Summary: Being forgiven means we become forgiving people
I know I often start each sermon with putting a passage in its context – but this morning it is vital that you understand the context of these verses if you are in any way to understand their importance for us as a church here at Holy Trinity. Chapter 18 of Matthew contains 7 things which are vital to the life and vitality of a Christian church community. Verses 1-4 deal with humility, verses 5-6 welcoming people, verses 7-9 wholeheartedness, verses 10-14 pastoral care, verses 15-20 openness, verses 21-22 forgiveness and verses 23-35 freedom from resentment. Each of these has to do with personal and interpersonal relationships and Jesus sets them firmly within the context of a church community. Hence his reference to ‘the little ones’ or ‘brothers’ when dealing with such issues. If we had time we could go through each of these things and examine ourselves and Holy Trinity concerning them, but we don’t have time this morning and so we will deal with the issue of forgiveness.
Forgiveness – verses 21-35.
Don’t you just love Peter in the gospels? I love his openness and his impulsive speaking – even when it gets him into bother. Jesus has just spoken to them how to deal with difficulties in relationships within the church (verses 15-20) and Peter now wants some answers concerning forgiveness. Poor Andrew having to listen to his brother asking such a question. At the time of Christ rabbi’s said that you were to forgive your brother 3 times and Peter probably thinks he is being magnanimous by saying 7 times. How could Jesus not fail to be impressed by the generosity and graciousness of Peter here? Yet Peter is shocked by Jesus’ answer – 77 times. I can imagine Peter’s face flushing with embarrassment at this answer from Jesus. Outrageous grace and mercy is spoken of here by Jesus. Peter thought he was offering the moon in saying 7 but Jesus shows the outrageous nature of forgiveness in the kingdom of God by stating 77 times. Now can I say to you if you get hung up on counting the numbers here you will have missed the whole point of what Jesus is teaching Peter, the disciples and us. Jesus is saying that forgiveness is a hallmark of authentic kingdom life. The Christian life is born in forgiveness and such forgiveness must characterise all who claim to be followers of Jesus. Jesus tells Peter you must go on and on forgiving – constantly forgiving – just as God constantly forgives you. Being a forgiven person Peter you must become a forgiving person. Let me repeat that for you – being a forgiven person you must become a forgiving person. To be able to say ‘I forgive you’ is not enough – we must go on forgiving whenever we feel that sense grievance arising in our hearts again. You see forgiveness is really a matter of our wills – more than a feeling – in fact feelings are not the issue at all – our wills are the issue – and we really do need to take that on board this morning. Your heart will eventually catch up with your head as we reiterate and repeat forgiveness until it becomes a very part of us and manifests itself to all. The supreme example of such forgiveness is Christ on the cross – towards those crucifying him and towards us whose sins put him there to be crucified. You know an unwillingness to forgive is the cause of many broken relationships and can I say, as humbly as it is possible to say, to claim to be a Christian and to not forgive someone is incompatible.
The unmerciful servant - verses 23-35.
Jesus follows on from his instructions concerning forgiveness with a parable about an unmerciful servant. The story is meant to show clearly to Peter and the other disciples, and us, how much God has forgiven him, them, and us and how trifling are the things which we hold on to. Jesus tells them of a servant who owed a vast sum of money, in fact the amount mentioned no one could repay. The amount is more than the money set aside by David to build the temple – that puts it into perspective. The point is that the debt owed to the king is incalculable and there is no way that the servant could repay that amount. When challenged by the king he begs for time to repay, even though there is no possibility to repay. Against all expectations the king forgives him the debt when he asks for mercy. Astonishing grace. Outrageous grace. Outlandish mercy is shown to this man. He should be thankful but as we read on in the story we realise that this man has not learnt forgiveness despite being forgiven so much. He should have behaved towards others with the same generosity as he had just experienced but he does not. In fact he catches a fellow-servant who owes him a pittance in comparison what he owed to the king. He demands the last penny from this man and throws him into prison until the debt is paid. So horrified are the other servants at his treatment of this fellow-servant that they go and tell the king – and the greek says they tell him in great detail what the man has done. Look at the kings response in verse 32ff. The king calls the man ‘wicked’ and that is exactly what he is. It is a wicked sinful thing to be forgiven so much and to refuse forgiveness, for so little, to another. The king turns the man over to the ‘torturers’ until his debt is repaid – but we already know from the start of the parable that it is impossible to repay such a debt – the meaning is obvious to Peter – eternity is in question here. Can I point out to you that ‘torture’ here speaks of ‘spiritual torment’ and that is exactly what you are bringing upon yourself by refusing to forgive.