Twenty-second Sunday after Trinity

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Peter wants to know, “How many times shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” At this question, the ears of every Christian perk up, because the rest of us also want to know, “At what point am I allowed to cut my brother off? When does forgiveness rut out? When can I be justified in saying to my brother, ‘You’ve crossed the line and there is no way back?’” Seven seems like a very generous number—merciful, yet firm—but Jesus answers, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven” (Mt 18:22). I like to imagine uneducated Peter trying to tally this up on his fingers. But seventy times seventy is not meant to be counted. Jesus is not telling us where to find the limit on forgiveness; he is telling us that there is no limit.
To illustrate this Jesus tells a parable using astronomical figures. A man owes his Lord a debt of 10,000 talents. The word “debt” here is the same word we find in the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” You are this man, and this is your debt of sin. It’s incalculable. A talent was a man’s weight in gold. Now multiply that by 10,000. (By the way, the Greek word for 10,000 is myriad, which could easily be translated as “infinity.”) The Psalmist says, “Who can know his errors?” Indeed, is it even possible to calculate our debt of sin? If the first sin earns each of us an eternity in hell, what have we justly deserved by a lifetime of sins?
But even greater than our debt is the mercy of God. “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants” (Mt 18:23). Our Lord does not want this vast debt hanging over our heads. He desires to settle accounts now. It’s actually an act of mercy that God refuses our request for more time. We say, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything” (Mt 18:26). But more time would not help. The interest is piling up faster than we could ever pay. We would only dig a deeper hole, and our Lord does not want to drag this out any longer. We are settling accounts now, at this moment. And how does God settle accounts? “For the sake of my Son, Jesus Christ, I declare unto you the forgiveness of all your sins.” God does not say, “Don’t worry about your debt.” He doesn’t say, “It’s nothing.” He says, “Your very real debt is forgiven.” Real forgiveness is the only solution for real sin, and God gives it freely, with no conditions, no payment plans, no promises of good behavior. He simply forgives for the sake of Christ and his cross.
The first half of Jesus’ parable teaches us about the unfathomable mercy of God. But the second half is a warning to those who might rejects God’s mercy. The man who had been forgiven an infinite debt went out and began choking a fellow servant who owed him one-hundred silver coins. Without doubt, you are the man who was forgiven everything. You want to be this man, who is the undeserving recipient of God’s forgiveness. But you do not want to be the man who then goes out and refuses to forgive his neighbor.
Has your neighbor sinned against you? We should consider that sometimes we are offended by sins against us that are not sins at all. “He stole my parking space! She sat in my pew!” Does that space actually belong to you? “Well, no, but I’ve been using it for years.” And then, when the actions of our neighbor are truly hurtful, we are often quick to assign motive: “Not only did she hurt me, she did it intentionally.” It is true that many of the debts we feel are owed to us can be exaggerated or even imagined, but in Jesus’ parable, the man is given the benefit of the doubt. His fellow servant owes him an actual sum. One-hundred silver coins is not nothing. It’s a legitimate debt. This is not a perceived slight or an invented sin. His neighbor really and truly has sinned against him.
How does the man respond? He starts out by following the example of his Lord. He goes out and finds his fellow servant who owed him the debt. This is in keeping with Christ’s command given immediately before this parable, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone” (Mt 18:15). When a fellow Christian has sinned against you, when he owes you a debt, Jesus does not tell you to ignore it or pretend it doesn’t exist. It’s a real debt—one hundred silver coins. Go to your brother and tell him what he owes. This is the example that the Lord sets at the beginning of the parable. He doesn’t want compounding debts and festering sin and broken relationships among his servants. He desires to settle accounts immediately. This is the desire that compelled Jesus to his cross. God wants to settle accounts.
But what about you? When your brother sins against you, what do you do? Post about it on Facebook? Replay the conversation over and over in your mind? Go tell anyone who will listen—except for the one who wronged you? Or do you follow the words of Jesus, “Go and tell your brother his fault, between you and him alone” (Mt 18:21). At least the man in the parable got this right. He went out and found his fellow servant and said to him, “Pay what you owe!” So far so good. But what he does next completely abandons the merciful example of his master.
Unlike our Lord, who earnestly desires to be merciful to wicked sinners, this servant would rather leave the debt hanging. He wants to collect compound interest on what he is owed. He’s content to let the sin against him fester unresolved. “You want time? I’ll give you time. Rot in prison until you’ve repaid every penny.” The fellow members of God’s kingdom who saw this happen were greatly distressed. How could a man who had been forgiven everything turn around and refuse forgiveness to fellow Christian? Who would do such a thing? I’ll tell you who would: you would; I would. Look hard at this unforgiving servant and admit the truth of your debt: “But for the grace of God, there go I.” At least the wicked servant went out and found his fellow servant and confronted him with the debt. Sometimes we have refused to do even that.
Jesus says, “He who is forgiven little, loves little” (Lk 7:47). From this we can only conclude that the unforgiving servant, who could not extend the love and forgiveness of Christ to his neighbor, had not been forgiven much. But wait a minute—his master had forgiven him an astronomical debt. Yes, it’s true. And this is true of every sinner who has ever lived. The blood of Christ was poured out for all the sins of all the world. Forgiveness is given freely to all. But all will not believe. The wicked servant could not and would not hear the message of the gospel. Faith takes our Lord at his word when he says, “Your sins are forgiven you!” But this man would not believe it. In his heart he remained unforgiven, and, as a result, he could spare no love for his neighbor. How could he afford to be forgiving small debts when he owed a great debt himself?
Here we see that unforgiveness is the ultimate expression of unbelief. This is a warning to Christians. If a man cannot forgive, it is because he is refusing to believe how much God has already forgiven him. On the other hand, anyone who looks into the mirror of God’s law and is horrified at the vast sum of his debt, anyone who then cries out for mercy receives better news than could ever be imagined. We asked God to give us more time. We asked for patience while we set up a payment plan. He responded in mercy beyond human comprehension: “I desire to settle all accounts now. For the sake of my Son, I forgive you everything.” And when God speaks, it is done. His pronouncement can never be earned or repaid, it can only be believed. And having heard and received this gift by faith, our Lord has made you able to forgive your debtors even as you have been forgiven. In the same way that unforgiveness is the expression of unbelief, so extending forgiveness to those who have sinned against you is an expression of faith. Christ has forgiven you freely. And now, you can’t help but find your fellow Christian and give away that same forgiveness. Those who are forgiven much love much. Amen.
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