Sermon for Trinity 22
Deuteronomy 7:9-11 + Philippians 1:3-11 + Matthew 18:23-35
As you probably remember, four months ago there was a terrible massacre at a church in South Carolina. That deranged young man, Dylann Roof, shot and killed nine people in cold blood. Immediately afterwards, after Roof was apprehended and put in jail, the members of that church came forward, one by one, including many of the family members of those who were shot, and they sent a message to Mr. Roof: “I forgive you.”
Many people, many Christians applauded those family members for that. It certainly took a lot of courage on their part. They should be commended for their lack of bitterness and hatred toward the shooter who killed their family members. But were they right to forgive him? Were they following Jesus’ instructions in today’s parable? Is that what Jesus is calling on His people to do—to pronounce forgiveness on our impenitent enemies?
In all the Scriptures, you will not find a single instruction to do that, nor a single example of any believer ever doing it. But didn’t Jesus forgive those who crucified Him? No, He prayed for them. “Father, forgive them!” Didn’t the first martyr, Stephen, forgive those who were stoning him to death? No, he prayed for them, “Father, forgive them!” It’s not the same thing.
God surely has guidance in His Word for how we are to treat or think about our enemies who hate us and sin against us. In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you.” Love, bless, do good, pray for those who intentionally do you wrong and are happy about it. But “to forgive someone” is different. Forgiveness, in the Biblical sense, doesn’t work that way. When Jesus specifically addresses the circumstances of when and whom you are to forgive, He says (Luke 17), If your brother sins against you, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times in a day returns to you, saying, ‘I repent,’ you shall forgive him.
I wanted to begin with that, because there’s plenty of instruction for us in this parable about forgiving our debtors. You can see how serious God is about our Christian duty to forgive our brother who sins against us, as we see the king’s anger toward the servant who refused to forgive his fellow servant. But it won’t help us at all if we have a twisted understanding of forgiveness. Jesus’ parable is all within the context of the Church. It’s directed toward Christians and how Christians are to treat, not all people in the world, but fellow Christians, our “brothers,” our “fellow servants” in God’s kingdom.
Now let’s take a look at the parable. The parable is told in response to Peter’s question: “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.” So the parable’s main point, right from the beginning, is that there is no limit to how often we are to forgive our fellow Christians. As Jesus explains further in Luke 17, If your brother sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times in a day returns to you, saying, ‘I repent,’ you shall forgive him.
How can we possibly do that? Why should we do that? Consider how you have been treated by the King.
The King called in His servant to call the enormous debt owed by His servant: 10,000 talents, 10,000 years worth of wages. It’s an astronomical figure. The servant had no way of repaying the debt. So the King ordered that everything the man had should be sold and the man himself be sold into slavery, together with his family. That’s what the man rightfully deserved.
So also God comes in the preaching of the Law and says to each one, here is what you owe Me: perfect, devoted love for Me and for My Word, and perfect, sacrificial love for your neighbor. But you have not done it. You have managed to cram 10,000 years worth of sins into your short life. So you must suffer for all eternity, in payment of your enormous debt. That is what justice requires.
The servant stood convicted before the King. He acknowledged his debt and the King’s righteousness in his condemnation, but yet he begged for leniency, for time to repay.
So the sinner who takes God’s Law seriously, who takes it to heart, who is honest with himself and with God, stands convicted before God’s judgment. He begs for mercy. God, be merciful to me, a sinner. But he doesn’t foolishly ask for more time to pay. He doesn’t bargain with the Judge and make promises of repayment—promises of future obedience. God, be merciful to me, even though I don’t deserve it. That’s the penitent confession.
And see how merciful the King was with His servant! He forgave His servant his huge debt, right there, on the spot.
So, too, the Gospel proclaims forgiveness. Not, forgiveness if you pay. Not, forgiveness if you work off your debt. Not, forgiveness for a portion of your debt. No. Full and free forgiveness, based on nothing but God’s pity and mercy in Christ.
Now, this parable isn’t intended to give a full and complete picture of God’s forgiveness. It mentions neither the price of forgiveness, which is the obedience, suffering and death of Christ Jesus, nor the means of forgiveness, which is the ministry of Word and Sacraments and faith that lays hold of Christ in the Word and the sacrifice He made for sin. The parable isn’t intended to teach every aspect about how God forgives sinners. Its focus is on the enormous amount of debt that God has forgiven you for the sake of Christ and the corresponding fruit that God seeks from those who have been forgiven such a great debt by Him.
The fruit God seeks: that you should go forth, forgiven, set free, justified from your many sins, and from now on be generous with your fellow Christian whenever he sins against you, because no matter how many times he may sin against you, it will never come close to how many times you have sinned against God and been forgiven by Him.
But what often happens? See how the first servant treated his fellow servant in the parable. He went out and found his fellow servant who owed him a hundred denarii, a few months wages, and took him by the throat and demanded payment. And his fellow servant begged for mercy and for time to repay, just as the first servant had done with the King. But now the first servant, unlike the King, refused to have mercy on his fellow servant, refused to forgive him his debt, and instead had him thrown into debtors’ prison.
Anyone can see how wrong that was. And the rest of their fellow servants did see it and reported it to the King, who was furious with that servant. You wicked servant!, He said. 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.
Jesus applies this to His Christians: So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses.
It’s not as if you were earning God’s forgiveness by forgiving your fellow Christian. Just as the King first forgave the huge debt of the first servant, so God has first forgiven you your huge debt in the waters of Holy Baptism. And He continues to forgive you your sins in the Absolution and in Holy Communion, not because of any past, present, or future works you have done or might yet do, but freely, for Christ’s sake.
But now Christ commands you to do this relatively small thing, to show mercy to your fellow Christian, to forgive your brother his trespasses against you. And, like the unforgiving servant, you will forfeit God’s forgiveness if you refuse to forgive your fellow servant who comes to you in repentance, because if you refuse to forgive, you show that you yourself have already fallen away from faith. You despise God and His forgiveness toward you.
So be very careful how you treat one another. You’re not free either to go around sinning against your brother in Christ or to go around holding a grudge or refusing to forgive your fellow Christian. If you’ve gotten angry with your fellow Christians, if you’ve harmed them in some way or spoken carelessly to them in a way that is unkind, take responsibility for it. Go and beg for mercy, like the servant did. When you have sinned against someone, offer a real apology.
Likewise, if your brother sins against you, rebuke him, but rebuke him humbly, with the goal, not of lashing out at him or giving him an earful or making yourself feel better, but with the goal of forgiving him. And when your rebuke works, or if your fellow servant comes to you on his own in repentance—your spouse, child, father, mother, sister, brother, fellow church member—you remember, God is the great Judge, not you. God has forgiven you more than you can imagine, more than you could ever repay. Be imitators of God, therefore, as dear children. Forgive your brother from the heart, no matter how often, no matter how great the offense. Even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do. Amen.