Complementary Text: Psalm 32:1-2
Preaching Text: Matthew 18:15-35
+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
Since the end of December, we have been reading our way through the account of Jesus’ life told by Matthew. During that time, we’ve encountered sections of narrative, where Matthew recounts the actions and words of Jesus, as well as explicit sections of teaching, where Jesus instructs his disciples or wider audiences about Heaven’s Reign and the way that we are called to live as inhabitants of that Reign. What we have not read in any detail are the parables, stories told by Jesus himself that illustrate deep truths about life in Heaven’s Reign. During Lent, we will be reading a series of those parables and pondering what they have to teach us about being disciples of Jesus.
The first of these parables is a story about radical forgiveness and it comes on the heels of a practical discourse about sin and forgiveness within the community of Christ and between individuals. For Jesus, the naming of sin and the work of correction and reconciliation are part of the love of God and neighbor that are vital to maintaining authentic relationships. That’s why he offers the disciples a procedure for confronting members of the community with their sin and encouraging them to repent of that sin. Those who take that confrontation seriously and repent are to be reconciled to the community, while those who persistently refuse to amend their ways are considered to have removed themselves from the community. Even thinking about this kind of conversation makes us uncomfortable because we fear the charge that we are being judgmental and unloving, and yet Jesus is utterly serious about the task of offering correction and forgiveness for the sake of the other (and the wider community). Far from calling us to legalism or harsh judgment, Jesus teaches us that we must take on this ministry from a position of humility and a recognition of our own need for mercy and grace.
That’s where the parable comes in, and where Jesus’ intended teaching about Heaven’s Reign is so important. Peter asks Jesus about the necessity of forgiving others for personal offenses – Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times? (Matthew 18:21) Though there was no consensus, some rabbis taught that the faithful were obligated to forgive such offenses three times, but no more. Peter goes beyond that teaching, but sets his own limit; surely, people can’t be expected to be endlessly forgiving! Jesus responds: Not seven times, but I tell you, seventy-seven times (or, for those of you who are more familiar with the old RSV and the King James version, seventy-times-seven). Whichever translation you adopt, the point is the same; Jesus expects that his followers will always be ready to extend forgiveness to those who ask for it. To illustrate the point, he tells a parable about two indebted slaves. The first owes an unbelievable debt to his master: ten thousand talents. The word “talent” in this instance is a unit of measure, with one talent equaling around 66 pounds of silver. Using another unit of money as a point of comparison, one talent was the equivalent of 6,000 denarii, or six thousand days’ income for a day laborer – just short of 20 years of work. This slave, then, owes his master 10,000 talents, or 60,000,000 denarii, the equivalent of around 191,000 years of work for the average day laborer. The king calls in his slave to settle his account, and the slave throws himself down and begs for time to pay off the debt. Moved with compassion for his slave, the king cancels the entire debt, saving the man’s family from being separated and liberating him from a burden that would have taken thousands of lifetimes to throw off by his own efforts. On the way home from receiving this incomprehensible gift, the slave grabs one of his fellow slaves and demands repayment of another debt, this one the equivalent of just over three months’ wages. When the other slave begs for time to pay off the debt, the first slave refuses to grant it and throws the offending slave into prison until he is able to pay the debt back in full. Other slaves, who had witnessed both the unfathomable mercy of the king and the unbridled cruelty of the slave who had received that mercy, reported what they had seen to the king. In response, the king drags the first slave back before him, rebukes him for his lack of compassion for his fellow slave, and then hands the offender over to be tortured until his massive debt to the king was repaid. The conclusion couldn’t be clearer: So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart. (Matthew 18:35)
The end of that parable is arresting, and that’s by design. As one commentator has written about this passage, “…it is because of God’s generosity to his undeserving people that they in their turn cannot claim the right to withhold forgiveness from their fellow disciples. A community of the forgiven must be a forgiving community.”* We who have received the unmerited grace of God in Jesus Christ have been forgiven a debt that we could never repay on our own, and as a result we are called to be a community marked by mercy for one another. This teaching is hard, in part because it has been twisted over the years to give us the impression that we have to let everything go, that we should allow others to abuse us or take advantage of such mercy so that they can continue harming us or our community. The parable makes clear, however, that this mercy is to be extended particularly to those who recognize their fault and ask for forgiveness. Those who are unrepentant are to be treated “as Gentiles or tax collectors”, but those who seek to amend their lives and be restored to relationship cannot be turned away because of personal animosity or a desire to claim our rights without regard for the other. A community of the forgiven must be a forgiving community.
We learned last Wednesday, brothers and sisters, that we are dust, but that in Christ we have been claimed as beloved children and offered grace beyond our wildest imagining. As we continue through this first week of Lent, I invite you to consider these teachings on sin and forgiveness. Is there some sin in your life that needs to be named and confessed? Do you need to hear a word of grace so that you can move forward? If so, I would like to extend an invitation to you. Martin Luther believed strongly in the importance of individual confession and absolution, and it is by no means un-Lutheran to engage in that practice. I offer this invitation not because you need your pastor to forgive your sins – indeed, I couldn’t do that even if you wanted me to – but because pastors have been called through the church to proclaim God’s forgiveness, and because the act of confessing and receiving absolution individually is a powerful thing. If you would like to ask about individual confession or set up an appointment, I am available by phone on the pastor’s line or my cell for a confidential conversation.
What about your relationships with other people? Has some long-felt pain kept you from extending forgiveness to a brother or sister in Christ who has repented of an offense against you? Is it time to let go of that pain and extend mercy for the sake of your relationship? These are not easy questions, but they are questions that we cannot avoid as God’s people in Christ Jesus. Let us pray that God would give us the courage to examine ourselves and our relationships during this Lenten season, so that we might turn our lives to God, receive God’s word of pardon and peace, and be messengers of that peace to others in Christ’s name. A community of the forgiven must be a forgiving community. May it be so among us. Amen.
*R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, New International Commentary on the New Testament, Wm. B. Eerdmans (Grand Rapids, MI: 2007), 702.