Pentecost 15 – “Forgiven to be Forgiving” – Matthew 18:21-35


I bet you didn’t know that when silk fabric for the textile industry was shipped from India to Europe, it was inspected for its quality. And if any flaws were discovered, that piece was marked by tying a small string to the bottom of it. This would alert the buyer that this piece of material was defective. So when a tailor wanted to purchase a few yards of material without flaws, he would ask for cloth, “with no strings attached.”

It’d be nice if things still came with ‘strings attached’ so that we might know if it’s really as perfect as it sounds or if there aren’t some hidden flaws. It’d be nice to know if that ‘great deal’ that sounds too good to be true, really is, or if it has ‘strings attached.’

We might even wonder if the grace of God FOR ME and His forgiveness for all of my sins might not also have ‘strings attached.’ After all, doesn’t Jesus says, “Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more.” (Luke 12:48).

You mean to tell me that when I was born again and forgiven all of my sins in my baptism – “I baptize you into the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit;” and in the holy absolution – “I forgive you all of your sins,” and in the eating of the Supper – “given for you for the forgiveness of all of your sins;” do you mean to say that since I received all of this grace upon grace that now I’m expected to BE GRACIOUS to others and FORGIVE others who sin against me? You mean there were ‘strings attached?’

Peter gets it. SINCE God has been gracious to me, I am obligated to be gracious to my neighbor. SINCE God has forgiven me all my sins, I am expected to forgive my neighbor when he sins against me.

But Peter is still searching for clarity as to how to complete the sentence, ‘the kingdom of heaven is like…” Last week it was the question about ‘greatness.’ “Who is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?” Today it’s a question about forgiveness. Not whether or not I must forgive my neighbor, but to what extent. How far must I go? Peter simply wants to know where the boundaries in this KINGDOM OF HEAVEN are. “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?”

However EXAGERATED Peter thought he was being in pushing the boundaries to ‘seven,’ – that biblical number that stands for ‘completeness,’ – Jesus pushes it seventy time further. “I say to you, not seven times, but seventy times seven.”

Jesus answers Peter with a parable that has three acts.

In act one, the curtain opens on “a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made.”

One Bible Dictionary I looked at said that ‘one talent’ was the equivalent of an entire year’s wages for an average laborer in 1st Century Palestine. How you end up owing the king the equivalent of 10,000 years wages, I haven’t the slightest idea. Talk about living beyond your means.

But maybe this ‘settling of accounts’ was not about back taxes and credit card balances. Maybe it was more of a PERFORMANCE REVIEW – which went something like this:
“You shall have no other gods.” Failed! “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.” Failed! “You shall honor the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.” Failed! “You shall honor your father and mother; you shall not murder; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness against you neighbor; you shall not covet.” Failed!

Let’s suppose that each Commandment is worth 1000 talents, which seems like a great deal actually. The servant has utterly failed to live up to all 10 and owes his master 10,000 talents – a debt he couldn’t repay in 10,000 years.

The SERVANT never thought it would actually come to this. As many times as had he heard the master say, “I am coming again to judge the living and the dead,” he never thought He actually would. When the Epistle was read in church, he wasn’t listening or chose to ignore Paul’s words of warning, “So each one will have to give an account of himself to God.” (Rom.14:12)

Here’s where this parable becomes pretty unrealistic and bizarre. “So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything. And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.”

Did this servant actually believe he could pay his master everything he owed if only the master would be patient with him and give him a little time – like 10,000 years? THAT’S THE ‘UNREALISTIC’ PART.

And then, with no more than this ridiculous plea from his servant, who CRIES OUT TO HIM LIKE A LITTLE CHILD, “out of pity for him,” the master releases him of his entire debt. THAT’S THE BIZARRE PART.

What Jesus omits from his story is the response of this servant, because you know there’s GOT to be one. And what else could the response be but “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me bless his holy name! Bless the Lord, O my soul and forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit…” (Psalm 103:1-4).

But sadly, this servant’s worship was only skin deep. As SCENE II opens, we find the FORGIVEN SERVANT chasing down one of his ‘fellow servants’ and demanding that he pay him what he owes him – which we hear, is only a hundred denarii, only a tiny fraction of what he had owed the master. “And seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘have patience with me, and I will pay you. He refuses and went and put him prison until he should pay the debt.”

The sin of the FORGIVEN SERVANT is so obvious it hardly needs pointing out. But here’s the thing that does need pointing out. IN AN OF ITSELF, the servant is not wrong in demanding that his fellow servant repay him and, as harsh as it may sound, even putting him into debtors prison until he pays up. It’s cold and harsh, but it isn’t unjust – IN AND OF ITSELF.

IT’S ONLY BECAUSE OF SCENE I THAT SCENE II IS A CRIME. Scene I has changed everything. It is only BECAUSE OF the master’s incredible grace, that the servant’s behavior is incredibly wrong. The master’s amazing grace has changed everything. And now there are new rules to live by and a new direction for one’s life and what was defensible has become indefensible. What was just has now become unjust.

As the curtain goes up on SCENE III, the servant is before the king once again. The king has heard the reports that came in from “his fellow servants” who saw what their brother did and they were horrified at his behavior. What he did was not only shameful for the servant, but his shameful behavior brought shame on all his fellow servants. “They were greatly distressed.”

“Then his master said to him, ‘you wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you? And in anger, his master delivered him to the jailers until he should pay all his debt.”

At this point the parable is over, the story of God’s amazing grace and mercy and His extravagant forgiveness for all of our sins has been told. Turning to Peter and the eleven, Jesus wants to be sure that they get it. “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”

The heavenly Father’s forgiveness for all of YOUR sins has put you in a position that you didn’t choose for yourself – His grace TO YOU has put you in this position where now you are obligated to “forgive your brother from your heart.” Jesus has identified the characters in His parable. The “king” is His heavenly father and the servant who was forgiven is YOU. How will you respond to your neighbor?

And here is where applying this parable to ourselves gets tricky, because we are not like our Heavenly Father. We are not gracious and merciful and forgiving as He is because we are not God. When a neighbor sins against us and asks for our forgiveness, we do not put it away from us as far as the east is from the west. Even if we try to forgive our trespasser as we have been forgiven our trespasses, our conscience will hardly let us forget it.

And so, no, we are not perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. But this must be at least the goal which we pursue. This must be the direction in which we run the race in order to claim the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus, – because God’s grace has changed everything. This is the ‘cross’ that we are take up as we follow Him – because His mercy has changed us.

It is not easy and it is never perfect, but it must be the path that we walk as we follow our Lord.

A young Dutch woman named Corrie Ten Boom lived to write about her experience as a prisoner in a German concentration camp during WWII. After the war was over and the camps had been closed, one of the prison guards who had treated her so terribly found her and asked if she would forgive him. Knowing that she had to forgive if she were to live under the shadow of the cross of Jesus, she prayed to God for help. She writes, “His help came in the form of a kind Lutheran pastor to whom I confessed my failure of being able to let go of my anger and desire for revenge. The pastor directed my eyes to the nearby church and its bell tower. He said, ‘Up in that bell tower is a bell which is rung by pulling on a rope. After the sexton let’s go of the rope, the bell keeps on swinging; first ding, then dong – slower and slower until it stops. The same thing is true of forgiveness. When we forgive, we take our hand off of the rope. But if we’ve been tugging away at our grievances for a long time, we shouldn’t be surprised if the old angry thoughts keep coming for a while. They’re just the ding-dongs of the old bell slowing down.”

The ding-dong of your sins stopped ringing in God’s ears the moment Jesus declared, “It is finished.”

It is as we keep our eyes fixed on Christ crucified,
As we listen to His gospel,
as we eat his body and drink his blood,
as we allow the Holy Spirit work in us through these means of grace
that He changes us – and we take our hand off the rope – and let the ringing of the old bell come to a stop.

As imperfect as it may be, this MUST be the direction and the goal – as we wait His coming again to make everything perfect. We have been forgiven to be forgiving.

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