17th Sunday after Pentecost
Rev. D. K. Schroeder
Matthew 18:21-35 Sermon
September 11, 2005
Hymns (from the Service Book and Hymnal):
408 "Praise To The Lord, The Almighty, The King Of Creation"
367 "With Broken Heart And Contrite Sigh"
551 "Stand Up, Stand Up For Jesus"
195 "On Our Way Rejoicing"
LEST WE FORGET
TEXT (vs. 21-22): “Then Peter came up and said to [Jesus], ‘Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.’”
I’d like to recount an incident that happened some years back in a devout Christian family. The husband and wife were in church every Sunday, and they made sure that their children, two boys and two girls, received a proper Christian upbringing. Things went along pretty well, until the unthinkable happened. Their oldest girl became pregnant out of wedlock. And as you can about imagine, her mother and father were devastated.
After that, there was much that transpired. Their oldest daughter married the baby’s father. And the rest of the children, who before this time had been treated with a great deal of trust, were now constantly under suspicion, and quite restricted in their activities—especially the youngest daughter.
Well, six years went by; and during that time, this girl’s parents never let her forget that horrible and heinous sin she had committed. And then, her father died; and the mother got even worse. She treated this out-of-wedlock child differently than the rest of the grand children. And frequently, she would bring up the incident of the out-of-wedlock conception, often leaving the daughter in tears.
Now this girl was well aware of her sin, and she was really hurting. Her pastor didn’t know what was going on, and she felt as if she couldn’t go to him, because she felt he would say the same things that her parents had been saying. Finally, she went to a friend’s pastor, who was a different denomination, and she told him what was going on. He simply smiled at her, put his hand on her shoulder, and said: “Jesus forgives you, and your sin has been forgotten.” And suddenly, she felt like a 100 ton load had been lifted from her shoulders.
It wasn’t long before she joined this other pastor’s church. And of course, this really set the mother off. “How could you do this…why?? Oh, what would your father think?” she asked.
And then the daughter related the story of the simple words of forgiveness she had received from that pastor. And the mother protested, “But you grew up in the faith! We always talked about the law and the gospel in this house. You heard it preached from the pulpit every Sunday! You learned about it in Confirmation class! Why would you have to go to some other two-bit pastor to hear what you have heard all your life?”
“That’s just it,” she replied. “You’ve TALKED about law and gospel. It’s been preached to me. And you’ve done nothing these past years but preach the law to me. You and daddy never forgot what I did, and you always reminded me that you hadn’t forgotten. Even though I was repentant and sorry for what I did, and I tried to put my life right, you never told me you had forgiven me, and you never forgot about it. But now I know that God has forgiven me, and forgotten about my sin. And I know that’s what counts. And mother, I forgive you. I only wish daddy were still alive so I could tell him that I forgive him too.”
There’s a real sense of grim reality in this story, isn’t there? We’re probably thinking right now that we’d never act the way that mother and father acted if we were put in the same situation. However, that’s not the case at all. Rather, I think that we’re all like that mother and father to some degree. Oh, the people may be different, and the situations perhaps aren’t the same, however our reaction is much too frequently a mirror of what we saw in that mother and father.
Our Gospel lesson for today teaches a very simple lesson in straight-forward and easy-to-understand terms. And putting that quite simply, we are to forgive other people in the same way that God forgives us.
Our Gospel lesson for today begins with Simon Peter asking Jesus about how many times someone should forgive someone else that keeps sinning against them. “Even as many as seven times?” Peter asks. And Jesus responds, “No, not just seven times, but seventy times seven.”
And then Jesus goes on to explain what he means with a parable. A servant who was deeply in debt, when faced with time in jail, goes and asks for forgiveness, and receives it; and then goes out and refuses to forgive someone in the same way he was forgiven. And so he receives the punishment that was due him in the first place, for refusing to forgive.
It’s perhaps at this point that we should clear up what might be a misconception. Jesus says that we are to forgive a brother who sins against us seventy times seven. Does that mean that we are to forgive someone up to 490 times, but the 491st time, and he’s out of luck? That’s hardly what Jesus is talking about, as this parable explains. Rather, we are to forgive others in the same way that God forgives us; and the number of times we are to forgive is endless.
So how does God’s forgiveness work for us? Let’s take a look at a couple passages from the Old Testament. Isaiah 1, 18 says, “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.” That’s a beautiful picture isn’t it? Or how about this one, in Jeremiah 34, 15: “For I will forgive their wickedness, and will remember their sins no more.” Psalm 130, 3-4 also underscores this concept: “If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness; therefore you are feared.”
Did you get that? God not only completely forgives, but he also completely forgets as well. So every time we commit a sin, and we come to him for forgiveness, it’s as if we had never committed the sin in the first place! Isn’t that a marvelous thing? God is able to treat a sin and the sinner as if there was never any sin; and it’s all because of what Christ did, and the wounds he bore for us.
Now, let’s look at a few passages from the New Testament. Jesus says in Mark 11, 25: “And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.” Paul writes in Colossians 3, 13: “Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”
So if we look at our text for today, when Jesus tells Peter to forgive a brother, and he uses that astronomical number, seventy times seven, the underlying message is that we are to forgive as God forgives us. We are to treat others with the same type of love that God has for us. And when we do this, then our actions are to be as Paul states in I Corinthians 13, 5: “(Love is) not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.” So the bottom line here is, that when someone has sinned against us, and asks us for forgiveness, then we are to treat it as if that sin never happened in the first place. We are to never keep a record of those sins.
Now, do you think that’s easy? Of course it isn’t! Unfortunately we have memories that are just too good in this area. There is an old saying that goes, “Amidst life’s dying embers, I have but two regrets; when I am right, no one remembers, and when I am wrong, no one forgets.” And how true that is! We might be okay with the forgiveness part of it, but when it comes to forget-ness, then our memories can be a real curse.
How many times have we said, “Well, I’ll forgive you, but don’t expect me to forget about it!” How many times have we had an argument with someone where we bring up old sins and wrongs over a period of years, which have been long forgiven and should have been long forgotten? How many times do past sins and wrongs that we have forgiven others, nevertheless influence the way we treat them in the future?
Can we forget the wrong of the person that stole from us? Can we forget that perhaps one of our children wrecked our car when he or she asks us for the car keys again? Could parents ever forget the wild party that the kids had when it comes time to leave them at home alone again? Can a husband or wife ever fully forget if their spouse has an extra marital affair with someone else? Oh yes, when it comes to forgetting the sin of a repentant sinner, then indeed our memories can be a curse to us.
But look at us! Wretched people that we are! How many times do we refuse to forgive, or we forgive but we refuse to forget? How many times do we not even want to forgive, or refuse to even try to forget? How many grudges do we hold?
And now we have the audacity—the unmitigated gall to come before God and ask for his forgiveness for our sins. We, who refuse to forgive and forget; how can we stand and pray to God, “Forgive us our trespasses, or forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us?”
Talk about a bunch of hypocrites! How would we like it if God were to forgive us in the same way and in the same manner as we forgive others? Given our attitude toward forgiveness of others, how can we even dream of asking God to forgive us?
It would be safe to say that we’d be without any hope at all if this were the case. And this of course brings us to the other side of all this. Our forgiveness and love is imperfect. However, God’s love and forgiveness is perfect. And difference between perfect and imperfect forgiveness shows itself in very sharp contrast.
How tragic it would be if that perfect forgiveness of God’s would be contingent or in some way dependent upon our imperfect version of forgiveness! We would be totally confused all the time whether or not we had forgiven someone well enough in order to merit God’s forgiveness.
God indeed demands that we all practice perfect forgiveness and forget-ness, but he also knows that there is no way that we could ever be perfect forgivers and forgetters on our own. And that is why he sent the perfect forgiver to this earth. That perfect forgiver, who when people accused him falsely, beat him, spat upon him, tortured him, and finally nailed him to suffer and die on the cross, he prayed in the spirit of perfect forgiveness, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Indeed, that is the greatest example of perfect love and forgiveness.
And when we come to Christ in faith, seeking that forgiveness for ourselves, then we know that we will always find it. Regardless of how imperfect our forgiveness record is, no matter how big of a load of sin we are carrying, we know that we will always find perfect love and forgiveness and forget-ness right at the foot of the cross. Our grudges and hates are all the burdens that Christ bore on our behalf. And regardless of our past imperfections, we know that we can come time after time after time, and receive perfect love and forgiveness, knowing that God who shows perfect love to the believer, will keep no record of wrongs, nor will he remember our sin any more.
But now God asks us to forgive others in the same way that he has forgiven us. And that’s not an easy task. We continually fall down time and again in this area. We remember old sins of others, and it haunts us. However, every time our memory bank of sin goes into gear, it should serve to be a good hard kick in the conscience for us, and remind us that we are indeed sinners ourselves. We are sinners who can only find that perfect forgiveness in one place. And for the repentant sinner who comes to us asking for forgiveness, we too should be witnesses of that perfect forgiveness that is ours, for it is theirs as well.
But knowing that we can’t be perfect forgivers is absolutely no reason for us to give up or not to try. As our text for today says, “We are to forgive other people from our heart.” And when we do this, it is to be our desire to forgive others as God for Jesus’ sake has forgiven them, and us as well. It should be our prayer that God would give us the strength to forgive and forget, because we know that a person who has come to Jesus and received forgiveness is truly forgiven, and the sin is forgotten in God’s sight. Don’t we have the same responsibility to do likewise?
I find it especially difficult to comprehend situations like the family I spoke about in the beginning. Here was a Christian family, where the simple words of forgiveness would have changed things immensely. However, to them the gospel was simply a concept, something spoken about in theological circles, something used only to reconcile the sinner to God. The parents saw it as their responsibility to keep bashing with the law. The love that keeps no record of wrongs didn’t exist in that family. They didn’t see it as their responsibility to live and practice that gospel in their own midst. And what a tragedy.
As we go through life, it will always be easier for us to forgive our own imperfections rather than the imperfections of others. We will look to the gospel and the forgiveness of God for ourselves. But that gospel is something more than just a vague concept of theology. It is the way that God himself touches the very heart of each and every believer in Christ, and gives that personal word of love and forgiveness. And as believers in Christ, we will always want to keep our faith strong and active, as well as going about the work of spreading the gospel.
And do you know what it means to spread the gospel? It involves more than just telling someone that Jesus loves them and Jesus forgives them; for with it, we must also be saying, “I love you and I forgive you, for Jesus’ sake.”