Worship Sermon Sept. 13, 2020
Christ the King, Palm Coast, FL ~ Pastor Jay Zahn ~ Matthew 18:21-35 ~ Sun, Sep 13, 2020
“How many times must I forgive?” Have you ever asked that question? That’s the question on the lips of Peter, the great leader of the apostles in today’s Gospel. Jesus’ response? “If you’re counting you’ve missed the point … because forgiveness doesn’t count!”
With his answer, Jesus isn’t suggesting forgiveness doesn’t matter or that it isn’t important. Truthfully, in both those ways forgiveness counts the most! In fact, it’s everything. Without forgiveness we would be without hope, without peace, without a future to look forward to! What Jesus means when he says that forgiveness doesn’t count is that forgiveness doesn’t keep score. Forgiveness doesn’t keep a tally. It isn’t fixated on how often it forgives the same person or even how many times it has forgiven the same sin! Jesus impresses that point on us through a parable, a story about a servant who himself was mercifully released from a mountainous debt by his king, yet when he himself had opportunity to forgive someone who owed him a much smaller amount was focused on keeping count, violently insisting that his debtor pay him everything he owed.
This story, this parable, is Jesus’ answer to Peter’s question: “Lord, how many times must I forgive my brother when he sins against me?” To understand the parable Jesus answers Peter with, we need to focus on two words in that question. First, the word “forgive.” What does it mean to forgive someone? It means letting go, quite literally. The word for forgiveness in Greek is ἀφίημι and it means to “let go.” Look at my hand, a closed fist. This is not a picture of ἀφίημι; this is not a picture of forgiveness. This is [open and relaxed hand] forgiveness. It’s unclenching the fist, letting go of the anger, letting go of the debt (whether physical or relational or emotional).
The second word I want you to focus on is the word “brother.” Peter’s not thinking about strangers here. He’s thinking about brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, co-workers, friends, neighbors, husbands, wives, ex-spouses, stepchildren, etc. In other words, Peter is asking about the people who are around us the most, the ones who can cause the most pain with their sins and who can inflict that pain repeatedly if they stay stuck in a cycle of sin. Peter asked about the sinning that is actually “against me.” He’s talking about everything from the repeated daily annoyances of your partner’s sinful personality to those moments of tremendous pain inflicted on you by the bald-faced lies, the taking advantage of trust, the whatever kinds of sin against you that makes the rage burn inside, that makes you want to hold onto hate and anger with a clenched fist.
The problem isn’t that Peter is unwilling to forgive, it’s that his forgiveness comes with a count. There is a number, a limit. This many times and no more. For Peter that number is 7. In those days Jewish rabbis commonly taught that forgiving someone three times was a good limit. Measured by that standard, Peter was going above and beyond. And seven was the number in the ancient world which suggested completeness or perfection. So it seems like a really good suggestion, a generous suggestion even.
But Jesus ups the ante: “Not seven times, but I tell you as many as seventy-seven times.” Whoa, whip out your notepad, Peter! Seventy seven times I’ve got to forgive the guy who does me wrong! That’s a lot! I’m gonna need a bigger scorecard. But if I keep a careful record, and I keep track of every infraction, then I guess that on the 78th time that bozo does me wrong, then I don’t have to forgive him! If only I can hold out that long. . . .”
Well, no, that’s not how it goes, Peter. It’s not like: “75, forgive; 76, forgive; 77, forgive, but that’s it. . . . Ah, 78, now I can finally get my revenge!” Bzzt! Wrong! Jesus wasn’t just raising the limit, he was blowing it out of the water altogether. By picking such a ridiculously high number, Jesus is saying, in effect, “Don’t keep score at all!” He is saying that a Christian’s forgiveness should not just exceed the standards of those around them, but should be infinite, both in number and quality. Go way beyond any preconceived limits of patience and mercy and offer genuine forgiveness, time after time after time all the time, every time!
And to drive home the point, Jesus explains his standard for Christians of offering infinite forgiveness by telling a parable which illustrates how forgiveness functions in the Kingdom of God. You got the gist of the story just from hearing it read, so let’s look at some key details to dig deep into the motivation of the message. There’s a servant who owes his king a whole bunch of money–bazillions and bazillions of dollars. “Bazillions” was an ancient unit of measurement, by the way. “Because the man was not able to pay the debt, his master ordered that he be sold, along with his wife, children, and all that he owned to repay the debt.” Ten thousand talents was an impossible figure in that time. In comparison, 800 talents was about the total tax income of Palestine. So this debt may have been greater than the amount of money in circulation in that region at the time. It is a shocking amount. I don’t even know how someone could be this far in debt. And unfortunately, the sale not only of property but also of people as punishment for failure to pay a debt was commonplace in those days and that is what would have naturally followed for this servant.
So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything. More likely he, his children, his great grandchildren, and beyond could work every day of their lives as hard as they could and never pay this off! If you do the math, it would take over 160,000 (164,383) years to pay this debt off, not counting interest! It’s impossible. That makes our debt at CTK look like pennies and the national debt like nickels. And that is what makes the next moment so incredible. Out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. The king does the unimaginable: he forgives the servant without any consequence. Forgiving such an enormous debt would have come at a great personal cost to the king. It is absolutely ludicrous to think of him forgiving such a debt.
So now the servant is free. He has learned a powerful lesson about mercy and forgiveness. Or has he? Think on this personally. Being forgiven is awesome and wonderful. When we’ve done wrong, there is no greater feeling than the feeling of forgiveness. The debt is cancelled at no cost to us! That weight is taken off of us by someone else! But being forgiving to someone who has wronged us means cancelling the debt someone else owes you. That’s costly! The second servant owed the first 100 denarii, 1 denarii was a laborer’s daily pay. Think of it as 1/3 of your annual pay! It was a sizable debt. For comparison’s sake: the first servant owed the king 10,000 talents, and just one talent was worth 6,000 denarii. If you do the math, the second servant’s debt was 600,000 times smaller than the amount the first servant owed. And yet the first servant, who had just experienced unimaginable mercy, having a debt of ten thousand talents erased, decides to choke his fellow servant for a comparatively microscopic debt. The craziness continues in verse 29, So his fellow servant fell down and begged him, saying, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back!’ Sound familiar? These are the exact same words the first servant spoke to the king. But he refused. Instead he went off and threw the man into prison until he could pay back what he owed. At this point, I wonder if the first servant is even sane. Does he have amnesia? Does he even understand what just happened to him? It is ridiculous for him not to forgive the second servant and just shockingly wrong.
But that’s the point. The meaning is plain and clear: Refusing to forgive in light of unimaginable forgiveness is crazy! It doesn’t make sense. Why not? Because forgiveness is the way it works in the kingdom of heaven. If you want to operate on some other basis, if you’re intent on scorekeeping and payback, you’re not living as a citizen of God’s kingdom. That’s not how your heavenly Father has dealt with you. So why would you want to act that way toward your fellow forgiven sinner? God has forgiven that other person, just as he has forgiven you. Then why would you act as though you are greater than God? To not forgive is really to set yourself up in place of God. You think you’re greater than God. God forgave that person, but you think you ought not to have to. Who are you, O man, to not forgive someone whom God has already forgiven? Who are you, O sinner, to not forgive someone else, when you yourself have had all your sins forgiven by God? You see, unforgiveness really is a violation of fearing, loving and trusting in God above all! It is a rejection of the ways of God’s kingdom.
My friends, to the degree we grasp our own shocking forgiveness, we will be able to forgive others. It’s that simple. I’m not saying that is going to easy, especially when letting go, that ἀφίημι, is something, according to verse 35, that we are supposed to do in our heart. When your heart feels like a hardened fist, it’s hard to let go. But if you can simply trust the fact that in Christ, you are forgiven infinitely, then you’re going to want to let go of the debt, the hurt, the grudge so that God can pour his forgiveness into your open hands. And his forgiveness will fill your hands so full that you won’t have any room to hold onto hate or anger. In fact, you’ll be so preoccupied with the shocking forgiveness that you’re holding, that you wouldn’t dare set it aside to hold onto a worthless grudge. We have all been sinned against. There are grudges that feel legitimate and if you were living according to this world, you would have every right to hold onto them. But you are part of the Kingdom of God. And here, in this Kingdom, forgiveness is what we do best. Our King is infinitely merciful.
This is why Jesus calls us to show infinite forgiveness. The Rabbis said to forgive three times, Peter suggested seven, and both seem quite generous by earthly standards, but Jesus’ paradigm for forgiveness doesn’t operate according to this world. Christian forgiveness is based on the Kingdom of God. And if you are a part of God’s kingdom, you know that the King has forgiven the impossible debt that you owed. Our eternal debt of sin was forgiven, fully, freely, forever by God. We could never have repaid our debt, not in million lifetimes, yet out of his mercy, and at ultimate cost, the life of his own Son, God declares us forgiven! What defines us as Christians is what receive from God! And the forgiveness that we receive from God is something so amazing, so powerful, that it transforms who we are and how we live, especially when.
Consider the story of Chris Carrier. He was just ten years old when he was kidnapped, stabbed, shot, and left for dead. Surprisingly, he survived, but the emotional and physical scars were deep. Understandably so! With the help of his parents, the assistance of counselors, his pastor, and his God, Chris Carrier was able to move forward in life, but his kidnapper was never found… until…
Over twenty years later, on a Fall September morning, Chris received a phone call from a police detective. The detective said that an elderly man in a local nursing home had confessed to the awful, diabolic, and heinous act. The man’s name was David McCallister. So, Chris, decided he was going to go and visit his abductor.
The night before the visit was a difficult one for Chris. He couldn’t sleep. His heart raced. His mind shuffled from thought to thought. How would he react when confronted with this man who left him with all those physical and emotional scars? Would he be able to forgive him?
Listen to how Chris described meeting the man who had done him so much wrong: “It was an awkward moment, walking into his room, but as soon as I saw him, I was overwhelmed with compassion. The man I found was not an intimidating kidnapper, but a frail seventy-seven-year-old who had been blind for the last half-dozen years. David’s body was ruined by alcoholism and smoking. He weighed little more than sixty pounds. He had no family, or if he did, they wanted nothing to do with him, and no friends. A friend who had accompanied me wisely asked him a few simple questions that led to him admitting that he had abducted me. He then asked, ‘Did you ever wish you could tell that young boy that you were sorry for what you did?’ David answered emphatically, ‘I wish I could.’ That was when I introduced myself to him.“ Unable to see, David clasped my hand and told me he was sorry for what he had done to me. As he did, I looked down at him, and it came over me like a wave: Why should anyone have to face death without family, friends, the joy of life without hope? I couldn’t do anything but offer him my forgiveness and friendship.” In the days that followed, Chris shared with David the good news of God’s forgiveness. Moved by God’s mercy for him, Chris was able to forgive the man who had done him so much wrong.
How many times must I forgive? The way Jesus offers, the way of love, the way of mercy, the way of forgiveness, isn’t a checklist, it’s a posture. It’s not a way of counting, it’s a way of standing, which results in a way of seeing, which leads to a way of acting, which over time amounts to a way of living that’s marked by a way of loving. There is a world full of sinners who need love like this. That’s the love you have to share because that’s the love in which you live, the love of the One who so loved you He gave his one and only Son to forgive you, infinitely! Amen.