15th Sunday after Pentecost (Prop 19 – A)
September 17, 2017
Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
The text that I have chosen for this morning’s sermon is the Gospel, which was read a few minutes ago.
For Satan, the forgiveness of sins is a terrifying concept. It robs him of his control over us, it snatches us from the depths of hell, it gives us hope when he wants us to despair, and so he is constantly trying to steal the forgiveness of sins from us. For Christ, the forgiveness of sins is the greatest gift that He could give to us because He gives us Himself which counters everything that Satan tries to do. In shouldn’t surprise us then that forgiveness is a common theme in Scripture, and that it includes the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, which helps us understand what forgiveness is and what it does.
When Peter asked Jesus how many times he should forgive a fellow Christian, he was asking a reasonable question, and by asking if seven times was enough, he went beyond Jewish teaching which said three times was enough. It’s natural to set limits on forgiveness because we only want to get knocked down so many times. If the same person keeps hurting us, it’s clear, at least to us, that they’ve been given enough chances. Fool me once shame on you, fool me seven times shame on me, right? This makes sense to us, but to limit forgiveness goes against the very nature of forgiveness which Jesus says has no limits.
Jesus starts by saying, “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents.” It’s a little difficult to pin down the value of a talent, but the man’s debt was huge. He owed the king 163,000 years (give or take a couple thousand) worth of pay. How he accumulated the debt is unimportant, the fact that it has now come due, that’s what’s important. It’s a debt that he couldn’t pay in a million lifetimes but it doesn’t matter because the king decrees, “Pay what you owe!”
The debt the servant owes is huge, and the debt we owe to our Heavenly King is huge. You sin every day. Some of you are sinning right now. Some of your sins are deliberate, some are not. Some sins are considered bad, others are considered not that bad. Some sins seem to matter more than others. You may evaluate your sin and not see it as too much of a debt. The thing is though, we’re not the ones who do the accounting. All our sins are recorded in the ledger of the King, by the King. He doesn’t ignore some sins because He thinks they’re no big deal. He doesn’t cancel some of your debt because of something good you’ve done, some sort of payment you’ve made. The King marks down each and every one of your sins. From the time you’re born to the time you die, your sins are added to your debt.
When the servant cannot pay off his massive debt, the king did what he had the right to do. Jesus says, “Since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made.” The king deserved to recoup some of the debt and while it wasn’t a death sentence, it did mean that family would be broken up and would spend the rest of their lives working for nothing. The thought of being sold into slavery rightly terrified the man and so he begged for more time. If the king just gave him a little more time, he would pay off His debt. He couldn’t, he never could, but he begged for the chance to try.
The debt of sin we’ve accumulated is a debt that we could never pay, but sometimes we try. Do you ever find yourself doing something sinful and then think if nothing bad happens, you’ll never do it again? Or you make promises to God that you’ll do better if He doesn’t punish you? Or you’ll be extra good, extra holy, to somehow pay for your sins? But none of these things will ever work. You can’t do it, you can’t pay off your debt. Period. So you deserve to be sold into slavery, slavery to Satan and Hell, which would satisfy your debt.
It is now though that we see the unbelievable happen. Jesus says, “And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.” The king has compassion, he has a stirring of love in his chest that leads him to go above and beyond what the man asked for. He forgave the debt, he wrote it off, he took 163,000 years (give or take a thousand) worth of wages out of his own treasury to pay the debt himself. The man’s situation is instantly changed! He no longer faces slavery, he’s free. His debt is forgiven.
This is what forgiveness is, God releasing you from your debt. And this isn’t because of some cosmic bankruptcy where debts go unpaid. Your debt is wiped out because Jesus paid it for you! He was sold into the slavery of the death and hell for you. He paid your debt with His body and blood. He paid off your massive debt and now you are free. Your ledger, the one overflowing with what you owe God for all your sins, is instantly erased in His death. Never again will you be called before the King to account for your debt. He’s wiped it off the books, you’re forgiven, now and forever. And every time you come here and confess your sins, every time you beg for patience, God reminds you that your debt is paid in full. You are forgiven, go debt free, go in peace.
The discharge of your debt means that you’re instantly changed, in your relationship with God, and with others. The first servant instantly has a new relationship with the king, no longer indebted, his live would forever be different. He should’ve been changed. But he wasn’t. Jesus says, “But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’” The ungrateful servant hunted down someone who owed him about four months of wages and choked him while yelling at him to pay up.
In an echo of the earlier discussion, the second servant used the same language, he begged for more time to pay his minor debt, but he was refused. He was thrown into prison to pay a debt that he wouldn’t be able to pay while in prison. The first servant lacked the compassion of the king. He didn’t love his fellow servant, he sought only what he was owed. He wouldn’t forgive the minor debt, he called it due and refused to show mercy.
What the first servant didn’t realize, but what Jesus tells us to take to heart is that forgiveness changes you and your relationship with others. God has forgiven your great debt, the debt that you wouldn’t be able to pay in a million lifetimes is gone. His compassion leads you to show compassion to those who have hurt you. The forgiveness you show flows out of the forgiveness Christ first showed you. Without His forgiveness, we’d never be able to forgive, but in His forgiveness we are changed.
To forgive the debt that is owed to you means you don’t seek payment or retribution. You forgive the debt of your brothers and sisters in Christ because your debt was forgiven. This may difficult hard to you, to erase a debt that someone has incurred by treating you badly, but by God’s grace, through the mercy He showed you, you can show the same compassion. The hurt you feel, or felt, may be real. But if your Lord will wipe out your massive debt, you can wipe out the minor, or not so minor, debts that others owe you. And this will change your relationship with them and reflect the relationship you have with the King.
Jesus’ parable ends with a cautionary tale. He says that when word got back to the king, he angrily chastised the servant, “’You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’” And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt.” The king lays it out for the first servant. If his debt was forgiven, how could he not show the same compassion. We don’t hear the servant respond to the king because there was nothing he could say. He couldn’t possibly defend himself because there was no excuse for his failing to forgive.
To forgive others isn’t an optional thing. We forgive as we’re forgiven. If you hold onto anger, hatred, bitterness, whatever, the compassion of God hasn’t changed you, and your debt remains. Jesus pronounces a severe warning here because forgiveness is the cornerstone of our relationship with God, with other individual Christians and to the whole Church. Forgiveness is the most precious gift God has given to us and we share it with others so that they too will know the joy of having their debt wiped out.
Peter prompted this parable by asking Jesus, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” This sounds fair, if you must forgive, do so, but don’t become a doormat. Jesus though says something different. “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.” In other words, never stop forgiving. Forgiveness isn’t limited when God wipes out our debt, and so there are none when it comes to what other owe. Forgiveness flows from Christ to you to one another, and in it, we are reconciled to Christ and to our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Now the peace which surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen