Although we wish it were not so, until we have been raised in a glorious body like Jesus and dwell with Him on high, we will be plagued with sin. We will sin in thought, word, and deed and we will be called to account for these sins. For this reason, we have private confession and the general public confession that forms the preparation for every Divine Service. We get that. We do not like it but we get it. Maybe we think ours are not the worst sins and that many of our sins would not even happen if we did not have to put up with the sins of others but we understand sin is part of the daily struggle.
Therein lies the rub. We must suffer the sins of others and figure out what to do about them. Last week Jesus framed this in the context of the Church – calling the sinner to confession and then restoring them through absolution. Jesus attached to this earthly response to sin a heavenly dimension. Whatsoever sins you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Whatsoever sins you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven. That means that forgiveness is not a matter of whim or something we can treat as perfunctory. This is a heavy load the Church carries and something no pastor can take lightly. But it also affects you.
From all of this St. Peter then asks the perfectly practical question that is in all our minds. “How often must I forgive my brother who sins against me?” This is slightly removed from the “tell it to the church” circumstance last week. It is a distinctly personal question asking for very practical advice from Jesus. We all want to know. But, if you noticed, Jesus did not answer St. Peter and He is not going to answer us either. There is no limit, no line in the sand, and no boundary. Jesus tells St. Peter and each of us that we are to forgive as often as the sinner repents and not simply with empty words but “from the heart.” This leaves no room for us to count the sins of others or keep tally of them.
The parable Jesus tells to illustrate His point is not about who to forgive or how to forgive or even how to discern whether repentance is genuine. The parable simply tells what it means to be forgiven and therefore to forgive – the thing we pray for every time we pray the Lord’s prayer. The Kingdom of Heaven does not keep count of wrongs nor hold up hoops for people to jump through to prove their sincerity. The Kingdom of Heaven is rich with generosity and extravagant with forgiveness – way too lavish for us. But you cannot be a citizen of this Kingdom and be a penny pincher with God’s grace. Now this is a hard thing to accept.
If you will not forgive your brother when he sins against you, you will not be forgiven by your Father in heaven. Who wants to hear that? None of us does. This is hard for us is because we know how much we are forgiven. We know the measure of God’s grace and mercy which has been applied to us and our sins. And we count on that abundant grace and mercy or we could not face God at all. But to know and count upon that forgiveness from God means that we also know the full measure of what Christ is asking of us when He calls to forgive each other.
This is not something that happens once in a blue moon but the stuff of our everyday lives as the baptized people of God. We confront this every day with the weight of a guilty conscience, with the shame of thoughts we should not think, with the words that were spoken and cannot be taken back, and with the actions we have taken that have brought harm and hurt to those we love. We daily sin much and daily need to be forgiven much, as Luther reminds us. And this means others sin much against us and we need to forgive them much. We are not given the luxury of holding back or picking and choosing the sins we forgive.
Honestly, I do not believe the problem is not wanting to forgive. Of course, the old sinful self does not want to forgive any more than the old sinful self wants to admit our own sins. But we know that bitterness is a poison in our lives. The problem is that we know what forgiveness costs us. This is compounded by the fact that we know how much God has forgiven us. The difference is that we believe it is easier for God to forgive us than it is for us to forgive others. And that is the key.
In reality, it is the other way around. God’s forgiveness cost Him much more than it costs us to forgive each other. This is the message of the parable. The servant owed a thousand talents – a talent was a year’s wage. It was an impossible amount to work off or pay back. In contrast, he was unwilling to forgive a peer who owed him three weeks wages – an amount that he could have repaid. That is the connection between the parable and everyday life. God has forgiven us so much and it is this abundant grace that makes it possible for us to forgive others.
No one forgives on their own. It is the Holy Spirit working in us and our cooperation with the Spirit that empowers forgiveness. Instead of taking your brother’s sins into your hands, you place his sins against you in the hands of the same Lord who has so graciously forgiven you. You treat your brother who has sinned against you the way you have been treated by your brother Jesus Christ. It is no wonder there is a battle in you – the new person created in Christ Jesus from the waters of baptism against the old, sinful self who does not want to forgive. This is the context in which our daily lives are lived out. The old man fighting the new person created in Christ Jesus. Forgiveness IS the domain in which this battle is fought, front and center in our lives.
This is not about ethics or morality. This is not about judging people worthy of forgiveness. This is a battle of wills – between the old, sinful self that is dying but not dead, still fighting against the grace of God and the new person created in baptism and the Christ who lives in you, building you up in Him. The very shape of our new lives in Christ is forgiveness – the forgiveness God has given to us that flows through us to those around us. By our forgiveness of others, we show that we are the new people created in Christ Jesus within the baptismal water and in whom the Spirit is at work. When we are unwilling to forgive others, we show that we are still the same, old, sinful selves rejecting God’s forgiveness and therefore refusing to forgive others. You cannot have it both ways.
Sure, there are times when forgiveness cannot be applied. God tells us that these are painful moments when the sinner is allowed the hardness of his or her own heart. After being refused over and over again, God turns the person over to their sinful wills and choice not as a sign of God’s rejection but because the person has rejected God. It grieves the Lord to do this. It ought to grieve us as deeply when there is no impenitence and there can be no forgiveness. I am not talking here about inconsistencies between a person’s words and deeds. Words and deeds are always inconsistent in a fleshly people where the new person is fighting to put down the old Adam. Impenitence is not when words and deeds are at odds but when the heart refuses to admit wrong, refuses the condemnation of the Law and commands of God, and refuses the promise of grace in absolution.
Jesus is not saying that forgiveness simply papers over sins or that it allows us to escape from the earthly consequences of our sins. We do not treat sin as if it did not happen or was not a terrible thing. Neither do we let the sinner off the hook. We confront the sin as God has confronted us and our sin. We hear the confession of the sinner as we have confessed to God, we absolve the sinner as we have been absolved, and we do it over and over and over again.
In Psalm 130 we say, “If you, O Lord, should mark (that means count) iniquities (that means sins), O Lord, who can stand?” In other words, the defining shape of our Christian life is not counting the sins of others against us because God has not counted the sins against. The Psalm goes on, “But with you there is forgiveness that you may be feared (that means believed).” Now take those words and transfer them to your brother or sister, your husband or wife, your child or parent, your neighbor or co-worker...
We cannot count the sins of others and expect that God does not keep score. We forgive sins because that is what the new person, created in Christ Jesus in baptismal water, has received and now gladly does for others. All sins. The sins we have committed in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone, are given to Christ who has settled account for them once for all. And in forgiving others, their sins of thought, word, and deed, sins of commission and omission, we also give over to Christ who has settled account for them once for all. And this is why we can stand before the Lord.
So the Lord is not threatening us when He says “So also will my heavenly Father do to everyone of you, if you do not forgive your brother ‘from the heart.’” No, what Jesus is telling us here is that forgiveness is the mark and shape of new life in Christ and without it, we are not the new people God has created us to be in baptism and therefore still in our sins. So, dear people loved by God, let us strive by the power of the Spirit to forgive one another for in doing so we are rejoicing in God’s forgiveness of every one of our sins, through the great cost of Jesus body broken on the cross, His blood shed for us, and His payment of the price of sin once for all. In Jesus’ name. Amen.