Sunday, September 14, 2008

What Will You Do?

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Holy Cross Day
Sunday, September 14, 2008
Matthew 18:21-35

What will you do when your brother Christian sins against you? You will forgive him, of course. That’s what Christians do. What will you do when he sins against you again? And again. And then again? And, you probably know where this is going. It would get wearisome to keep forgiving the one who keeps sinning against you after he has repented each time. Wouldn’t you be giving him the message that what he’s doing is really okay? Is this really what Jesus wants us to do?

We can imagine this is what was on Peter’s mind. He was thinking maybe seven times would be a very gracious gesture. After all, we can only put up with so much. But Jesus isn’t interested in gracious gestures. He’s interested in mercy. He concerned with compassion and forgiveness. For all you math people, you can figure this out, don’t forgive seven times, but seventy times seven. And for those of you who need to use a calculator, I’ll save you the trouble: it’s 490 times.

But His point is not really the math of it all. It’s more about what forgiveness actually is. To do this, He does what He so often does, He tells a parable. He tells us of a king whose mercy is immeasurable. Strangely, the parable goes on and the king’s action toward the man at the end seems excessively harsh. Jesus’ summary of the parable is disturbing—there’s no Gospel here, only the harshest of Law.

So what is Jesus teaching us about forgiveness with this parable? Which is harder to say, I’m sorry, or, I forgive you? It’s really hard to say you’re sorry. To admit you’re wrong, to humble yourself in order to be reconciled to a person you’ve harmed, that’s hard. But is it easy to forgive? Maybe one time it is. But what if the person keeps sinning against you? How easy is it to forgive them then? Won’t you start feeling like they’re taking advantage of you? Won’t you just be giving them the green light to keep doing what they’re doing to you? Are they really sorry, or are they just taking advantage of you?

These are questions we have. We have them because it’s hard to forgive. We may forgive, but do we forget? We may let bygones be bygones, but do we wonder if they might do it again? Wouldn’t we feel better if they somehow made it up to us, then we’d know that they’ve really seen how badly they hurt us and might think twice about doing it again?

What does Jesus show us in the king of the parable? Does he ask questions of the servant? Does he put stipulations on him? The servant owes a debt to the king that is impossible to pay back. Summoned to the king, he has no hope except to appeal to the king to give him more time to get the money. But there will be no getting the money. The debt is beyond what he could ever imagine owning. But the king has no interest in hearing the man’s plea for more time. Instead, he forgives him the debt. It’s impossible for you to pay it, but I won’t sell you off, and your effort to pay it back is just that, an effort. The man walks away from the king as if he had never owed him a thing.

That’s what forgiveness is. The king is a picture of God. We know what kind of a God He is, He is the God who forgives. So we know what forgiveness is all about. It is not about holding accountable.

This is all fine and well when it comes to God forgiving us. That’s easy. We can hear about that all day long. What about when it comes to us forgiving others? If we like to hear about God forgiving us, do we want to hear that we don’t have to forgive others? Does free grace from God mean that we are free to hold others accountable? Are we uneasy with Jesus’ portrayal of the merciful king who turns in anger on the servant to send him to prison to be tortured and never to be released?

And this is not just some story about a servant who did not forgive as he had been forgiven. Jesus says why He told this parable: “So also My heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” So there is God’s forgiveness of you—and that’s fantastic!—but then there is the injunction upon you to forgive others. As He even teaches us to pray in the Lord’s Prayer: “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Are we eager to hear the second as much as the first?

But the even more pressing question is this: How? How are we to do what Jesus is here commanding us to do? We’re well aware of how unwilling we are to forgive others as we have been forgiven by our Lord. We know that we tend to hold on to grudges rather than freely absolve those who sin against us. If we are to forgive others as we have been forgiven by God, what hope do we have? How do we reconcile the mercy of God upon us with the demand to forgive others willingly, freely, gladly? We can’t.

His parable ends with no hope. His closing warning leaves us in judgment. We are in the position of the servant who owed an insurmountable debt to the king but held accountable to him. Jesus doesn’t give us the answer in the parable. But He does give us the answer. Why would He have come all the way down to earth only to tell us of an insurmountable debt we have to God the Father? He is the answer. He came to be the reason why our Heavenly Father forgives our debt. The very judgment He proclaims upon us He Himself undergoes. He has no debt to pay to God the Father, He Himself is God. Yet, He paid the debt. Tortured, condemned, forsaken by God, He paid the debt as if He was the one who was the sinner. We’re often so unwilling to forgive when Jesus willingly, even gladly, walks the path, not to prison, but to suffering for the sin and guilt of debtors such as you and I.

So what will you do? There is nothing you can do. You are too often like the servant who is freely forgiven and then walks away unwilling to forgive others. The only thing you can do is ask what Jesus has done for you. After all, why did Jesus give us the parable? To show us that He is the answer, right? There is only hope in Christ and only despair or self-congratulation in ourselves. God does not put us through hoops. He simply forgives. Because of Christ. In Christ. Through Christ. On account of Christ. And because it is so, you will forgive freely and joyfully because it not you who live but Christ who lives in you. Amen.


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