The Reading from Holy Scripture: Matthew 18:21–35 (ESV)
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.”
We are all heavily in debt to God. You must either keep God’s Law perfectly or you must pay the penalty for your sins and be imprisoned for all eternity. That is the debt, the obligation, the claim God has placed upon you. But what are you to do? For you to fulfill God’s Law is plainly impossible, and the thought of perishing in hell is absolutely intolerable. God’s Law ends up accusing you of being a sinner and declaring God to be the inflexible Judge, the almighty Executor of the sentence of damnation upon you.
You cannot deceive God, nor can you hide from Him. Whither, then, shall you flee? There is only One Person to whom you can fly for refuge: Jesus Christ, your blessèd Redeemer and Saviour. Great indeed are your sins, but far greater is the satisfaction Jesus has made for your sins. You owe God a tremendous debt: either keep God’s Law perfectly or perish forever. But Jesus made the full and final satisfaction of that debt by living a sinless, holy life and by suffering your condemnation in His death on the cross.
The crucified and risen Jesus, God’s Son, has now placed you in a new status with God through Holy Baptism. You are now a holy child of God. And so, though your sins cry out to heaven for vengeance, still more strongly cries out Christ’s blood shed for your sins. Your sins still mightily accuse you before God; but our Lord’s passion—His suffering and death— is mightier for your defense. Your dreadfully wicked life clamours for your condemnation; but Christ’s holy and righteous life pleads more powerfully still for your salvation. And so your sins do not condemn you. For as one who is baptized, you no longer live under God’s condemnation but under God’s mercy. As St. Paul proclaims: God has not destined [you] for wrath, but to obtain salvation through [y]our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Thessalonians 5:9).
In Christ, you live under God’s mercy, grace, and salvation; however, it is possible for you to place yourself once again under God’s wrath, judgment, and condemnation. This is what happens when you refuse to forgive those who have sinned against you.
Again and again Jesus speaks of how tragic it is to be an unforgiving person. In teaching His disciples to pray what we now call “the Lord’s Prayer”, Jesus stressed the importance of our forgiving others: for if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you,but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses (Matthew 6:14-15). Jesus says the same thing in the parable of the unmerciful servant who would have no compassion with his fellow servant even though he himself had been forgiven all his debts.
But why is this forgiving so important? Because forgiving others is evidence that Christ Jesus dwells in our hearts. Faith cannot be found in the heart unless Christ is also found there. Where Christ is found, there is the forgiveness of sins—not only God’s forgiveness for you but also your forgiveness for others. With Christ dwelling in you, there is a new power and a new will at work in you, empowering you to forgive others as God in Christ forgave you (Ephesians 4:32). To refuse to forgive is one of the clearest evidences that a person has not received forgiveness and is not able to receive it. Such a person may think he or she has saving faith, but it is only an imaginary faith. It is of the head and not of the heart. For a heart devoid of forgiveness for others is a heart empty of Christ and true faith.
God’s forgiveness is boundless, and our need for God’s forgiveness is just as unlimited. Christ poured out His blood for many for the forgiveness of sins (Matthew 26:28). We who confess Jesus as Lord—we have an unending, overflowing portion in this forgiveness. Over our whole life there is written this promise: “For the sake of Christ, God has forgiven us all our sins”. And as throughout our lives God continually forgives us, so we too must learn to offer forgiveness to others without calculation. We have received freely, we must also give freely. The relation is inescapable: Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful (Luke 6:36).
From His free mercy, for the sake of Christ, God the Father forgives both your sins and the punishment you deserve. For the sake of Christ, God no longer remembers your sins and His grace abounds over you. However, if you imitate the unmerciful servant by withholding forgiveness from others, then God will place back upon you the immense burden of your sins and condemnation. Although Christ has indeed made the full and final satisfaction of the debt you owed God, now God will take back His forgiveness and demand from you the entire payment for your trespasses—if you are uncharitable toward your neighbour and refuse to forgive him or her. The servant whom the master in pity forgave went out and showed no mercy to a fellow servant, so that the master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. Jesus then says: So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.
In this parable, our Saviour Jesus warns us against a merciless and irreconcilable heart. Jesus warns us in love, for He desires that we avoid the fate of the unmerciful servant. Yes, our Saviour is calling us to forgive others from the heart, so that we may remain steadfast in the mercy which we first received at our baptism. In showing mercy to others, we continue living under God’s mercy. And what’s more, Christ continues dwelling in us, filling us afresh with the Holy Spirit.
Sinners that we are, we are all prone to harbour resentment toward and withhold mercy and forgiveness from others. Today, the Lord is calling us to repent of our hard-heartedness and to forgive as God has forgiven us in Christ. And today, the Lord says to us repentant sinners: I, I am He who blots out your transgressions for My own sake, and I will not remember your sins (Isaiah 43:25). And He calls us afresh to forgive others freely, without calculation. That is what Jesus meant when He told Peter to forgive his offending brother seventy times seven—just don’t keep track of other’s sins.
True faith is always active in love. Where there is true faith, there is Christ dwelling in the heart. And where Christ dwells, there is the grace of God and the forgiveness of sins. Thus, where Christ and God’s grace and forgiveness dwell, there can be no harbouring of hatred toward our neighbour; there can be no keeping track of the seven times or even seventy times seven times our neighbour has sinned against us. Love does not count up wrongdoing.
With Christ dwelling in us, we forgive others freely because we know that the debt of guilt we owe God is far greater than the debt others owe us. The unmerciful servant owed his master ten thousand talents. That is an incredible amount, the kind of debt carried by nations. Today, the federal interest-bearing debt is over one trillion dollars! Imagine if you owed such a debt and that you were forgiven all of it, but then you went out and beat up a neighbour who owed you a measly hundred dollars! That is what is going on in today’s parable. And that is why we forgive so freely in the Name of Jesus—because we know that since God forgives our great debt to Him, we truly forgive the small debt owed us by others.
Of course, what compels us most of all to forgive others is the Good News that God [has shown] His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God (Romans 5:8-9). We no longer live under God’s wrath but under God’s mercy. In the Name of Christ, then, we forgive those who have sinned against us. For we know that in the death of His Son, God has forgiven us a debt that we could never pay. God has forgiven us in Christ, and now that forgiveness flows through us as a life-giving stream to others. But the source of that stream of forgiveness is not us, but Christ. God forgives us freely by the merits of Jesus alone; and now, we forgive others as God in Christ forgave [us] (Ephesians 4:32).
What if Jesus had asked His Father the same question Peter had asked of Him: “How often shall they sin against me and I forgive them, seven times?”. Thanks be to God, Jesus did not ask that question! Thanks be to God that on the cross Jesus died to forgive the whole world, and way more than seven times. It was seventy times seven times infinity. There is no limit to Jesus’ forgiveness. There is no sin anywhere that Jesus did not die for. There is no sin that is not paid for by Jesus–not yours nor anyone else’s.
And so, in the Name of Jesus, we forgive those who have sinned against us. Yes, we give as we have been given to by our gracious Saviour; we forgive as the Lord has forgiven us. This is the life God has given to you and to all in whom Christ dwells through true faith. And with Christ dwelling in your heart, you not only forgive as Christ has forgiven you but you also live in the joy of knowing that the love of Christ surpasses all your sins. Thanks be to God! Amen.