Forgiveness

Sixth in a YAFI (You Asked For It) Series,
Delivered July 11, 1999 by Dr. Ronald W. Scates

Sermon Text:
Matthew 18:21-35
21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my
brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?”
22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.
23 “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts
with his servants.
24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was
brought to him.
25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his
children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.
26 “The servant fell on his knees before him. `Be patient with me,’ he begged, `and
I will pay back everything.’
27 The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.
28 “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed
him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him and began to choke him. `Pay back
what you owe me!’ he demanded.
29 “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, `Be patient with me, and I
will pay you back.’
30 “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until
he could pay the debt.
31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed
and went and told their master everything that had happened.
32 “Then the master called the servant in. `You wicked servant,’ he said, `I
canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to.
33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’
34 In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should
pay back all he owed.
35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your
brother from your heart.”

It was Elizabeth O’Connor who said, “Forgiveness is a whole lot harder than any sermon makes it out to be.”

In his book, Letters to Malcolm, C.S. Lewis writes these words, “Last week in prayer, I discovered, or at least I think I did, that I suddenly was able to forgive someone that I had been trying to forgive for over thirty years.”

I take great comfort in C.S. Lewis’s words as I stand here this morning to preach on forgiveness. In my own life, I find that to be such a struggle. Thirteen years ago a dear friend of mine tried to torpedo my ministry. I suspected as much. I confronted him on it, and he confessed that that was exactly what he was doing; and he asked my forgiveness. I said to him, “I forgive you.” To this very day, every day, I am still trying to forgive him.

This is possibly the most important of all of the sermons that you have requested because if you and I don’t get this forgiveness thing down, then we miss the gospel. Grace, the gospel, the very heart of God; they are all wrapped up in forgiveness. There is no greater text in all of Scripture that opens the heart of God, that opens the heart of forgiveness to you and me, than the one we are about to look at. I would invite you to open your Bibles, and keep them open during this sermon, to Matthew’s gospel, the eighteenth chapter. This is the Word of God.

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times should I forgive my brother when he sins against met? Up to seven times? Jesus answered, “I tell you not seven times, but seventy-seven times. Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began his settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. The servant fell on his knees before him, ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him ,canceled the debt and let him go. But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him one hundred denarii. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded. His fellow servant fell down to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’ But he refused. Instead he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened. Then the master called the servant in, ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

And then Jesus finished up by saying to the apostles, and he says it to you and me here this morning:

‘This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.’

Join me as we pray: Now Father as words are true to your Word, may they be taken to heart. But as my words should stray from your Word, may they be quickly forgotten. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

There is a universal longing, a hunger in every human soul for forgiveness; both to be able to give it, and to receive it. In one of his stories, Ernest Hemingway tells about a young man who wrongs his father and he runs away from home to the city of Madrid. Out of great love for his son, the father takes out an ad in the Madrid newspaper, ‘Paco, meet me Hotel Montana, 12 noon Tuesday. All is forgiven. Papa.’ Now Paco is a rather common name in Spain, and so when the father gets to the hotel, he finds eight hundred young men waiting for their fathers.

We long for forgiveness: to be able to forgive and to be forgiven. If that is so, then why is it so hard to forgive? It wasn’t any easier for the first followers of Jesus. Not even for the apostles. It is a dog eat dog world out there. Not a dog forgive dog world. Even the apostles are having a hard time with forgiveness.

In verse 21 of our text, Peter playing his role as spokesman for the apostles, steps forward and lays the difficulty of forgiveness there at the feet of Jesus. Maybe he thinks he is pushing the outer limits of forgiveness. Maybe he thinks he is stretching the envelope. But he comes to Jesus and says, ‘Lord, when somebody tools me around, how many times should I allow that to happen before I stop forgiving them? Seven times?’

The Rabbinic teaching of that day said that when someone wronged you, you should forgive up to three times, and then you could stop forgiving. So, to be on the safe side, or maybe on the pious side, Peter doubles that and adds one more for magnanimity sake and says, ‘Should I forgive him seven times, Lord?’

Jesus’s answer in verse 22 is somewhat startling. ‘No,’ he says. ‘Not seven times. Seventy seven times’. Now the literal Greek here can be translated either seventy seven or seventy times seven, which would be 490. But we are missing the whole point if we think that Jesus is talking about a literal number. No. What he is talking about here is how grace is to be operative in the life and a believer when it comes to the difficulty of forgiveness.

It is a mistake if you and I try to understand forgiveness in a clinical way. If you and I try to understand grace, which is at the heart of forgiveness, by dissecting the law, we are going to miss it. Grace is best understood by story. So, Jesus explains the grace of forgiveness to the apostles and to you and me, by telling a story. A parable. It is a parable about how citizens of heaven are to behave when it comes to forgiveness. It is a simple, crystal-clear parable. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist. You don’t have to be a biblical scholar. You don’t have to be a great theologian to get the point of this parable. And that is part of the difficulty.

It is a story about a king and his servant. The king has loaned his servants money, and now he’s decided to call in the loan. It is pay-back time. Now servant A is the servant we first meet. He has run up an incredible tab. Ten thousand talents. That is the equivalent today of about 12 million dollars; about 150,000 years worth of salary for a common day laborer back in the first century; or, about the equivalent of Albert Belle’s monthly paycheck. The point of the parable is that this is such a vast sum, that it is a total impossibility to pay it back. We are told that in verse 25. The servant is unable to pay. So, the king in order to cut his loses, orders that the servant and his wife and his children are all to be sold into slavery, and then the servant’s entire estate be put on the auction block. At least the king can salvage a little bit of money out of this deal.

In verse 26, desperate, the servant begins to beg for mercy. He is trying to buy some time. He is hoping that the king will cut him some slack. So, he pleads literally for his very life. And then the most unexpected, unbelievable thing happens in verse 27. The king doesn’t just buy him some time. He doesn’t just cut him some slack. He totally forgives the debt. He cancels it in its entirety. Suddenly servant, wife, children, estate are off the auction block. The loan is paid off. They are completely free.

Now, put yourself in that servant’s shoes for just a moment. How would you be feeling at that moment? How do you think you would leave there? When somebody lets you in traffic, aren’t you more likely then to let another person in? You see, that is the problem with this servant. After all of that forgiveness, he leaves as if nothing has happened.

Enter servant B. Servant B owes servant A. He owes him 100 denarii we are told; the equivalent today of $1.80. And right like out of a scene from “The Godfather”, servant A, black shirt white tie, puts down his violin case and starts choking servant B and says, ‘I am going to break your kneecaps unless you pay up.’ Servant B begs for mercy, using the exact same words that servant A used with the king. But this time there is no mercy. Servant A shows him no mercy; instead, he has servant B thrown into debtor’s prison until he can work off the debt. Boo!!! Hissss!!! This guy is a real jerk, isn’t he?!

But there are always other eyes watching. And we are told that some of the other servants observe what servant A does to servant B. They get royally ticked off, and so they squeal to the king. And for the second time servant A is called onto the king’s carpet. Whereas before the king had changed from loan shark to Mr. Softie, this time his pity has changed to anger, and he lowers the boom on servant A. Servant A winds up in prison.

The story is over for servants A and B. But it is not over for Peter. It is not over for the apostles, and it is not over for you and me. In verse 35 Jesus says, ‘Unless you and I forgive our brothers and sisters from the heart, we are going wind up just like servant A.’

This is a parable about us and our relationship with God, and our relationship to each other in terms of forgiveness. And oh, how God has forgiven the debt that you and I have run up! Far greater than 12 million dollars. Our sin has run up a tab whose result is eternal death, infinite separation from God, hell. Those are the consequences to the debt that you and I owe. If you and I could be crucified 12 million times, it would not even scratch the surface of paying off the interest on that debt, let alone even touching the principle.

Yet God, in his unfathomable love and grace, has canceled it through the life, death, and bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. He has totally forgiven that debt in its entirety. Not only that, but you and I come out on the other side, with the gift of eternal life.

Back in 1935, Fiorello La Guardia, Mayor of New York, visited a night court in the poorest ward of the city. He relieved the judge for the evening and took the bench himself. A case came up where a grandmother had been arrested for stealing bread to feed her grandchildren. La Guardia said, ‘You are guilty, and I have got to punish you. Ten dollars or ten days in jail.’ And then LaGuardia himself pulled out a 10 dollar bill out of his pocket and threw it in his hat. And then he fined everybody in the courtroom for living in a city where grandmothers have to steal bread to feed their grandchildren. They passed the hat and that woman left the courthouse that evening. She left not only with her fine totally paid, but with 47 dollars and 50 cents in her pocket.

Now don’t you think it is more likely that she left that courtroom in a spirit of forgiveness; a greater probability that she would show mercy to those she met? Friends, you and I are going to get tooled around in our lives many times, by many people. People are going to do us wrong. Some of them are going to come to us and ask us to forgive them; and some of them are going to be pretty awful people who have done some pretty awful things to us. Most of them, if not all of them, don’t deserve to be forgiven. So, you and I as Christians are always confronted with the choice. Am I going to seize on the pain? Am I going to seize on the pride, and withhold forgiveness? If so, Jesus says you and I are just like servant A, and we are going to wind up in prison. Prisons of anger and hatred and depression and guilt that we build for ourselves.

God really does have this obsessive thing about forgiveness. So much so, that he mandates it in this text for the Christian. He orders it. And just like any other mandate in Scripture, forgiveness is primarily mandated for our own good. Because God knows. He knows that you and I will never really be healed; we will never really move toward wholeness; we will never really get on with our lives until we are able to let go of the resentment; until we can give up gaining revenge . . . and forgive.

‘Ron, I don’t think I can do it!’ But God mandates it. And what Christ orders, the Holy Spirit empowers. The mistake you and I make a lot of the time is we look at who the person is who has wronged us, and we look at what they have done to us. This parable reminds you and me, that that is a mistake. When we have been wronged, we need to look at who God is, and what God has done for us. ‘How far am I to go with this forgiveness Ron?’ How far has God gone with you? ‘Isn’t there some limits to this forgiveness?’ What are the limits to God’s grace?

The way that you and I are to relate to folks who have wronged us, is that we are to act like God toward them. We are to forgive them. Not because of who they are or what they have done; but because of who God is, and what God has graciously done.

It is all about grace. It is all about grace, and grace says, ‘I won’t give her what she deserves, I will forgive her.’

This forgiveness thing is so important in our lives as Christians, that I am willing to step out right now and risk ruining the Lord’s prayer for you forever more. Go back to Matthew 6, and look at verse 12. Right in the middle of the Lord’s Prayer is a phrase that you and I, if we are not careful, just pray mindlessly when we say the Lord’s Prayer. “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”

Have you honestly thought about what you are asking God to do there? Many times when we pray the Lord’s prayer, I want to fall silent at this point. This is the part of the Lord’s Prayer I hope to God he does not answer. You and I are asking God to treat us, to forgive us, exactly the way that we deal with other folks who have wronged us.

How far are you and I to go with this forgiveness thing? In his wonderful book entitled What Is So Amazing About Grace, Phil Yancey tells the story of Simon Wiesenthal. “In 1944, Wiesenthal was a young polish prisoner of the Nazis. He had looked on helpless as Nazi soldiers killed his grandmother on the stairway of her home, and as they forced his mother into a freight car crammed with elderly Jewish women. All together, 89 of his Jewish relatives would die at the hands of the Nazis. Wiesenthal himself tried without success to commit suicide when first captured.

On a bright sunny day as Wiesenthal’s prison detail was cleaning rubbish out of the hospital for German casualties, a nurse approached him. ‘Are you a Jew?’ she asked hesitantly, then signaled him to accompany her. Apprehensive, Wiesenthal followed her up a stairway and down a hallway, until they reached a dark musty room, where a lone soldier lay, swathed in bandages. White gauze covered the man’s face, with openings cut out for mouth, nose, and ears. The nurse disappeared closing the door behind her to leave the young prisoner alone with the spectral figure. The wounded man was an SS officer, and he summoned Wiesenthal for a deathbed confession. ‘My name is Karl,’ said a raspy voice that came from somewhere within the bandages. ‘I must tell you of this horrible deed; tell you because you are a Jew.’

Karl began his story by reminiscing about his Catholic upbringing and his childhood faith, which he had lost while in the Hitler Youth Corp. He later volunteered for the SS, and served with distinction and had only recently returned, badly wounded, from the Russian front. Three times as Karl tried to tell his story, Wiesenthal pulled away as if to leave. Each time the officer reached out to grab his arm with a white, nearly bloodless hand. He begged him to listen to what he had just experienced in the Ukraine.

In a certain town abandoned by the retreating Russians, Karl’s unit stumbled upon a booby-trap that killed 30 of their soldiers. As an act of revenge, the SS rounded up 300 Jews, herded them into a three-story house, doused it with gasoline, and fired grenades at it. Karl and his men encircled the house, their guns drawn to shoot anyone who tried to escape. ‘The screams from the house were horrible,’ he said, reliving the moment. ‘I saw a man with a small child in his arms. His clothes were afire. By his side stood a woman, doubtless the mother of the child. With his free hand, the man covered the child’s eyes, and then he jumped into the street. Seconds later the woman followed. Then from the other windows fell burning bodies. We shot. Oh God.’

All this time, Simon Wiesenthal sat in silence letting the German soldier speak. Karl went on to describe other atrocities, but he kept circling back to the scene of that young boy with the black hair and dark eyes falling from a building, target practice for the SS rifles.

‘I am left here with my guilt,’ he concluded at last. ‘In the last hours of my life, you are with me. I do not know who you are. I know only that you are a Jew, and that is enough. I know that what I have told you is terrible. In the long nights while I have been waiting for death, time and time again, I have longed to talk about it to a Jew and beg forgiveness from him. Only I didn’t know whether there were any Jews left. I know what I am asking is almost too much for you, but without your answer I cannot die in peace.’

Simon Wiesenthal, an architect in his early 20’s, now a prisoner dressed in a shabby uniform marked with a yellow star of David, felt the immense crushing burden of his race bear down on him. He stared out the window at the sunlit courtyard. He looked at the eyeless heap of bandages lying in the bed. He watched a bluebottle fly buzzing the dying man’s body, attracted by the smell. ‘At last I made up my mind,’ Wiesenthal writes. ‘And without a word I left the room.’

Simon Wiesenthal, you and I, are servant A in that parable that Jesus tells. How far are you and I willing to go with this forgiveness business? You and I have been tooled around, we have been hurt. We have been wounded. In little ways, in catastrophic ways. And deep down inside of us, our gut tells us that there is a limit. There is a limit. There is someone this very day who needs to hear you and I say, ‘I forgive you.’ Not just with our mouths, but with our hearts.

Simon Wiesenthal is someone who has yet to meet Jesus Christ, who has yet to know the utter joy of having an eternal, infinite burden of debt lifted off of his shoulders. But you and I, we are here because we say we know Jesus. We gather here on Sunday morning because we say we have surrendered our lives to him. So forgive me. Forgive me for asking the question, ‘What difference will that make the next time you and I run into servant B?’

Join me as we pray: Father, please do not forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. In Jesus name. Amen.