I’ve Been Forgiven, So I Forgive

Matt. 18:21-35

Back in seminary, I learned how to play “ultimate frisbee.” It’s tame version of football that you play with a frisbee so even a bunch of middle-aged seminarians can play.

I remember one game when the Dean of the Seminary joined us. Now this guy was one of those Type A personalities. Very pragmatic, very ambitious, very demanding on himself. He works hard and he plays hard.

We were playing this casual Saturday game at the beginning of the school year. It was an ice-breaker – a way to get acquainted with the other seminarians. It was all I could do to remember names and  just keep up with all these youngsters on the field.

But not our dean, Peter. He was focused on the score. After every goal, you could hear him ask, “What’s the score?”

Peter and I were playing the same game but for different reasons. I played to make friends. Peter played to make points.

That’s the kind of a guy you want heading up an organization. A type A personality. Pragmatic, ambitious, focused on results. A score keeper.

Today we read about another Peter who seems to be a Type A personality. He seems ambitious, pragmatic and prone to keeping score. You see it in his response to Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness.

Earlier, Jesus taught his disciples how to handle the unrepentant brother. He prescribed The Matthew Eighteen Protocol that we talked about last Sunday.

Now Peter must have been listening with a critical ear. I can imagine his pragmatic thinking: Well, Jesus, that protocol sounds good in the abstract. But how does it play out in real life? Okay, a brother sins and we go through the three-step process to restore him to the community. But what about the brother who doesn’t learn? You know that it won’t be the last time a problem comes up. What happens when he goofs up again?” How many times do we run this drill?

The rabbis taught that you forgive someone three times. After that, forgiveness is not required. Call it a Jewish version of The Three Strikes Law.

So Peter is quite generous when he asks, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” That’s twice the rabbinical standard plus one for good measure!

Peter reflects a concern that I think we all share when it comes to forgiveness. Is there a limit? If we just forgive and forgive, don’t we engage in Promiscuous Forgiveness?”

Don’t we weaken community standards by just forgiving and forgiving? Doesn’t that just encourage more of the same behavior? There’s something to be said for that rabbinic standard of 3 strikes and you’re out.

So I think Pragmatic Peter is asking the Lord, “At what point do we hold the sinner accountable?” “When do we look at the sinner and say, ‘Enough is enough’?”

Jesus’ answer is a little disarming. He changes that rabbinic standard. He says, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.” In other words, “Whose keeping score?” Forgiveness is not about keeping score.

And then Jesus does something very curious. He turns the tables on Peter. You see, Peter was focused on the sinner. But Jesus takes the focus off of the sinner and puts it on Peter. And he does it with a three-act parable that tells us something life in the Kingdom of God.

Jesus says that the Kingdom of Heaven is like a king settling accounts with his servant. One of the servants has racked up a debt of 10,000 talents. The average worker back then would have to work 150 years to pay off 10,000 talents. To put it in modern parlance, the servant owed a zillion dollars to the king.

The king could sell his debtor and the family to recoup at least some of his loss. And he would have been well within his rights to do so. Or better yet, he could arrange a government bailout and make the all of the taxpayers pay for it.

So the servant pleads with the king assuring him that he will pay it all off. There’s no way the guy is going to pay it off. But the good king did not sell the debtor or foist the debt on his subjects. He just up and forgave the entire zillion dollar debt! It’s critical to appreciate this part of the parable. It’s the crux.

This servant was burdened with a debt that he could never repay. Then in one fell swoop, DEBT FORGIVEN! Hallelujah!  Let’s celebrate!   But how does he respond?

You would think that he’d be overflowing with gratitude and goodwill. But Jesus says that, “AS HE WENT OUT” ……. he runs into another who owed him a hundred denarii.

That’s probably about a third of year’s wages. Compared to the zillion dollars that he was forgiven, that’s chump change. Yet, he deals with his fellow servant, a fellow debtor, in the severest measure. It’s off to jail until you pay!

Now keep in mind, he was within his rights to do this. The second servant owed him money and wasn’t paying.   But the timing here hits us square in the face. He’s just been forgiven a zillion dollar debt, And “as he went out,” he turns around and plays hardball over a lousy hundred denariis

Well, the king finds out and calls him “a wicked servant.” Is he wicked for asking for what is rightfully his? Is he wicked for trying to act within the bounds of his legal rights to collect his debt? What’s wicked about him?

I believe that the wickedness here has nothing to do with his treatment of the second servant. I believe that the King calls him wicked because of the way he treated the King. He didn’t appreciate the King’s mercy, the King’s gift. And that’s because he didn’t appreciate the size of his debt?

We know people like that don’t we? They go through money like water through a sieve. And they run up bills without any idea of the size of their debt. You can jump in and rescue them, and they go back and run up more bills. They have no conception of the size of their debt.

If the wicked servant had half a clue as to the size of his debt, He would have known what the king did. He would have known that he just got his wife and kids back. They wouldn’t be sold. He would have known that he just got his life back. He wouldn’t spend the rest of his life a slave.

Had he really appreciated the size of the debt that was just lifted from his shoulders, then

“As he was walking out”:He would have been overflowing with gratitude.

“As he was walking out”:He would have wanted to express that gratitude.

“As he was walking out”:He would be singing the praises of his King!

But “as he was walking out,” our wicked servant had no words of praise for the gracious king. “As he was walking out” it was back to business as usual for our wicked servant. So when he meets his fellow servant, its: “Pay me what you owe!”

I wonder if we know the size of our debt to God. I wonder if we really understand the burden that God lifted from us.

There is a second reason for the King’s anger. This servant is forgetting his place. He sees another servant in debt,  Another servant who made the same mistakes he did –  he fails to see that there really isn’t much difference between the two of them. They are both nothing more than servants. And they’re both servants who racked up a debt.

But now he doesn’t treat him as a fellow debtor. He acts like an imperious king. And throws the servant in prison.

In the Kingdom of Heaven, we are all debtors to God. All of us have sinned and fallen short. We can lament: How often has my brother sinned against me. But, how often have I sinned against my brother?

Peter asks: “How often he should I forgive my brother?” But here is something Peter never asked:  Lord, How often should my brother forgive me?” He too is a fellow servant and a fellow debtor.

Each of us can point to times when we’ve been hurt. Hurt by a family member or hurt by another Christian. And Jesus does not minimize that injury. He knows what it means to be betrayed by a friend.

But no matter how we have been hurt, No matter what the wrong, No wrong compares to our rebellion against God. No debt compares to the debt we owe God.

And it is our wrongs, our debt – individually and corporately – that nailed Jesus to the cross. Each one of us brought about the death of God’s Son. And if God forgives me for my rebellion, How can I hold back forgiveness?

Forgiveness is not cheap. Ask Jesus.  It cost him his life.

Something has to die to purchase your forgiveness. Your revenge must die to purchase your forgiveness. Your bitterness must die to purchase your forgiveness. Your pride must die to purchase your forgiveness. And – yes –  keeping score must die to purchase forgiveness. The greater your injury, the more costly your forgiveness.

Forgiveness is like love. It’s not a feeling, it’s an act of the will. The feelings can follow later.

I can’t talk about forgiveness without sharing Corrie ten Boom’s well known story. Corrie ten Boom was a Dutch Christian during WWII. She was imprisoned in Nazi death camp in Ravensbrook, Germany. After the war she became a celebrated author and a powerful evangelist.

Corrie tells about an incident that happened to her two years after the war ended. She was in Munich speaking to a group about God’s forgiveness and our need to forgive each other. After the meeting, she saw an older gentlemen coming toward the podium with his hand outstretched. He looked familiar.

As he approached, she began to recognize him. In her mind’s eye, she saw his brown overcoat and derby hat change into a Nazi uniform with a skull and crossbones on the cap.  She knew this man. He was one of the more cruel guards in the concentration camp where she and her sister were imprisoned. 

In that moment she was transported back in time to a huge room where a pitiful pile of women’s clothes and shoes lay on the floor. Disrobed woman had to pass through under the leering looks of their Nazi captors.

She remembered seeing her sister in front of her – ribs protruding through her frail body. And yes, there was that one particularly cruel guard,  The same man in the brown hat who was now approaching her with hand outstretched.

The man walked up to Corrie. He thanked her for her talk. And then he began telling her why he came to see her. He said to her:

You mentioned Ravensbruck in your talk.

I was a guard there.  But since that time, I have become a Christian.

I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear from your lips as well.  

Fraulein, will you forgive me?

And there in front of her was his outstretched hand. Corrie fumbled with her pocketbook and hesitated. Her sister had died in Ravensbruck. Could he erase her slow death just for the asking? But then Corrie remembered Jesus’ words. If you do not forgive, neither will your Father in heaven.

You see, it was more than a commandment for Corrie. She experienced that commandment in the home she ran for the Nazi’s victims. Those who could forgive rebuilt their lives and could return to the outside world. Those who could not forgive remained invalids.

Corrie couldn’t feel forgiveness. But she understood that forgiveness was an act of the will. She prayed, “Jesus help.  I can lift my hand, you supply the feeling.”

Corrie says that she mechanically thrust her hand forward. And when she did, a current of heat started in her shoulder and ran the length of her arm. A healing warmth filled her whole body. And through tears she cried, “I forgive you brother, with all my heart.”

They grasped each other’s hand for a long moment. Corrie says:  “I had never known love so intensely as I did then.”

Forgiveness is not cheap. Something must die to purchase your forgiveness. We don’t minimize the hurt we have suffered. But we also don’t withhold forgiveness from a repentant sinner.

Because when we forgive, We acknowledge the forgiveness we received.

When we forgive,  We recognize the monumental debt that God forgave us. And the life we received because Jesus died.

Let me add this. I’ve learned the truth of the adage that when a priest preaches, he preaches first to himself. No one needs to hear a sermon on forgiveness more than a priest. And no one needs to be more aware of his need for forgiveness than a priest.

Perhaps that is why when a priest pronounces absolution upon a confessing sinner He always concludes by bidding that confessor, “Go in peace & pray for me a sinner.”