“The Forgiven and Forgive”

(Matthew 18:21-35 – Pentecost 17 – September 27, 2020)

Matthew 18:21-35 – 21Then Peter came to Him and said, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” 22Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven. 23Therefore the kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24And when he had begun to settle accounts, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. 25But as he was not able to pay, his master commanded that he be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and that payment be made. 26The servant therefore fell down before him, saying, ‘Master, have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ 27Then the master of that servant was moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt. 28But that servant went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and he laid hands on him and took him by the throat, saying, ‘Pay me what you owe!’ 29So his fellow servant fell down at his feet and begged him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ 30And he would not, but went and threw him into prison till he should pay the debt. 31So when his fellow servants saw what had been done, they were very grieved, and came and told their master all that had been done. 32Then his master, after he had called him, said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. 33Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?’ 34And his master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him. 35So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses.”

Dear Redeemed, by the grace of God in Jesus Christ:

Is there someone you have trouble forgiving? Maybe it is someone whose sin against you is so big and hurtful that it is hard to forget; and every time you play the rerun film in your mind, you feel the hurt all over again, as you think of how that person’s wrongdoing affected your life. Or maybe a person’s sin against you is not even that big, but it just happens so regularly that, day after day, you hate having to put up with that person’s chafing personality and inconsiderate ways. Either way, it can be difficult to forgive. Our impulse is to think, “How can I forgive that person? Their sin is too great; and wouldn’t I be excusing their guilt and treating lightly the hurt they caused? If I keep on forgiving, wouldn’t I be encouraging them to sin all the more?”

Perhaps such thoughts were going through Peter’s mind, as he came to Jesus and said: “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” (vs. 21) He probably felt that was a pretty generous number. But Jesus answered: “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven” (vs. 22). The Lord’s answer tells us that forgiving one who has sinned is not a matter of keeping count. No matter how hurtful another’s sin may be, no matter how regular his ongoing sins may be, forgiveness has no limits.

As Jesus goes on to show in the parable, this is how it is when it comes to God forgiving us. No matter how great is our debt of sins against God, He forgives them all without limit. He forgives us for the sake of His Son, Jesus Christ, who took all our sins away on the cross. When we see how gracious God is toward us, it moves us to forgive one another. As our theme today, we contemplate this truth: “The Forgiven Forgive.” We can forgive as: 1) We recognize how much God has forgiven us; and then 2) We respond by forgiving others from our heart.

1) We recognize how much God has forgiven us

Jesus begins His parable by saying: “Therefore the kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. And when he had begun to settle accounts, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. But as he was not able to pay, his master commanded that he be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and that payment be made” (vs. 23-25). This servant’s debt to the king was huge. Modern calculations put it at millions of dollars. He could never repay what he owed in a lifetime. So the king resolved to sell the man into slavery, along with his beloved family, and all he had in this world. At least this would begin partially to pay back the amount the man owed. The king had every right to order this punishment. Under law, the man was doomed to losing everything.

Realizing his only hope was to beg the king’s mercy: “The servant therefore fell down before him, saying, ‘Master, have patience with me, and I will pay you all'” (vs. 26). In asking for mercy, his natural thought was that, if he just had more time, he could work enough eventually to pay off his debt. He would try harder to make things right, by his faithful service. But the king knew it was impossible; the man could not earn debt forgiveness, even by his best efforts.

The king resolved to show mercy in its truest sense: “Then the master of that servant was moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt” (vs. 27). To the great surprise of the servant, the king simply removed any record of debt. In an instant, millions were reduced to zero. The master would treat his servant as if he never owed a thing; he would never remind him of it again. The servant was free to go and live his life anew in the graces of his good king.

Here Jesus illustrates our relationship to God, as servants of the King. As sinners, we are all indebted to Him. God has given us our life and every good thing we have. As stewards of His gifts, we owe constant, undivided service and obedience to His holy will. God’s Law tells us we are to love Him with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind; and we are to love our neighbor as ourselves (Luke 10:27). But that same Law shows us that we all have sinned and fall short of God’s expectations. For not only does His Law forbid sin in our outward behavior, but even in our heart and mind. Thus for example, as Jesus taught, not only is the one who commits murder outwardly guilty of sin, but also the one who holds hateful anger in his heart against his brother (Matthew 5:21-22). So if we were to count our record of sin in every desire, thought, word, and deed, from every day of our life, who could measure our debt? If heaven’s King were to treat us as our sins deserved, it would be as those who have sold ourselves into slavery to sin, Satan, and death. Under His righteous Law, we would be doomed to losing all that is good in hell.

Like the servant in our text, our first impulse is to think that, if given time, we can work off our debt. Maybe we can work harder at being good stewards of every gift in God’s service. We can try to use all we have in life to His glory alone. We can try to love those around us unselfishly, putting their needs first. But like the king in the parable, God knew it is impossible. Even if we could spend the rest of our life trying our very best, it would not repay the sins of our past; indeed, we would incur new sins. We simply cannot earn debt forgiveness with God.

So purely from His heart of compassion, God resolved to show mercy in the highest sense; and He took it on Himself to forgive our debt. In doing so, He did not treat our sins as if they were innocent mistakes to be overlooked; He did not treat our violations of His holy Law as if they were nothing. He punished them to their full extent. God sent His Son into the world for this purpose, as our Substitute under His Law. Not only did Jesus fulfill the Law for us, by His perfect life of love and obedience; He also paid the full penalty the Law required for our sins. On the cross, Jesus paid all the wages of our sin, as He was cursed, suffered, and died in our place. In this way God has forgiven our entire debt of sin, paying for it all by the blood of His Son. Now as the king in the parable treated his servant, God treats us as if we never had a debt. Through faith in Jesus we are free to go and live anew, in the graces of our good heavenly King.

2) We respond by forgiving others from our heart

Now, how does faith respond to the unlimited forgiveness of God in Christ? The forgiven forgive. We respond by forgiving others from our heart. As we confess our sins before God, we rejoice that He has forgiven our entire debt, once and for all at the cross; and our gratefulness for His boundless grace moves us to do as it says in Ephesians 4:31-32: “Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice. And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God in Christ forgave you.”

But the unforgiving servant shows a lack of such faith and gratitude, as Jesus says: “But that servant went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and he laid hands on him and took him by the throat, saying, ‘Pay me what you owe!’ So his fellow servant fell down at his feet and begged him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ And he would not, but went and threw him into prison till he should pay the debt” (vs. 28-30). A denarius was not worth much; it could easily be repaid in short time. But in the mind of the unforgiving servant, he blew up the debt of his fellow servant into something unforgiveable. Though his fellow servant made the same plea for mercy he had just made before the king, he could find no mercy in his heart. Instead he brought down on that man the full extent of the law.

This is a picture of what happens when those who have received the unlimited forgiveness of God in Christ become blind to His mercy; blinded by ingratitude and hard-hearted unbelief. It is that proud spirit that blows up the sin of another, while downplaying one’s own sin. It is that self-justifying spirit that says: “I deserve full pardon for my offenses, which are insignificant; but the one who offended me deserves the full extent of the law and justice in the sight of God.” It is that bitter spirit that seeks to imprison a fellow sinner in his guilt, wishing him ever to be reminded of his sin; a wish manifested in angry thoughts, words, and behavior. An unforgiving spirit remains bitter, forever wanting repayment; but it is never satisfied. How can such a spirit exist in the heart, alongside faith that rejoices in the mercy and forgiveness of God in Christ?

Now the unforgiving servant found out what it was like to be judged by his own standards, as Jesus says: “Then his master, after he had called him, said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?’ And his master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him” (vs. 32-34). The wicked servant would feel the full extent of the law, and never be released from the prison and torture he deserved.

“So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses” (vs. 35). God forbid that we, who have received God’s unlimited forgiveness in Christ, cannot find it in our heart to forgive a fellow sinner. Who of us could bear to be judged by that standard, to feel the full extent of justice under the Law of God, to have our debt laid back on our account? Who could bear that prison and torture of hell our sins deserve?

How we all need constantly to be driven back to the mercy of God, as sinners who cling to His grace and forgiveness in Christ. In daily repentance, we kneel at the foot of Jesus’ cross, where we plead nothing but His blood to cleanse us of all our sin, and His perfect life to cover us and present us without blame before God. Here at the foot of Jesus’ cross, as His blood runs down and cleanses us of all our sins, we hear Him praying in our behalf: “Father, forgive them” (Luke 23:34). We hear His holy absolution that says, “No matter how great or numerous your sins are, I have forgive them all. Go in the peace and joy of My salvation.” Every day in His Gospel, the King declares our account settled through the merits of Christ. Not only has He removed our entire debt; He has lavished on us all the riches of His Kingdom.

As we receive His gift by faith, we truly are grateful. As our faith clings to God’s abundant mercy toward us in Christ, we turn and see our fellow sinner in a new way. We see a fellow beggar of God’s mercy, for whom Christ died. And the Spirit of Christ in us empowers to say: “As I have received God’s unlimited forgiveness for my sin, I am moved to do the same to you.”

If we should forgive another’s sin seven times, or seventy times seven, are we treating the guilt of their sin or hurt they have caused lightly? No, we are laying it at the foot of Jesus’ cross, where forgiveness and healing is found. We are looking up to Him and saying: “My Savior, You bore the guilt of the one who sinned against me, just as You bore my guilt. You suffered the hurt their sin caused, just as You suffered the hurt my sin caused. You bled and died to take it all away. You took it to the grave; and You rose with forgiveness, healing, and new life.”

The forgiven forgive. As we recognize how much God has forgiven us, His abundant grace in Christ moves us to forgive others from our heart. Regardless of how another may respond to that grace, we commit ourselves to our Savior who died for us and rose again. We go forward in the newness of life He gives us, as those who truly know His forgiveness and healing.

Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. Amen.