How often should we forgive? A sermon on Matthew 18:21-35

A sermon preached this week in St Andrew’s chapel by Christine Palmer. Christine is a BTh student and a Uniting Church ministry candidate. The college community gathers for worship at 11.30 a.m. each Wednesday – all are welcome!

On October 2, 2006, Charles C. Roberts walked into an Amish schoolhouse armed with three guns. There were 26 students in the schoolhouse. He allowed 15 boys, a pregnant female student, and three adult females with infant children to leave safely, but held the remaining 15 girls captive, tying their feet together.

His rationale for his actions was that he wanted to exact revenge for something that had happened in his past. Notes that he left behind indicated anger toward himself and God for the death of his newborn daughter almost nine years earlier.

Authorities were alerted and soon arrived on the scene. Not long after the police arrived, Roberts started shooting, killing three children and himself. Two more children died later from their injuries.

In the face of such tragedy, one can only imagine the hurt and anger that the loved ones of the victims might feel. In an extraordinary demonstration of forgiveness, members of the Amish Christian community, including family members of the deceased victims, attended Robert’s funeral and comforted his widow. The Amish community did not stop there: they also offered financial support to Robert’s widow.

How many times should we forgive?

In our text today we are eavesdropping on a conversation between Jesus and his disciples.  The problem is that we’re eavesdropping halfway into the conversation. In order to get a fuller understanding of what they’re talking about, we need to look at the wider conversation. Jesus has been talking about the behavior of the church, the way they should live together. Jesus has spoken about:

  • the need to be humble;
  • looking out for weaker members;
  • accountability;
  • reconciliation and restoration;
  • and church discipline.

“So Lord,” Peter asks, “if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? Seven times?”

This seems a fair question to me. I get the sense that Peter is listening closely to Jesus, taking it all in, maybe taking notes on how to be the church. He is trying to be a good student and to get things right. I like Peter. I can relate to wanting to get things right. Perhaps experience has taught him that there are some people who keep getting things wrong, who take advantage, who are not repentant, who do not seek forgiveness. In light of this, Peter’s suggestion seems very generous. How often should I forgive – seven times?

“Not seven times, but I tell you seventy seven times,” says Jesus, and to get his point across he tells a parable.

The kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle his accounts with his servants.  He begins to work through the accounts one by one, and as he is working away he comes across an enormous bill of ten thousand talents. A talent was the largest monetary unit back then. We are talking about an amount somewhere in the vicinity of 15 years worth of manual labor wages.

He calls for the servant to come before him and tells him to pay up. This was a ridiculous amount to owe. It makes you wonder what he did to rack up such a huge debt. Of course the servant isn’t able to pay up. Where is he going to get that sort of money?  So the king orders, “You and your family, your wife and children, and everything you own will be sold off.”

The servant begs the king, “Be patient with me and I will pay it all back, just give me a chance.” You can see the servant there on the floor: hands up, begging, desperate. It is really an outrageous request. The servant’s situation is hopeless. There is no way he could pay back the debt, but there he is on the floor begging.

Looking down at the servant, the king has compassion on him. “Go, your debt is cancelled.”  The king has not only released the servant, but has cancelled the debt! He hasn’t set up a loan repayment scheme. He has cancelled the debt! The king has shown great mercy to the servant. In many ways the king’s behavior is completely outrageous and ridiculous. What kind of king cancels such a debt? The king is the lawmaker of the country. What would people think of the king when they heard about this? What effect would it have on the kingdom?

I wonder what was going on for the servant at this point. What must he have been feeling? Would he feel like he had won the lottery? Would he be excited, relieved, not believing what has just happened? Has this event changed him forever?

As the servant leaves the king and is headed out of the grounds, he bumps into a fellow servant who owes him a hundred denari – about a 100 days wages, nothing compared to his own debt that has just been cancelled. So what does he do? “You owe me some money – can I have it back now?”

The other servant begs, “Give me a chance and I will pay it back.”

“Sure, no problem. After what has just happened to me, the least I can do is give you some time to pay. Why don’t we go down to the pub and sort out a repayment method?”

No. Instead, when he sees his fellow servant, he grabs him by the throat. “Pay up – now!” The other servant begs for a chance to pay it back. But he refuses him the chance and has him thrown in jail.

Some of the other servants see this happen and can’t believe it after what they had just witnessed with the king. They go and tell the king what they have seen.  The servant is brought before the king. “You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow slave as I had on you?” And the king handed him over to be tortured until he could pay his entire debt.

How many times should we forgive?

In this parable we see the deep contrast between the unconditional mercy of the king and the servant’s unwillingness to show mercy. I wonder if this contrast might be the clue to what Jesus was getting at when he answered Peter’s question, “How many times should I forgive my fellow church members? Seven times?” No, seventy seven times. The difference between the two is not mere mathematics. The difference is the nature of forgiveness. The king’s forgiveness was outrageous. Yet the king’s grace and forgiveness had no limit. It was unconditional.

The forgiveness we are called to offer is not based on a formula or law, but comes from what we have experienced – outrageous grace and forgiveness. Our forgiveness is “grounded on the nature of God” (C. H. Talbert), God’s unconditional mercy and grace.

Allan McNichol writes: “Forgiveness is not just some fortunate occurrence that may have come our way – like winning the lottery. Rather it is anchored in the very being of the God of the Bible. It is so close to the heart of the Father that it is offered in the life of his son. But it demands a concrete response in the context of the imitation of the son’s life.” As Christ’s followers, the way we deal with others should be exampled on God’s dealing with us. As the body of Christ, this forgiveness is part of what it means to be the church. We are a community of the forgiven.

We are called to forgive as we have been forgiven. At the centre of the Lord’s prayer we are reminded of this: “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” Forgiveness is not easy. It does not come naturally. Helmut Thielicke, a German who had lived through the horrors of Nazism, writes: “This business of forgiving is by no means a simple thing. I am always on the point of forgiving, but I never forgive. I am far too just.” The only remedy, Thielicke concluded, was his realization that God had forgiven his own sins and had given him another chance.

God’s grace, once experienced, should transform us. This is what the parable of the unforgiving servant teaches us. The experience of being forgiven makes it possible for us to forgive. By living in God’s grace we find the strength to respond to others in grace, to offer forgiveness to each other and to those beyond the church.

This is the church’s message. This is the good news we have to share – the capacity to break the chain of unforgiveness and ungrace.

How are we going at living out God’s forgiveness and grace? Are there ways that we fail to be merciful to each other, to our communities and to the world? What would the mercy of God look like if it had free rein in our lives and the life of the church? Do we offer an alternative to the world’s way?

The forgiveness that marks the church – forgiveness grounded in the mercy of God – offers good news to the world. It offers an alternative to hate, envy and revenge. And boy, does our world need us to model this grace and forgiveness now!

2 Comments on “How often should we forgive? A sermon on Matthew 18:21-35

  1. God help me live a forgiving life just as you forgave me.

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