Matthew 18:21-35 (Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost—Series A)
Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield, CT
September 13, 2020
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Our text is the Gospel lesson recorded in Matthew 18:
21Then Peter came up and said to Him, “How often will my brother sin against me and I will forgive him? Up to seven times?” 22Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you up to seven times, but up to seventy-seven times. 23Because of this, the reign of heaven may be compared to a man, a king, who wished to settle accounts with his servants. 24When he began to settle accounts one debtor was brought to him owing a thousand talents. 25But not being able to pay, the master ordered him to be sold along with his wife and children and everything he had, and repayment to be made. 26Therefore, the servant, upon falling down, did obeisance to him, saying, ‘Be patient with me and I will pay back everything to you!’ 27So the master of that servant had compassion and released him and forgave the debt. 28Now that servant, upon going out, found one of his fellow servants who owed him one hundred denarii, and seizing him, began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay back what you owe!’ 29Then his follow servant, upon falling down, begged him, saying, ‘Be patient with me and I will repay you.’ 30But he did not want to, and he went away and threw him into prison until he should pay what he owed. 31So when his fellow servants saw these things, they became greatly distressed and they went and reported to their master all the things that had happened. 32Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘O wicked servant! All that debt I forgave you because you begged me. 33Was it not necessary that you also should show mercy to your fellow servant as I also showed mercy to you?’ 34And being angry, his master delivered him to the jailers until he should repay all the debt. 35So also my Father in heaven will do to you, if you do not forgive each his brother from your hearts.
NASCAR fans, maybe you remember this. As a hundred thousand fans watched, Richard Petty ended his 45-race losing streak and picked up stockcar racing’s biggest purse at the time–$73,500. It all happened at the Daytona 500. Petty’s win, however, was a complete surprise. Going into the last lap, he was running 30 seconds behind the two leaders. All at once the car in second place tried to pass the No. 1 man on the final stretch. This caused the first car to drift inside and force the challenger onto the infield grass, and slightly out of control. What happened next was incredible. The offended driver pulled his car back onto the track, caught up with the leader, and forced him into the outside wall. Both vehicles came to a screeching halt. The two drivers jumped out and quickly got into an old-fashioned slugging match. In the meantime, third-place Petty cruised by for the win.
In our world, retaliation and getting even is the name of the game. You know, “Don’t get mad, get even.” It is as if everything is tit for tat these days. You insult me; I insult you back. I offend you; you retaliate and offend me. A grudging sort of spirit afflicts humankind by nature. Keep score. Do unto others before they do it to you! But Jesus completely contradicts the world’s way of operating. He changes the entire way His disciples live in the world as He says to us, “Make forgiveness your goal.”
Already in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus taught His disciples, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’But I say to you, do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matt. 5:38–39 ESV). In place of a grudging spirit of quick revenge, Jesus calls His disciples to lives of reckless generosity. His words are means to reform our instincts, our quick reactions, and our unwillingness to sacrifice. If, as Jesus’ disciples, we are going to err, let it be on the side of not retaliating. And more than that, it is not simply refusing to seek revenge, but also to forgive. “Make forgiveness your goal.”
To teach us this, Jesus spoke the parable in our text. The king had compassion for the hopelessly indebted servant. That forgiven servant then refused to show mercy to his fellow servant who had far less debt. The king angrily retracted his forgiveness and punished the unforgiving servant. What, then, does this story mean for us as Jesus’ disciples?
To begin with, we are to identify with the first servant, the one with the astronomical debt. To give it some context, this servant would have had to work 60 million days to pay off his debt. No one could possibly repay that staggering amount. And that is the point of comparison. Our debt of sin is impossible to repay. Not only does it include the things we have done wrong according to the Ten Commandments, it also includes the good we should have done and failed to do. Did you notice that lonely person who has been struggling through the pandemic? You know, that neighbor next door that you never checked on? You had an opportunity to offer someone an encouraging word, but you stayed silent. You could have helped someone in need, but you turned your back and took care of yourself instead.
There is no way that you and I could ever pay for our sins and our sinfulness. The debt, like that of the first servant in Jesus’ parable, is simply too high. It’s too much. All of our good intentions certainly won’t suffice. Every, “Well, I try,” will not remove our guilt. Along with David, we pray the words of Psalm 51, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment” (Psa. 51:3–4 ESV). We stand rightly condemned to death and hell under the justice of God.
But God in His mercy chose to forgive our debt of sin. He said that you and I would not have to pay for our sins. But His justice demands payment. So Jesus, the One-of-a-Kind Son of God, took on human flesh and paid it all for you and me. “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed” (1 Pet. 2:24 ESV). As we heard in Psalm 32, the Lord has forgiven our iniquity, our sin, for the sake of Jesus. Our debt is paid. The Absolution declares it and applies the Gospel personally to you, “Almighty God in His mercy has given His Son to die for you and for His sake forgives you all your sins. As a called and ordained servant of Christ and by His authority, I therefore forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.” God’s Word does what it promises—you are forgiven because of the saving work of Jesus Christ in His death and resurrection. As a result, we praise His gift of grace and mercy, “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered!Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit!” (Psa. 32:1–2 ESV). It is when you experience the blessing and joy of God’s forgiveness in Christ that forgiving others can be your aim and goal as a disciple.
The forgiveness that we extend to other people is really an imitating of God’s forgiveness. As Jesus said, “we forgive from the heart.” This doesn’t mean that we can always forget the offense. The memory of it may still disturb us at times. But to forgive from the heart does mean that we will not allow the evil which was done to separate us from the other person. Forgiveness means that we will no longer dwell on the incident or talk to others about it. We will not bring the matter up and use it against the other person. This is done by the power of the Holy Spirit who is working through the Gospel of our own forgiveness so that we may forgive as God in Christ forgives. Ephesians 4:32, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Eph. 4:32 ESV).
The Lord’s forgiveness is a reckless forgiveness demonstrating His great mercy and grace toward sinners. Forgiveness is available to everyone because Jesus died for everyone. God doesn’t limit His mercy and grace in the forgiveness of Christ to this person or that person and neither do Jesus’ disciples. In His parable, the servant set a limit. “Now that servant, upon going out, found one of his fellow servants who owed him one hundred denarii, and seizing him, began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay back what you owe!’ Then his follow servant, upon falling down, begged him, saying, ‘Be patient with me and I will repay you.’ But he did not want to.” Peter wanted to set a limit: “How often will my brother sin against me and I will forgive him? Up to seven times?” At times, we have also limited our forgiveness out of a spirit of vengeance. But if we are to imitate the forgiveness of God in Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit we cannot permit that spirit to arise within us. We must resist the devil and his temptation to retaliate and to withhold forgiveness.
This is how you and I, as disciples, reflect God’s love. The unforgiving servant? He reflected only hate and vengeance. Let us learn what Jesus teaches us—refusal to forgive causes distress among Christians and, in the end, makes a mockery of God’s forgiveness in Jesus. And we do not want to hear the Lord speak to us and say: “O wicked servant! All that debt I forgave you because you begged me. Was it not necessary that you also should show mercy to your fellow servant as I also showed mercy to you?”
You and I as baptized disciples of Christ are called to love others with the very same reckless love and mercy that our Lord has shown to us. “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.. . . God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:6, 8 ESV). By the power of the Spirit, we are able to do the same. As God loved us sinners so much that Jesus paid our debt of sin on the cross with His death, we are empowered by the same Gospel of forgiveness to reflect God’s love to the meanest and the worst. If someone attacks you on Facebook, forgive. Don’t fight back with more hate-filled words. Disagree. Be fine with that. Freely forgive those who sin against you in word and deed. The worst that can be done to you and me is still only a pinprick compared to what we have done to God. So let us forgive in the name of Jesus, by the working of the Spirit, and so produce love rather than retaliation, mercy instead of hurt, and peace rather than division.
By the power and grace of the Holy Spirit, “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Col. 3:12–13 ESV). Amen.
 “For Promises of Forgiveness,” Ambassadors of Reconciliation.