Sermon notes 09-13-20 The Measure of Forgiveness Pastor David King
Matthew 18:21-35 21 Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.
23 “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants.24 When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. 25 And 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. 26 So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But 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.’ 29 So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. 31 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. 32 Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt.35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
Last week we talked about the debt all Christians owe; the debt that we will never stop owing; which is our never-ending obligation to love one another. We know that loving one another is the supreme guiding principle for Christians, the greatest commandment, the most important identifying characteristic of Christians. It is what we are known by—or what we are supposed to be known by, anyway. Christians are to be known by our love for one another. We closed our service last week by singing, “They’ll Know We are Christians By Our Love.” That hymn describes how the world should know who we are: by the way we love one another.
And our Scripture passage this morning makes the case that if they’ll know we are Christians by our love, they’ll know we love by our forgiveness. Christianity is all about love, and love is all about forgiveness. The cross is the ultimate symbol and example of this. The greatest act of love ever committed, our Lord’s passion and death on the cross, was for the cause of forgiveness. He did it so we could be forgiven for our sins. Even so, forgiveness can be a very complicated and difficult thing for us. And it was no less difficult for the original disciples of Jesus than it is for us. They did not find it any easier to do than we do.
Which is no doubt what is behind the question that Peter asks to begin the passage: How many times must I forgive someone who sins against me?
Before we get to Jesus’ response, we might ask what caused Peter to ask this question at this particular moment. Matthew tells us that Peter came up to Jesus and asked the question. It would seem that Peter asked the question not in the course of a conversation but ‘out of the blue,’ so to speak. The subject of forgiveness was not a part of the verses just prior to this passage. So what led Peter to bring up the subject?
Well, we can’t know for sure, but we do know that Jesus had been talking to his disciples about forgiveness a few chapters earlier in Matthew’s Gospel. He taught his disciples the Lord’s Prayer, teaching them to pray, “And forgive us our debts … that is, what we have done wrong … as we forgive our debtors.” Jesus immediately followed that teaching by saying to them in Mt. 6:14-15, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” That last part was no doubt disturbing to Peter and the disciples, and I think we would say it is disturbing to us at times to realize that we will not be forgiven unless we forgive others.
So we can imagine that after Jesus spoke those words, it was a topic of great discussion among the disciples. We don’t know how much time might have gone by since Jesus disturbed the disciples with that information about forgiving others, but they had likely debated the issue among themselves ever since, until finally Peter apparently decides to just come out and directly ask Jesus exactly how far he expects them to go in forgiving others. What Peter really wants to know is the measure of forgiveness; he wants to quantify forgiveness, he wants to put a number to it.
Peter seems to be trying to impress Jesus with his question about forgiveness.
Notice that Peter doesn’t even wait for Jesus to answer the question before trying to impress Jesus by offering his own answer. He asks him, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?”
Peter thinks he is being very gracious when he suggests that he should forgive as many as seven times. He suggests to Jesus that it will be more than enough if he forgives that many times. Peter no doubt expects Jesus to approve his generous suggestion.
But Jesus responds by telling Peter, in effect, ‘you’re not even close.’ He says, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven.” It is a quantity exponentially higher than the one Peter suggested, in fact it is a number so high as to suggest that disciples of Jesus are to forgive without keeping count. In other words, much to Peter’s disappointment, Jesus teaches that you can’t put a number to forgiveness; it can’t be measured in a limiting way. Then to illustrate his point, Jesus tells a parable that has been called The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant.
The parable is about a servant who was forgiven a debt of ten thousand talents. My study Bible says a talent was a monetary unit worth about 20 years of a laborer’s wages. So when you multiply 20 years times ten thousand, this means that the debt this servant owed would have taken him 200,000 years to pay off.
Now it should be obvious that Jesus was intentionally exaggerating in the telling of this parable to make the point that the servant owed a debt that was impossible to pay. Yet the servant begged for mercy and his master took pity on him and forgave his debt immediately upon being asked.
But notice what this servant does next. He meets up with another man who owes him a hundred denarii. A denarii was one day’s wage for a laborer. So this man owed the servant a little over three months of wages, compared to the 200,000 years of wages that he himself was forgiven.
Yet instead of having mercy on this man, the servant seizes him by the throat and has him thrown into prison. And because the servant fails to show mercy, his master, upon hearing of it, withdraws his forgiveness and has the servant delivered to the jailers, which can also be translated torturers, until he could pay his entire debt.
Here is the point of the parable: we have all been forgiven a debt we cannot possibly pay. The debt of 10,000 talents represents the massive debt that each of us owes, because of our sins, to our holy and righteous God. We are completely unable to pay such a debt, yet God, in his great mercy and patience, graciously provided payment for the debt of our sins through Christ’s death and resurrection. We have been forgiven something that is entirely beyond our ability to pay for it; it is immeasurable. It follows that if God has forgiven us what we owe to him, we must forgive our fellow humans for anything they have done to us. Nothing another person has done or will do to us can compare with what we have done to God—our sins brought about the death of God’s own Son. Nothing that we have to forgive compares with what we have been forgiven.
Even when we understand that, forgiveness for most of us is much easier said than done. Forgiveness goes against our nature. Our nature is to make someone pay for their sins, to punish them or sue them or otherwise retaliate against them for the wrongs they have committed against us. Forgiving others is hard, so we want it to have its limits.
Peter was looking for a number whereby to measure forgiveness, and thereby to limit it; he wanted forgiveness to max out at the seventh occasion. But Jesus tells Peter he is to forgive a brother who sins against him seventy times seven, or 490 times. As we think about that number, we should realize 490 is the number of times Jesus tells Peter that only one brother is to be forgiven for his sins. We know that everyone in our lives needs to be forgiven, as we need to be forgiven by everyone in our lives. If we multiply 490 times the number of every person in our lives, that requires a whole lot of forgiving. So if we are going to meet that requirement, we will need to get very good at forgiving. Which leads to another way of looking at the measure of forgiveness. Peter was looking for a number, a quantitative measure. But Jesus emphasizes that there is more importantly a qualitative measure to forgiveness. At the conclusion of the parable, after describing the fate of the unforgiving servant, Jesus says these ominous words: So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” Not only are we to forgive our brother, we are to forgive him from our heart: sincerely, thoroughly, and completely. That is the qualitative measure of forgiveness.
Friends, we might like to think that we are not like the unforgiving servant. After all we have not seized an offending brother or sister by the neck to choke him or her. We say we forgive those who have offended us. But have we really forgiven them, from the heart? Or do we say we forgive them while still harboring feelings of unforgiveness, choking them off from real and full reconciliation with us because we are hanging on to those things that we consider to be offenses against us; stewing over them, secretly wishing ill will to those who have offended us, or wanting them to go through a period of penance or to somehow earn our forgiveness before we grant it? That is not forgiveness from the heart, and it falls far short of the measure of forgiveness that Jesus requires of us. But the good news is that Jesus not only requires that kind of forgiveness of us, he provides the grace to help us to do it.
It takes grace to forgive. We need a sense of our own need for God’s grace in order to have the grace to forgive others; that’s the lesson of this parable. And thanks be to God, his grace not only results in our forgiveness, it also works in us to help us be forgiving of others. Apart from God’s grace we could not be forgiven, and apart from God’s grace working in us through the power of the Holy Spirit, we would not have the ability to forgive others. Forgiveness begins with realizing how much God has forgiven us. And forgiveness continues with the realization of the ongoing need we have to be forgiven in our relationships with others. If we spend any amount of time with other people, there is going to be an ongoing need for forgiveness. We will often need to be forgiven, and we will often need to be forgiving.
This is evident no more in any relationship than it is in a marriage. Those of you who have had successful marriages know the necessity of often having to ask for forgiveness, and often having to grant forgiveness. That is just the nature of living with another sinful human being… and by the way, unfortunately, the only kind of human being there is to live with is the sinful kind.
Now as I come to a close I want to say a couple of things about what forgiveness is not. First of all, forgiveness is not permission to continue sinning. Just because we know we will be forgiven, that does not give us permission to keep on sinning. Forgiveness is also not tolerating wrong, ignoring injustice, or requiring persons to be put in situations where they can be abused or otherwise victimized. Forgiveness does not condone evil; nor does it require us to forget wrongdoing. What it does require is “release,” the release of the negativity and hostility associated with being done wrong. “To forgive” means “to let go.” Even if justice for wrongdoing is delayed or denied, Jesus teaches us to let go, so that we will not be poisoned by unforgiveness and the desire for revenge.
Jesus knows we cannot be spiritually whole; we cannot be complete Christians, if we fail to forgive. Christians are not complete just in being forgiven; we must also be forgiving.
Sisters and brothers, I think we are all a lot like Peter. We too have wanted to ask Jesus, “Lord, how many times must I forgive this brother or sister who keeps doing me wrong?” Jesus’ response more than likely bothered Peter, and it bothers us as well. We might say, “Seventy times seven is a whole lot of forgiveness, Jesus.” But in response to that, Jesus needs only point to the cross. Whatever wrong we may feel we have been done, and whatever forgiveness is required of us cannot compare to what was done to Christ in order for God to forgive the whole world.
When he was shivering and bleeding and dying on that cross, Jesus pleaded with God on our behalf, saying, “Father, forgive them!”
All of us have been “done wrong” at one time or another. Yet Christ, our Great Savior and Redeemer, calls us to freely forgive because we have been freely forgiven. They’ll know we are Christians by our love, and they’ll know we love by how freely we forgive.
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.