Today Matthew's Gospel continues to take us on a survey of forgiveness. We've seen Jesus' great concern for even the least of his people. We've heard how Christians ought to seek reconciliation with the brother who sins against us, always seeking to win the brother. So far so good.
But now Peter asks for some qualification. How often do I have to do this, Lord? Let's throw out a generous number. 7? The Pharisees might only say you have to forgive three times before the sinner proves he's not deserving. I'll say 7, and shoot for the safe side. How about that, Jesus, aren't you impressed?
But no. Not 7. Not 17. 70 times 7. In other words, forgiveness is unlimited. By it's very nature, forgiveness is not about keeping score – it's about wiping the slate clean. That's what Christ does for us in his saving work of death and resurrection. That's what Christians are to reflect and practice in our own relationships – especially with other Christians.
The question itself is flawed. “How often, how many, how much MUST I forgive?” Rather, we would ask, “How much do I get to forgive?” “How can I NOT forgive, in light of God forgiving me in Christ?” And to prod us in this direction, Jesus reminds us how much we've been forgiven. He does so, of course, with a parable.
A king is settling accounts with his servants or slaves. But these aren't the bottom of the food chain slaves out doing the manual labor. These are his high ranking ministers and advisors, those in charge of his household and business affairs. They've got the purse strings. They don't have to ask him every time they spend a denarius. But they do have to give account from time to time, and when the books are opened, it becomes clear that one servant has a debt to pay. And it's outrageous. 10,000 talents. Or in today's dollars – estimates range somewhere between several million to several billion. In any case, the debt was huge.
As Americans, we know about debts. We are perhaps one of the most debt-ridden societies in history. The national debt is in the trillions. $20 Trillion last I checked. $61,000 per citizen. Individually, we owe money on mortgages and cars, student loans and credit cards. So maybe we can relate to this parable of Jesus especially well – a story in which a man is forgiven a great debt. But can we relate enough? Even in a nightmare scenario, if all our debts came due at once, if we had to somehow pay everything right now -we might declare bankruptcy or end up on welfare. But this man faced imprisonment, along with his entire family. And Jesus even hints at torment that happens there. Scary stuff.
Of course the heavenly meaning hidden in this earthly story is not a debt of money, but the debt of sin that you and I owe, and the punishments of eternal condemnation we deserve. Just as hopeless as paying back billions of dollars with a job making license plates in prison – so are our prospects of paying off our debt of sin. We can't even make a dent in it.
And if you don't think your sin is that great, maybe you ought to do some tallying. How many times do you put other gods before the true God? How often do you misuse his name, or despise his word? How do you measure such things? Or how often you rebel against rightful authority or harm your neighbor's body or reputation. Or take what isn't rightly yours, or lust after or scheme to get it? 10 times a day? 100 times a day? 1000? Even a conservative, lowball of 50 sins a day, times 365 days a year and the average lifespan of 78 years leaves you with 1,423,500 sins. And this isn't counting the sinning that comes with failure to act, or the original sin and guilt that corrupts our very nature. No, if you are honest, you'll see your sin is beyond human measure. Even the Psalmist puts it succinctly, “who can know his errors?”. The debt is greater than we can know, but we know it is great.
There's only one way out of the debt. Forgiveness. Now, the servant in the story begged for time to pay – “patience, master!” he pleaded. But that was a pipe dream. And the kind master knew it. Shockingly, he forgave the debt – no strings attached. Such is the nature of our master, our heavenly Father. We, too, would beg and plead – but don't bother offering to repay. Rather trust in the mercy of the king who sends his beloved Son to pay every last bit of your debt. Forgiveness is the only way out for us. And that's just what he provides.
Consider the debt Christ paid. Sure, he bore the sins of the world – and what an awful load that was! If we can't even imagine or calculate one sinner's debt – how much more to pay all sinners's debts? But only the most precious commodity will do – the holy, innocent, suffering and death of the spotless lamb of God. Only the precious blood of Jesus could pay the price. Only his perfect sacrifice was enough to settle the debt. But settled it is. Forgiveness is won. Debt retired. It is finished.
The same Jesus who won and offers forgiveness is the Jesus who also teaches us to forgive. He teaches us to pray for it in his model prayer, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors”. He teaches us explicitly to forgive as we have been forgiven. It's assumed that we will do so. And he shows in this parable, by contrast, the outrageous actions and dreadful end of the servant who has no mercy on his fellow servant.
It should shock us. That the man who had been forgiven so much couldn't forgive even a much smaller debt. Something on the order of $15,000. Nothing to sneeze at, but in the scheme of what his own debt forgiven by the master... why wouldn't he forgive his neighbor. Why couldn't he?
Perhaps the urgency to squeeze every last penny from his own debtor sprang from his own lack of trust that his debt was actually forgiven. Was it a futile attempt to settle his own accounts, and cash in where he could, just in case the king called in his debt after all? We're not really told. But one thing is clear, that forgiveness ought to beget forgiveness, and mercy to inspire mercy. And woe to the one who fails to reflect the forgiveness he himself has been shown.
This wicked servant wouldn't get away with it. His peers reported it to the king, who did rebuke and punish the man for his failure to show mercy. And so in this way, he had thrown away the precious forgiveness he'd been given, and instead having to pay the debt anyway from jail.
And now the hard words of Jesus, “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” Let those words sink in. I'm not going to explain them away, couch or cushion them with caveats. Jesus is deadly serious here.
Forgiveness, forgiving your neighbor, is not an option for Christians. It is a necessity. Holding a grudge against your neighbor is antithetical to what it means to be a Christian. To be forgiven is to forgive. It's that simple. But not so easy, is it?
This is harsh law, friends. The threat is terrifying. How do we, then, approach the forgiveness Jesus would have us show for those who trespass against us?
One way is to come back around to our own sin. Look in the mirror. Check the log in your own eye. Remember how much you've been forgiven. And trust in the king, the master, the Savior who does the forgiving. This will help your perspective when it comes to the really very small debts your neighbor could possibly owe you.
Another helpful idea – take the example of Joseph from our Old Testament reading. His brothers had wronged him greatly – sold him into slavery and told his father he was dead. Separated from his family, deprived of his freedom, later thrown in prison – Joseph had more reason to hold a grudge than most. And yet, he foreshadows Christ by loving and forgiving his brothers. When the tables are turned and Joseph has the upper hand, he doesn't exact his revenge, but instead offers a tearful embrace and welcome. His words are so memorable, “you meant it for evil, but God meant it for good”. So could we say to any sinner whom God gives us the opportunity to forgive. See in it the good that God will bring from reconciliation and restoration.
For in showing forgiveness we not only fulfill the law of love, but we also give expression to our faith. We confess in word and deed the love that we have received in Christ. We give some of the most powerful witness to the unbelieving world of what Christianity is about, and what Christ is like. There is, really, perhaps no more Christ-like thing than to forgive, from the heart.
That doesn't make it easy. And it doesn't mean we'll do it perfectly. We pray for the strength to forgive. And we always circle back to the forgiveness we have received in the Christ of the cross. Your debt has been paid. So freely forgive, for the sake of Christ. Amen.