Sermon text: Matthew 18:21-35
A THANKFUL HEART IS A FORGIVING HEART
Prayer: Dear Lord, it must be an incredibly important thing to forgive those who sin against us, since You have taught us to say it in the Lord’s Prayer. We ask You – who forgive us all our guilt for the sake of Jesus’ blood – to give us kind and forgiving hearts, so that we gladly forgive each other as if we’re standing before You, yes, really “from our heart to forgive our brother his trespasses.” Amen. (adapted from N.J. Laache, Book of Family Prayer, p. 652)
Dear people loved by God in Christ, who has paid all our debt: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
I hope you pray the Lord’s Prayer every day and not just on Sunday. If you do, every day you say, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
Whenever we teach about this in church, we spend most of our time on the forgive-us-our-trespasses part. This is where you ask God to forgive you all your sins. This is important! Nothing more important than being forgiven by God! This is “justification” – which means that God declares you “not guilty” of your sins, because of what Jesus did for you. When you say, “Forgive us our trespasses,” you can be sure God says: “I forgive you.”
But then we don’t spend nearly as much time on the second part: “as we forgive those who trespass against us.” I think we need to spend a lot more time on this part, judging from how things go in the Christian Church.
“What?” you may wonder. “Pastor, just who isn’t forgiving who?” We would think – yes, expect – that “not-forgiving” is a problem out in the world; but when you come in here, in God’s church, you expect people to forgive. Wouldn’t you expect that? Out there, in the world, people won’t have patience with you, that’s too much to expect; but in here, in the church, you expect that here there would be patience for each other.
And yet what do we find? Often it’s criticism and complaint. Judging one another harshly. People getting offended, holding onto resentments even from long ago. Even here people scheme how to get their way, and those who “lose out” get embittered. Even in the church, what do you see? People being angry, staying angry, staying away. Leaving the church. One of the top reasons people give for leaving the church is that they were hurt.
This is the devil’s “back-door attack” on the church. The front-door attack is his attack on faith, trying to get people not to believe. But the back-door attack is the devil’s attack on love. People leave the church, often not because their faith changes, but because they experience a loveless way of existing, or at least very conditional acceptance in the place where above all else they should be receiving unconditional love and support as sinners who all receive God’s forgiveness, mercy, and patience.
It’s amazing, since it’s right there in the Lord’s Prayer that we say by heart. So we need to spend more time on this. But we can take solace in the fact that the disciples needed lots of instruction on it. Just read the gospels. They seem like the grudge-holding-est 12 guys you’ll ever find.
And we can learn from Jesus, who did spend a lot of time on it. He had taught them the Lord’s Prayer two times already, and once – in the Sermon on the Mount – after teaching them this prayer He spent more time on this “as-we-forgive” part. He said: “If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Mt 6:14).
Now Jesus receives another “opportunity” to teach it. Peter asked Jesus: “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus’ first answer is to say: “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.” As if to say: There’s no limit.
Peter is thinking of forgiveness as a transaction. This sin has to match this forgiveness. He’s counting, and when you count you get tired of it, it has to end. He’s making sure it comes out even. But God doesn’t count. His forgiveness is an ocean in which all the sins, no matter how many, drown!
So then Jesus decides on the spot to tell this parable to illustrate it. What is happening here is that this master is ready to “settle accounts” with his servants. They have debts that they owe him, and he starts with one “who owed him 10,000 talents.” Just one “talent” was 20 years of wages, so this is a ridiculously unpayable debt. Here you go, Peter: it’s uncountable.
This is like our sins. We think about the sins we know, or the ones in our memory, and perhaps we only think of a few main ones. But this is the settling of accounts. This is how it would look on Judgment Day.
If you took all the years of your life, all your days, all your moments, and not only what you did on the outside but what you thought and felt on the inside, and not only how you did what God’s laws say not to, but also how you failed to do the good that God requires of us, and this applies to whenever you were at work, when the boss is looking and when no one is looking, and whenever you were at school, whether in class or just hanging out, and at home, all the thoughts that you hide, it is uncountable! And it’s what God thinks of it. He sees it. He sees all the debt of your sin.
So now in the parable after the master declares the punishment, and the man pleads, “have patience with me,” then comes the beautiful statement that the master “was moved with compassion.” Having been told how he felt, we hear what he does: “He released him, and forgave him the debt.” Just wipes it out. Later he says to him: “I forgave you all that debt.” This is such a relief! The man was going to be thrown into prison, with his wife and children, and he had no way of paying it and getting out. And now he’s relieved. You can bet he was thankful, if just for a moment (as we see).
Of course what the king, or master, does, represents God. When it says the king “was moved with compassion,” this is what we hear of Jesus several times: He was moved with compassion. But it isn’t only what He felt, it’s what He did. Jesus took everyone’s uncountable debt of sin – yours too – and paid for it all Himself.
What the master in the story says, God says to you: “I forgave you all that debt.” God even has the pastor here to say these words from the Lord, and puts it in present tense: “I forgive you all that debt.” What a relief!
That’s how we are with our sins, when God forgives us: relieved, thankful. But perhaps that’s the point: Are we thankful? Are we relieved? Or is God’s forgiveness just assumed by us, is it no big deal to us?
See what happens next in the story. The man who felt such relief, who was thankful for a moment, goes and doesn’t forgive a man who owes him a tiny bit in comparison. He makes his fellow servant have to pay it. So the master now calls him not “forgiven servant,” but “you wicked servant!” He says: “Should you not have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?”
Mercy is kindness that can’t be earned or even repaid. That’s what God gives you. That’s what Jesus wants us to know and remember. He gives it to you not as a transaction, not something just to receive – but something to live in.
It all goes back to that sense of relief for God’s mercy. It all goes back to giving thanks for such mercy. A thankful heart will be a forgiving heart. When we can’t forgive, when we hold onto resentment and anger, it is because we’re not seeing or remembering that that God in Christ forgives us; we’re not being thankful enough for that to forgive others.
That’s how it is with the love that God wants us to show, in whatever form. It comes from faith, yes. But really it comes from being thankful for the Gospel. This thanks produces works of love, including a willingness to forgive. When this love isn’t what it should be, it’s because we aren’t thankful enough for God’s forgiveness of us.
This is something about forgiving that you won’t hear out in the world. The world doesn’t believe in Judgment Day, the settling of accounts. The Church does. When you come face to face with Judgment Day, with God the Judge, who sees your huge pile of sins, suddenly all those smaller offenses against you are nothing. All this self-righteous indignation, counting grievances, setting yourself up as a judge over others, it goes away. But when you hear that your Judge erases and forgives all your debt, it is that sense of relief that makes a difference. You give thanks.
This is how you can forgive others. If you struggle to forgive or get rid of anger, then hear that God forgives you, and experience the relief of that, be given a thankful heart. You can give thanks that you’re with other “fellow servants,” all of whom are being forgiven huge debts. It’s a community of us, all being forgiven huge debts. We give thanks by showing love and mercy to each other. We’re a community that lives in God’s mercy! Amen!