18 Pentecost Proper A19
Rev. D. K. Schroeder
Matthew 18:21-35 Sermon
September 14, 2008
"Praise To The Lord, The Almighty, The King Of Creation"
"Chief Of Sinners Though I Be"
"Today Your Mercy Calls Us"
"Lift High The Cross"
MORE THAN JUST WORDS
TEXT: (vs.21-22) "Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, ‘Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?' Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.'"
Forgiving others. Now there's a controversial topic if I've ever heard one. I say this because of the vastly different ways people seem to practice forgiveness in their lives.
There really shouldn't be any misunderstanding or misinterpreting about it. Our text for today is rather clear and to the point; and in dealing with this subject, Jesus doesn't mince any words.
This topic flows very naturally out of our Gospel lesson for last Sunday, which dealt with what Christians are to do when a brother sins against them. Doing a little recap, the first step is to go to the person, and resolve it one-on-one. If that doesn't work, then you take two or three witnesses with you. And if that doesn't work, the last resort is to take the matter before the entire church. And if that doesn't work, then the person is regarded as an unbeliever who has rejected God and his Word. And that's it in a nutshell.
Our text for today picks up with a natural response to this. Simon Peter asks Jesus, "Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?" In other words, Peter wants to know when it's time to throw up his hands and say "enough's enough!" And I'm relatively sure that Peter thought he was being very generous by offering to forgive up to seven times.
So Jesus uses this opportunity to teach a valuable lesson. He replies by saying, "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times." Now it is a little unclear in the Greek whether Jesus says "seventy-seven times" or "seventy times seven." It doesn't matter really, because the actual number is unimportant. Jesus is using this to illustrate that forgiveness is to be something without an actual numerical limit. As many times as forgiveness is needed, it is to be given. The Christian must be willing and ready to forgive at all times, and not keep count of the actual number of times it has happened.
Jesus uses God's method of forgiveness as a comparison, and he does so with a story. And once again, the story is simple and straight-forward.
A servant owed the king a sum of money totaling ten thousand talents. Now it's a little unclear as to the actual value of a talent, but as near as we can figure, a talent was worth about ten thousand denarii.
To put this into better perspective, the king's salary was somewhere around 800-1,000 denarii. A decent salary for someone in the working force was somewhere around 300 denarii; and a good working wage was one denarius per day.
So now when you figure that this servant owed the king many times his own salary, you can see how impossible it would have been for this servant to pay off his debt in the span of many lifetimes, let alone one. In our terms of reference, he would have owed somewhere in the hundreds of millions of dollars, and maybe more.
So the servant goes to the king, begging for mercy. The king has pity on him, and forgives him the entirety of his huge debt.
But then as the story continues, the servant went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed him money. The Bible tells us that it was a hundred denarii. This would have been a substantial amount, somewhere in the neighborhood of four months pay.
But instead of having mercy on this other servant, the first servant whom the king forgave did not forgive as he was forgiven. And considering how news was spread on the grapevine, it didn't take long for the king to discover what had happened. He was upset that the servant he forgave didn't have the decency to forgive someone else. And so the king treated him in the same way. The old proverb "do unto others as you would have them do unto you" really applied in this case.
One thing stands out, and that is how much more God has to forgive when it comes to humanity's sin, than what we are asked to forgive when it comes to our forgiving someone else. If we use the money illustration, it's like comparing many millions of dollars with a few hundred dollars. God has forgiven so much more, and it was at the expense of his own Son Jesus.
Every Sunday in the Lord's Prayer we pray the words, "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." How often do we think about what those words mean when we're praying them?
If we are asking God to forgive us in the same way we forgive others, then we would have no peace of mind at all. If God were to turn around and practice our brand of forgiveness on us, then it would be fickle and conditional.
What we're praying for, is that God would give us the wisdom and strength to help us forgive others in the same way he has forgiven us. Even though we fail miserably at the attempt, yet God's standard is there before us. And we can't be found to excuse our imperfect brand of forgiveness by saying, "Well, I know I can't do it, so I won't even try." That doesn't cut it at all.
I think for us to better understand this concept, we need to take a look at how God forgives us. So let's kind of dissect this process, and see what happens.
God's law convicts us of our sin. We've broken all of the Ten Commandments many times over. And because of this, we know that we are not fit to enter heaven on our own merit. It's like that servant who owed the king the ten thousand talents; there's no way he could pay it himself. His only hope was to beg the king for mercy. And that's what we do before God's throne. We plead for God's mercy.
When we plead for God's mercy, we don't do it on our own behalf. We do it through faith in Jesus Christ our Saviour. We know that Jesus paid that high price for our sins; and through faith in him as our Saviour, the price he paid is ours. We stand forgiven before God in heaven, and we are assured of a heavenly eternity.
So we know what happens when we experience God's forgiveness. But how does he forgive? What does the Bible tell us about the way God forgives a sinner who comes before him, pleading for mercy for Jesus' sake? What is God's brand of forgiveness that we are supposed to emulate?
I think that Psalm 103 is a great place to start. David addresses God's forgiveness in many of the Psalms, but one of the best pictures is found in this particular Psalm. Reading now verses 10 and 12 from Psalm 103: "...he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities....as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us."
Think about that for a minute. What does the idea of "removing one's transgressions" actually mean? It's like having them surgically removed from you. It's like God has the scalpel of a gifted surgeon. He doesn't mask the symptoms, he doesn't try to hide it with some sort of pain killing drug, and he doesn't just stick a band-aid over the top of it and call it good. He gets in there and actually removes the whole thing. It is completely gone forever.
And then he even goes further in explaining how far that sin of ours has been removed from us. "As far as the east is from the west," are the words used to describe this. That sin has been sent in a direction completely opposite of the way we are going, never to haunt us again. Therefore we never have to worry about being treated as our sins deserve, or being repaid according to our iniquities. Those sins are forever gone, just as if they hadn't been there in the first place. And that alone is of great comfort.
The next lesson in God's forgiveness is recorded for us by the prophet Jeremiah. In chapter 31 verses 33-34 we read the following: "...I will be their God, and they will be my people.... For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more."
Now think about this for a minute. Not only does God promise to forgive the wickedness of sin, but he even goes one step further. He says that he won't remember those sins any more. God promises that those sins he's not only removed but sent away in a completely opposite direction will never come back to haunt us. They're forever gone and will not be flung back in our faces. They will never be mentioned again.
I've had people try to convince me that God doesn't actually forget sin; rather he simply doesn't treat us as our sins deserve. This "remember our sins no more" doesn't actually mean that God won't remember our sins, it's just that he won't bring them up and charge us with them on judgment day.
If this were to be the case, then we've ripped the heart right out of the Gospel. To somehow think that God hangs on to our sins and "puts them on the back burner" so-to-speak means that forgiveness hasn't been complete. We'd be living in constant fear that God would somehow resurrect these old sins and confront us with them.
When God says that he "remembers our sin no more," this doesn't mean that God has developed some sort of divine Alzheimer's where he loses track of things. God is all powerful (omnipotent), all knowing (omniscient), and present everywhere (omnipresent). God could certainly remember all our sins if he wanted to. He's seen them all, he knows them all, and he's been there.
But God promises that he will "remember them no more," and remove them "as far as the east is from the west." This is something he does because he chooses to do so. It's something he promises he will do. And that is a promise we can count on.
When we bring this down to the level of how we forgive others, it is readily apparent that we have a task of mammoth proportions on our hands. How in the world can we even come close to forgiving others in the same way that God does? Can we put another's sins so far away from them that we don't keep associating the sin with the sinner? Can we ever hope to not remember another person's sins?
Here's where we need to see how Christians differ from the rest of the outside world. In the outside world, we will have to bear the consequence of sin. For example, if we sin by living a promiscuous lifestyle and we contract some sort of venereal disease because of it, we can be forgiven of the sin. However being sorry for our sin and repenting of it won't cure the venereal disease. Being sorry and repenting of committing murder won't keep us out of the electric chair. That's the way the world works.
But things are different amongst Christians. Last week we discussed how we are to bring an erring brother or sister back from their sin. We are to act on their behalf for their own good. We act out of love for them.
Now this week we learn how we are to practice forgiveness toward someone who sins. We are to forgive them in the same way God has forgiven us. "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." Those are very important words indeed.
At the beginning I mentioned that the subject of forgiving others is a very controversial topic, because of the different ways people practice it.
In the heat of an argument, someone will say to someone else, "I remember what you did 20 years ago," and then completely rehash something that should have been forgiven and forgotten long ago.
Or you'll hear someone say, "I don't know if I can forgive him or her for what they did." Or they might further qualify that by saying, "Okay, I'll forgive them, but I'll never forget what they did."
People, and that includes many upstanding Christian people will find excuses and reasons to hang on to the old sins of others. They will attempt to find justification in keeping those old sins alive in their minds, even to the point of attempting to find loopholes in the Bible so they can harbor an old grudge or in some way keep an old wound from healing.
Do you see what a tragedy it would be if God were to forgive our sins in the same way we've forgiven others? Can you see how often we ourselves have sinned in the way we have practiced our own imperfect brand of forgiveness?
The attitude in Christian world is far different than the attitude of the secular world. The Christian has come to God in faith, knowing that their sin has been removed, cast away, and remembered no more because of Jesus Christ and what he did out of love for us. The Christian has experienced this love and forgiveness of God first-hand, and now the Christian is expected to live this out in their lives. This is what Jesus is telling us in our Gospel lesson for today.
This morning, I'd like to close with a few verses of an old hymn which presents a beautiful picture of God's love and forgiveness. We'll sing this hymn in a few minutes, but I'd like you to first meditate on the words.
Today your mercy calls us to wash away our sin; however great our trespass, whatever we have been; however long from mercy, our hearts have turned away, your precious blood can wash us, and make us clean today.
Today your gate is open, and all who enter in, shall find a Father's welcome, and pardon for their sin; the past shall be forgotten ,a present joy be given; a future grace be promised, a glorious crown in heaven.
Today our Father calls us, his Holy Spirit waits; his blessed angels gather around the heavenly gates. No question will be asked us how often we have come; although we oft have wandered, it is our Father's home.
May God give us the strength and purpose to forgive others as he has so graciously forgiven us, for Jesus' sake.