The 16th Sunday After Trinity October 5, 2003
10, 324(1-3, 5, 8), 342, 46
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
Then Peter came to Him and said, “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. Therefore the kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. And when he had begun to settle accounts, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. 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. The servant therefore fell down before him, saying, ‘Master, have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ Then the master of that servant was moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt. But that servant went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and he laid hands on him and took him by the throat, saying, ‘Pay me what you owe!’ So his fellow servant fell down at his feet and begged him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ And he would not, but went and threw him into prison till he should pay the debt. So when his fellow servants saw what had been done, they were very grieved, and came and told their master all that had been done. Then his master, after he had called him, 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.”
In Christ Jesus, our forgiving Savior, dear fellow-redeemed:
“I don’t get mad…I get even!”
“If you’re going to be that way about it,
I’m not going to talk to you!”
“I’ll forgive you, but I’ll never forget!”
“I’ll never, ever be able
to forgive you for THAT…”
A lack of forgiveness and an unforgiving spirit come in so many ways. We really don’t want to have an unforgiving spirit, yet sometimes we do. Sometimes we have an unforgiving spirit without even realizing it. We think we are forgiving, we think we may have even forgotten the hurt that was caused by the sin against us, but then all of a sudden something happens and thoughts and emotions rise up again and we realize, “Oh! Perhaps I haven’t been as forgiving toward that person as I thought.”
Martin Franzmann, a Biblical commentator wrote: “In each of us lurks the pride that demands satisfaction for a wrong and considers it weakness to forgive. Before we are aware of it, a raging vindictiveness can take over in our hearts and drive out a humble remembrance of God’s forgiving mercy” (Bible History Commentary, New Testament, Volume 1, Martin Franzmann).
Forgiveness comes hard because of hurt. No one likes to be hurt, no one enjoys continuing to hurt, but when someone sins against us it hurts! Like an injured animal that is trapped in a corner, the first reaction is to lash out—to injure the other person. In other words, the first reaction when we have been hurt is to hurt someone else. Whenever you have a “natural reaction” remember the nature from which it comes. We are sinful. So, our natural reaction to lash out and hurt someone in return is also sinful.
Because of our sinful weakness we seek to shore up our forgiving spirits. We go to God’s Word to be equipped to deal with sin against us and to hear God’s Word to each of us: FORGIVE AS YOU HAVE BEEN FORGIVEN. We consider that we have I. An account to settle II. No way to pay III. A love to return.
Before we can begin to apply Jesus’ words and instruction to our own individual circumstances, we should consider the parable as a whole.
Peter’s question concerning the number of times he should forgive his brother occurred right after Jesus finished explaining how to deal with a brother who has sinned against you. Jesus had said, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother” (Matthew 18:15ff). Jesus goes on to say that if the sinning brother does not listen, then you are to take one or two more with you, and if he doesn’t listen to them, then take it to the church—the larger assembly. It is after Peter heard those words that he came to Jesus and said, “OK, now I know how to deal with a brother when he sins against me, but how many times do I need to do that…seven times?”
Peter probably felt that he was being pretty generous, for in those days the rabbis typically taught that forgiving someone 3-4 times was enough. Peter must have felt that seven would be a good, high, and complete number; but no, Jesus told Peter, “seventy times seven.” [v.22] In effect, Jesus told Peter, “Don’t even keep track. Show unlimited forgiveness.”
To help illustrate His answer to Peter, Jesus told the parable of a king whose servants had debts with him. One day, the king set out to deal with his accounts. One servant owed the king 10,000 talents. A “talent” was a weight. It was either an amount of silver or gold and therefore would vary in value. However, for our purposes consider that the amount would be roughly equivalent to $12,000,000.
The servant had a 12-million dollar debt, but no money. In those days, the “solution” to such a debt was debtors’ prison. In these type of cases, the debtor would typically be put into prison and his family sold as slaves.
On the brink of debtor’s prison, the servant in Jesus’ parable fell down before the king and said, “‘Master, have patience with me, and I will pay you ALL.’” [v.26] Out of compassion, the king forgave the ENTIRE DEBT!! It was as if it had never existed.
Now imagine if you had, today, a $12,000,000 debt and no real way to pay it. Then your creditor called you to his office and said, “The debt is gone. It’s paid in full. You are debt free!” Can you imagine the weight that would be off your shoulders? At that moment you would be essentially $12,000,000 richer! All of a sudden, any money you would make would be yours to keep instead of going toward paying off the insurmountable debt! Now imagine, if at the same time someone else owed you $20.00, but remember, you just had $12,000,000 forgiven! Could you imagine forcing that person to pay 20 measly dollars when you just had such a huge debt completely removed?
It’s hard to imagine, but that is exactly what the servant did in Jesus’ parable. The servant went out, found a fellow servant who owed him money, had no compassion at all, but grabbed him by the throat and said, “PAY ME what you owe me!” And what he owed him was a hundred denarii, or about $20. When the second servant said the exact same words the first servant had used before the king, “Have patience with me and I will pay you all” [v.29], the first servant did not have patience, but had his fellow servant cast into prison.
The other servants heard what had happened and told the king. The king called the servant to himself and said, “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?” [vv.32-33]
This is the story Jesus told, but as with all of His parables, it has a spiritual meaning. The huge debt in the parable represents our debt with God. That debt is the debt of our sin against God. The huge debt of sin toward God is compared to the tiny little debt of sin that people make with us. To understand just how big your debt with God is, keep in mind that every sin you commit is a debt against God. In addition every sin that you commit against someone else, is at the same time still also a sin against God. As hard as others may hurt us, as much evil as they may do against us, and as often as they may sin against us, it remains tiny, tiny, tiny when compared to our sin against God!
Jesus’ message to Peter and His answer to Peter’s question is that God’s forgiveness of our huge debt doesn’t stop and therefore, our forgiveness of others should likewise continue.
That is the parable. That is the spiritual meaning, but now to our lives…
God has an account to settle with us. Sin is a debt. God wants us to keep His law perfectly. Any failure to do so is a debt of sin. We can’t measure up to God’s standard of perfection so the debt is there and payment must be made. Our debt with God multiplies every time we sin. And if that weren’t enough, we’re told in James, “…whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all.” (James 2:10). Even if we only had a few sins (which of course we don’t) we would still be guilty of breaking the whole law of God. That is a huge debt!
God has to settle that account with us. It is justice. Unpunished sin and unpaid debt cannot remain before a holy and just God, so God must in His justice and holiness bring out punishment upon the debt of sin. The debt has to be paid in full in order to settle the account. This is exactly what Jesus did.
Jesus lived a perfect life to fulfill God’s expectations for you and then He died to pay the debt of all of your failures. The apostle John writes in his first letter, “[Jesus Christ] is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world” (I John 2:2). “Propitiation” isn’t a word we typically or regularly use, but when you know what “propitiation” means it is the best word a debtor can hear. A “propitiation” is a satisfactory payment which completely fulfills a debt. So when John says that Jesus Himself is the propitiation for our sins, he is saying, “Jesus completely settled your account of sin by fulfilling God’s expectations and dying to pay the debt which your failures deserve.”
Paul writes to the Corinthians, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them.” (2 Corinthians 5:19). God is reconciled to us, our account is settled, and sins are not charged to the account any longer because Jesus has come and taken away our sin.
But what about sin between one another? The debt of sin is there as well. It is real. If someone sins against you, there is an account to settle. They have sinned against you, it’s that simple. It is not as if we should pretend that what they have done is not a sin. In the verses preceding our text, Jesus says that if a brother sins against you, go to him…deal with it. We should never treat sin as if it weren’t a sin. That does the other person no good. God couldn’t ignore our sin, it needed to be reconciled. Thus, if we have been hurt and angered by someone else’s sin, we need not and ought not ignore it; but rather settle accounts in the same way that God settles with us, namely, through the forgiveness of Christ.
In Ephesians Paul instructs us in this way: “Therefore, putting away lying, Let each one of you speak truth with his neighbor, for we are members of one another. ‘Be angry, and do not sin’: do not let the sun go down on your wrath, nor give place to the devil…Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice. And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God in Christ forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:25-32).
If someone has a debt of sin toward you, or you have one toward someone else, settle those accounts! Don’t let them remain. Don’t keep the anger of a debt of sin overnight. Settle it before the sun goes down. You may not completely resolve every issue before the day is done, but get rid of the anger and have forgiveness toward one another and settle the account. Don’t lie to one another, don’t speak evil to or about one another, but tenderheartedly forgive one another using the same method of debt settlement as God uses with you.
Jesus, elsewhere in Matthew, says, “Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24). Reconcile first, then move on. Your brother who sins against you may not even know what he did. He may not even be aware of the sin or how much it hurt you, so go to him, speak to him in Christian love, and settle the account.
Should we instead pursue a road that does not settle the accounts in this way, we are setting ourselves up for greater sin. Accounts of sin between one another that are not settled only allow the hurt to grow. Hurt that is unresolved festers, hurt changes into bitterness, and then the desire for revenge, and revenge solves nothing. Don’t ignore the hurt that someone else’s sin has caused. Settle the account, even as God has settled yours.
The first servant in the parable was never going to be able to pay the 12 million dollars. Our hands are tainted with sin. No matter what we do apart from Christ, everything we do will be corrupted by sin. Thus, there is no way for us to pay our debt toward God. Once the debt has been forgiven through Christ Jesus, there is likewise no way to repay that tremendous gift. Luther once compared us to a beggar who has just been given a phenomenal gift by a king. The beggar reaches down into the bottom of his pocket and in the deepest corner of that pocket he finds a piece of lint and pulls it up, saying, “Here, let me give this to you.” The lint means nothing. It cannot in anyway repay what the king has given the slave, and neither can we in any way pay or return our debt to God.
The Psalmist says, “No man can by any means redeem his brother nor give to God a ransom for him for the redemption of their souls is costly” (Psalm 49:7). Peter says, “…know that you were not redeemed with corruptible things like gold or silver…but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot” (1 Peter 1:18-19).
As sinners with a huge debt before God, there is no way to pay! We are lost without Christ. What a gift we have received from Christ to have our debt paid in full!
Our debts toward others can, likewise, not really be repaid. God does speak of “fruits of repentance” (cf. Matthew 3:8). For example, if someone steals something they can repay what they stole, but beyond the restoration of physical property, there is really no way to pay for sin.
A student bully might say, “I’ve been really mean to you in the school hallway. I’ve talked behind your back, called you names, but I tell you what…I will buy a candy bar for you every day of the week from now until the end of the year.” Well, it might be kind of neat to get a candy bar every day, but does it really repay the debt? Does it heal the hurt? Absolutely not. Looking at it from the other direction, we might try to exact payment from someone because of their debt of sin by hurting them in some way. However, if I’m bitter toward someone, if I do get revenge upon someone who hurt me badly, does that make their debt go away? Do I somehow feel “repaid” if I have been equally angry, or mean, or harmful to them? Does that somehow give back what they have taken from me? Does my hurt go away because I’m angry at them? No. There is no way that my feeling miserable and sinning in bitterness is going to somehow get “payment” for what the other person has caused. There is no way others can ever pay you back for the hurt they have caused you, but that’s OK. You don’t need to have them repay when the debt is paid in full through the forgiveness of Christ. Instead, you can forgive them even as you have been forgiven. “Christ-like love toward one another covers a multitude of sin” (cf. 1 Peter 4:8) and in that way the “debt” is repaid by the same sacrifice that has paid your unpayble debt with God.
Finally, we have love to return. God’s love for us is so full and so free that He really does forgive and forget our sin. He tells us, “As far as the east is from the west, that’s how far I have removed your sins from you—they’re gone!” (cf: Psalm 103:12) God says, “I will forgive their iniquity and their sin I will remember no more” (Jeremiah 31:34).
God’s forgiveness is a free gift of His grace, but the king says in the parable: “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?’” [vv.32-33] Having experienced such great love from God, should we not offer love in return? Yes!
One of the petitions in the Lord’s Prayer is, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Commenting on this petition Jesus said, “If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14-15).
This is never a one-to-one scenario in which I forgive a sin…God forgives a sin…I forgive a sin…God forgives a sin…etc. Rather, it is a matter of spirit, of heart, of attitude. If God has so richly out of His undeserved love toward me forgiven my sins so that they are completely removed, then I, having received that tremendous gift, will also reflect a forgiving spirit toward others.
Martin Luther wrote: “We forgive because God forgave us, not vice-versa. God forgives sins out of grace for Christ’s sake. Our forgiving of others is the proof by which we testify that we have received the forgiveness of sins. There is no comparison between our forgiveness of others and God’s forgiveness of ourselves, even though we often act as if there is.” (What Luther Says #1586).
Forgiving as we have been forgiven is a matter of love not arithmetic. Peter had come to Jesus thinking “seven times is enough.” Jesus said, “No, Peter, you’re approaching the matter in the wrong way.” It’s not a matter of keeping track of wrongs because love doesn’t do that (cf: 1 Corinthians 13:5 NIV). Rather, my love is thankful for the love God has shone me, and then loves you in return. “Beloved, if God so loved us we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:11).
It’s easy to talk about forgiveness in the parable. It’s easy to see the truth in the story and say, “That’s absolutely right!” But its harder to return love in our lives. It is a struggle to forgive. It’s hard to show love when someone has hurt us so badly. It’s hard to move on and forget the sins of others, and we can’t forget by waking up one day with all of the memories gone. We have memories and the hurts take a long time to erase. However, the way in which we remember the hurt and the sin makes all the difference. Are we remembering so that we can seethe again in anger and re-ignite bitterness? Or are we remembering with sadness for the situation and a recognition of lessons learned while also praying for ourselves and all who were involved with the sin, or touched by it?
Return love toward one another and when those sinful emotions do rise up and it is hard to forgive, then seek forgiveness for that sin as well. And it does take time. We don’t forgive instantly and perfectly because we retain that sinful flesh that wants to lash out and hurt just as I have been hurt. But with the Gospel and time that the Holy Spirit uses to work in our hearts, the forgiving spirit grows and the hurt does begin to fade and you do move on.
Consider the sins of others toward you. See that they are so tiny in comparison to your sins against God. Then walk away forgiving others who sin against you, feeling free, feeling as if you’ve had a 12 million dollar debt forgiven and everybody else only owes you 20 or 10 or 5.
Living in the kingdom of God is a wonderful state in which to live. It’s living firmly and safely in the Father’s keeping. It’s living reconciled with the Father, redeemed, restored, forgiven (cf: TLH #32 st. 1) and at peace with God! What a wonderful way to be! Treasure it, and from that position of reconciliation, tenderheartedly forgive one another, just as God in Christ has so completely forgiven you. Amen.
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