A sermon given November 14, 2021 by Fr. Justin Clemente at New Creation Church (Anglican), Hagerstown, MD. Part of our ongoing Parables of Jesus series.
So How Does This “Forgiveness” Thing Work?
Our first parable of judgment is all about the need for ongoing, gracious and humble fellowship in the church of Christ. The community of Jesus is the singular audience for this parable. If you have for any length of time been in intentional and regular fellowship in the church, you know this: someone will eventually tick you off. It might even be the pastor! Ah, but there’s also this: you will eventually tick someone off. Perhaps it’s an unloving word spoken in haste, an uncaring attitude, or a cold shoulder in friendship.
Here, Jesus powerfully speaks into the reality that his church, the one he is building, is composed of beloved and redeemed sinners…but sinners nonetheless. And here, as at other times, it’s Peter who is willing to step up and ask the question that others are already thinking:
“So, Lord…how does this work, exactly? Like, how many times do I have to forgive a brother? On the long end of things, I’m thinking seven, right?”
Peter’s question is ironic, of course, given how much he was personally forgiven by Jesus! Jesus’ answer must have set Peter back on his heels, and he must have reflected on it often. Not seven, but seventy-seven. That is to say, as many times as needed.
Jesus drives his point home with the parable. The intended impact of the parable is this: in your Christian life, you can never outgive the mercy of God – so live that way. This is a parable in two parts: (1) there’s a vertical aspect (sinners and God) to the parable and (2) there’s a horizontal aspect (Christian to Christian) to the parable.
Vertical Reconciliation (vs. 21-27)
Let’s look first at Peter’s question and Jesus’ answer (vs. 21-22). When Peter proposes that a fellow believer be forgiven seven times, he thinks he’s got a solid answer. He’s thinks he’s being generous…but he is still keeping. He’s thinking about forgiveness on a merely human level. He’s thinking about what would be considered merciful among people.
Listen: Jesus’ answer goes so far beyond Peter’s thinking because he is still learning that in Jesus Christ, he is looking into the face of the mercy of God. In Jesus Christ, we see the heart of the Father. We see what God is truly like. Our Lord entered into a world where people are hopelessly in debt because of sin. And Jesus has not come to exact judgment but rather to bear it himself. Verse 27 says, literally, that the king was “moved with compassion from his very stomach.” This is the same word used for how Jesus looked onto the crowds who were without a shepherd. In the face of Peter’s paltry human compassion, we see the unspeakably great and unlimited compassion of the Father. Not seven, but seventy-seven times!
In Ephesians 3, Paul prays for the church there, that they, “May have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that [they] may be filled with all the fullness of God.” (Ephesians 3:18-19) What are the dimensions of mercy? As tall and wide as the Cross: beyond human measurement.
Let’s move into the world of the parable with verses 24-27. A servant in hopeless debt is brought to the king. This servant represents all Christians, including Peter. Now, I want you to get a feel for the figures Jesus gives us here. The servant owes 10,000 talents. 1 Talent equals about twenty years’ wages for a laborer. So 10,000 talents equals about 200,000 years wages for a laborer. The number is absurd to drive the point home.
You, Christian, were not forgiven a debt you could have just as well paid on your own, but rather you were utterly and completely over your head! You were ripe for judgment and God provided Jesus in your stead.
“See the exuberance of heavenly love! The servant asked only a brief respite, but he gives him more than he had asked, a full remittance and cancelling of the whole debt.” – John Chrysostom
Here, a mountain is reduced not to a molehill, but to nothing. “For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his mercy also toward those who fear him. As far as the east is from the west, so far has he set our sings from us.” (Psalm 103:11-12). Those are the dimensions of the cross. In the parable, it is the king himself who eats the man’s debt. This is the power of the cross on display! This is the great exchange that is ours in Jesus. Christ became sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21)
Think back to when you first received the Gospel of Christ. Think back to how much joy it brought to you. Do you still receive it like that today? Are you still a debtor to mercy alone? This first scene shows us the heart of forgiveness: it is a release, a loosing, a freedom from retribution.
Horizontal Impact (vs. 29-35)
That freedom will be shown in the tenor of your relationships, particularly in the Body of Christ. This forgiven servant becomes our negative example. In other words, don’t be like this guy.
First, the forgiven servant puts himself in the place of the king, pronouncing final judgment on others (vs. 29-30). He acts as if he were the king over others. He’s even having people thrown in jail! And it’s over a much smaller debt. Here, a “fellow servant” owes him 100 denarii, which is a little more than 3 months wages for a laborer. A considerable amount, but it is as nothing compared to what he was forgiven. His relationships reflect nothing of the king whom he serves. He persistently refused (v. 30) to have mercy upon others. Jeffrey Gibbs writes, “To steadfastly refuse to forgive is unjust and wicked. A life filled with such refusal is a life where faith in Jesus – if it exists – will die.” (Matthew 11:2-20:34, pg. 941)
Listen: if you go into the church looking for a reason to find offense in your Christian brother and sisters, you will certainly find it. How many times have you heard someone say they had to leave a church because they were personally offended? And oftentimes without even having talked to the person or people who offended them! What was the king’s aim in how he dealt with his servant? It was peace. Our aim in our relationships in church should be the same – maintaining the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Eph. 4:3).
And by the way: what do you get when you choose to stay in and work at forgiveness and peace in your relationships with others? You get deeper relationships. You get deeper friendships in Christ. The Body is edified and built up, reflecting the Lord whose building it is. If you flee, you get the same shallow relationships and burnt bridges.
Let me put an asterisk here and say that I am painfully aware that many kinds of serious situations where fellowship can be virtually impossible. Those exist. That’s part of this fallen and sinful age. But I don’t want us to tilt this passage to the most extreme example we can think of and thus miss the power and call of this parable.
Now for others, perhaps we cannot imagine having a need to forgive others in the Body. Here’s what I mean: Jesus anticipated that the community he would found would be so tightknit that the need for ongoing forgiveness would be essential. For many Christians, their fellowship with other believers goes no deeper than sharing a pew during service. When’s the last time you were close enough to a fellow believer to begin to see some of the ways in which they stumble? Perhaps the Lord is calling some of us into deeper and more intimate, yet riskier, fellowship with one another.
Now, we need to note something else here. The brother or sister who needs forgiveness is repentant, too (vs. 29). This is not someone who has callously sinned against the forgiven servant and could care less. In fact, Jesus said earlier in Matthew 18 that someone who refuses to acknowledge persistent and willful sin must eventually become as a stranger to the church (v. 17). No, here this person in debt is begging for mercy. Do we take our sins against others as seriously? Are quick apologize when we sense we have offended someone. That’s the other side of living at peace in the Body. In fact, Reconciliation can’t happen without that. It’s a two-party deal.
The conclusion reached in this parable is that if you live the way this forgiven servant does, then you must not really belong to the kingdom of the merciful king. (vs. 31-33) This is nothing more than a commentary on our Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” It’s not that our forgiveness of others earns us ours, but rather that this servant showed that he was no longer defined by what his king had done for him. He was living on his own sense of righteousness, not his king’s grace. The picture is supposed to be so shockingly dissonant and arrogant as to jar us into reflection.
What’s the outcome here? (vs. 34-35) If you will not accept what’s been paid for you, Jesus, then it will paid by you. Listen: don’t make excuses for this parable. Don’t wiggle. Don’t blunt it’s hard edge. Feel the force of it. Here, we see that God, although he is extravagant in mercy, is not soft on justice. Just as God is the standard of true love, so he is the standard of true justice. If we insist on justice alone, we will get justice.
Here the servant is handed over to the jailers. The word used for jailer is originally related to something “used by inspectors of coins.” “The word became a commercial term for checking calculations, later it was used figuratively for testing, and finally it came to signify putting to the test by torture.” (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament by Geoffrey Bromiley pg. 96)
It is as if Jesus is saying to us, “If you will not accept the provision I have made for your debts, then you will pay them yourself…and you will be found wanting. It is as Lewis said, “In the end, we will either say to God, ‘Thy will be done’ or he will say to us, ‘Thy will be done.”
So verse 35 presses home to us the teaching that forgiveness is serious business. (v. 35) If pursued long enough, a bitter and unforgiving heart will keep us, not only from the relationships the Lord desires for us in his Body, but from the Kingdom of God itself. In verse 35 Jesus presses in on us with the seriousness of a physician of the soul. His aim is our wholeness and peace. Augustine says, “What is more beneficial than the knife of the surgeon? He is rough with the sore that the man may be healed; should he be tender with the sore, the man were lost.”
In this parable, we are reminded that grace we have received is the grace we are to give, whenever and wherever possible. And we do it all to the glory of the great and merciful King Jesus. Amen.