Forgive Like God
A sermon based on Matthew 18:21-35
Sunday, October 5, 2014 – Pentecost 17A
For two years the young man sat in prison. There was no parole. There was no TV. There were no visitations from outsiders. There were no rights guaranteed to the inmates. And what it made it even worse, was that he was innocent of the crimes of which he was accused and for which he sat in prison.
But rewind a few years earlier. What brought him to this point? His family. It was his own brothers who stabbed him in the back. They were jealous of their father's love and after contemplating murder, they eventually just sold their little brother into slavery. Grown men in their 40's and 50's sold their teenage brother into a life of slavery because daddy loved him more.
And now, after thriving as a slave for a while, he was wrongly accused of trying to rape his master's wife, when he refused to be seduced by her. And Joseph sat in prison for more than two years before he was rescued from prison and elevated to second in command in Egypt.
Now his brothers stood before him. And Joseph revealed his identity. Sheer terror must have struck the hearts of those brothers. Would Joseph have them imprisoned, just as he had been? Would he have them sold into a life of slavery, just as he had been a slave? Would he have them executed for their crimes? It was certainly within his power.
But instead Joseph forgave them:
But Joseph said to them, "Don't be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don't be afraid. I will provide for you and your children." And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them. (Genesis 50:19-21)
That makes me wonder: What if I went through what Joseph did? What if it were my brother who sold me out? Could I forgive my brother the way Joseph forgave his? Would I forgive the way Joseph forgave? ...Would you? How could you ever forgive someone who hurt you like that? For that matter, how could you ever forgive the parents or child or spouse or ex or "friend" who sold you out, 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 we can 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. Forgiven by God
What a terrifying prayer the Lord's prayer is, isn't it? "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us…"?! Do we really mean what we say? I mean, wouldn't it be better to simply pray, "Forgive us our trespasses"? Do we really want God to forgive us as we forgive—in the exact same way?
Peter must have thought he was being generous in forgiving up to seven times. Rabbinical law stated three strikes and your out. Forgive the same sin three times and you can be done. (And we discussed what Jesus meant in the three guidelines of "church discipline" last week. These aren't just three steps, three strikes and you're out. Go home and read that sermon online if you missed it.) But Peter must have felt very generous more than doubling the number of strikes.
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...
This week we celebrated a big event in our household. We celebrated… PFD-Day! With $1,884 per member of the Guenther family automatically deposited into our bank account, it means that the Guenthers are very close to getting out of debt!
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 the mafia come and break your legs? Would you and your spouse and 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. One talent was 300 years' wages. And he owed 10,000 talents. Let's say you only make $30,000 per year. At that salary, this man owed $30 billion! The point is, he could never repay what he owed. Even if he and his entire family were sold into a lifetime of slavery, they weren't worth that much. 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—all $30 billion—and let the man go free.
Did you know that the gross national debt is now over $17.8 trillion! (That's up $8.1 trillion dollars from when I preached on this text in 2009! That means our national debt is growing by more than $1.5 trillion each year.) That number is staggering, isn't it? It's a number we can't even imagine. It's an amount that we can never really pay off. Ever!
Well, we owe more than $17.8 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 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 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? We can pay him back? We can earn his favor? No way!
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 the 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 getting a few PFD's. It's 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!" Your sin has been paid for! You're debt free before God because Christ paid the debt for you. God has forgiven you! And that drastically changes the way we view the debt owed to us!
II. Forgive Like God
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. You keep it."
You see, the point is that the man wasn't thrown into prison to be tortured because he refused to forgive someone who bumped into him in the hallway, 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 difficult time forgiving. And Jesus pointed out that that difficulty came because he was forgetting about the forgiveness he had from God.
Now, I know that some of you have had some very real pain inflicted on you by someone you love (or once loved)—by your parents, by a child, by your spouse, by you ex. And they're real hurts, not just a bump in the hallway. Some are pains that I can only imagine. But Jesus calls you to forgive those sins. But it's not easy, is it?
Why not? Well, we, just like Peter, have a hard time forgiving because we somehow think that our sins are more forgivable than others'. We 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 that we've recieved. "My sin isn't that bad. It's not like what they did to me."
But when we go to the foot of the cross, we're reminded again of the full and free forgiveness of the massive debt that we owed to God--a debt we could never pay back. And 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? 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 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 must I forgive?" You'll ask, "God how can I show my thanks to you and love toward the one who hurt me?" You'll be moved to forgive joyfully and freely from the heart.
What if you were sold into slavery, wrongly accused, and thrown into prison? Could you forgive the way that Joseph forgave his brothers? Yes, you could. Would you forgive the way Joseph forgave? By the strength that Jesus gives you, by the forgiveness that he's given you, you can say "Yes, I would forgive those who hurt me." You can say, "Yes. I do forgive those who hurt me." In Jesus name, and by the power of his forgiveness, amen!