16th Sunday after Pentecost “Forgiveness Doesn’t Count”
September 17, 2023 Matthew 18:21-35
Dear brothers & sisters in Christ,
Forgiveness doesn’t count. Oh, I don’t’ mean ‘it doesn’t matter’; it does; it’s everything! But Jesus teaches in Matt.18 that forgiveness ‘doesn’t keep score’, it doesn’t count. It doesn’t keep track of how many times it has to forgive, or how much sin it has to have mercy on. That’s the way it is with God toward us; so Jesus says that’s the way it is with us toward one another. God forgives us = freely, fully, completely. And so we are to forgive others fully, without keeping score. Eph.4:32 says, ‘forgive one another as God in Christ forgave you.’
Our Gospel lesson is ‘The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant’ in Matt.18. In the first part of Matthew 18, Jesus has been teaching His disciples about life in His NT Church, about how we are to deal with a brother who sins against us; it is by repentance & forgiveness, to win them back. So that prompts a question from Peter: “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” The rabbis taught that 3 times was sufficient, so Peter is feeling pretty generous; double it, & throw in one for good measure.
But forgiveness is a God-thing, not a man-thing. And God says: “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.” Whoa! Maybe Peter got a ‘C’ in math; so do you think he stoops down & writes in the sand. ‘let’s see, 0, carry the 4&9. Lord, that’s a lot to keep track of; I’ll probably punch the guy after 100 times, but I’ll try to hold back until 491 times. At least I know the limit.’ (no, I don’t think Peter did that)
Jesus’ lesson here is that God’s people are to reflect God’s forgiveness. By picking such a ridiculously high number, Jesus is saying, ‘just forgive,’ whether it’s the first time or the 491st. Because God’s Forgiveness doesn’t count.
We understand that’s Jesus’ point, because He goes on to tell this parable = an earthly story with a heavenly point. One denarius was a day’s wage, and one talent was 20 yrs wages. A servant owed the king ten thousand talents = 200,000 yrs wages; let’s just say it was a bazillion dollars. He had probably been investing in ‘climate change’ companies & electric chariots and refused to admit that the science wasn’t on his side. Anyway, it was a huge debt.
But the king & his taxpayers are not an endless supply, so the servant is brought before the king to settle the account; & the man is shaking in his boots because he knows he has no means whatsoever to pay off this enormous debt, and he knows what the king could do to him.
By his power & authority, and according to justice, this king should’ve confiscated his family & all this guy had, tossed him in the hoosegow & thrown away the key, leaving him there to rot in debtors’ prison. But the king also has other powers. So instead, the master has mercy on his servant, and forgives him his huge debt, and releases him.
So now the servant is free. And wow, he’s been shown a powerful lesson about mercy & forgiveness. And yet, it’s clear he didn’t learn the lesson because the first thing he does with his freedom is to go out & find a fellow servant who owes him some money; but such a small amount by comparison. After receiving mercy-times-a-bazillion, he shows no mercy toward the man who owes him a few dollars. It IS this servant’s right to have that man thrown into prison, and he does. This unmerciful servant has obviously not learned how forgiveness works in this kingdom. Even tho he has been treated with undeserved grace under the king’s umbrella of mercy he still wants to operate in the old way of scorekeeping & the law & unbendable justice. Sadly, he has rejected the ways of his king.
The king finds out & is utterly offended by the ingratitude. If the man wants to be a servant of the law instead of a servant of the king, so be it. Go directly to jail; do not pass go & do not collect $200. Jesus ends the parable using the Law: “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
The Bible teaches us many things about the law and about mercy; the lesson here is clear: Forgiveness is the way it works in God’s kingdom. If you want to operate on some other basis, if you’re intent on scorekeeping & payback, you yourself would be in a heap of trouble & exclude yourself from His kingdom. Counting is not how your heavenly Father has dealt with you. So why do you act that way toward your fellow sinner – who is also precious to our King? In Christ, God has forgiven that other person, just as He has forgiven you.
That wicked servant acted as tho he was greater than his king; he made an idol of himself. That’s what happens when God forgives a person and we don’t think we have to.
But who are we to not forgive someone for whom Jesus went to cross? Who are you, O sinner, to not forgive someone else, when you yourself have had all your sins debt dismissed by God?
A point here is that non-forgiveness is a matter of idolatry & ingratitude. It is to reject the ways of God’s kingdom; to enjoy the gospel ourselves, but to only apply the law to others.
By a simple parable, the HSp stirs in our hearts a prayer: ‘For all our non-forgiveness, forgive us, O Lord! Give us a new and merciful heart, reflecting the mercy you have shown toward us! That other person has wronged us; but help us to realize that your forgiveness is for them. Lord, I often want to keep count; but You are not keeping score. Help us to forgive, as we have been forgiven.’
Since Jesus teaches us about forgiveness over & over again in the gospels, it means two things: 1) it’s vitally important, and 2) he knows how slow of heart & mind we can be to grasp it. His mercy toward all sinners, & our love toward one another, these are major themes in Jesus’ teaching to all who will follow Him.
He also puts this teaching into the prayer He gave us to pray. It is His 5th petition: “And forgive us our trespasses – as we forgive those who trespass against us.” On every day we pray that prayer & ask for God’s forgiveness, we’re reminded to extend that forgiveness toward those who do us wrong also. We admit: I’m not the only sinner God has forgiven. Christ death has also forgiven that other jerk who wronged me.
And there it is: we’re down to the brass tack. Forgiveness has everything to do with the death of Jesus Christ for sinners. He not only died for me & you. 1Jn.2:2 declares: “He is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only – but also for the sins of the whole world.”
Jesus also died for that person who sinned against you; for that person you don’t like because they did you wrong. But then, about 50% of the time, I’m the jerk who does wrong to someone else. And since God’s Law does keep count, our debt is about a bazillion. Do you & I dare measure the offenses we have committed in our thoughts, words & deeds? And what about those sins of ‘omission’ = not doing the good & kind things we should?
So we’re all in the same boat here. Given life by the same Creator, living under His domain, and covered under the single plan of rescue by His grace in Christ. We’d all be up a creek without a paddle if it were not for the deep pity & wide mercy that our King has demonstrated at the cross for every one of us. Forgiveness is the way of His kingdom; there is no other way.
Repentance, forgiveness, love. This is the way of the ‘family’; whether in a household or in a congregation. We need forgiveness in order to live together as a family. The infection of sin makes it difficult. The more time people spend together, & the closer they are, the more opportunities there are to hurt one another. God’s solution for peace & harmony is humble repentance and full forgiveness. And that IS possible because we have been given this new life in Christ; we belong to & follow our forgiving King.
Remember Him; He’s the key. Jesus Christ is the King who has shown the inexhaustible mercy of God. The Heavenly Father sent The Son to take the sin of world, including all of your enormous, unpayable debt, and He paid the price by His death. His holy innocent blood is of infinite value, because He is the infinite Son of God. At the foot of the cross is where we learn forgiveness. In Holy Baptism, God washed you in forgiveness & made you His child, to reflect His character. In our Sunday worship, by His Holy Absolution, God continues to forgive you countless sins. In Holy Communion, you receive Christ’s very body & blood for the forgiveness of sins. Forgiveness is at the heart of His Kingdom. Forgiveness is keeping the gate of heaven open for you.
In a sermon on the Unforgiving Servant, Dr. Martin Luther says this: “Should we then
bite and scratch each other like dogs and cats? No, but we should heartily forgive and ask: [Why] should I accuse my brother (or sister)? If God is merciful to me, and for the sake of His Son Jesus Christ forgives me so great a debt, why should I make so much ado about a penny or two? I will call it square, forgive and forget, and thank God that He has forgiven me and made me a partaker of His grace.”
King Jesus took up the cross to stop the Law & its scorekeeping. With Him is full forgiveness; & forgiveness doesn’t count. That’s the way of His kingdom; and He says this is the way it is for all who believe His promise and follow Him. When we ask with Peter: ‘Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgiven him?’ Our King says: ‘forgive one another as God in Christ forgave you.’