“How Many Times?”  Matthew 18:21-35

This story is about stunning mercy.

Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost  September 16-17, 2023

“How Many Times?”  Matthew 18:21-35

Rev. John R. Larson  Ascension Lutheran Church  Littleton, CO

A pastor named William Willimon said, “One of the reasons why Jesus tells stories like this is because, in stories, we quite naturally apply the stories to ourselves, even without being told that they should be applied to us.  Jesus never says, ‘I’m going to tell you a story about a man who had a couple of sons, but it’s really about you.’  Doesn’t have to.  We hear the story and we can recognize our face there.”  (Pulpit Resource, September 15, 1996, Page 44)

So, do you recognize your face in this story?  One guy who gets forgiven is the same guy who will not forgive another.  Is your face in that picture?  There is a ruler, a king, who is owed 10,000 talents by one of his debtors.  You know how much that is?  If I have it right – it is a hillion, skillion dollars.  WOW!!  For the average guy, making the average wage in that day, it was the equivalent of 60 million days of work.  That guy was never going to retire!!

So, we read that as the king was going to settle accounts with this man and he was brought before the king, this judgment was given, “Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.”  And then the most ridiculous response was given by the one who had this unpayable debt, “Be patient with me, and I will pay you back everything.”  Yeah.  Right.  You owe me a hillion, skillion dollars and you’re going to pay me back?

This story is about stunning mercy.  This is what happened –  “The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.”

But then the happy story becomes ugly.  “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii.  He grabbed him and began to choke him.  Pay back what you owe me.”  That guy also had some familiar words, “Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.”  But he refused.  He threw him in jail.  He wouldn’t let him get out till he paid the last penny.  (See Matthew 18:28-30)

What a terrible thing.  He actually sought out the guy who owed him a small amount of money, 100 denarii, after he had been given a fresh start from his enormous debt.

Do you know what this story is about?  It is about forgiveness.  It is about God’s forgiveness given to us.  We’re the one who have the debt that can never be paid – even in 60 million days.  And it is about us giving forgiveness to others.  Like all of His stories, Jesus is asking us to find our face in the story.  And like all His stories we are to find God’s face, as well.  In the story about the prodigal son we find the waiting father who had stunning mercy.  In this account of the unmerciful servant, we find our heavenly Father as the generous king.

The reason Jesus told this story was in response to Peter asking the question about how many times he should forgive another person who has sinned against him.  Peter, I think, thought he was quite generous when he was willing to forgive seven times.  But Jesus multiplies it.  “Not seven times, but seventy times seven.”

But sometimes we don’t want to forgive.  We feel more at home in our anger and resentment and bitterness.  We know that we are justified in holding a grudge, having a holy indignation against a person who did us wrong.  Forgiveness, you know, is really quite unnatural.  Vengeance, retribution, even violence are natural human qualities.  If you are bitten you bite back.

I had a funeral where it was apparent that the children of their deceased parent were furious at one another.  They shared no hugs before or after the service.  They didn’t cry together.  They kept their distance from each other.  Their actions, or lack of them, were sadder than the funeral.

But sometimes we feel comfortable in such hardness of heart.  Shame on us.  In C.S. Lewis’s book The Great Divorce, a busload of lonely, bitter people in hell take a trip to heaven.  But there, they find the atmosphere not to their liking: too much light, singing, joyful people, and so on.  They were more miserable there than they were in hell!  They wanted to go home.

There is no more miserable place to be than in perpetual anger and hatred to another.  Jesus warned His listeners about the eternal consequences about having a heart that won’t forgive when He said, “In anger his master turned him (the one who wouldn’t forgive) over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.  This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”  (Matthew 18:34-35)  Ouch!!

This word from Jesus tells us that our God takes the forgiving of sins seriously.  Remember this story begins with amazing grace.  It has that stunning word that said, “The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.”  Isn’t that what God’s forgiveness does to us?  He cancels the enormous debt that we have.  He frees us from the burden of a sinful heart.  Just think of that – all the sins that you have ever done are forgiven and forgotten by God.  You are free.  You have been released from the dungeon of regret.  It is God who declares, “For I will forgive their wickedness and I will remember their sins no more.”  (Hebrews 8:12)  The Scriptures say, “As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.”  (Psalm 103:12)

How do you know such a reversal could ever happen?  How could such a huge debt of our ugly sin just be dismissed?  Did God just close His eyes and pretend we never did such things?  No.  He sent Jesus.  Jesus received our sins, willingly, upon the cross of damnation.  In I Peter we read about this work, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.  For you were like sheep going astray, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.”  (I Peter 2:24-25)

It was Jesus who said, “Freely you have received, freely give.”  (Matthew 10:8)  Here He gives the word that we must forgive others, as we have been forgiven, from our very heart.  Can you?  Will you?  This is no easy thing.  Maybe it is the hardest thing you, as a Christian, will ever do.  A writer named Frederick Buechner understands the nature of Christian forgiveness in this way: To forgive somebody is to say one way or another, ‘You have done something unspeakable, and by all rights I should call it quits between us.  Both my pride and my principles…demand no less.  However, although I make no guarantee that I will be able to forgive what you have done and though we both carry the scars for life, I refuse to let it stand between us.  I still want you for my friend.’

The word for forgive is the same word for release.  Just think of that.  You no longer are keeping the anger, the bitterness, the daily resentment, the score, but you are releasing it.  “Love keeps no record of wrongs.”  (I Corinthians 13:5)  You reach out to the one who pained you and say, “I still want you for my friend.”

This whole thing about forgiveness began with a question, “How many times shall I forgive another when they sin against me?”  And this led to a story about deep love and forgiveness given to each of us.  And then it led to a response that we would give to another.

Do you know where this takes us?  It takes us to God.  Only by His stunning mercy can we have forgiveness.  And only by His strength can we be people of mercy.

Today He begins anew in you and me with this mercy and this new way to live.  Come to this meal and receive the very body and blood of Jesus, the bread of life.  Here you’ll be cleansed and here you’ll be strengthened.  Here new life begins.  Amen!!







1 comment

  1. Linda Marquez says:

    I learned about compassion from a minister in 2013 and it has helped me to forgive!


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *