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More About Forgiveness from Matthew 18:21-35
Today’s message is brought to you by the number 7 and the letter F. F is for the word forgiveness. Today’s concept is so basic that it feels like this is a kindergarten lesson. In fact, it’s in the book by Robert Fulgum, “All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The Golden Rule. Jesus says this in Matthew 7:12. Treat everyone the way you want to be treated.
But the servant in the parable we read today seems to have missed that lesson.
Can you imagine being that servant pleading before the king, owing so much money that you, your spouse, and your children will all be sold into slavery to pay your debt? What’s the point of even asking for forgiveness? The king would be foolish to give more time to pay. Let’s be honest. No amount of extra time will be enough. The debt is too large. But, desperate to keep the family together and to remain free, he begs and pleads.
Why would the king even consider doing this? Does the servant deserve to be forgiven?
The king does the unimaginable. The servant asked for more time to pay, and instead the king forgives the debt altogether. How relieved that servant must have been! And how grateful!
If he was, he didn’t show it.
How in the world could that servant then go out and demand payment from the man who owes him money? It was a much smaller amount. In comparing the different Bible versions of this story, there’s a big difference between the numbers. Some say 10,000 talents versus 100 denarii. Others have converted those to modern money. The Message version says the king forgave a $100,000 debt and the servant couldn’t forgive $10. The NLT has a debt of millions of dollars versus a debt of thousands. The point of the difference is that the debt the king forgave was more than the servant could ever hope to repay, and the debt that the servant refused to forgive was a pittance by comparison.
It’s not like the servant needed money to pay his debt. His debt was forgiven. So how could he be so cruel after he’s just received such amazing grace?
I think the servant felt that he deserved to be forgiven for his own debt, but, for whatever reason, he didn’t think the man who owed him deserved the same.
The servant was prideful and selfish. Whenever we find ourselves thinking that we deserve grace more than someone else, we are guilty of the same. Instead, we ought to say, “There but for the grace of God go I.”
Have you ever had someone to whom you owed money forgive your debt? How did that make you feel?
Have you ever been in the position to forgive someone who owes you money? How did that make you feel?
In Luke 7:36–50 there is a similar story about forgiveness. Jesus is having dinner at the home of Simon, a Pharisee.
A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume. As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them.
When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.”
Jesus answered him, “Simon, [consider this]…
“Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?”
Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.”
“You have judged correctly,” Jesus said.
Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.”
Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”
Whenever we think we deserve forgiveness more than someone else, we are committing the sin of pride. Or if we think our sins are too small to need forgiveness. I remember having this realization one night sitting in church. It was actually 19 years ago at a special service of prayer as we were all reeling from what had happened in NYC just a few days before on 9/11. The pastor was leading us in a prayer of confession, and as he named off sins, I remember thinking, I’m ok – I haven’t done anything horrible like those. I don’t really need this forgiveness. Instantly it was like someone flipped on a light switch and a voice in my head said, “The very fact that you think you don’t need forgiveness is the problem.”
I have never committed a crime, I could argue, unless you count traffic tickets. At least I’ve never killed anyone.
And maybe, if we have trouble being forgiving, it is because we haven’t received forgiveness, and if we haven’t received forgiveness, maybe it is because we’ve never felt like we’ve done anything bad enough to warrant repentance, and if we think this, then there is our sin.
We have all sinned, but we might think our sin is not so bad and therefore not worthy of repentance. We give ourselves the benefit of the doubt because we know our own circumstances. We give ourselves grace and we expect that God will give us grace, because God is faithful and merciful.
Or maybe you think your sin is too great to be forgiven. But God’s love is greater.
“For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love towards those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:11-12).
We know we’re supposed to forgive, so it’s not hard to find amazing stories of forgiveness. You may have seen this on the news just last fall. “A young black man sat in the witness stand of a courtroom in Dallas, speaking to the white woman on trial, Amber Guyger, an ex-police officer who had just been convicted of murdering his beloved older brother, Botham Jean, in his own apartment. She had entered Botham’s apartment by mistake, thinking it was hers, mistook him for an intruder, and shot him in the chest.
“At her trial a year later, Botham’s heartbroken younger brother Brandt took the stand and told Amber that he forgave her, that he wanted only the best for her, and that he wanted her to give her life to Christ, something that he said Botham would have wanted as well.
“And then, after asking permission from the judge and to the astonishment of all present, Brandt walked across the courtroom and embraced the woman who killed his brother. She clung to him, sobbing. It was an incredibly moving and courageous example of forgiveness.”
His forgiveness didn’t erase the consequences. She’s still serving time in prison for murder. But a surprising number of people got angry that he forgave her. Some said she didn’t deserve it. And I think that’s exactly the point. Grace is not based on our deserving. It’s based on God’s mercy.
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. -Ephesians 2:8-9 ESV
But what a rude awakening we get when we hear the last couple of verses in today’s reading:
32 Then the king called in the man he had forgiven and said, ‘You evil servant! I forgave you that tremendous debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Shouldn’t you have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?’ 34 Then the angry king sent the man to prison to be tortured until he had paid his entire debt.
35 “That’s what my heavenly Father will do to you if you refuse to forgive your brothers and sisters from your heart.”
Ouch! Was Jesus having a bad day when he came up with the ending to this parable? Probably not, because he said something similar when the disciples asked him to teach them how to pray. He gave them the words that we now know as the Lord’s Prayer, in which we pray, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” and then he said, “If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matt. 6:14-15).
We have been told that God loves us unconditionally, and that God’s forgiveness is freely given. How can it be that there’s this caveat? I think this verse from 1 John helps us to understand:
19 We love because God loved us first. 20 But if we say we love God and don’t love each other, we are liars. We cannot see God. So how can we love God, if we don’t love the people we can see? 21 The commandment that God has given us is: “Love God and love each other!” -1 John 4:19-21 CEV
Cuban-American theologian Anna Maria Isasi-Diaz suggests that this is the difference between being an admirer of Jesus and a follower. She says, “Admirers praise and proclaim the wonders of those who hold their attention and imagination, but followers concentrate on taking to heart and imitating the behavior of Jesus, continuing his mission to make the kin-dom of God a reality.”
What do we need to do? Accept the forgiveness that God freely offers us when we turn to him, and endeavor to show that same forgiveness to others.
In the number of times to forgive, some Bible versions say 77 and some say 70 times 7. Does the difference matter? No. Jesus is basically saying, “do it as many times as it takes.”
I like seventy times seven, because 490 sounds like daily.
- Daily ask for forgiveness from God.
- Daily ask for help to forgive others.
The number is high because it might be that we have that much sin. Or it might be that we need to ask for help that many times before we come to a place where we can forgive someone. Forgiveness can be hard work.
Writer and speaker Sarah Montana talks about the hard work of forgiveness in her TED talk. In 2008, her mother and brother were killed when a 17-year-old from their neighborhood broke into their house thinking nobody was home. When he discovered Sarah’s brother asleep on the couch, he shot him. When the mother came to see what was happening, he shot her. Sarah says she knew that she was supposed to figure out how to forgive the shooter, she even told people she forgave the shooter, but it took her seven years to actually accomplish that forgiveness in her heart. She had to slog through the process of coming to terms with what happened and how it affected her. She says that until she was able to do that, it was like her mother and brother and their killer were chained together and chained to her. Forgiveness broke the chain.
Why does forgiveness matter? Because God loves us so much that he doesn’t want us to have to live our lives chained to our pasts. God sent Jesus to break those chains and gave us the Holy Spirit to help us to let go of those chains. It may not happen instantly, but keep on asking.
Through Jesus, our chains are gone. We’ve been set free.
Forgiveness is easy to say, takes work to truly accept and give, and makes all the difference in the world.
 Kathryn Shifferdecker, “Forgiveness is at the Core,” Working Preacher.com, September 6, 2020, at http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5454 Watch the video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=4&v=vYsMlKCa9EQ&feature=emb_logo
 Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson. Feasting on the Gospels–Matthew, Volume 2 . Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.