Trinity 22 – November 16th and 17th – Matthew 18:21-35
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit +
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit +
How often. How many times. That's the question that Peter brings forth to Jesus to start our Gospel text. How many times do I have to forgive my brother when he sins against me. Now, to be upfront – I have a tendency to want to treat Peter's question here very negatively – and it's gotten worse since becoming a parent. That is because a “how often” question is really asking, “when can I stop?” When can I stop doing this – and I'm not saying but I'm just saying, parents hear this sort of question a ton. How often do I have to brush my teeth, how many pieces of broccoli do I have to eat?
And the smug reaction I often have to this is to lambaste Peter – how dare you treat forgiveness as a chore Peter – how dare you treat forgiveness like broccoli! We're Christians, and Christians forgive because that's just what we do, harumph harumph harumph. But Peter, Peter is actually on to something here, and he's bluntly honest without a lick of posturing. 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?” Jesus had just outlined what you do when your brother sins against you – you talk to him, you seek to forgive, and if they don't get it, you bring it before other people they trust and respect – you try to get things hashed out. And in the end, if they just don't get it – you think of them like a Gentile or a Tax Collector – that is, someone who just doesn't it get it and you let it be. But the goal is to have the brother restored – and the joy of the Church is that it is the place where that brother-restoring forgiveness is to be proclaimed.
So, alright Jesus – that's a wonderful, beautiful pattern of forgiveness and reconciliation that you've brought up. But how many times do we go through it? Because “forgiveness” isn't something abstract, it isn't pie in the sky. Forgiveness deals with sin – hard, painful sin – sin where this piece of... brother... kicked me in the teeth. And I get the turn the other cheek and I get that love your enemy – but how many times to put up with it? As many as seven? And this actually is a wonderful suggestion from Peter – our phrase is once bitten, twice shy. Fool me once, shame on you – fool me twice, shame on me. Our wisdom is “everyone gets one” - then we cut them off. So Peter's seven is a great suggestion – Seven days of creation, it's a Godly number. God rested on the seventh day so maybe after forgiving this Jerk-face McJerky seven times I can just give it all a rest and be done with him. By the world's standards, that would seem to be quite gracious.
Jesus says no – not just seven. Seven times seventy. 490 times. So many times that you can't even count and keep track of things. And I mean that – you can't keep track. I've been here 4 and a half years, and I average right around 120 services a year – this could be the 490th sermon I've preached... but I'm not going to go count. Ain't nobody got time for that. And Jesus says that when it comes to forgiveness there's no room for counting, for keeping track.
Oh, but Jesus, don't You know that my sinful flesh likes to keep track of what other people have done? Don't You know that remembering what other people have done is such a great and useful tool for when you're in a fight, or there's something that you want to have them do and you can pull it out and whack them with it? Well, yes, Jesus actually does know how we can use other people's sins against them, and He knows that it is foolish and that's there's no room for it. There's no room for counting or remembering when it comes to forgiveness.
Jesus tells a story to drive the point home. Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared with a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. Do you want to count how many times you need to forgive Peter – alright, there was a king who wished to look at the counts – the accounting of who owed him what. Here's what counting and settling the scores looks like. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. Pause – we don't get how ridiculous this is – because frankly, we don't know ancient currency and weights and measures. A talent was basically 100 pounds of gold or silver. So, let's say this guy owes one million pounds of gold – at the current price of Gold that is $24 Billion. It's a stupid amount – as in there'd be no way that a sane person could ever rack up that much debt – especially a servant. This is a ridiculous debt. And we hear, “Since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had.” Default and bankruptcy in the ancient world was bad – not just your stuff gets seized and sold – you did too. And that's not bringing in $24 Billion. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, 'Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.' Be patient – I can pay. No he can't. This is a terrible idea, it's impossible. But it's sad and pathetic – and the master is moved to pity. And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. What generosity! And why? Why was this master able to be so generous?
Pity. Compassion. The master sees this fellow who has made a mess of things, and he is moved to compassion for him. Even though the master was wronged – he sees just how lousy of a state this fellow is in and is sympathetic towards him. So often when we as Christians approach the idea of forgiving our neighbor, we think of it as a matter of obligation – you better forgive your neighbor. That puts the cart before the horse – forgiveness isn't a “fine, I guess I'll forgive him” sort of thing. What comes first is compassion. When your brother sins against you, what do you see? When we are sinned against, its easy to look at how the sin impacts me, how it affects me. Of course it is, because it's against me! But really as Christians we are called to look beyond ourselves, to look beyond just what's in it for me, and to look at our neighbor – and to see them with compassion. Do you see the person who sins against you rightly – do you see them as someone trapped in sin?
While we understand the impact that someone else's sin can have upon us, as sinners we tend to downplay the impact, the power that sin has over people – over us and over them. Sin isn't a trifle. Satan isn't a weakling. Death isn't impotent. These are strong foes. Did you hear what we sang in our opening hymn? “Through all our powers corruption creeps, and us in dreadful bondage keeps.” Or “From hearts depraved, to evil prone, flow thoughts and deeds of sin alone.” That's not just whistling Dixie. We can't but sin, it's all around us all the time, it's all in us, all the time. And maybe with discipline we can keep ourselves in check – which is a great thing for our neighbor. But did you note that language – keep ourselves in check. Restraint. That is because your sinful flesh is a wild and powerful thing – and your old sinful flesh is always driving you to sin. Sometimes it breaks loose and hits your neighbor – the rest of the time it just (just) struggles against you, trying to wear you down and break you down and make you loose control. That's who you are. That's your struggle.
So then what do you see when your brother sins against you? You actually see someone who is pitiful, who has been so kicked in the teeth by sin, ridden and hounded by Satan, that they lash out, and that lash hit you. And although our flesh thinks it should drive us to lash back, that ought to drive us to pity them. So over and against your Flesh, Christ Jesus creates in you a new heart – a big heart, a patience heart with compassion – and from there flows forgiveness. From understanding the depths and power of sin, sin that both they and you have, sin that only Christ Jesus can truly confront and defeat and rescue us from – that's where compassion and forgiveness come from.
But what happens when compassion is abandoned? But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him 100 denarii [about $10,000], and seizing him, he began to choke him, syaing, “Pay what you owe.” You can pay back ten grand. Set up a payment plan – few hundred bucks a month. But this guy's not interested. He lashes out without pity. Even when the guy asks for pity – no dice. Into jail. Get out of here. If you sometimes wonder why I keep bringing up sin, our own sin, in sermons – it's to prevent this. It's to keep this from happening. Because if we forget our own sinfulness, if we forget how great our own sin is – we lose all perspective and compassion for our neighbor. Again – Chief of Sinners – that's not whistling dixie. That person who angers you – when you look at them remember, understand, know that whatever they have done you yourself have done and fought and struggled against sin just as bad, if not worse, and all the time. And knowing that, you won't want punishments to start getting leveled. You don't turn someone in for a $25 fine knowing that you've got a felony warrant out on you... but when sin and anger drives us instead of Christ's love and forgiveness, that's what we do.
And the story ends badly. The master hears it, and he unloads on that wicked servant. And it's meant to put a chill down our spine – it's meant to be a warning. So also My heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart. That's a chilling sentence. Because I know my heart, I'm well acquainted with it. And if left to its own devices, my heart would gladly not forgive anyone a lick, and I'd feel good about it – and I'd even signal my virtue and puff out my sinful chest about how I'm so much better than them. And that's how you're tempted too. That's what sin is. “But Christ, the second Adam, came To bear our sin and woe and shame, To be our life, our light, our way, Our only hope, our only stay.” Christ Jesus knows the strength and power of your old Adam, your old sinful flesh. He knew that you would not forgive from your heart on your own, and so He came to do it for you and in you and through you. He came and took on flesh, and took up your sin, took up the sin of your heart, and He crucified it upon the cross. And in exchange, He gives you Himself. And He keeps on giving you Himself, over and over and over again – His Word, His forgiveness to make you a forgiver, His love to make you to show love. His Body to beat down your sinful body, His blood to cleanse and create in you a new and clean heart.
That's what Jesus loves to do. That's His goal. To be your life, to be your Savior. And He has compassion upon you, and He forgives you over and over again – and if you get persnickety, if you want to start keep score and track of stuff, He nudges you off of that with His Word. No more counting, for I have paid all. No more scores to settle, for I have settled Sin and Death once and for all. It is finished. In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit +