Unlimited Forgiveness (a sermon on Matthew 18:21-35)

We’ve been getting some lessons in honesty, reconciliation and forgiveness from Jesus in the past few weeks. Last Sunday’s gospel, immediately before this one, told us that if we have something against a brother or sister in Christ, instead of telling the world about it we should go to them quietly, raise the issue and work to resolve it. If the other person doesn’t respond positively, there’s a process Jesus tells us to follow – you can read it all in last week’s gospel.

Today’s gospel follows hard on the heels of last week’s; Peter asks Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” (v.21). Probably what’s in view here is a situation where we’ve gone through the process Jesus outlined in last week’s story; we’ve confronted our sister or brother, they’ve admitted their guilt and asked our forgiveness. What then?

Before we dive into the story in detail I want to get a couple of definitions out of the way. First, who’s in view here? Our NRSV pew bibles say, ‘Another member of the church’; the Greek says ‘my brother’, but the NRSV wants to avoid gender-specific language like ‘brother’ and ‘he’. Unfortunately, it opts for an institutional metaphor rather than a family one; it would have done better to say “If my brother or sister sins against me”. Early Christians called each other ‘brother’ or ‘sister’ and treated the disciple community as a family. It’s a member of that family who is in view here.

The second item of definition is what we mean by the word ‘Forgive’. So many times I hear people say, “I just can’t forgive him for what he did to me”. When I start to ask them questions about what they mean by that, what it boils down to is this: “I can’t make the pain go away”. They’ve tried, and they think they’ve done it, but the next day they think about what was done to them and the pain and anger and resentment come bubbling back.

But this isn’t what Jesus is talking about. In the Bible, forgiveness is not about our emotions. We think it is, because in verse 35 Jesus tells us we have to forgive our sister or brother ‘from our heart’. Nowadays ‘the heart’ is a metaphor for the emotions, but that wasn’t the case in Bible times. When the Bible talks about the emotions it talks about the ‘bowels’; in the King James Version the word ‘compassion’ is sometimes translated as ‘having bowels of mercy for someone’. The ‘heart’ is often a metaphor for the choices, the will – the decisions we make about how we are going to act in our lives.

Forgiveness is not first of all about healing. Forgiveness is a decision not to take revenge on the other person for what they’ve done to us, but to act in a loving way toward them, whether we feel like it or not. This is not an act of hypocrisy, because we aren’t pretending to like them. It’s an act of obedience to Jesus.

What does it look like? Well, Paul spells it out for us in Romans: “Do not repay anyone evil for evil…If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink” (Romans 12:17, 20). This is what forgiveness is; it’s a decision not to take revenge but to continue to act in a loving and caring way toward the one who has hurt us – to be a blessing to them, and not a curse – whether we feel like it or not.

So Peter’s question is “How many times should I forgive? As many as seven?” I’m sure he thought he was being very generous. After all, the most common human response to attack is escalation. “You burn my house down, and I’ll burn your village down in response”; each party resolves to hit back so hard that the other party will not be able to hit them again. But over and over again, the other party comes back with an even more devastating response, which of course requires an even more devastating response, and so on, and so on.

Give Peter credit – he was suggesting a reversal of this policy. My brother or sister sins against me, we’ve gone through the process outlined in the previous verses, the offender has repented and asked for forgiveness, and I’ve given it to them. But then a week later, they do the same thing. So I grit my teeth, confront them with it again, they readily admit their guilt and say, “You’re right, I’m sorry, and I’m determined never to do it again, please forgive me”. So we grant them the requested forgiveness, and then a couple of days later they do it again. Now we’ve reached the seventh time and the anger in our soul is rising to boiling point. Surely seven times is enough; any reasonable person would agree.

Jesus’ response to Peter is to tell the parable of the unforgiving slave. ‘Slaves’ in those days often had a lot of responsibility and it is quite possible, for instance, that the minister of finance of a country would in fact be a king’s slave. Somehow this slave has gotten himself into enormous debt to his master the king. Ten thousand talents was a lot of money. A talent was more than fifteen year’s wages for a day labourer; we are talking about a sum of money that would have taken a day labourer 150,000 years to pay off. It was approximately a thousand times the annual tax revenue of the provinces of Judea, Samaria, Galilee and Idumaea put together. Jesus is trying to paint a true picture of the position in which you and I stand before the King of all the universe, the creator of all.

Let’s think about this for a minute. The great commandment is to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, but every day, in many different ways, I break it: I make myself the centre of my universe, and I see others as simply supporting characters in my story. In other words, I make myself the idol that I worship, rather than worshipping the one true God. I love other idols too – money and the things it can buy, my own selfish ease, the good opinion of others. And I don’t love my neighbour as myself; I would far rather live an easy life and come home to rest and relaxation than put myself out to help someone else. I live in luxury while the majority of the world lives in grinding poverty. I walk past beggars on the street on a regular basis, and not only do I not give them a handout, but I don’t take the time to find better and more effective ways of helping them either.

Or think of what Jesus has to say in the Sermon on the Mount. I regularly commit spiritual murder against my brother or sister by nursing anger and hatred against them. I commit adultery by looking upon women with lust on a regular basis. I’m not always conscientious about keeping my word. I don’t reach out and love my enemies. And so on, and so on. It’s overwhelming, and paralyzing, to think of the number of times, in an ordinary day, in which I sin.

Except that it isn’t. Most of the time I don’t even think about it. I just take it for granted that God will forgive me. And, according to the parable, that’s exactly what happens. “And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt” (v. 27). Did you notice, by the way, that the master didn’t give the slave what he asked for. The slave begged “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything”. In other words, he asked for more time to pay off the debt.

Think about this for a minute. How could the slave possibly repay a debt the value of 150,000 years wages for a labourer? It’s a ridiculous idea, and the master knew it. So instead of answering his prayer, the master did what the slave had not asked – he forgave him the whole debt.

What does this mean for us today? So often, we’re so in love with the illusion of our own respectability that we just can’t contemplate putting ourselves into the position where we’re debtors to grace forever. And so, when we come to God and ask for his forgiveness, I wonder if what we’re really asking is, “Lord, please give me more time, and I really, really will change!”

Except that it doesn’t work. How many times have I told God one day in my prayers that I repent of a particular sin, only to go back the next day and do the very same thing again, with my eyes wide open, knowing exactly what I’m doing? We humans have an incredible capacity to mess things up! The reality is that change is very hard, almost as hard as paying off a ten thousand talent debt. Yes, change is possible by the help of the Holy Spirit – but it isn’t going to be finished by the time I kick the bucket!

But this is the wonder of the Christian gospel: God doesn’t answer my prayer! He doesn’t give me more time to pay off the debt, because he knows that for the rest of my life I will never be able to pay it all off. Some of it, yes, but not all of it. And so I ask God to forgive me, over and over and over again.

And I expect him to do it. I can never remember, in all my life, praying to God a prayer like this: “God, I think I’ve probably used up all my get out of jail free cards on this one. If you forgive me again, you’re just going to be reinforcing my bad behaviour. If I were you, I wouldn’t forgive this time”. I have never prayed a prayer like that! Have you? No – every day, up to seventy times seven and beyond, I ask God to forgive me – and I expect he will. And given the fact that he continues to give me the gift of his presence, his love, and his help on a daily basis, that prayer seems to have been answered. That’s what ‘grace’ means: love that we don’t deserve, and that we don’t have to deserve – God just showers it on us as a free gift, because it’s his nature to do that. Grace is at the heart of the Christian gospel.

Very well – what does that mean for how we treat one another? The story goes on to deal with a situation where the same slave, who had been forgiven such an enormous sum, refused to forgive a paltry little debt owed him by a fellow-slave. A hundred denarii was a tiny sum in comparison to the ten thousand talents; it was still substantial, about three or four months’ wages, but nothing in comparison to the astronomical debt the first slave had been forgiven.

Jesus’ point is obvious. ‘Yes, you certainly have a case against your brother or sister; the offences they have committed against you are real. However, when you stack that list up against the list of offences you have committed – and continue to commit – against God every day, it’s not hard to see which list is longer”.

Why would the slave refuse to forgive in this way, after he himself had been forgiven so much? I suspect that he did what I do so often – he kept these two items in two hermetically sealed compartments in his soul. Compartment number one reads: “God has forgiven me more than I can possibly imagine, and he continues to forgive me day by day. I must never forget that”. Compartment number two reads, “That SOB sitting two pews in front of me is going out of his way to hurt me. He does it on a regular basis. It’s time for him to get what he deserves!”

Whoa! Wait a minute! “What he deserves?” If we’re going to move back into the realm of what people deserve, we’ve left the gospel behind, because the gospel tells us that God doesn’t give us what we deserve – he gives us what we need. If we want to move back into the realm of what we deserve, we’ve moved back from the gospel to the law. And that has terrifying implications for us.

What are the consequences of not forgiving? Look at what Jesus says in verses 34-35:

“And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart”.

Remember, we’re not talking about the healing of hurts here; we’re not talking about feeling good toward the offender. We’re talking about Jesus’ command to love our enemies in action, to be a blessing to them. Jesus doesn’t specify what form the love should take in a given situation. He doesn’t say, for instance, that a woman being abused by her husband should remain in a situation where her life and safety are in danger. What he does say is that revenge is not an option. ‘An eye for an eye’ is not an option. Love may be a struggle, but it is the command of Jesus.

I want to say that if you struggle with this, you probably don’t have anything to worry about. God knows that the person who says “I know I should forgive, and I’m doing my best, but there are days when I find it very hard” is in a very different spiritual position from the person who says “That SOB has it coming to him; he knew exactly what he was doing to me, and I will never, ever forgive him, no matter what the Gospel says. I want revenge, and it’s my right”. The first person is trying hard to do what Jesus commands, and often failing. The second person is refusing even to try. Those are two entirely different attitudes.

Remember the Lord’s Prayer? “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”. It is only because of God’s forgiveness that I can have any hope of eternal life. Day by day I’m in debt to God’s amazing grace. May God help all of us to love others as Jesus loved us, and to forgive not just seven times, but seventy times seven, just as we expect God to forgive us.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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