How Can I Ever Forgive?
A sermon based on Matthew 18:21-35
Sunday, July 14, 2013
The sound of laughing and giggling quieted as recess ended and the smiling kids returned to their seats in their school. Their teacher prepared for the next lesson when a stranger entered the room. He'd lost a small piece of equipment on the roadside outside their school and asked if the teacher or any of the students had seen it. When they said "no" he left, but... he came back. And less than 20 minutes later, 5 little girls were dead and four more were wounded. On October 2, 2006, Charles Carl Roberts IV had let the boys go, then bound the girls, and shot them, with a 9mm gun, before taking his own life in the small, one-room Amish school in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
What a sad and tragic event! An event that, unfortunately, wasn't new to the media. But I'm sure you remember that what was new and what truly shocked the media reporters was the forgiveness that the parents of the slain extended to the gunman's widow, his children, and his family. They were saddened and full of grief and loss, to be sure! But they were not angry. They did not seek revenge or retaliation. They did not sue or demand tighter gun control laws. No. They let it go. They forgave—even the man who brutally and senselessly killed their little girls!
So what I wonder when I hear that story is what if it it wasn't an Amish school in Pennsylvania that was attacked? What if it was an elementary school in Kenai, Alaska? What if it wasn't the girls that were attacked, but boys? What if it were my boys that were shot and killed? Could I forgive the way those parents forgave? Would I forgive the way those parents forgave? ...Would you? How could you ever forgive someone who hurt you like that? For that matter, how could you ever forgive the spouse or ex or "friend" who hurt you and betrayed your trust? How can we ever forgive?
In our sermon text for this morning, Jesus has a tough conversation with us. Speaking to the twelve, Jesus pulls us aside too. And he tells us how in the world we can ever forgive the sins committed against us. Let's listen in and learn the secret. Matthew 18:21-35...
21Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, "Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?" 22Jesus answered, "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven time. 23"Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. 25Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. 26"The servant fell on his knees before him. 'Be patient with me,' he begged, 'and I will pay back everything.' 27The servant's master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go. 28"But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him and began to choke him. 'Pay back what you owe me!' he demanded. 29"His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, 'Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.' 30"But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened. 32"Then the master called the servant in. 'You wicked servant,' he said, 'I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33Shouldn't you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?' 34In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. 35"This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart."
I. God Let Go of the Debt You Owed
Now I don't know who hurt Peter or how, that prompted such a question, but Peter must have thought he was being incredibly generous. You see Rabbinical law had a three strikes and you're out rule: Forgive someone of the same sin three times. After that treat them as an outcast. How generous Peter must have felt, more than doubling the normal forgiveness quota. But Jesus made it clear that to forgive 77 times or even 490 times wasn't enough. In fact, Peter shouldn't even be keeping track. You see, Peter forgot that God wasn't keep track with him. And we sometimes forget the same…
What is the most you've ever been in debt? I'm guesing most of you carry a mortgage, maybe a car payment, perhaps some credit debt on top? It's not a good feeling is it, to be in debt? Germans hate being in debt so much that in the German language the word for "debt," "Schuld," is the same word for "guilt." It's not fun to be in debt. But what were the consequences for that debt? Would you have to cut a few corners and go out a few less times to pay it off? Would some of your stuff be repossessed? Would you and your spouse and even your children be sold into slavery to pay it off?
Imagine how the man of Jesus' parable felt! He owed the king more than he could ever possibly repay. He owed millions of dollars. He could never repay what he owed, even if he and his entire family were sold into a lifetime of slavery. So with no hope at all, he groveled before the king. He begged the king, making promises he knew he couldn't keep. He asked for more time and promised to pay back the whole debt. But the king took pity on the man. Though he only asked for more time, the king gave the man much more. For no other reason than the king's kindness, he canceled the entire debt and let the man go free.
Did you know that the gross national debt is now over $16.9 Trillion! That's a number we can't even imagine. How about this number: $100,000? Can you imagine that much money? That's how much our national debt has been increasing per second! Does that help you with the amount our nation owes? It's an amount that we can never really pay off. Ever!
Well, we owe more than $16.9 Trillion to God. You see for each sin we commit—for each time we refuse to forgive another saying, "Enough is enough! If I forgive again I'll be taken advantage of!"—we deserve hell. For each sin! Augustus Toplady, the author of that famous hymn, Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me, once tried to calculate the debt we owe to God. Calculating one sin per second and graciously omitting the extra days of leap years, he figured that at ten years old each of us is guilty of committing 315,360,000 sins. At twenty the debt grows to 630,720,000. By thirty we've reached 946,080,000. At eighty one each person will have committed an estimated 2,522,880,000 infractions of God's holy law. That means we deserve hell 2,522,880,000 times over! And still we're foolish enough to think that if we're only given enough time, we can make it up to God! What arrogance—which only adds another sin!
And we deserve to have every blessing taken away. We deserve to lose our families! We deserve to be sold into slavery! We deserve far worse than a life of torture! We deserve an eternity of torture in hell for any one sin we've ever committed, for each time we've refused to forgive as we've been forgiven. And there's nothing we can do to pay God back for our sin! We can't make it up to him and we can't undo our sins. All we can do is fall on our knees and beg and plead with him, "Please! Be patient with me! I know I deserve nothing, but please, please, forgive me."
Then something truly amazing happens! God, the king of heaven, takes pity on us—a pity that caused God to act. You see he didn't just ignore our debt of sin like the king in the parable ignored his servants debt. No. God paid for it. He sent his son to suffer far worse than torture in prison. He sent Christ to endure hell on the cross to cancel our debt for us. What amazing grace! That's way, way better than someone saying to you, "Your mortgage, your car payment, your credit card bill—all your debt!—has been paid for! You're debt free!" That's even better than someone saying the gross national debt of $16.9 Trillion has been forgiven! Your sin has been paid for! You're debt free before God! And you know that no matter how wicked the deed, no matter how many times you sin, no matter how great the debt, you have God's forgiveness because Christ paid the debt for you. God has let go of the debt you owed to him! And that drastically changes the way we view the debt owed to us!
II. Let Go of the Debt Owed to You
Now a professor of mine once pointed out the disservice the NIV footnote does in this parable. After "one hundred denarii" in verse 28 it says, "That is, a few dollars." But a denarius was one day's wages. Let's say you make $10/hr and work 8 hours a day. That means a hundred denarii would be worth about $8,000! Now I don't know about you, but $8,000 is a lot of money for me to say, "Don't worry about. Keep the change."
You see, the man wasn't thrown into prison to be tortured because he refused to forgive someone who bumped into him in hall, but someone who caused him real hurt, real damage. Maybe someone hurt Peter badly. Maybe they hurt someone in his family. But for whatever reason, Peter was having a very difficult time forgiving. And Jesus pointed out that that difficulty came because he was forgetting about the forgiveness he had from God.
We too have a hard time forgiving because we somehow think that our sins are more forgivable than others'. But we really have a hard time forgiving because we take our eyes off the cross. An unwillingness to forgive others shows our lack of appreciation for the forgiveness we've recieved. It amounts to a lack of faith in and rejection of the forgiveness God won for you on the cross.
But when we go to the foot of the cross and are reminded again of the full and free forgiveness of the massive debt that we owed to God—a debt we could never pay back—that forgiveness absorbs our hurt and pain like a thousand oceans would absorb a drop of poison. When you're hurt and you ask yourself, "How can I ever forgive him for what he did to me?" or, "How can I ever forgive her for what she did to me?" then close your eyes, and picture Jesus hanging on the cross. Why is he there, suffering, dying, enduring hell itself? For you. To pay for your sins against God that you might be fully forgiven.
And there you'll find the power to forgive others. It may not be pleasant. It may not be easy. And you may still be filled with sorrow and grief at what was done. But you can let go of the anger, let go of the desire to get revenge or seek retaliation, let go of trying to get even or make them pay. Because when you go back to the cross and remember what's been forgiven you—the inestimable debt you could never repay, when you remember the love and mercy and kindness and grace that God has shown to you, then you'll be moved to such gratitude that forgiving other will not seem an obligation of something you have to do, but a joyful opportunity to show your thanks to God for the forgiveness you've received. And instead of asking "How many times do I have to forgive?" You'll ask, "God how can I show my thanks to you and my love toward the one who hurt me?" You'll be moved to forgive joyfully and freely from the heart.
What if your child or spouse or friend were brutally killed in a remorseless rage? Could you forgive the way those Amish parents forgave the one who murdered their children? Yes, you could. Would you forgive the way those parents forgave? By the strength that Jesus gives you by the forgiveness that he's given you can say "Yes, I would forgive those who hurt me." You can say, "Yes. I will forgive those who hurt me." In Jesus name, and by the power of his forgiveness, amen!