Sermon for Pentecost 15, Proper 19A, preached by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich on Sunday, September 17, 2017.
Every now and then it sounds odd to end the Gospel reading by saying, “The Gospel of the Lord.” Today is one of those times. The reading ends with Jesus saying, “And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to everyone one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (Matt 18:34-35). This doesn’t sound like the good news of the Gospel...and it’s not. This is Law, it’s all Law. It’s the command of the Lord to whole heartedly forgive those who sin against you. This you must do. It’s not an option. So, where’s the Gospel, the good news? It’s in the forgiveness: the forgiveness you receive from Christ that enables you to forgive others.
These Law words come at the end of the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, the story of a servant whose mountain of debt was forgiven and yet he refused to forgive a fellow servant’s tiny debt. Jesus told this story in answer to a question from Peter: “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” (Matt 18:21). To our ears, this sounds pretty generous. Just think about. Your brother, your wife, your friend, they sin against you. The first time you forgive them. Then, a week later, they sin against you again in the very same way. This time you’re a little more hesitant, but again you forgive them. Then the very next day they do it again. No way you forgive them now; three strikes and you’re out.
We can’t image forgiving someone seven times. It’s nonsense. It’s not fair to us. It makes us look like a fool. But Jesus says our forgiveness is to be greater than seven times. He answered Peter, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven” (Matt 18:22). Jesus isn’t putting a limit to forgiveness, capping it at 490 times. Jesus is saying forgiveness is to be limitless, and He illustrates this with the parable.
The king was settling his debts and a servant was brought to him who owed ten thousand talents. This amount of debt is unheard off. It could never be paid off. Even if the servant’s salary was extraordinarily high and he never had a day off, this mountain of debt would ensure imprisonment for 1,000 years or more. This is physically impossible; there’s no way the servant could pay it back. But what does he do? He falls on his knees and pleads with the king for more time to pay it off.
This servant had to of known it was impossible to pay this debt and yet he still wanted to try. He convinced himself he could work hard enough to pay it off. From our seats this sounds illogical and foolish, and yet we do the very same thing. We know we’re sinners. We know our sin debt is so large there’s no way we can pay it off, but like this servant we convince ourselves we can.
How many times to we sin against friends and say, “I’ll make it up to you.”? Or you husbands, after you and your wife have a fight don’t you try to win back her affection with flowers and a nice dinner? As children and teens, after we got in trouble, didn’t we then behave, didn’t we clean our room and take out the trash without being asked hoping to get back in our parents’ good graces? Our natural inclination is to do good work in order to make up for our sin.
We want to earn our forgiveness. We think it’s the only way. We sin against God in thought, word, and deed and the only logical way to make up for this is to do good in thought, word, and deed. And when we do this good, we feel good about it. It makes us proud and we convince ourselves we’re alright with God. But we’re not alright with God because our good works don’t make up for our sin, because even our good works are tainted with sin.
The reason why we convince ourselves our good works can pay off our debt is because we want the glory of saving ourselves. We want to do it all; to be our own savior. This is a trust in our abilities, in our power, in ourselves, and this is idolatry with us as our idol, our god. But no matter how hard we try, we can’t free ourselves from our unpayable sin debt. It’s impossible, just like the servant couldn’t pay off his.
Knowing the servant couldn’t pay off his debt, the king had pity on him, not because he deserved it, not because the king expected the servant to work extra hard, not because he was a talented beggar, but because the king was gracious and merciful. The king released the servant from all his debt, he forgave him. The king declared him debt free, just as your King forgives you and declares you debt free.
Only God’s grace and mercy releases you from your sin debt. God forgives you, not because you deserve it, not because you work extra hard and promise to do better, but because Christ paid your debt by dying on the cross. God forgives you for His sake, because Jesus took your sin upon Himself and paid it off with His precious blood and innocent suffering and death. There’s no way you could pay this debt, no matter how hard and long you work, not even for a thousand years. Only Christ could, and thanks be to God that He has.
The forgiveness of the king in the parable illustrates the magnitude of God’s forgiveness. He’s forgiven your mountain range of sin debt because of Christ and His cross. This is the good news of the Gospel...but the parable doesn’t end there.
The now debt free servant left the king’s presence and found a fellow servant who owed him one hundred denarii. This debt was miniscule in size compared to the debt he was just released from. It could’ve been paid off in less than a year. But this servant showed no pity on his fellow servant. He seized him and choked him, demanding payment. You would think he’d be more gracious, that he’d pay forward the forgiveness of the king, but he didn’t. Hearing about this servant’s unwillingness to forgive, the king delivered the servant to the jailers until he paid his debt. This means the servant was imprison for life.
The unforgiving servant’s refusal to be gracious and forgive his fellow servant showed he didn’t value the king’s forgiveness. Likewise when you refuse to forgive those who trespass against you, it shows you don’t value God’s forgiveness. It shows you don’t want it, that you think you don’t need it. If you don’t want God’s forgiveness, He won’t force it on you. But without His forgiveness, you’ll forever be imprisoned to sin.
The forgiveness of your sin debt is more valuable than anything you could ever earn. It’s more valuable than any other gift you’ve ever received; and you show how much you value this forgiveness by sharing it with others. Like Joseph, who forgave his brothers who sold him into slavery, you are to graciously forgive your brothers, no matter how many times they sin against you, no matter how big their sin against you is. Whatever sin it is, it’s miniscule compared to your sin before God. Having been forgiven much you forgive much, and you do it gladly.
The Lord calls you to forgive from your heart. This means you completely release your brother from their sin debt. To forgive from your heart means to never bring it up again. When you forgive from your heart you don’t expect payment in the future. Even if your brother sins against you 490 times the same sin, you gladly forgive with no strings attached, because you’ve been forgiven.
We forgive those who sin against us not to earn God’s forgiveness, but to show forth Christ’s love and to show we value His forgiveness. Valuing God’s forgiveness, we forgive others. We forgive without limit because we’ve been forgiven without limit. God our King has canceled our sin debt, a debt we could never pay back. Christ’s atoning death on the cross, the sacrifice of His perfect life paid the price of our sin. It’s this forgiveness that we trust in, not our works. And it’s this same forgiveness that we wholeheartedly share with others. In Jesus’ name...Amen.