Matthew 18:21-35 (Pentecost 16A)
St. John, Galveston 9/17/2023
Rev. Alan Taylor

+ In Nomine Jesu +

Grace and peace to you, from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

I read a sermon the other day that was based on the Gospel reading for this morning from Matthew 18. The passage is about forgiveness. The pastor began the sermon, saying, “forgiveness doesn’t count.” I thought, woah, wait a minute! What do you mean forgiveness doesn’t count? It certainly does count in terms of reconciling ourselves to other people. It counts in marriages and in friendships. It even counts in relationships with co-workers. And, most importantly, it counts in our relationship to God. In fact, forgiveness, God’s forgiveness of us, is the foundation of the Gospel. As the Scriptures tell us, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting our trespasses against us.”

Again, the Pastor said, “forgiveness doesn’t count.” At this point, I was ready to throw the sermon away. But I forged on. “It doesn’t count (he said) in the sense that it doesn’t keep score or keep track of how many times it has to forgive or how much sin it has to have mercy on.” That’s the way it is with God toward us, and that’s the way it is to be with us toward one another. God forgives us, freely, fully, and completely. Therefore we are to forgive one another in the same way: freely, fully, and completely, not counting someone else’s trespasses against us, or keeping score or keeping track of how many times they have offended us. That’s the connection Jesus draws for us today in “The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant.”

I remind you that today and next Sunday, we’re contrasting the things of God with the things of men on the basis of the respective Gospel readings. In this morning’s reading, Simon Peter gives us a view of the thinking of men (and women, by the way), on the subject of forgiveness. He asked Jesus, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?”
Peter was trying to make forgiveness count, wasn’t he? He was trying to quantify forgiveness. He wanted to keep score, but first he needed to know the rules for keeping score. “How often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?”

Peter may have even thought he was being generous and magnanimous, suggesting what seemed to him like a lot of times to offer forgiveness. “Seven times! Aren’t I being grand and merciful, Jesus? I’m willing to forgive up to seven whole times!” So, what do you say, Jesus? How many times do I have to forgive someone who sins against me?

There are two parts to Jesus’ answer. First, He gave Peter an outright answer. “I say to you, not seven times, but seventy seven times.” Or, as some translations have it, “not seven times, but seventy times seven.” So, either 77 times, or 490 times. Either way, Jesus doesn’t intend a fixed number of times to forgive, such that once that number is reached, the person offended can rightfully lower the boom on the offender. Rather, He means we should forgive infinitely. However many times our brother, or sister sins against us and repents we are called by God to forgive them. So, the first part of Jesus’ answer to Peter’s question is, “your forgiveness of others is to have no limits, just as God’s forgiveness of you has no limits.”  

The second part of Jesus’ answer came by way of a parable. While the first part of His response tells us that forgiveness has no limits, the second part tells us that we are to forgive others because their debt to us is ultimately trivial when compared to our debt to God.

“The kingdom of heaven (He said) may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents.” To understand the parable, we need to begin by understanding the debts that were owed by each person in the parable. This first man owed ten thousand talents. Now, that doesn’t mean a lot to us unless put it into today’s dollars, so let’s do that. One talent would have been equal to about $80,000 today. So, ten thousand talents would have been about 80 billion in today’s dollars. Needless to say, when the king wished to settle his debts, the man who owed 10,000 talents begged for mercy. After all, there was absolutely no way he would ever be able to satisfy what he owed to the king. Out of pity for the man, the master forgave him his debt. The master forgave him $80 billion (billion with B) dollars.

The man who was forgiven such a tremendous debt was himself owed a debt by another man. This man owed him 100 denarii, or about $112. The first man came to collect and his debtor fell to the ground and begged for more time. But the first man grabbed his debtor by the throat. He said to him, “Pay what you owe!” “He put the man in prison until he should pay the debt.”

A debt forgiven of $80 billion dollars. A debt retained of $112 dollars. But, Pastor, you might say, those figures are so exaggerated. This couldn’t be the right proportion between the debt God has forgiven me and the debt that others have owed me. I mean, I’ve been hurt pretty badly by people over the course of my life. People have wronged me and the pain is just too great for me to be expected to forgive them. And besides, God is God, and I’m…well… I’m just me.

The things of men and the things of God regarding forgiveness are quite different, aren’t they? First, God’s forgiveness is infinite. Repentance is the key. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Secondly, the debt you owed to God is beyond anything that you could ever fathom or even quantify. “For we are brought to an end by your anger; by your wrath we are dismayed. You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence.” “Who can discern his errors (asks the Psalmist)? Who even knows the sins he has committed against the Almighty?

Fortunately, with God forgiveness doesn’t count. He doesn’t keep a record of how many times He has forgiven you and set a limit on how many more times He will forgive you. Nor does He keep a record of how many times He has forgiven you for the same sin. And that is something that is really hard for us to understand and to believe. Actually, the whole promise of God’s forgiveness is hard for us to understand. “No article of faith (says Luther) is more difficult to believe than the article which says: “I believe the forgiveness of sins…This article affects us personally and enters into our experience…that is why it is the most difficult article for us to believe.” To be sure, other articles of our faith are more difficult when we are called upon to speak of them and to comprehend them. For instance, we are to believe that the bread of the Lord’s Supper is the body of Christ and that the cup, or the wine, is Christ’s blood; again, that the Holy Spirit is given in baptism. But in this article, I believe the forgiveness of sins, the most difficult thing is not only that we are to speak about this article and to understand it, but also that every one of us is to accept it for himself, or herself with certainty.”

It is finally God’s forgiveness of us, and the nature of it, that it doesn’t count, that moves us to forgive others as we have been forgiven in Christ. I get what the Pastor was saying in his sermon. I hope you do too. In Christ, forgiveness doesn’t count.
In the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +