[Read Matthew 18:21-35]
Forgive as You Have Been Forgiven
Elsewhere, our Lord Jesus said, “To whom much is given, much will be required [Luke 12:48]. This principal holds true in today’s Gospel lesson. To whom much has been forgiven, much forgiveness will be expected. You and I, who have been forgiven so much, will, at times in our life, be required to forgive much in others.
“The kingdom of heaven may be compared”, our Lord says, “to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants.” When God settles accounts with you – when He seeks to extract from you the obedience and fruit of righteousness you owe Him, in accord not with human standards but in accord with His Law – when He settles your account, what a great, unpaid debt will appear.
What have you done with your life? A whole lot! You and I have each filled every minute of each of the twenty-four hours in every day of your existence with something. The time is there. But concerning what we’ve owed to God, where has the time gone? We have each either saved or spent every penny we’ve earned. But all that we’ve owed to God, we’ve spent so sparingly. You’re diligent in the life you built for yourself, but have you put the same care in building up the household of God? What we ought to have done but haven’t is a debt owed.
Our thoughts and words increase our debt of sin. Who has more reason for an optimistic and positive attitude than we do who believe in Christ’s resurrection? Yet, how much of our speaking and thinking is negative and cynical? Who has more reason than we, who know Christ’s salvation, to be thankful? Yet, how naturally does complaining become part of our conversations? Do we speak thankfully about life with one another? Jesus said, “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak” [Matthew 12:36]. The debt of our account grows with our words.
How much debt is in our account? God seeks payment from the very crevices of our heart. Yet, in our heart, what will our Lord find? Jesus said, “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” [Mark 7:21-23] From the best part of me, God doesn’t find on-time payments but instead an increase of debt.
When the king comes to settle accounts with His servant, what will you owe? Though you’ve handled all your finances perfectly in this life, you haven’t yet made a dent in the debt of sin and cannot. It’s over our heads.
So it was with the first servant in our Lord’s parable. “When [the king] began to settle [accounts], one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents.” This first servant owed ten-thousand talents. A talent was a measurement of money.
For this servant, ten thousand talents is equal to two or three hundred thousand years of wages. It’s over his head. For this debt, “his wife and children and all that he had” – and he himself – were ordered to be sold and for payment to be made. This still wouldn’t make a dent in the amount owed. He would never be finished paying.
The servant pleads for mercy. He says, “be patient with me, I’ll pay everything!” But he cannot. The master, though, has pity on this servant, and the great amount owed becomes the great amount forgiven. “The master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.”
In you and me, a stack of debt reaching the heavens is forgiven. Forgiven in full. The sin-debt of the whole world, forgiven. Forgiven – not willy-nilly – but forgiven in the One who was able to pay it all.
In the obedient life and death and resurrection of Jesus, God’s Son, the debt of good you owe God and the debt of death you owe for your sins is forgiven. Fulfilled in Him. And, therefore, forgiven in you.
The perfect life of Christ was payment to God on your behalf. The death and punishment of Christ on the Cross was payment on your behalf. For His sake, God has forgiven you an immeasurable debt.
Brothers and sisters, what does this debt-free, debt-forgiven life now consist of? Now you are freed. Freed to do what? Freed to “do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God”, as our reading in Micah 6:8 describes it. Or, as Scripture puts it even better in Ephesians 4:32, you are freed to “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”
Part of the blessedness of your now debt-forgiven life is that you are set free to forgive those who sin against you. In being freed from the slavery of debt, you are also set free from the slavery holding debt over others. All sin is forgiven in Christ. On His account, you can forgive.
The servant in the parable went and found one of his fellow servants who owed him, not ten-thousand talents – not two hundred thousand years of wages – but about one hundred denarri. Roughly three to four months wages. No small amount. But nowhere near the enormity of the debt he himself had been forgiven by their mutual master.
You really get sinned against, brothers and sisters. It’s not a small thing. People do evil things to you. Many of you have suffered or do suffer this – as we all do to greater or lesser degrees. Sometimes even those who should be loving you most are really hurting you. It’s not a small thing that you get sinned against.
But you do also sin against others. And, though human reason cannot understand this, the greatest of sins against us – though they are much – do not compare to our own debt to God if it stood unpaid. And whatever the sin is against me, in truth I have that same sin and others as equally wicked residing down in the crevices of my own sin-corrupted heart.
Even if my nation or its elected leaders were to sin against me – even if they were to rob me of my vote or of my prosperity or my liberty – this is only a minor debt compared to the greater debt God has forgiven me. We forgive. We forgive even presidents and senators and governors. Their sin against me, a sinner, is minor. My sin against God is always greater. So, we do not get loud and angry along with the crowd. We forgive.
When that first servant went out and refused to forgive his fellow servant, his own debt, which had been forgiven, fell back into his lap in full. Jesus said, “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
To come to a close, we need to address this one last point in this reading: What does it mean when our Lord says, “forgive from the heart”?
“From the heart.” What does that mean? In our typically way of thinking, with what do we equate the heart? Emotions. Feelings. Right? You must feel it.
Is that what Jesus means? Certainly, our Lord would like our forgiveness to be heartfelt and for us to develop heartfelt love. But does that begin with feelings? Or, does that begin with FAITH?
“Forgive your brother from your heart.” Your new heart of flesh, born in you from the Holy Spirit, replacing that old heart of stone, is not first and foremost the place from which you have feelings. Instead, your new heart is first and foremost the place from which you believe. Your heart, by the Holy Spirit, is the place where you believe the Gospel. It’s the place of faith in what Christ has done.
Read the Scriptures: “because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.”
“With the heart one believes.” With the heart one believes. You forgive, not based on your feelings, but based on your faith, your belief. You believe that Jesus has died for their sins too – for whoever sinned against you – because you believe He died for the sins of every person [1 John 2:2] and that He desires all men to be saved [1 Timothy 2:4].
To forgive from the heart is to forgive based on your conviction, your belief, that Jesus died for their sins too, whoever they are. Emotions can follow later. Forgiveness based on this faith is what comes first.
Jesus has given you a tall order in His command that you forgive. Thanks be to God that He Himself has first forgiven you all your sin and debt, though it was as high as the heavens. He has forgiven us much, and now He helps us much to forgive as we have been forgiven. Amen.