“To err is human, to forgive is divine” by Pastor Steve Sommerer
15th Sunday after Pentecost Sept. 13, 2020
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
The sermon text is from Matthew 18:21-35 previously read.
“How many times must we forgive? Up to seven times?” I chuckle because Peter must have felt himself pretty generous in allowing for seven cracks at forgiveness, but Jesus answered 490 times. Jesus didn’t mean our patience and willingness to forgive stops at 491, but He meant it never ends, because it starts with God’s grace to us and flows through us to our neighbor. That’s the point of the parable.
In the parable, God is the king who settles the accounts. Peter and you and I are the ones with the great debt we can’t repay. Jesus said the servant, we, owed 10,000 talents. It’s an absurd, impossible number for a slave to borrow and more than could be repaid in many lifetimes.
The ESV text note says 1 talent was about 20 years’ wages for a laborer, but this slave owed 10,000 talents. Jesus’ parable is making a theological point about what you and I really owe God, and the fact there’s nothing you can ever do to pay it back. What’s our debt? The Law says, “Love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself.” Our deficit is that we go through each day withholding the love and honor owed to God. Instead, we put it in our account. It’s a first commandment issue. Because our hearts are wrong toward God, neither do we love our neighbors.
But now you and I are like the man in the parable, we get our mental calculator and start begging for more time. What scheme can I do to pay it off? Hell is where we belong. It’s what we’ve earned, and that’s where the debt will be paid. God, have mercy.
The servant cried out, “Have patience with me and I will pay you everything!” What a joke! Good luck amortizing that debt! But here’s the surprising part, the king didn’t put him on a schedule of payments or put a lien on his property or sell his assets. The King who is God our Gracious King forgave the debt.
That’s why Jesus came from heaven to pay the price. You and I, unable in the smallest bit to settle our own score with God, are worthy only to fall under God’s eternal judgment. “The wages of sin is death,” Romans 6 says. All that we’ve stored up for ourselves by the conduct of our lives is God’s wrath, and one day every last soul will stand before God and the accounts will be opened.
Wiggling and squirming and scheming didn’t save the slave. His cause was hopeless, so long as he tried to solve it his way. Jesus’ parable could only end well because of the nature of the King. Your gracious God doesn’t look into you and make a judgment you’ll rise to the occasion and pay your debt. He makes your debt His own responsibility.
To be sure, the debt that is forgiven will be repaid, just not by you, not from your puny resources or accumulated treasure of good works and virtues. It’s paid by the King Himself. “The Son of Man did not come into the world to serve but to be served,” Jesus said, “but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.” 1 Peter 1 says, “You were ransomed from your futile ways… not with perishable things, such as gold or silver, but with the precious blood of Christ, a Lamb without blemish or spot.”
Jesus is God’s eternal Son, God of God, light of light, very God of very God. Christ has everything. Everything was created through Him, yet in Mary’s womb and Bethlehem’s manger, the King of Kings became the lowest and least. He was born as we are in every way, except He is the sinless Lamb of God, all that He might live perfectly, without any debt of sin, then to offer His saving blood on Calvary’s cross. Jesus stepped alive from Easter’s tomb, so that debtors like you and I be finally and forever forgiven. So when the King has wiped your debts out forever, don’t go around looking for a way to claim them again. Faith rests in the words of the King. God has declared your problem to be His own, and in Christ God has declared that debt paid. It’s finished.
Sadly, the parable doesn’t end there. The wicked servant who received so richly of God’s grace went out and saw one who owed him pennies. And when his fellow servant cried out using the exact words he himself had used earlier with the Gracious King, the wicked, merciless servant had his fellow debtor thrown in jail. When the all-forgiving King heard what evil the newly forgiven servant committed over a few pennies, the King captured him and delivered him to the jailers for judgment.
The point is this: Freely forgiven, God commands you to forgive. Forgiveness is not an optional exercise. How terrible we are at this in an age where it’s so easy to give or take offense and then simply unfriend the other. Sometimes our squabbles are light and small things like a brother or sister pushing another or playing with your favorite toy; as we get older the wounds become more painful and lasting. Cruel cutting remarks behind our backs; how can you forgive that nasty person you work with? Our church and every church has seen the terrible tragedy of members who hold grudges, hate and walk away, or stay and make life in Christ’s body miserable, never missing an opportunity to stab away with their sharpened blades. Within families we’ve seen siblings go to war over an estate. Who gets what and how to make sure I get my fair share, even if it means a fractured family. And sometimes we use lawyers and judges to give the appearance of legality to our hate and greed.
It’s a sick situation when believers pray the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who sin against us”, even as husbands and wives count up demerits against one another, never forgiving and never forgetting. Students make cowardly attacks against each other on social media. This political season certainly has many of us more interested in victory than in loving our neighbor.
Sometimes our wrongs or the wrongs of others are bad on a life-impacting scale. Maybe you’ve sat with a Vet scarred by the awful memories of war… A spouse or child dealing with a lifetime of aching pain after being deserted by their beloved. The abuse of a child that shatters their trust. How do we forgive? Does it matters? Jesus said, “If you do not forgive the one who sins against you, neither shall you be forgiven.”
The first thing we recognize in the parable is where it all begins: It doesn’t start in the generous heart of the indebted servant. It starts with a gracious God. When God deals with you, God doesn’t set terms for repayment, figuring out a way you can nibble away at your debt till you can be done with it. Your Heavenly King forgives freely and completely for Jesus’ sake, not because you deserved it. God doesn’t need you to prime the pump. He forgives you because Jesus already paid the price. Believe that. Look at Christ’s love for you and stop trying to make it about what you’ve got going. The problem with the wicked servant wasn’t that the king’s forgiveness wasn’t real. But his heart remained hard – unchanged by the King’s mercy.
Repenting to those we’ve wronged and giving and receiving of forgiveness isn’t always the sweet, garden variety stuff. Sometimes the cuts are deep. When other boys and girls at school are making fun of you, or spread terrible lies, do you forgive because Jesus forgives you? What cruel comment by a fellow church member do you still hold on to years later? What meanness still causes your chest to tighten and anger to rise when you pass someone in the school hallway or at your workplace? Who do you avoid at the family reunion?
We need to distinguish between forgiving another – choosing to forego retribution or retaliation, and the emotions inside. The sinful nature may struggle for a long time wanting to flood our thoughts with the hurt and anger, and eyes fixed on the cross, we might daily have to choose anew to give it to Jesus. Forgiveness toward another person is a Spirit-led choice that flows from God’s love received. “I choose to forgive you, even though I’m hurt.”
The emotions may follow along quickly, or they may have to be dragged ‘kicking and screaming.” In some situations, the distress, the hurt and anger a Christian feels because of an experience last long after he or she thought it was forgiven and forgotten. Sometimes even after deciding to release a debt and forgive another, we feel eruptions of hurt or frustration or anger. You may have to make the decision anew each time you look across the breakfast table in the morning, or each time you walk into church or your coworker walks in the office. Inside you might need to say to yourself, I decide to forgive you, “God help me for Jesus’ sake!”
If you refuse to forgive, mostly it hurts you. It changes your heart and puts a never-healing wound where God wants to put peace. Don’t ruin your earthly life, and don’t let demonic hatred destroy your eternal life and harden your heart. Pray daily, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” God’s grace in Jesus forgives you 70x7. Within God’s Church you have a Bridegroom who never stops loving and restoring and forgiving you His Bride. And Jesus said, “Freely you have received; freely you are to give.”
Sadly, I’ve seen too many say, “Pastor, I know Jesus loves me and forgives me, but I’ll never forgive that church member or family member.” So be it. Their damnation is deserved.
But for you who daily remind yourselves of Jesus’ love and daily pray God help you to forgive, don’t measure success by how well you’ve done away with this or that sin. Satan wants you bent inwardly, naval-gazing, judging the reality of your own forgiveness by your ability to forgive, and reminding you when you just can’t seem to forget. Better always that you look to the cross. God’s verdict is true and final. You are loved. It’s written there in blood on those terrible timbers. You are forgiven. You are set free. Your debt has been released. Pray God’s strength to let that flow through you to your neighbor, even to the enemy or the one who persecutes you. I like that from our Epistle lesson: “Before your own master you stand or fall, and you will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make you stand.” Jesus stood in your place. Amen.
And now may the peace of God which surpasses human understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.