~~September 30 & October 1, 2017 Pentecost 17
Dear friends in Christ Jesus:
For two years the young man sat in prison. There was no parole. There were no rights guaranteed to the inmates. And what it made it even worse, he was innocent of the crimes of which he was accused. But rewind a few years earlier. What brought him to this point? His family. It was his own brothers who stabbed him in the back. They were jealous of their father’s love and, after contemplating murder, they eventually just sold their little brother into slavery. Grown men in their 40’s and 50’s sold their teenage brother into a life of slavery because daddy loved him more. And, after thriving as a slave for a while, he was wrongly accused of trying to rape his master’s wife when he refused to be seduced by her. And Joseph sat in prison for more than two years before he was rescued from prison and elevated to second in command in Egypt.
Now his brothers stood before him. And Joseph revealed his identity. Sheer terror must have struck the hearts of those brothers. Would Joseph have them imprisoned, just as he had been? Would he have them sold into a life of slavery, just as he had been a slave? Would he have them executed for their crimes? It was certainly within his power. But instead Joseph forgave them: But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them. (Genesis 50:19-21)
That makes me wonder: What if I went through what Joseph did? What if it were my brothers who sold me out? Could I forgive my brothers the way Joseph forgave his? Would I forgive the way Joseph forgave? Would you? How could you ever forgive someone who hurt you like that? For that matter, how could you ever forgive the parents or child or spouse or ex or friend who sold you out, hurt you and betrayed your trust? In our sermon text Jesus has a tough conversation with us. Speaking to the twelve, Jesus pulls us aside too. And he tells us how we can forgive the sins committed against us. Let’s listen in and learn the secret. Matthew 18:21-35...
Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven time. Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. 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. The servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go. 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!’ he demanded. His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’ But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened. Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master turned him 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.”
What a terrifying prayer the Lord’s Prayer is, isn’t it? “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Do we really mean what we say? I mean, wouldn’t it be better to simply pray, “Forgive us our trespasses”? Do we really want God to forgive us as we forgive—in the exact same way?
Peter must have thought he was being generous in forgiving up to seven times. Rabbinical law stated three strikes and you’re out. Forgive the same sin three times and you can be done. But Peter must have felt very generous more than doubling the number of strikes. But Jesus made it clear that to forgive 77 times or even 490 times wasn’t enough. In fact, Peter shouldn’t even be keeping track. You see, Peter forgot that God wasn’t keeping track with him. And we sometimes forget the same.
What is the most you’ve ever been in debt? Germans hate being in debt so much that in the German language the word for “debt,” “Schuld,” is the same word for guilt. It’s not fun to be in debt. But what would be the consequences for your debt? Would some of your stuff be repossessed? Would the mafia come and break your legs? Would you and your spouse and your children be sold into slavery to pay it off?
Imagine how the man in Jesus’ parable felt. He owed the king more than he could ever possibly repay. One talent was 20 years’ wages. And he owed 10,000 talents. Let’s say you make $30,000 per year. At that salary this man owed $6 billion! The point is, he could never repay what he owed. Even if he and his entire family were sold into a lifetime of slavery, they weren’t worth that much. So with no hope at all, he groveled before the king. He begged the king, making promises he knew he couldn’t keep. He asked for more time and promised to pay back the whole debt. And the king took pity on the man. Though he only asked for more time, the king gave the man much more. For no other reason than the king’s kindness, he canceled the entire debt—all $6 billion—and let the man go free.
Did you know that the gross national debt is now over $20 trillion! That number is staggering. It’s a number we can’t even imagine. It’s an amount that we can never really pay off. Well, we owe more than $20 trillion to God. You see for each sin we commit, for each time we refuse to forgive, we deserve hell. For each sin! Augustus Toplady, the author of Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me once tried to calculate the debt we owe to God. Calculating one sin per second and graciously omitting the extra days of leap years, he figured that at ten years old each of us is guilty of committing 315,360,000 sins. At twenty the debt grows to 630,720,000. By thirty we’ve reached 946,080,000. At eighty one will have committed an estimated 2,522,880,000 infractions of God’s holy law. That means we deserve hell 2,522,880,000 times over! We can never repay that. No way!
And we deserve to have every blessing taken away. We deserve to lose our families. We deserve to be sold into slavery. We deserve far worse than a life of torture. We deserve an eternity of torture in hell for just one sin we’ve ever committed. And there’s nothing we can do to pay God back for our sin. We can’t make it up to him and we can’t undo our sins. All we can do is fall on our knees and beg and plead with him, “Please! Be patient with me! I know I deserve nothing, but please, please, forgive me.”
Then something truly amazing happens. God, the king of the heaven, takes pity on us. You see God didn’t just ignore our debt of sin like the king in the parable ignored his servant’s debt. No. God paid for it. He sent his Son to suffer far worse than torture in prison. He sent Christ to endure hell on the cross to cancel our debt for us. What amazing grace! That’s way better than someone saying to you, “Your mortgage and your car payment have been paid for.” Your sin has been paid for! You’re debt free before God because Christ paid the debt for you. God has forgiven you. And that drastically changes the way we view the debt owed to us.
This man in the parable who had his $6 billion debt forgiven found a servant who owed him a hundred denarii. When that man couldn’t repay him, he had him thrown in prison. A denarius was one day’s wages. Let’s say you make $10/hr and work 8 hours a day. That means a hundred denarii would be worth about $8,000! Now I don’t know about you, but $8,000 is a lot of money. You see, the servant didn’t throw a fellow servant into prison to be tortured because he was like someone who bumped into him in the hallway, but someone who caused him real hurt, real damage. Maybe someone hurt the Apostle Peter badly. Maybe they hurt someone in his family. But for whatever reason, Peter was having a difficult time forgiving. And Jesus pointed out that that difficulty came because he was forgetting about the forgiveness he had from God.
Now, I know that some of you have had some very real pain inflicted on you by someone you love (or once loved)—by your parents, by a child, by your spouse, by your ex. And they’re real hurts, not just a bump in the hallway. Some are pains that I can only imagine. But Jesus calls you to forgive those sins. But it’s not easy, is it? Why not? We have a hard time forgiving because we take our eyes off the cross. An unwillingness to forgive others shows our lack of appreciation for the forgiveness that we’ve received.
But when we go to the foot of the cross, we’re reminded again of the full and free forgiveness of the massive debt that we owed to God. And that forgiveness absorbs our hurt and pain. When you’re hurt and you ask yourself, “How can I ever forgive him for what he did to me?” then close your eyes, and picture Jesus hanging on the cross. He is suffering, dying, enduring hell itself there to pay for your sins.
And there you’ll find the power to forgive others. It may not be pleasant. It may not be easy. And you may still be filled with sorrow and grief at what was done. But you can let go of the anger, let go of the desire to get revenge or seek retaliation, let go of trying to get even or make them pay. Because when you remember the love and mercy and kindness and grace that God has shown to you, then you’ll be moved to such gratitude that forgiving other will not seem an obligation of something you have to do, but a joyful opportunity to show your thanks to God for the forgiveness you’ve received. And instead of asking “How many times must I forgive?”, you will ask, “God how can I show my thanks to you and love toward the one who hurt me?”
The cross. Jesus. Your forgiveness. That is the secret to forgiving others. Amen.