************ Sermon on Matthew 18:35 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on July 11, 2004
"Forgive Us Our Debts As ..."
What are the most important phrases in any Christian's vocabulary? Some would say, "I love you" is very important. Other would select, "I am praying for you." Still others might pick the phrase, "How can I help?" I think the two most important phrases are "Forgive me" and "I forgive you."
Why do I say that?
First, forgiveness lies at the heart of our relationship with God. The message of forgiveness is the message of the Gospel. Why did Jesus become man, taking on our flesh? Why did Jesus undergo baptism and temptation? Why did Jesus suffer and die upon the cross? Why? So we could be forgiven! We celebrated this forgiveness in the Lord's Supper today.
Second, in this sin-filled world forgiveness also lies at the heart of our relationships with people. We need forgiveness in our relationships as spouses, as parents and children, as brothers and sisters, as coworkers.
Try to imagine life without forgiveness. It would be terrible, wouldn't it? All of us would be left in our sins and misery and none of us would have any hope for salvation and everlasting life. Families and churches would be a shambles for people that cannot forgive each other are doomed to a life of conflict, hatred, bitterness, discord, and anger.
On the other hand, where there is forgiveness there is love, peace, harmony, and unity. Where there is forgiveness the healing warmth of God's presence fills one to the brim.
I can never think of forgiveness without thinking of Jesus' first word upon the cross: "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing" (Lk 23:34). Jesus prayed this for the scribes and Pharisees who plotted against Him. Jesus prayed this for the crowds who screamed, "Crucify him! Crucify him!" Jesus prayed this for the apostles who deserted Him and denied Him and betrayed Him. Jesus prayed this for the soldiers who cracked the whip and pounded in the nails. Jesus prayed this for Pilate and Herod who sacrificed justice in the name of peace. Jesus prayed this for sinners like you and me – because for our sake too He went to the cross.
I can never think of forgiveness without thinking of Joseph. When Joseph's brothers came before him in Egypt, he faced a stiff test. Years before, they had threatened to kill him. Instead, they sold him into slavery. But Joseph forgave them. After father Jacob died Joseph's brothers feared Joseph might finally take revenge, but he assured them of his complete forgiveness.
I can never think of forgiveness without thinking of Stephen. He was the first martyr of the Christian church. Unbelieving Jews, led by a man named Saul, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Stephen's last words were words of grace and forgiveness: "Lord, do not hold this sin against them" (Acts 7:57-60). Could you pray this way for someone who was killing you or one of your loved ones?
Today, as we participated in the Lord's Supper, we've been reminded of the wondrous forgiveness that is ours in Christ. Is that forgiveness yours? Have you been assured today that the Lord forgives your sins on account of Christ's sacrifice upon the cross?
Jesus tells us this evening that this demands a response, a thankful response. Because God has forgiven us we need to forgive one another. To forgive and to be forgiven are joined together.
I God's Forgiveness of Us
A In Matthew 18 we read the parable of a king who was settling accounts with his servants. Apparently many people owed him money. One of the servants who was brought forward owed the king "ten thousand talents" (Mt 18:24) – a footnote at the bottom of your pew Bible equates this with "millions of dollars."
The servant was not able to pay the debt, so that master ordered that the servant, his wife, his children, and all his possessions "be sold to repay the debt" (Mt 18:25). Even with this drastic step the king could never get all his money back – the debt was just too big.
The servant, when he heard he was to be sold, along with his family and possessions, fell on his knees before the king and begged him, "Be patient with me, and I will pay back everything" (Mt 18:25). This was nothing but an empty promise: there was no possible way a servant could possibly repay the king the millions owed. The servant knew this, the king this, and everyone else in attendance knew this. Yet the king, much to everyone's surprise, "took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go" (Mt 18:27).
Take careful note of exactly what the king did. Did the king let the servant go with the understanding he make every attempt to do the impossible – to repay the debt? Did the king release the servant from the threatened slavery on the condition he try his best to pay the debt's interest? Did the king merely decide to hold off foreclosure for the time being? The king did none of this. Rather, he "canceled the debt" (Mt 18:27). In his ledgers he marked the debt as being paid in full.
B Jesus starts the parable by saying "Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like ..." (Mt 18:23). We all see, I think, the point Jesus was trying to get across about "the kingdom of heaven." The king represents God and the servant represents people like you and me who have heard and experienced the message of forgiveness. Like the servant we have a debt that we cannot possibly repay – an enormous debt. A debt caused by sin.
God does to our debt what the king did to the servant's debt. He doesn't throw us into the debtor's prison of hell, nor does He foreclose. Rather, in response to our plea for mercy He forgives us our sins. In His ledger He marks beside our debt, "payment received in full." Like the king in the parable, God shows pity and mercy to the undeserving.
Why is it that God does this? Why does He show pity and mercy to undeserving debtors? We all know that too. As the Lord's Supper reminded us today, God forgives us our sins because of the precious blood of Christ shed upon the cross.
II Our forgiveness of Others
A Jesus continues His parable by telling us some more about the forgiven servant. When that servant went out, "he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii" (Mt 18:28). According to the footnote at the bottom of our pew Bibles, "that is, a few dollars." "He grabbed him and began to choke him. 'Pay back what you owe me!' he demanded" (Mt 18:28).
This debtor makes almost the same plea for mercy and patience that the forgiven servant made: "Be patient with me, and I will pay you back" (Mt 18:29). There is, however, one major difference between the two requests. The promise of the first servant to pay back everything was impossible to keep because the debt was too large. The promise of the second servant, on the other hand, was capable of being kept because the sum was rather minor.
How did the forgiven servant respond to this request for patience and grace? "He refused," says the Bible. "Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt" (Mt 18:30).
B Isn't this all a little astonishing? Isn't there a great, big inconsistency here? How is it that a man forgiven a simply enormous debt cannot, in turn, forgive a rather small debt?
In telling us this parable the Lord wants us all to search our heart and answer a very personal question: am I unforgiving like that first servant?
Don't dismiss this question too quickly, congregation. Are you, am I, unforgiving like that first servant?
Like that unforgiving servant you and I have been forgiven an absolutely enormous debt – a debt far greater than we can ever repay; a debt that increases with every passing day. Compared to that debt, as in the parable, our neighbor's or our brother's or our sister's debt to us is nothing. In other words, not one of us is sinned against by his neighbor or brother or sister near as greatly as we have sinned and do sin against God. Or, to put it another way, nothing our neighbor or brother or sister does to us – no matter how bad it may be – can compare to what we have done against God. Or, to put it one other way, the Christian needs to be forgiven far more wrong by God than he needs to forgive others for the wrongs they have done.
Are you, am I, unforgiving like that first servant? Sometimes I wonder. Who among us doesn't harbor grudges and nurse resentments – for years, if necessary!? How many times don't we let the past continually come between us? How many times don't we hold a particular sin against another? How many times have we refused to go to a church or family function because we are mad about something that has happened years ago?
C My brothers and sisters, the message that God gives us is so very plain and easy to understand: being forgiven and being forgiving are interdependent; they cannot be separated; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. For this reason Jesus taught us to pay, "Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors."
Exactly how are Christian forgiveness and God's forgiveness related? No believer would ever dare claim they ought to be "to the same degree" or "in the exact same manner." For no believer would ever want the perfect forgiveness of God to be limited to the same level as our imperfect forgiving. And clearly no believer wants the extent of his forgiveness to limit God's boundless forgiveness.
Yet, Jesus makes a connection here between God's forgiveness of us and our forgiveness of others. The point is that if we are forgiven by God – as the celebration of the Lord's Supper assured us of – then we, in turn, forgive each other. Our ability to forgive is evidence that we have been forgiven by God. We can go so far as to say unforgiving means unforgiven. Those who can't forgive others show that they have not been forgiven by God.
General Oglethorpe once said to John Wesley, "I never forgive and I never forget." To which Wesley responded, "Then Sir, I hope you never sin." That's a good reply to anyone with an unforgiving attitude: "If you can't forgive someone who has wronged you then I hope you never sin." Don't forget, unforgiving means unforgiven. Those who can't forgive others cannot possibly have experienced God's forgiveness themselves because those who have been forgiven are forgiving!
D What is forgiveness? It means three things.
First, to forgive means that the forgiver no longer lets the sin comes between her and the offender. The sin is regarded as over, gone, done, removed.
Second, the forgiver will not accuse the offender on the basis of this sin any longer; the sin will no longer be used or held against the offender.
Third, to forgive means the forgiver will no longer dwell on the sin, or nurse it, or harbor a grudge on account of it.
All this God does for those who believe in Jesus. All this you and I must do for each other. As the Lord has forgiven me, so I also must forgive.
E Some misunderstand what forgiveness is. They think that forgiveness rules out any anger against sin. But anger about sin is not wrong in itself. Jesus was angry about the stubborn hearts of the Pharisees who would prevent Him from healing on the Sabbath a man with a shriveled hand (Mk 3:5ff). Another time Jesus became angry with His disciples because they tried to keep the little children away from Him (Mk 10:13ff). Anger can help start the process of forgiveness by giving the sinned-against person the courage to speak out. Anger only becomes wrong when it controls us rather than we control it.
Another misunderstanding of forgiveness is that it should be automatic, even when the offender never admits to any wrong. Scripture teaches us we may claim God's forgiveness only when we confess our sin. It is to be expected that those who sin against us admit their wrong, ask for forgiveness, and make an honest attempt at restoration. There is to be nothing cheap or automatic about forgiveness.
What if the offender does not confess? What if he or she does not admit guilt and ask for forgiveness? That is a problem we all have to deal with at times. When sinned against, we are often further abused by denials, lame excuses, or attempts at blaming us. This is very common in physical and sexual abuse cases; the perpetrators usually make the victims feel like they are the ones responsible.
In such a case, all that we can do is express our willingness to forgive if or when the other person admits their wrong, asks for forgiveness, and makes an honest attempt at restoration. But the act of forgiveness itself cannot be completed until this happens.
III Forgive or be Judged
A In the parable the king called the unforgiving servant before him and said, "You wicked servant! I cancelled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn't you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?" (Mt 18:32-33). And in anger the king delivered the servant to prison and torture until his debt could be paid – in other words, he would be there for life.
B Jesus concludes this parable with a warning to us all: "This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart." Again the message is clear: unforgiving means unforgiven; unforgiving means eternity in the prison of hell. Or to put it a more positive way: forgiven means forgiving!
This, my brothers and sisters, is what "the kingdom of heaven is like."
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