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Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 18:21-35

September 17, 2023

Forgiveness doesn’t count…let me clarify…forgiveness doesn’t keep score. This is how Jesus not only teaches us forgiveness but demonstrates it in His death and resurrection. Forgiveness doesn’t keep score; forgiveness doesn’t count.

Forgiveness doesn’t keep track of how many times it forgives or how much sin it has to forgive or show mercy to. Forgiveness just forgives. God forgives us, completely, fully. And, we are thus to forgive one another, without keeping score, without count, but freely, completely, and fully.

This is what the parable in our Gospel reading today is all about.

The setup to the parable is Peter coming to Jesus as the pious Jew he is and asking Jesus if it’s enough to forgive seven times the same brother of the same sin. And by the way, the rule of thumb for the Jews was the rule of threes. You must forgive your brother, but only three times, and it was also required that your sinful brother come to you and say, “Please forgive me.”

So, Peter, by suggesting a rule of sevens, sounds as if he wants to be generous. What a great guy, right? All those stuffy religious leaders, they say three times, but Peter asks Jesus, “Hey, what about seven times, and I a better Christian if I offer to forgive seven times?”

Jesus ups the ante, as it were. He says, “No, not seven times, but seventy times seven!” Now if forgiveness were about keeping score, this would be 490 times. But you’ve better keep a good record because if you come up short, you’re hurting your brother. And once you hit that 490, you can kick in revenge mode and start doing evil, slanderous things all you want without fault…or…maybe not. Maybe what Jesus is REALLY saying is…don’t keep score. Just forgive…forgiveness doesn’t count.

But because Jesus has to crucify a tradition in Judaism and teach something about forgiveness far more divine, He explains it using a parable.

To summarize the parable, there is a king and his servants, and one of his servants owes lifetimes and lifetimes of debt to the king. The king intends to take everything from the servant who can’t pay any of it back, to put his entire family into slavery, sell his home and property, and basically put the guy into an eternal debt-repayment program. And bear in mind that the king is not in the wrong. It’s his money that the servant borrowed and squandered, and the king has every right to recover the debt.

The servant, scared stiff because he knows there is just no way to ever repay this debt, falls to his knees and pleads for mercy. And the king…does something totally crazy…he has mercy on the servant, and not just for some of the debt or a little of the debt or most of the debt. The king forgives ALL the debt, lifetimes and lifetimes and lifetimes of debt, he forgives it all and send the servant on his way.

The servant is free – he’s debt free and free to live his life in thankfulness and joy by this lesson he’s learned. But he doesn’t live by the lesson, does he? Because the very first thing he does with his new-found freedom is choke and lock up one of his fellow servants who owed him a small, insignificant sum of money. “Pay what you owe me or else,” screams the servant. And the fellow servant, almost word for word, pleads with him and asks for mercy. But the wicked servant doesn’t offer him mercy at all.

The king finds out about this, and he is MAD! He calls that wicked servant into his presence and scolds him very severely, “I forgave you LIFETIMES of debt, but you can’t forgive one of your fellow servants a drop in the bucket? You are a wicked servant, and because of this, not only must you pay back all you owe me, but I am locking you up until you pay back every penny,” or in his case – he’s never getting out.

Jesus finally ends by saying to Peter, “if you do not likewise forgive your brother from the heart, then know for sure that God will do to you the same as the king did to the wicked servant.”

And the message Jesus is teaching is clear, isn’t it? Forgiveness must be as it is in heaven. If you want to play the forgiveness game in accordance with your own ideas, your own rules, your own intentions, then it is no longer forgiveness. If you want to keep a scorecard, if you want forgiveness to be contingent on costs you setup, if you want to use forgiveness as a weapon against others just to get your way, get what you want from them, make them bend to your will, then it is no longer forgiveness and you should expect to meet an abysmal end on judgment day.

This is not how your Heavenly Father has dealt with you, so why do you act as you do toward your fellow forgiven sinner? See, here’s human nature at its finest: When someone sins against you, you want justice; you want that person to grovel and groan before you until you are satisfied he understands how he’s hurt you, or until you get your way. But when you sin against someone, you want immediate mercy and grace without strings. This is the justice vs. mercy dichotomy in our parable and this is the justice vs. mercy dichotomy we all seem to struggle with, isn’t it?

Heavenly Father, for all of our unforgiveness, our grudge-holding, our hatred toward those whom you have forgiven, our silent treatments toward those to whom Your Son said, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do,” forgive us. As King David cried out in the Psalm, “Have mercy on us, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out our transgressions.

Wash us thoroughly from our iniquity, and cleanse us from our sin,” help us to see that You have forgiven that person in our life who has wronged us and that we refuse to forgive. Call us to repent of our hate and our stone-cold heart and give us a new heart which loves forgiveness and peace and understanding and righteousness.

Now you’re starting to get it, aren’t you? Forgiveness has everything, EVERYTHING to do with Jesus, with His death on the cross for sinners. He didn’t only die for you who are in church every Sunday and who treat others kindly and seek peace and goodwill, but Jesus died for that brother who sinned against you last week, that sister who slandered your good name in public, that pastor who lost his temper, that church elder who forgot to call you while in the hospital, that jerk next door who keeps his music up too loud. But Jesus also died for you who has also been that jerk who ticks off your neighbor, that person who forgets to call your sick family member, that church member who says something unkind against the elder, who slanders the pastor, who gossips about someone else in public, who sins against your brother or sister on a daily basis. That sinner is you, and Jesus died also for you.

See we are all in the same boat, we are sinners who need God’s forgiveness, and we are people who need to forgive others as God forgives us. We need forgiveness to live and function together as a church. Families need forgiveness to function as a family. The more time we spend with people, the more opportunity there is to hurt people, the more forgiveness and mercy needs to rule in the hearts of people.

And I’m not trying to moralize you here or give you therapy hour. Because forgiveness would not at all be possible without the Great Forgiver of Sins, Christ Jesus our Lord. See, just telling you that you need to forgive people, forgive and forget, forgive without strings attached, isn’t going to make you be forgiving. If anything, it’ll make you mad and disgruntled because you think I’m lording it over you, or it’ll make you miserable because you just can’t forgive as you ought.

So instead, I call your attention to the cross of Christ. His death on the cross is mercy personified and lived out. Jesus paid the whole debt you owed, that I owed, that the whole world owed God because of sin, Jesus has paid it all. And we learn what it is to be forgiven and what it is to forgive at the foot of the cross. We receive His forgiveness in Baptism. We ingest His forgiveness in the Lord’s Supper. Forgiveness, forgiveness, forgiveness, right? It’s all about forgiveness, for, as Luther writes, “Where there is forgiveness of sins, there is life and salvation.”

In a sermon, Luther preached the following regarding this parable:

“Should we then bite and scratch each other like dogs and cats? No, but we should heartily forgive and ask: [Why] should I accuse my brother? If God is merciful unto me and for the sake of His Son Jesus Christ forgives me so great a debt, why should I make so much ado about a penny or two? I will call it square, forgive and forget, and thank God that He has forgiven me and made me a partaker of His grace.”

What will it hurt you to forgive your brother from your heart? What will you lose? Leverage? Control? Pride?

For any of you who have sinned against me in thought, word or deed…we’re square, I forgive you and I’ve forgotten it. I am not going to burden myself with counting how many times you’ve sinned or hurt me because it’s a waste of time better spent doing good, serving, and helping where I can. I pray that you offer me the same forgiveness, the same forgive and forget, so we can all get on with serving our Lord and serving one another in peace and preparing for our life together in heaven.

Let us also consider the other side of the servant. Why did the king ultimately throw him in prison and lose the key?

Well, after the king forgave him, he should have been so thankful and so full of peace and joy that he would just start forgiving everyone around him without a second thought. But what did he do instead? He went back to his old ways, didn’t he? He scandalized the king’s forgiveness and then used his newfound freedom for sin.

As a Christian people, how do we deal with those brothers or sisters in the church, those who were baptized into the faith and received the forgiveness of sins, confirmed before the congregation, confessed their faith, but have since gone off and chose to live their lives as if none of it matters? They live as if there is no God, no heaven, no hell, no judgment, they basically eat, drink, and make merry, and make living in this world more important than living by faith? How do we deal with them?

Well, this has been an ongoing concern in the Christian church since the time of the Apostles. St. Paul, for example, preaches the good news of the forgiveness of sins in Christ Jesus the crucified and risen, that because of His death, we have life and freedom, that we have peace, that we have joy, and that we are destined to spend eternity in paradise. But then he also warns us, sternly mind you, to flee from false teaching, and from sin and to not become enslaved to sin once again.

A wonderful chapter in the Bible to read and meditate on is Galatians 5. It begins with Paul proclaiming, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” But then he warns us and says, “Stand firm, and do not allow anyone to put the yoke of slavery on you again.” In other words, don’t fall for any false teaching which says you must do or say or act or merit your salvation by keeping the law. This would be any of the “you gottas” we so often hear or read. “You gotta make a decision, you gotta commit your life, you gotta give a tithe, you gotta stop sinning intentionally, you gotta do your confession and penance, you gotta, you gotta, you gotta…” This is all works righteousness and it’s not going to save you.

Then Paul warns us in another way: “After all, brothers, you were called to freedom. Only do not use your freedom as a starting point for your sinful flesh. Rather, serve one another through love.” Paul is fighting against the lie that we hear more and more today: “God loves you, He doesn’t care what you do, He’ll forgive you anyway, just live your life, have fun, you’re not hurting anyone, it doesn’t matter as long as you’re a good person…”

Here we have the two great false teachings of the devil and his false church: Legalism and antilegalism or better known as antinomianism. Do not fall for the lie of thinking that you must do something to merit your salvation such as keeping the law, and do not fall for the lie of thinking that because you are free in Christ, you can do and act however you want. These lies have been in the church since Christ and they continue to haunt us, and we must be aware of them lest they lead us to death.

Paul then says, “Walk by the Spirit.” In other words, flee from giving in to the rule of the flesh, the rule of the old nature, the old Adam. Because the flesh, as Paul writes, is fully opposed to the Spirit, and you can’t have it both ways.

The wicked servant in the parable fell for the desires of the flesh. He was greedy. And along with greed the desires of the flesh include sexual immorality, impurity, lack of restraint, worship of false gods and making idols of worldly things, sorcery, hatred, discord and division, jealousy, uncontrolled anger, selfish gain, heresies and false teachings, envy, murders, drunkenness, ungodly sexual activity and adultery, an unwillingness to forgive as God forgives, and all other similar things, anything which pulls you away from the Spirit, away from the Church, away from the mercies of Christ, and pulls you back into slavery to sin and death.

The king threw the wicked servant into eternal prison because the servant scandalized the king’s mercy for his own ill gain and to destroy others. And because he held onto his sin like his best friend and his savior, he was condemned under the full weight of his eternal debt. Likewise, if we continue to live by the desires of the flesh, we will be judged by the debt we refuse to abandon.

But the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control and yes, forgiveness. Against these things there is no judgment, no law. And the forgiveness of sins which God offers us in Christ, and we receive by faith, it creates in us this new and clean heart, the same heart for which King David cried out in Psalm 51.

The objective of the church, of her pastors and yes, her laypeople, is not to “moralize” sinners or “amoralize” sinners; it’s not to tell them that they better “shape up” if they want to be saved, or to tell them they can keep on sinning and still be saved. No, the objective of the church, of her pastors and her laypeople, is to use the office of the keys, the authority to forgive and the authority to withhold forgiveness, in order to bring sinners to repentance and a firm trust in Christ and His forgiveness, and to conform their lives to Christ and His Spirit.

You have a son or daughter, a father or mother, a sibling, a friend, a neighbor who is caught in sin, who is openly sinning and blindly rejecting God’s mercy? Do not turn a blind-eye to his sin. Don’t throw the book of eternal judgment at him either. Instead, show him his sin, show him the consequence for sin, and then bring him to the foot of the cross of Christ and show him the price Jesus paid to forgive his sin. And show him by your own example of what it is to live by the spirit, of what it is to be one forgiven in Christ and one who forgives. Afterall, is this not all about matters of eternal life and salvation; is there anything else in this life more important that Christ Jesus?

By God’s grace and spirit, learn forgiveness. Learn to trust in God’s forgiveness in Christ, that because of His death on the cross and resurrection, your sins are forgiven to the full, and in thankfulness and joy, learn to then be a people who live by the Spirit and not by the flesh, and who forgive as you have been forgiven.

For there is no other truth, no other way, no other life than this. Amen.