************ Sermon on Matthew 18:35 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on May 6, 2007
"Why Can't We Forgive?"
The Lord willing, we will be celebrating the Lord's Supper next Sunday. But before we can eat and drink we need to prepare ourselves. We need to examine ourselves – our sin, our faith, our life. To help us prepare this coming week I want to spend some time looking at "The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant."
I The Parable
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." We can only assume that this man had been stealing funds from the king and, when the books were audited, his crime was discovered.
The servant was not able to repay the debt, so the 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 the servant could repay the king the millions owed. The servant knew this, the king knew 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.
The king was a man of compassion. He assumed the loss and forgave the servant. This meant that the man was free and that he and his family were not thrown into debtor's prison. The servant did not deserve this forgiveness; it was purely an act of love and mercy on the part of the master.
B Jesus continues His parable by telling us something shocking 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." This debt was insignificant compared to what the servant had owed the king. Instead of sharing with his friend the joy of his own release, the servant mistreated his friend and demanded that he pay the debt. "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).
Perhaps he had the legal right to throw the man in prison, but he did not have the moral right. He had been forgiven himself – should he not forgive his fellow servant? He and his family had been spared the shame and suffering of prison. Should he not spare his friend? The forgiven servant was unwilling to grant to others what he wanted others to grant to him. A man forgiven a simply enormous debt could not forgive a rather small debt.
C The parable ends with the first servant being confronted by the king and handed over to the jailers. The jailers were allowed to whip and torture the debtors in their care in order to get money from them for the creditors, or else to excite the compassion of family and friends and thereby obtain the amount of the debt from them. The unforgiving servant was punished for his unforgiving attitude.
D Don't forget the context of this parable. At the start of our Bible reading Jesus is teaching His disciples and followers about forgiveness. If your brother or sister sins against you or if you sin against them, you need to talk and get the matter straightened out. You need to forgive one another.
It is Peter who asked, "Lord, how many times ...?" We don't know who or what Peter was talking about, but obviously there was someone in Peter's life who needed forgiveness time after time. Week after week or month after month, this person kept doing the same old sins. He or she was stubborn and willful and angry and Peter was getting tired of being patient and kind and loving and forgiving with them. "Lord, how many times ...?" Do I have to keep forgiving them again and again? Do you really expect me to forgive when they keep hurting me?
I cannot help but observe that Peter made some serious mistakes. To begin with, he was sure his brother would sin against him, not he against his brother! Aren't we the same way? Don't we just assume that the sin that makes us angry is being done by the other guy, that we are the innocent party, that it is the other person who needs to humble themselves and ask for forgiveness?
Peter's second mistake was in asking for limits and measures. Where there is love, there can be no limits or measures (Eph 3:17–19). Peter thought he was showing great faith and love when he offered to forgive at least seven times. After all, the rabbis taught that three times was sufficient.
Our Lord's reply, "seventy-seven times" (or "seventy times seven times" – that is 490 times) must have startled Peter. Who could keep count for that many times? But that was exactly the point Jesus was making: Love "keeps no record of wrongs" (1 Cor 13:5). By the time we have forgiven a brother or sister that many times, we are in the habit of forgiving.
If a brother or sister is guilty of a repeated sin, he or she would find strength and power to conquer that sin through the encouragement of loving and forgiving brothers and sisters. If we condemn a brother or sister, we bring out the worst in him or her. But if we create an atmosphere of love and forgiveness, we can be used of God to bring out the best in him or her.
In response to Peter's mistakes, Jesus tells Peter and the other disciples and you and me "The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant." Jesus starts off by saying, "the kingdom of heaven is like ..." Jesus lets us know He is talking about the kingdom and the church. Jesus lets us know He is talking about Christians. Jesus lets us know He is talking to you and me and everyone who hopes to take the Lord's Supper.
I hear five lessons for you and me as we prepare ourselves for the Lord's Supper.
II Our Debt to God
The first lesson concerns our debt to God. The king represents God and the servant represents people like you and me. Like the servant we have a debt that we cannot possibly repay – an enormous debt. A debt that increases every day. Like the servant we are bankrupt. Like the servant, we deserve punishment and debtor's prison. We all know that the debt is caused by sin. Listen to what the Bible says:
(Rom 3:10-12) "There is no one righteous, not even one; (11) there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. (12) All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one."Paul says "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Rom 3:23).
God created us to love Him, serve Him, thank Him, and live holy lives before Him. Instead, we hate, we serve ourselves, we are ungrateful, and we are immoral.
We are sinners with a huge debt to God. That's the message of the Bible. That's the first lesson of the parable in front of us. That's what we need to keep in mind as we prepare our hearts for the Lord's Supper.
III Our Debt to Others
The second lesson is that our debt to others – or their debt to us – is as nothing compared to our debt to God. No matter how mad this debt makes us, no matter what issue it is about, no matter how big and important we think it is, it is insignificant and small and inconsequential in the eternal scheme of things.
Our debt to one another is like the debt the second servant owed to the first servant. It is big only in our own minds. It is important only in our own minds. It is consuming only in our own minds.
Funny, isn't it, how we let the little things bother us and we often let the big things go.
IV God Forgives our Debt
The third lesson is that God forgives our debt in the same way that the king forgave his servant's debt. God does not let us go with the understanding we make every attempt to do the impossible – to repay the debt. God doesn't release us on the condition we try our best to pay the debt's interest. God doesn't hold off foreclosure for the time being. God doesn't throw us into the debtor's prison of hell, nor does He foreclose – though He has the right to do this, though this is what our sins deserve. 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. God forgives us our sins because of the precious blood of Christ shed upon the cross. God forgives us because He, like the king of our parable, is full of compassion and love.
We sinners have been forgiven a huge debt by God. That's the message of the Bible. That's another thing we need to keep in mind as we prepare our hearts for the Lord's Supper.
V Forgive One Another
The fourth lesson is that God expects us to be like Him. God expects us to forgive one another in the same way that He forgives us. The king of our parable expected the forgiven servant to give to the second servant the forgiveness that was given to him.
My brothers and sisters, God is telling us that 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 pray, "Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors." This message is found throughout the Bible:
(Eph 4:32) Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.This is God's command. This is what gives Him pleasure. This is His heart's desire. And this should be our heart's desire – to forgive each other just as in Christ God forgave us.
(Col 3:13) Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.
Now, let's make sure we properly understand the connection between being forgiven and being forgiving. Forgiving one another is NOT a precondition of being forgiven by God. Rather, forgiving one another is a sign of being forgiven by God. If you have been forgiven by God you want to forgive those around you. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true. A failure to forgive is a sign that you have NOT been forgiven because forgiven people are forgiving people.
Over the years I have noticed strengths and weaknesses of the different churches I have served. One of the churches I served was very solid in her theology yet she had real struggles with sexual immorality. Another was known for her love yet she had struggles with drug and alcohol abuse. Trinity United Reformed Church is absolutely great in the area of hospitality and generosity. But she also has her sins; I am talking about the many people in this congregation who have real problems with being forgiving. In the course of the last ten years I keep being surprised and shocked by members who nurse a grudge for years, who are angry all the time, who don't resolve problems with brothers and sisters.
As forgiven people we need to be forgiving people. That's the message of the Bible. That's another thing we need to keep in mind as we prepare our hearts for the Lord's Supper.
VI A Warning
There is also a fifth lesson. The unforgiving servant was turned over to the jailers to be tortured. "This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless your forgive your brothers from your heart" (Mt 18:35). These words should scare us. These words should frighten us. These words should make every hard-hearted, cold-hearted, grudge-bearing, angry person here break down in repentance and confession.
The church of Jesus Christ always has issues. We don't always agree on the issues – which is okay because many of the issues are not salvation issues. However, Jesus lets us know that the failure to forgive is a salvation issue. Salvation is at stake when you don't or can't or won't forgive.
Those who are unforgiving are unforgiven and spend eternity in hell. What a scary thought! How frightening! How terrifying!
Not only is salvation at stake. So is church unity and community. Unless humility and honesty result in forgiveness, relationships cannot be mended and strengthened.
The world's worst prison is the prison of an unforgiving heart. If we refuse to forgive others, then we are only imprisoning ourselves and causing our own torment. Some of the most miserable people I have met in my ministry have been people who would not forgive others. They live only to punish those people who they think have wronged them. But they are only punishing themselves.
Think of the forgiven servant of our parable. What was wrong with this man? The same thing that is wrong with many professing Christians: They have received forgiveness, but they have not really experienced forgiveness deep in their hearts. Therefore, they are unable to share forgiveness with those who they think have wronged them. If we live only according to justice, always seeking to get what is ours, we will put ourselves into prison. But if we live according to forgiveness, sharing with others what God has shared with us, then we will enjoy freedom and joy. Peter asked for a measuring rod; Jesus told him to practice forgiveness and to forget the measuring rod.
Our Lord's warning is serious. We reveal the true condition of our hearts by the way we treat others. When our hearts are humble and repentant, we will gladly forgive our brothers. But where there is pride and a desire for revenge and a "poor me" attitude, there can be no true repentance; which means God has not forgiven us.
In other words, it is not enough to receive God's forgiveness, or even the forgiveness of others. We must experience that forgiveness in our hearts so that it humbles us and makes us gentle and forgiving toward others. The servant in the parable did not have a deep experience of forgiveness and humility. He was simply glad to be "off the hook." He had never really repented.
"This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart." As I said, this scares me. It drives me to my knees before the Father. I beg Him to change hearts, to soften hearts, to make hearts repent – including my own.
As we prepare our hearts for the Lord's Supper we need to keep the Lord's warning in mind – lest we end up in a hell of our own making.
You can e-mail our pastor at: Pastor, Trinity United Reformed Church
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