Our text is today’s Gospel: 21 Then Peter came up and said to [Jesus], “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven. 23 “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. 24 When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. 25 And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. 26 So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. 31 When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. 32 Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. 35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” (ESV)
Do you understand the way forgiveness works? Peter did not understand. The standard teaching of the day was that it was sufficient to forgive someone three times, but of course they had to be sorry and full of remorse. Peter thinks himself generous and pious with his suggestion of seven times. However, Peter falls desperately short of God’s understanding of mercy, which is endless. Putting a limit on forgiveness is identical to putting conditions on God’s grace, on God’s undeserved favour. And in such a case, forgiveness is no longer forgiveness, and grace is no longer grace.
And so, to teach Peter and us the true nature of forgiveness, our Lord Jesus tells a parable. There is a king, and of course this king is Jesus, for we are talking about the Kingdom of heaven. The king calls in a servant who owes him ten thousand talents. Now, just one talent is about twenty years worth of wages. Can you imagine, then, how catastrophic a debt is ten thousand talents. Working daily, a person would have to work sixty million days, or 164,384 years, or roughly 2,529 lifetimes to pay off the debt!
Here is where we see that the servant does not understand forgiveness. In fact, neither does his fellow servant. You see, they both ask for patience, for more time to pay off their debts. In the case of the second servant, that would be doable, for he only owes the first servant about four month’s salary. But the first servant owes the king a debt he cannot possibly pay. And yet, here he is asking for patience, for more time. Do you see? He is NOT asking for mercy, for forgiveness; rather, he thinks he can take care of his debt himself.
The king, though, ignores the servant’s plea for time. The king simply forgives the debt and dismisses the servant with nothing owed. Now, the king does not ignore the debt; rather, he absorbs the debt, he takes on the debt himself. Here, we see that Jesus is a gracious king, who loves to forgive undeserving sinners, who can never dig themselves out of the deep pit of sin into which they have fallen. The servant’s problem is that he begged for too little; he merely asked for time. And yet, he received much more than he asked for; he gained his life.
Sadly, though, the servant does not appreciate the king’s gift of mercy and forgiveness. In fact, he despises this gift. He actually thinks that, given enough time, he can pay off the debt himself. This is a form of idolatry, by which one rejects God’s grace in Christ and follows after a religion of salvation by human works and merit. This idolatrous religion also leads to withholding mercy and forgiveness from others, and instead condemning them, as the first servant ended up condemning the second servant, who only owed him a few months’ salary. And in the end, this idolatrous religion leads to damnation, as the king delivers the sinner who despises His mercy over to hell. The fate of this first servant is a warning to us all, for our Lord Jesus says to you and to me: so also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.
In today’s Gospel, our Lord Jesus is giving us some crucial lessons on true forgiveness.
First, do not ever try to limit forgiveness, as St. Peter did with his offer to forgive up to seven times. Now, it may not be appropriate for us to say “I forgive you” to someone who has not asked for our forgiveness, for then they might think they do not need to repent. But we must always forgive from the heart, even as our Lord Jesus prayed from the cross: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do (Luke 23:34). If you exclude certain sinners from your forgiveness or if you set a limit on how many times you will forgive, then you are setting conditions on God’s grace. And in such a case, forgiveness is no longer forgiveness, and grace is no longer grace. Remember that you yourself do not deserve God’s grace, God’s favour. And remember that God’s mercy in Christ Jesus is endless.
Second, do not come to God asking for more time to get your life in order. I pray that you do not come to church merely to ask God to be patient with you, for then you are asking for far too little! And the truth is that you will never get your act together enough to earn heaven—it cannot be done. Rather, I pray that you come each week to church with a broken, contrite heart, confessing the great debt of your sins and also trusting God to forgive you, solely for the sake of Christ.
Third, understand this: that other people’s sins against you are a very small debt compared to the debt you owe God. The ratio in today’s Gospel is over 2,500 lifetimes to just four months! Now, if God forgives you all your catastrophic debt to Him for the sake of Christ, does not such amazing grace compel you to forgive those who have sinned against you?
Fourth, confess that you are a sinner who has sinned against both God and neighbour. But also trust that God’s mercy is greater than your sins. Follow the example of John Newton, a slave trader who became a Christian and also a pastor, and who wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace”. Confessing himself to be a poor, miserable sinner, Newton would boast of the mercy of Jesus: “I am a great sinner,” Newton would say, “but Jesus is a greater Saviour.” If you do not see yourself as a great sinner, then you will feel little need for the Saviour Jesus and His mercy. And those who despise the Lord’s mercy end up withholding mercy from others. And to those who do not forgive other sinners from the heart, the heavenly Father will do to them as King Jesus did to the servant in today’s parable. To despise the Lord’s mercy and to withhold mercy from others is really idolatry and unbelief and leads one down the broad road to hell.
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, this parable is our Lord’s call to you and me to repent. Repent! For we are as miserable, rotten, and poor as the servant in the parable. The debt of our sins before God is astronomical, but we have lived as though our sins were microscopic and as though others’ sins against us were ginormous. Repent! Fall down before the throne of your heavenly King, and do not ask Him to be patient as you straighten out your life, but beg for His mercy. Give up your lying promise to repay your debts. For you have nothing to offer, nothing to give, to the Creator of the universe. Confess your guilt. And in confessing your guilt, also trust in the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ dying to save sinners. For the Gospel is God’s message for people oppressed with the burden of grievous sins and guilty consciences.
This Gospel is for you. And so, rejoice! Rejoice, for your heavenly Father has mercy upon you. He forgives you the entirety of your catastrophic debt, pronouncing you free from all payments. In your sinful foolishness, you think your sins to be small and you often have sought only for time, promising to repay on your own terms. And yet, your Father in heaven gives you more, much more. He gives you forgiveness, peace, life, and salvation. For your heavenly Father, moved by grace and mercy, sent forth His only Son and the Prince of Life, to take up your flesh and your debt. Jesus, God’s Son, came as your sin-bearer. Having no debt of His own, the debt of humanity was etched into His flesh with whips and thorns. And Jesus was nailed to the tree of the cross in your place. And there, on the Good Friday cross, the ledger of your transgressions was burned in the fire of God’s holy wrath; yes, the record of your sins was burned to ashes which have been blown away by the Holy Spirit as far as the east is from the west. As St. Paul writes: And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with [Christ], having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross (Colossians 2:13-14).
Jesus had no debt of His own, so He took your debt and made it His debt. He took your punishment, your bondage, your suffering, and He made it His punishment, His bondage, His suffering. For it is you who should be punished for your debts. It is you who should be sold into the bondage of Satan in the prison of hell. It is you who should suffer at the hands of the wicked prison guards. But in spite of all this that you deserve, you will suffer none of this. For the Son of God has anulled the note written against you. Yes, the record of your sinful debt has been placed upon Jesus, dying on the cross. And now, the mercy of King Jesus comes to you by the waters of Holy Baptism, by the Body and Blood of His Supper, and by the preaching of His Holy Word.
Now, the first servant into today’s Gospel is a warning to us all. For the king takes upon Himself the servant’s catastrophic debt and fully forgives this servant. And yet, this forgiven servant refuses to forgive the meager debt of another. He who received the king’s mercy withholds that mercy from another. He is unyielding, unforgiving, unrelenting. His is the condemnation of the untouched heart. So the king recalls his servant and hands him over to the torturers. Christ concludes, so also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.
King Jesus is telling you this parable because He does not want you to follow in the way of this unbelieving servant. And what’s more, King Jesus gives what you do not deserve. He gives you His grace, mercy, and forgiveness in abundance, so that you learn forgiveness well. For by Christ’s forgiveness, you are righteous before God, acceptable to Him, holy and wise. And having been filled with the fruit of righteousness, which comes from Jesus Christ, God’s mercy overflows in your body. His forgiveness flows out of your mouth and into your neighbour’s ears. Yes, God’s mercy in Christ flows into you and then also out of you in overflowing abundance, so that, in Christ, you show mercy to those have sinned against you.
You forgive others because God first took the initiative to forgive you. In Christ Jesus, God lifted from you the great debt you owed God because of your sins. In Christ, God mercied you. And so, now you mercy other sinners in the Name of Jesus.
Now, as you forgive others, you may still struggle with strong emotions because of the deep hurt and pain others have inflicted upon you. It is okay to have that struggle. You see, to forgive does NOT mean you will stop feeling the hurt and perhaps even the resentment of being sinned against. Rather, to forgive has to do with releasing. To forgive is to release someone else from the retribution and retaliation that they very well may deserve to receive. This is something only Christians can do, to allow God’s forgiveness in Christ to flow through them to others even when the Old Adam, the sinful nature, in them does not want to and cannot do it. In other words, your forgiving others is the Holy Spirit working in your renewed will, even when your emotions may need to be dragged kicking and screaming into this new reality of showing mercy. And so, do not be distressed when you still feel anger or hurt long after you have forgiven another person. The truth is that, by God ’s grace, in forgiving that person, you have released them from your retribution and retaliation, with the hope and prayer that they will come to repent and rejoice in God’s forgiveness. You may struggle with feelings of hostility or anxiety long after you have forgiven someone, but you should never doubt the fact of God’s unlimited forgiveness in Jesus Christ, nor should you doubt your past act of forgiving another sinner. Feelings may cloud the mind and heart, but they cannot trump the promises of God.
Of course, there is a way in which our forgiveness is different than God’s forgiveness. When a person sins against us in such a way as to cause wounds that take years to heal or perhaps scars that will be evident until the end of this earthly life, then it may be that we need to forgive that person every time we see them or think of them. It is not that you had ever refused to forgive them; rather, it just means that for the sake of fragile human relationships and for peace of spirit, you need to forgive them from the heart again and again. But when God forgives, He forgives completely and utterly; as far as the east is from the west, so far does [God] remove our transgressions from us (Psalm 103:12). Although our consciences and our acquaintances may keep reminding us of past transgressions, there is no need for God to forgive the same sins over and over again; Christ died once for all time.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus shows Himself to be a gracious, generous King, whose heart’s desire is to show mercy. Oh, He does warn us that to steadfastly refuse His mercy and to withhold mercy from others is a life of unbelief, a life that lead to damnation when God Himself condemns such wickedness on the Last Day. But thanks be to God, King Jesus has a heart of mercy. And rather than give sinners time to pay off their debt, He takes that enormous debt upon Himself. Yes, thanks be to God that even our unforgiving hearts are forgiven by the blood of the Lamb, who takes away the sin of the world. The absolution and mercy of the heavenly King is complete. The King’s mercy covers all debts, even your debt and mine. The King has mercied us all in overflowing abundance. And now we mercy others in Jesus’ Name. Thanks be to God! Amen.