Sermon on Matthew 18:21-35
Dearly beloved saints in Christ, purchased and won from all sin, from death, and from the power of the devil, not with gold or silver, but with his holy, precious blood, and with his innocent suffering and death: Grace, mercy, and peace be to you from God our Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ.
It is quite obvious from the Holy Gospel today that our Lord wishes to teach us something about forgiveness. And this teaching would not be irrelevant for us, for we daily sin much, both against our heavenly Father, and against one another. On the one hand, our hearts are full of unbelief and pride. They do not gladly keep God’s commands, even the most simple of them. And where we are able to keep them outwardly, inwardly we are still wishing it could be otherwise.
As baptized children of God, in whom the Holy Spirit dwells, our lives should be gradually conformed more and more to God’s image. We should grow more patient, more generous, more humble, and more knowledgeable of God’s Holy Word as the years go on. Our minds ought to become more and more like the mind of Christ, willing to suffer all and any evil that might come our way, deserved or undeserved, trusting in the goodness of our heavenly Father, and loving everyone else more than our own life.
But we all know better, don’t we. We know the reality, and the reality is we’re not a whole lot better than we were five, ten, or twenty years ago. The only thing we’ve really improved is our ability to make ourselves look good in the eyes of others. But we cannot fool God. He sees what others cannot. He sees the pride, the rage, the dishonesty, the lust, the greed, the discontentment, jealousy, and every other dark and evil thing that lurks within us. And one day He is going to return and balance the books, so to speak. In fact, that Day is already here. Our heavenly King wants to settle accounts with his servants today, right now in fact, and we’ve all got a major problem: we’re in debt up to our ears.
Another problem we have is that there is absolutely no hope for us to pay back this debt to God. It’s like someone who sends in the minimum payment for his credit card, but then goes out and spends three times that much the very next day. We never stop racking up debt towards God in this life; so how could we possibly begin to pay it off? Since it is impossible for us to pay this debt off, there is only one thing for us to do: confess our debt, that is, acknowledge our guilt before our heavenly Master, plead guilty of all our sins and uncleanness, and throw ourselves at His mercy.
That’s what we did when we confessed our sins at the beginning of the service. And what sweet words we did hear: “I forgive you all your sins.” This is precisely what happened to the servant who owed his master 10,000 talents. This astronomical amount was totally wiped away by the master. The servant was free. There would be no selling of himself, his wife, or his children. There would be no working off this debt. It was gone. Cancelled. Forgiven. Period. This guy hit the jackpot. And so do we every time we come here to church. For here our Lord releases us of our debts, cleanses us of all our sins, and frees us from the guilt that clings to our consciences.
We are only receiving here what God did for all people when His Son suffered death on the cross. God was, we read, reconciling the world to Himself in Christ. In Christ’s crucifixion, our heavenly Father was canceling the world’s sinful debt toward Him. He was being like this master in the Gospel, filled with compassion and pity towards us poor miserable sinners. It’s not that He did not receive payment. He did, just not from us. The payment came in the form of sacrificial blood. And not the blood of bulls or goats or heifers, but the blood of His incarnate Son, the same One who rose from the dead on the third day.
For His sake God has now released you from your sinful debts. The slate is clean. The books are balanced. The accounts are settled. And you do not owe God a red cent. Now, if that doesn’t make you happy, then I don’t know what will. If it doesn’t bring cheer and comfort to your conscience, then it might be the case that you do not know how desperate your situation really is. And if that is the case, then I pray that somehow God will open your eyes so that you may be able to see the predicament you are in on account of sin. Only then will this news of forgiveness mean anything to you.
But why did Jesus tell this story about a forgiving master? Wasn’t Peter’s question more about forgiving our brother? Indeed, it was. But in order for us to understand how often we should forgive our neighbor, we need to see what our heavenly Father is like. For as I said before, we daily sin much. And yet our Father in heaven does not look at our sins or hold them against us. Seven times, nay, seventy times seven do we sin in a day, or even an hour. And God forgives our sins as many times.
Peter thought, just as many of us do, that there should be some limit to our forgiveness, some point at which we say: “Enough is enough. This is the last straw.” And Christ, therefore, needed to show Peter that since there is no limit to God’s forgiveness, neither can there be a limit to ours. “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.” Or, as Luke puts it: “If your brother should sin against you seven times in a day, and seven times return and say, ‘I repent’, you shall forgive him.” Do we dare stand in judgment over our brother whose sins God has forgiven in Christ?
This story in the Gospel is nothing more than a commentary on the 5th petition of the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” In the Gospel of Matthew, debt is synonymous with sin. And Jesus is emphatic, not only here, but also in the Sermon on the Mount, that if we do not forgive our brothers from our hearts, neither will our Father forgive us. What that means is that if you are in the practice of holding grudges against people, and refusing to let go of their sins and be reconciled to them, you should be quaking in your boots right about now. This is serious stuff. Christ is not joking around here.
Forgiveness is the key not only to our relationship with God, but also in all our dealings with our neighbors. And it is the one way that we really prove how much we believe and trust in God’s forgiveness towards us. Those who have been at the receiving end of God’s forgiveness will also extend the same forgiveness to those who insult and offend them. Those who do not believe in God’s forgiveness will be like this wicked servant who demanded payment from his fellow servant when he should have cancelled his debt as well. It’s as simple as that. And you can see what happens to them—God will cast them into the eternal pit of hell!
Jesus definitely wants to teach us about forgiveness in this Gospel today, just as He taught Peter. And Peter was no fool. He was a recipient of God’s grace too. He denied our Lord three times after being told by Jesus that whoever denies Him before men will be denied before the Father in heaven. We are told that Peter wept bitterly when he heard the cock crow and saw the face of Jesus. This is because Peter realized how far into debt he had fallen. Jesus was right. His commitment was weak. But Peter was not the only one to deny Christ. The rest did so not with their lips but with their hearts, as they all ran from Him.
But did they not all receive mercy? Christ said: “Peace be with you.” And then He made these deniers apostolic heralds of His forgiveness. “Anyone whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven.” So you need not wonder if there is a point at which God says: “Enough is enough.” As often as you return to Him in repentance and faith, you will continue to hear those sweet words of consolation: “I forgive you all your sins. You owe me nothing. Christ has paid the price for you. This is what it means to be a Christian, not that we never sin, but that in spite of our daily shortcomings, despite the sinful debt that we rack up with God, we are confident that we will always find a compassionate and merciful God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Our Lord also would teach us to think this way about forgiving others: Just as we can expect God to be forgiving when we turn to Him, so also should others find us to be merciful and forgiving when they turn to us. This is true no matter who the offender might be, but especially of those who call one another brothers in Christ. We who are members of the household of God by faith belong not only to God, but to each other also. We are all His beloved children, and each has been blessed richly with God’s forgiveness through holy Baptism. To forgive one another’s faults and sins is nothing more than to let the cups of our hearts run over with the sweet wine of God’s forgiveness in Jesus. Amen.