Matthew 18:21-35; The Fifth Petition (Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost/Proper 19)
“Do I Really Have to Forgive?”
Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield, CT
September 17, 2017
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Our text is this morning is the Gospel Lesson along with the Fifth Petition of the Lord’s Prayer and its explanation:
And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. What does this mean? We pray in this petition that our Father in heaven would not look at our sins, or deny our prayer because of them. We are neither worthy of the things for which we pray, nor have we deserved them, but we ask that He would give them all to us by grace, for we daily sin much and surely deserve nothing but punishment. So we too will sincerely forgive and gladly do good to those who sin against us.
It’s what every Christian is called by God to do. It’s not easy. It’s not always what we want to do. It often stands in complete opposition to our human nature. Yet, we are called to forgive those who sin against us.
If you or I were Joseph in the Old Testament Reading, would we have been willing to forgive our brothers? They treated Joseph like dirt. They made fun of his dreams and became so jealous of their father’s love toward him that they threw Joseph into a pit and sold him (their own brother!) into slavery. After all the evil which they admitted that they had done to him, Joseph forgave his brothers, comforted them, and spoke kindly to them. What a wonderful example Joseph becomes for us! But can you and I live up to that example?
The example we are really good at following is the example of the unforgiving servant in Jesus’ parable this morning. “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. 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. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. 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.’ So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt.” (Matt. 18:23-30 ESV).
You and I certainly want God’s forgiveness, and even that of other people whom we hurt, but we are often very unwilling to forgive others who have wronged us. We harbor hatred in our hearts. Anger grows and festers inside us. Sometimes the hurt we have suffered is too deep and painful. How could we ever forgive? Perhaps we simply don’t want to forgive; we want revenge. Wouldn’t it feel good to take those people who hurt us out back behind the proverbial woodshed and give them a good pounding? Make them really pay for their sins; teach them a lesson that they will never forget! After all, it’s what they deserve, right? They sinned against us. They hurt us. They should be put in their place.
As we don’t want to forgive those who sin against us, is God any different? “Daily we sin much and surely deserve nothing but punishment.” You and I confessed this just a short while ago. “We are by nature sinful and unclean. We have sinned against [God] in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone. We have not loved [God] with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We justly deserve [God’s] present and eternal punishment.” It would be completely fair of God not to want to forgive us, wouldn’t it? Why should God treat us any differently than the way we treat people who hurt us by what they say and do? Why should we expect from Him what we ourselves aren’t willing to give to others who do similar things to us?
Because God isn’t like us. You and I are not worthy of forgiveness. We don’t deserve it, nor have we done anything to earn it. We just keep on racking up a huge debt by sinning day in and day out. Yet, God forgives sinners this humongous debt. Why?
One of the most precious attributes of God that tell us who He is is “gracious.” God shows undeserved kindness to sinners. We read in Exodus 34, “Yahweh, Yahweh, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion, and sin” (Exodus 34:6-7a). God is gracious to sinners and chooses not to charge people with their sins. How can a just and holy God do this?, He charged our sins to His Son, Jesus Christ.
God’s justice demands that our sins should be punished and so He doesn’t ignore our sins. However, instead of you and I receiving the punishment, God, in His mercy and out of pure grace, punished His One-of-a-kind Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus died our death and suffered hell for us on the cross. Jesus shed His blood in our place so that we could have God’s forgiveness. Forgiveness is God’s gift to us through faith in Jesus Christ, our Savior, who earned it for us with His suffering, death, and resurrection. Because of the saving work of Jesus, God declares you and me “not guilty” of sin. God forgives us solely out of His gracious favor toward us for the sake of Jesus Christ. It is His free gift to us.
This is the reason why we are able to pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses.” When we pray these words, we ask God not to regard our sins and hold us to what we daily deserve. We pray that He would deal graciously with us and forgive us, as He has promised for the sake of Christ.
It is wondrous and amazing how God had chosen to deal with us sinners! God does not treat us as our sins deserve. He forgives us for the sake of Jesus who died for our sins. As a result of the free forgiveness we have received, so we are also empowered by the Holy Spirit to sincerely forgive and gladly do good to those who sin against us.
“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Martin Luther wrote in the Large Catechism, “There is here attached a necessary, yet comforting addition: ‘As we forgive.’ He has promised that we shall be sure that everything is forgiven and pardoned, in the way that we also forgive our neighbor. Just as we daily sin much against God, and yet He forgives everything through grace, so we, too, must ever forgive our neighbor who does us injury, violence, and wrong, shows malice toward us, and so on. If, therefore, you do not forgive, then do not think that God forgives you [Matthew 18:23–25]. But if you forgive, you have this comfort and assurance, that you are forgiven in heaven. This is not because of your forgiving. For God forgives freely and without condition, out of pure grace, because He has so promised, as the Gospel teaches. But God says this in order that He may establish forgiveness as our confirmation and assurance, as a sign alongside of the promise, which agrees with this prayer in Luke 6:37, ‘Forgive, and you will be forgiven.’ Therefore, Christ also repeats it soon after the Lord’s Prayer, and says in Matthew 6:14, ‘For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.’”
When someone sins against us, we stand before them representing our God and Savior. Part of loving our neighbors as ourselves, part of loving one another as Christ has loved us, is being gracious to them in the same way God is gracious to you and me. Forgiveness isn’t something we have earned or deserved. It’s the grace of God coming to us in Christ and releasing us from the guilt and the punishment of our sin. When we go to the person who has sinned against us, we have the God-given opportunity to stand there in His name and to declare His grace in the forgiveness of sins to that individual by saying, “As God through Christ has forgiven both you and me, I also forgive you your sins against me.”
Through God’s grace in Christ at work in us by the power of the Holy Spirit, we can follow the example of Joseph who freely, out of grace, forgave his brothers, and not act like the unforgiving, unmerciful servant in Jesus’ parable. In the power of the Gospel, we are able to extend the mercy, grace, and love of God in Christ freely, even to those who have hurt us deeply. We’ve hurt God deeply with our sins, yet purely out of gracious love He forgives us in Christ Jesus. So you and I are able, purely out of God’s gracious love which He first gave to us, enables us to forgive our brothers and sisters from the heart.
It is said that not far from New York City is a cemetery with a grave that has just one word on the headstone, “FORGIVEN.” There is nothing else—no name, no date of birth, no date of death, no word of praise for the departed—just the one word, “FORGIVEN.” And yet what greater word could possibly be written above our last resting place? But to the word “FORGIVEN” we would want to add just one other, “FORGIVING.” “Forgiven” and “forgiving” belong together, just as Jesus placed them together when He taught us to pray “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Amen.
 Paul Timothy McCain, ed., Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2005), 419–420.