what he deserves, the servant begs his master for patience. He plans to repay the debt, he wants to repay it, but he can’t do it anytime soon. So, too, when God’s Law convicts us of our guilt, we dare not try to deny it or hide it. We know we stand convicted, and we know that our only hope is in God’s great patience and mercy. We turn from our sins. We flee for refuge to His infinite mercy, seeking and imploring His grace.
But as Christians, we don’t for one second imagine that we can repay our debt—ever. We don’t even offer to “pay it all”—not by anything we could ever do. Instead, we flee for refuge to Christ, who paid it for us and gave us an answer before the condemnations of the Law. That answer is, “Christ! Christ for us! Christ paid for us! Do not enter into judgment with Your servant, for in Your sight no one living is righteous. Instead, judge me through Christ!” And so we creep under the shelter that is the blood of Christ, and there we are safe. We use His blood and His blood alone to pay our debt to God. And His blood is worth more than enough.
The king does far more for the servant than the servant asks. He doesn’t give the servant more time to pay. Instead, the master of that servant was moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt. This is how God deals with us for Christ’s sake when we tremble because of our sins and seek shelter in the wounds of Christ. He forgives us the debt. All of it, every penny we owed and every punishment that was due, even death and hell. He forgives it. He forgave it when we were first baptized into Christ. He forgives it continually in the Church through the Word of Absolution and through the Holy Sacrament of His body and blood. God’s forgiveness accompanies us always in the Church as we take shelter under the blood of Jesus.
But, what’s this? That forgiven servant who had his immense debt forgiven him by the King immediately goes out to search for a fellow servant who owes him something. That servant went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii—a miniscule debt in comparison to what he owed the king—and he laid hands on him and took him by the throat, saying, ‘Pay me what you owe!’ Then his fellow-servant falls down at his feet, just as he had done with the king, and repeats to him the exact words that the first servant had used with the king, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’
And it’s as if that first servant hadn’t just been down on his knees making the same appeal from the King. It’s as if the first servant had completely forgotten the immense debt that had been forgiven him. He gets angry over a few hundred dollars, and refuses to have mercy on his fellow servant. He would not, but went and threw him into prison till he should pay the debt.
Pay attention to the parable and the interactions Jesus describes. He describes a servant of the king who owed money to the king and had been forgiven by the king. This servant has a fellow servant who owes him money, who admits that he owes him money and is pleading with him for time to pay the debt. He’s talking about sins. He’s talking about your brother who sinned against you, who wronged you in some way, who cheated on you, robbed you, spoke badly about you or dishonored you. Now, there may be many such people in the world. Jesus isn’t talking about your brother who denies that he sinned against you. He isn’t talking here about your brother who is glad that he harmed you as he did, or who stands by his sinful action. He’s talking about the one who recognizes that he or she sinned against you and wants to make it right. If you confront that person with his or her sin, and he or she admits it and wants to make it right, but you refuse to forgive as you have been forgiven, if you insist on still requiring repayment and punishment, if you treat the person with scorn and contempt and send him away unforgiven, then you’re being like the unmerciful servant in the parable.
The rest of the king’s servants can see how merciless the first servant’s behavior was. They tell the king about it. So he called in that first servant and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?’ And his master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him. So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses.
Now, do you think God is serious when He calls on His forgiven children to forgive? You’d better believe it! God will not be accepting excuses on the last day for why someone who was called His child refused to have pity in this way on someone else who is called God’s child; why someone who is called by the name of Christ and has received free forgiveness from God for Christ’s sake, day in and day out, should refuse to forgive his fellow Christian. The forgiven must forgive. It’s not optional for the Christian.
The forgiven must forgive, not in order to earn God’s forgiveness or to appease His wrath, because, you see, the King forgave the first servant his debt freely, without conditions. He forgives for the sake of Christ and His payment for sin, for the sake of Christ who appeases God’s wrath. No, the forgiven must forgive, because our God and King, who has forgiven our immense debt toward Him, now wills it of His servants. He has taught us how to love our neighbor by loving us first. He has given His Son for us without our asking and recreated us to be like Him, not to be as much unlike Him as possible. He has told you to forgive, from the heart, lest you become that unmerciful servant from the parable and share his fate.
The forgiven must forgive their brothers their trespasses, but only as many as God has forgiven you. Of course, that’s absurd. God always gives to us far more than He commands us to give to our neighbor. His love for you is far greater than any amount of love you can show to someone else. And if you’ve been slow to forgive or even unwilling to forgive, then rejoice that today is not the final reckoning. Instead, today is the day when the King calls you in, again, and demands payment, and you recognize your debt, and you repent of your unforgiving heart, and you look to Him for patience and mercy. Today is the day when the King, again, has compassion on you and sprinkles you again with the blood of His Son. And the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. Let no one leave today with a stubborn and obstinate heart, but with the comfort of an immense debt forgiven again, with the understanding that the forgiven must forgive, and with the resolve to do it, for Jesus’ sake, and by the strength of His Holy Spirit. Amen.