Proper 19 – Series A
So what does is really mean to be a Christian? When I lived in Utah and served a congregation there the LDS were very clear about what it meant to be Mormon. There were certain foods and drinks one did not consume (alcohol was right out, coffee and tea were forbidden, but diet coke had been allowed.) There was special clothing which was worn, most notably a special set of underwear for temple-worthy Mormons (about 20% at any given time.) Many of the more conservative wards had very strict dress requirements, especially for women, sleeves that went over the elbow, nothing revealed above the mid-calf, etc. While sometimes we chaffed under the expectations of this seemingly restrictive society, it also had its advantages. When we moved to Oregon, I remember the day my wife, after she returned from shopping at the local grocery store on a hot day, declaring that 90% of the population really should observe the BYU dress code.
Beyond the aesthetics, however, the LDS made it pretty clear who was and who was not a Mormon. There were of course many who claimed but did not adhere. The general rule was that one should always bring two Mormons fishing, because if you only brought one he might just drink all the beer, but if there were two in the boat neither one would touch it because the other would tell the bishop. But even the less than rigorous LDS usually dressed quite conservatively.
What are the things that mark a Christian? It can be argued that we so dominate the culture that we are indistinguishable from it, but I am not sure that was ever true, and I am increasingly thinking that it is no longer true. Are there boundaries which we draw which we must not cross if we want to call ourselves a Christian? Are there tasks or deeds which especially mark the Christian life? The ancient Christians were noted for their love for one another, their radical acts of hospitality, welcoming the outcasts and other undesirables into their midst, the adoption of abandoned children, and their acts of charity for the poor. A candidate for adult baptism would often undergo a process known as “the scrutinies” in which the parish leadership would conduct what amounted to a background check on the applicant, questioning neighbors about behavior and habits. Christians also had a rather interesting distinctive from the dominant Roman culture about money. If you are up for a serious read about this last point, consider Peter Brown’s Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West 350-550 (Princeton Press, 2013).
Today, however, this is tough to talk about. Puritanism is out of vogue, has been for quite some time and as a result anything that smacks of it will almost invariably be connected to a Salem witch trial. But we are not alone in finding this difficult to talk about. I find it interesting that Paul in the epistles finds it much easier to construct a list of “do not do these” than a definitive list of “do these.” At various points in the Epistles we find lists of activities prohibited, but while in several places he does speak of what we should do, he always seems to slip into generalities. He speaks of loving one another, bearing burdens, and treating one another with respect and submission. Romans 13 last week had the Christians submitting to authority and there is always the thing about meat sacrificed to idols which is the text for today. But that seems a little 2
removed from my experience and needs to be translated. I have, in obedience to Paul’s advice, foresworn all meat sacrificed to an idol, but how would you know?
Paul never says that all Christians wear this sort of clothes or eat this sort of food. I think this needs to be read considering his conflict with the Judaizing crowd in Galatians and elsewhere. Jesus also had his run in with those who multiplied rules for the community. But in this context where all the rules have largely been cast off, I wonder if we would not do well to think about what boundaries and the essential tasks make a Christian. The earliest Christian communities often practiced a rather strict code of behavior for its members. Did it slide into legalism? Undoubtedly, but it also set them apart and was ultimately attractive to a Roman population whose empire was sliding into libertine debauchery. Another way to say this, would be to ask if we have allowed our emphasis on God’s grace to become a license to practice a Christianity which asks nothing of people. I am not sure that Paul would recognize that Christianity.
We should also make mention of some who have already tried in our context. Some, and Calvinists are particularly prone to this, have reacted to the current society through the implementation of an excess of rules, almost as if in reaction to a rule-less culture they think that they need more and more rules. I would argue that this is not so. The defining elements of a community need to be fairly flexible and have considerable breadth. It is not a lack of rules but a lack of faith which plagues the Christian communities of North America. Do we truly believe/trust that Jesus means it when said “I am with you always” or “where two or three gather, I am with them.” If we believed that, I think we would act accordingly.
The prayer for the day reminds us that we are sometimes called to endure persecution, as many Christian brothers and sisters do around the world. In those times the Church often is forced to ask the question of the essentials. Is it alright for a Christian to sacrifice an offering to Caesar? No, it is not. Is it alright to bribe an official to get the piece of paper that says you sacrificed an offering to Caesar? Many said no, some fudged. What if you surrendered the congregation’s copy of scripture and the sacred books in order to save your life? Could you still call yourself a Christian? Remember Jesus is the Word made flesh. What if you hid your Christianity until it was safe to come out of the religious closet? Were you to be numbered with those who had sacrificed their lives or who had endured terrible torture for this faith?
For the ancient church these question would boil over in a Novatian and later Donatist controversy in the 3rd through 5th centuries. Cyprian, who died a martyr’s death in the Decian persecutions in the middle of the 3rd century, provided the answer. The Bishop can forgive any sin because Jesus has died for them all. The Donatists would reject this and break off, insisting that the sacraments performed by a Bishop who had communed such traitors were ineffective as well as the sacred acts performed by an clergy he ordained. Augustine of Hippo would still be fighting these guys in the early fifth century. Many scholars have wondered if this controversy did not so weaken the once potent North African Church that it was unable to maintain integrity in the face of Moslem invasion in the 7th century. This is not a matter of indifference. 3
So what are the essentials of Christianity? We are not being challenged to do something like offer a sacrifice to Caesar, but in the context of societal indifference to our message and our ministry is there something we need to be about? It would seem to me that a Church which does not love with Christ’s love cannot really legitimately lay claim to his name.
Early on the Church often created a Christian “way” by its response to the plague. Is it interesting or noteworthy that many of those who were diagnosed with Ebola among the western medical community in the most recent outbreak were there fighting the disease on behalf of a Christian agency? Does it define our Christianity to say that we have people who do that?
Does Jesus define the Christian today with forgiveness? In the parable of the unforgiving servant Jesus could be read as saying that anyone who does not forgive as they have been forgiven is not forgiven themselves. Their sins return to them as the debt of the man in the story returned to him.
O God, our refuge and strength, the author of all godliness, hear the devout prayers of Your Church, especially in times of persecution, and grant that what we ask in faith we may obtain; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Every week we conclude these prayers with the assertion that Jesus reigns with the Father and the Spirit. Our Gospel reading today has a king in it, one who reigns, and to whom is owed a great debt. Do we really understand the burden of our sin as a personal debt for which we are responsible to the king of heaven and earth? Do we bear that burden in a fraction of the seriousness with which we take our car loan or our mortgage? We won’t miss a payment on those; do we miss confession and absolution? If we do, are we at all worried about that lapse?
The author of all Godliness caught our attention. God is the source of our godliness. We like to think that we are supposed to be godly and then when we see a little, the first thing we do is puff up and hope that God and neighbor have noticed. But if there is Godliness in my life, I can hardly take credit for it. The other point that was interesting is that God wrote the book on what true godliness is. No other god would ever do what he did. God’s godliness is defined by mercy, grace, and the incarnation.
In the body of the prayer we pray especially for the church in persecution. Persecution is an attempt to get us to forswear the godliness which has been given to us. We ask God to do what he has already promised us to do. In fact, there is little which can be called godlier than prayer itself. If God is the author of all godliness is it not the case that he is then the author of the very prayers we pray?
The prayer might prompt a further reflection on the identity of the Christian which we explored above. Is persecution part of the identity of a Christian? Is one of the reasons that many find Christianity withering in North America because it doesn’t really see itself as persecuted. Surely this is not the whole story. But is it part of it? We follow a crucified Christ and if we don’t look 4
like him in fact, does our faith struggle? Is it an accident that the church is growing in places which recently experienced persecution?
We are really asking him to enact his love. Listen to us, especially when we are in trouble and give us that for which we ask inside that relationship called faith.
What are the devout prayers? What are the faithful requests? Is my request that God cause my congregation to grow faithful or not? What would make it faithful? What would make it not faithful? These are very difficult questions which may not have good and clean answers. The preacher will want to keep his eyes on Jesus.
15 When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “It may be that Joseph will hate us and pay us back for all the evil that we did to him.” 16 So they sent a message to Joseph, saying, “Your father gave this command before he died: 17 ‘Say to Joseph, “Please forgive the transgression of your brothers and their sin, because they did evil to you.”’ And now, please forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father.” Joseph wept when they spoke to him. 18 His brothers also came and fell down before him and said, “Behold, we are your servants.” 19 But Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? 20 As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. 21 So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.” Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them.
I find this to be one of the most poignant stories in the Bible. Joseph was virtually murdered by his brothers. They sold him into slavery. While they might not have actually wielded the knife, it was as good as killing a young man to send him to Egypt to be such a slave. But Joseph of course did not die, God was with him and eventually his brothers did indeed bow down to him and he did lord it over them, just as his dreams had intimated and so infuriated them. But back in chapter 45 of Genesis, when Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, he did in fact forgive them then. He bade them not to worry or be angry with themselves. God had turned it all out for good so many lives were saved. Joseph would bear no grudge.
Yet here they are, sometime later, after their father Jacob’s death, and they have not really ever believed Joseph’s words of forgiveness. They come, fearful, begging and groveling to save their lives from the wrath of a man who had long since given it up. Joseph weeps when he hears this from his brothers. All those years of his kindness and generosity to them were now seen to have been received with suspicion and fear. There is little pain greater than having one’s forgiveness disbelieved. You want to restore the relationship, you bear no grudge, you truly love the other, but they will not have it. They cannot believe that your forgiveness is big enough for them. They must pay off a debt which you have forgotten about and which you don’t even want to collect on. 5
There are a couple of things which jump out at one when reading this passage. This is really the thematic passage of the whole book of Genesis and might be cast as thematic for the whole Bible. The story of humanity cast out of the Garden of Eden had begun with Cain’s murder of Abel, a terrible sin, a fratricide, one of the most unimaginable evils, brother slays brother. Genesis revisits sibling rivalry in the story of Isaac and Ishmael and again in the stories of Jacob and Esau of which we were reminded last week. Remember when Esau forgives Jacob in chapter 33? The book will end with a brother forgiving his brothers for this virtual murder. They had treated him as if he did not matter, as if his life could be reduced to a handful of coins, an annoyance to be cast away.
In terms of forgiveness, this text also suggests that forgiveness is a process; it is not a once and done sort of event. As much as the engineer in us would like to find a solution which would allow us to check off the whole sin problem, the reality is that we are talking about people here. They will need to be reassured and comforted. This is good because this is really the reason we get to preach every week. One cannot simply conduct a ministry by referencing your first sermon every Sunday. It is a constant process of reminding and remembering. (I love that word “remember.” If you take it apart it is really amazing – we are re-membered, literally reattached to the body.)
Joseph reassures and comforts his brothers with tangible things. He speaks kindly to them. This is not a proclamation but a tearful brother putting his arms around his brothers and assuring them that he loves them, despite what they have done. He knows what they have done and it does not stand between them. God has taken care of that sin. It is done. Every time I remember it, I will always remember that Jesus died for that, and I will rejoice that it is no longer a problem between us.
Does God feel this way about us? I hate to say that God’s feelings get hurt, I am not sure that he has feelings in quite the same way we do, but the Bible certainly portrays him as a person whose love rejected is most painful. Just consider the whole story of Hosea in which his unfaithful lover is the occasion of Hosea’s great pain. God likens Israel’s rejection to a marriage broken with God as the grieving husband confronted with proof of his wife’s infidelity. He repeats that whole argument in the book of Ezekiel in an extended and very difficult passage to read. So I continue to speak of God’s great grief at our rejection of his love. C. F. W. Walther would counsel his parishioner who were at the point of despair that they were committing the sin of pride. It is a proud sinner who thinks that his sins are bigger than the forgiveness of God. Yet, I have known more than one sinner who has not darkened the doors of Church because they could not accept that their sin was forgivable. I remember particularly a WWII vet who could not get past the day when he had killed a Japanese soldier in hand to hand combat. No amount of arguing that it was self-defense or a soldier’s duty would do. He had taken a life. His daughter came and took him to a nursing home in Michigan before we got through that one. I still wonder how he died.
Psalm 103:1-12 6
Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name! 2 Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits, 3 who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, 4 who redeems your life from the pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy, 5 who satisfies you with good so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.
6 The LORD works righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed. 7 He made known his ways to Moses, his acts to the people of Israel. 8 The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. 9 He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger forever. 10 He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. 11 For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; 12 as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.
The preacher will want to remember the final lines of this section of Psalm 103. It could make a very effective conclusion to a potent sermon on forgiveness.
This psalm has also been the source text for many hymns including no less than 11 in LSB (#977, 820, 814, 793, 790, 735, 727 all deal with these verses) You might want to consider “Praise to the Lord” or “O Bless the Lord, My Soul.”
As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. 2 One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. 3 Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. 4 Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? 7
It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.
5 One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. 6 The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God. 7 For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. 8 For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. 9 For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.
10 Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God; 11 for it is written,
“As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God.”
12 So then each of us will give an account of himself to God.
The following is an excerpt from a student’s final examination essay. I asked him and it is was OK to share it. The question asked the student to outline a particular theme or thread which we had noticed in Romans, the thread of not being judgmental. This student was to discuss whether Paul was promoting a tolerance of all sin. The following excerpt is taken from the concluding portion of this young man’s essay which I found particularly insightful.
“Another example of Paul’s anti-judgment platform comes in chapter 14. (Where Paul writes,) ‘Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables…if your brother or sister is being injured by what you eat you are not walking in love.’ Paul does not care much about the morality of bacon, at least as not as much as he cares about how you love others. If you can eat bacon, great. If another is stumbling because our pig-eating ways then stop! And don’t judge them as everyone is gifted differently.
“Now, Paul is not condoning tolerance for all sin. Sin is bad. Paul is not saying ‘hate the sin, love the sinner;’ instead, he says love the sinner because God loved you, and do not be a stumbling block for others. We are not called to be tolerant, but graceful. This wholly eradicates all notions of judgment.”
I thought this student was spot on with this. Do you agree? Paul speaks in chapter 14 to the community which is living under the reign of the new kingdom in Christ. It is true that we always have the old sinner hanging around and he has already acknowledged that, but here he speaks to the new man. The Christian congregation is to be a tolerant sort of place, a place where a variety of practices might find themselves side by side. We are all servants of the same master. Some things are not worth fighting over, including the whole meat offered to idols or the observance of a liturgical calendar. (What!? You are not observing Holy Cross day on the 14th!) 8
In a statement which has to warm the individualistic cockles of every American’s heart, we are told that our lives will be judged individually.
But not so fast on the individualism thing. The whole point of all this is to preserve the community. God is not interested in a bunch of mini-churches, churches of one, and that would be me. God has created one holy, catholic Church. Our opinions do not separate us from him or from one another. If we let them separate us from one another, we are the ones with the problem.
I also think we need to own up to our constitutions in our congregations. Paul says we welcome the weak Christian, carefully and lovingly, but we don’t empower his weakness to be a source of dissension. We do not welcome them to an endless argument. We will accommodate their weakness, we might not serve the bacon cheese-burger at the next church function, but this does not mean you get to harp on this at every voters meeting. There is a reason we usually establish Robert’s Rule for our voters meetings. It allows the presiding officer to control the conversation to some degree and not allow a demagogue of power or weakness to control it.
15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”
21 Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.
23 “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. 24 When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. 25 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. 26 So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. 31 When his fellow servants saw what had 9
taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. 32 Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. 35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
The problem which confronts the hearer of the parable is that we do not really grasp or appreciate or comprehend our own forgiveness. Until we do, this parable will only be terrible law to us, crushing us under the weight of our own forgiveness failures. Is it not ironic that forgiveness can become a brutal Law to us, a word of condemnation?
How shall we preach this parable and make it Gospel? If we do get a glimpse of how big our own problems are, we have a hard time believing forgiveness. And so we often simply ignore this whole issue, but that turns us into the monster’s the parable deplores, living lives which are all about scale balancing and score settling.
So what is the Gospel here? The law is so easy, but what is the Gospel? Remember the Gospel is always about what God has done for us. God loves and forgives, seventy times seven times, even stinkers like us, even ingrates who have heard the Gospel proclaimed from this pulpit, who have literally taken the body and blood of Christ inside us, and yet have gone out from this place and led lives of scale balancing and score settling vindictiveness.
In the past we have been interested in the idea that the wicked servant was wicked because he did not really believe that his debt had been forgiven. Can we contemporize this by reminding the assembly that when we confess our sins in this place and God forgives, he forgives them all, not just the ones we remember or the ones that trouble us, but he forgives them all, 10,000 talents worth of sins every Sunday?
When we then encounter the 100 denarii sins of our neighbors, what will we do? When we are honest with ourselves, I know a few of my neighbor’s sins, but I know all of mine. My sins are so many more and deeper than what I can see of my neighbor. I have a 10,000 talent sin debt to pay, but I can only see a 100 denari worth of my neighbor. Of course he has the same perspective, able to see his own sins so much deeper than mine. If we simply were honest about this, would we ever be able to be judgmental? What would our fellowship look like if we operated out of this reality? Is this what Paul means when he says that he is the chief of sinners?
What is more, this prompts us to ask some other questions. Is not our failure to forgive those folks really a statement about the forgiveness which Christ offers us in absolution and sacrament right here in this place? Do we have a small forgiveness to offer because we believe that we have only received small forgiveness here? 10
Coming right after last week’s gospel lesson with its emphasis on the mechanics of forgiveness and the motivation for forgiveness, this text can be read as a stern warning about the non-optional nature of forgiveness. No one can say forgiveness is not part of his or her Christian life.
Peter wants Jesus to prescribe the limits of forgiveness. He wants to know how far he has to God. Do we forgive seven times? The response can be translated either seventy times seven or seventy seven times. In any event, it is far more than Peter’s already generous estimate. Jesus is blowing the lid off of the forgiveness measure. It is the parable which will probably occupy us. It is a marvelous exploration of the Gospel metaphor of forgiveness. But it needs to be heard in the light of what Jesus says to Peter.
There is a king with a servant who owes him 10,000 talents. Now this is an insanely large debt. This is debt on a national scale. The Athenian League kept good records of the tax income for the member city states at the time and rarely did anyone give talents in the double digits. A talent is as much gold or silver as a slave can carry on his back for a day, about 35 pounds. This is enough gold to fill Fort Knox!
How did anyone accrue such a large debt? Who knows, and Jesus often pushes the envelope on these parables a little bit. The sower sows recklessly, the farmer lets the weeds grow, the woman with the yeast is mixing something like 100 pounds of dough. It would seem, however, that this servant was something like a civil servant. At the time most of the governmental functions were essentially privatized. The Roman equivalent of the IRS was contracted out and the person who won the contract had to deliver the taxes to the treasury. This is what Matthew was doing when Jesus found him.
The man cannot pay, the king sends him to collections, which was not unusual at the time. His estate would be liquidated and if it was not enough he and his family would be sold into slavery until it was all paid off. With a debt this large, the reality is that no one will ever pay it off. Hence, even if he is redeemed from the slave market by his relatives, he will still owe the balance and simply be seized and re-sold as a slave to make a little more for the king. This is a situation from which he has no escape.
He pleads for some time, and the king has mercy. He does not grant the request, but he gives much more. He does not grant more time; instead, he forgives the debt.
The servant then goes out and encounters a slave who owes him 100 denarii. In today’s terms that would be about $8,000 dollars ($10/hour x 8 hours x 100 days – a denarius was what a laborer earned in one day.) I usually explain it as the rough equivalent to a decent used car. He grabs the man and demands the money. Why? Probably he does not believe the king. He thinks he needs to start raising cash.
When this fellow slave begs for time, the very same words which the man himself had used with the king, the request is denied. The servant’s estate will be liquidated and he and his family will be sold. To make matters worse, he chokes the man. 11
The fellow servants are distressed, they report to the king. The king summons the servant and upbraids him, returning the debt to him since he never really did believe that it had been forgiven.
Jesus ends it with his terrifying application. Thus we are to forgive from the heart.
A few things to note here, the servant has been forgiven a huge debt but does not forgive a relatively small debt. All of us have been forgiven so much more by God than what we will ever be called upon to forgive in a neighbor. My sins all are against God, only a few of my neighbors sins are against me. My sins in aggregate are a mountain to their mole hill. It would seem that the first posture of a Christian in this is gratitude and overwhelming joy at the gift that God has given us.
The second observation is that there is a connection between the forgiveness we have to offer and the forgiveness we have received. If we find that we cannot forgive it may well be because we do not really believe that we are truly forgiven ourselves. I personally have observed this in people who are difficult or vindictive in the parishes that I have served. Is the mean spirited man or woman in our congregation really that way because he or she does not really think that God loves them? Do they harbor some guilt which eats away at their soul leaving them no room for kindness and goodness? Are they to be pitied more than hated or feared? The failure to forgive is not a failure of doing, but is a failure of being forgiven.
The third observation is that the forgiveness we offer to one another and to the world at large is really empowered by God and is in fact a miniature of what God has done to us. In bankruptcy, as the man is described at the beginning of the parable, one cannot forgive debts. Accounts receivable technically belong to the creditors. But when forgiven of the debt, the man is then freed to forgive his fellow servant. The forgiveness is empowered. But it is also a miniature event of what the king does for the man.
A fourth observation, Jesus’ words of application at the end of the parable make this universally applicable. This is not a story about someone who faced a different situation than I do. This is a story about me. The last verse in which Jesus makes this application make forgiveness a non-optional behavior for Christians.
A fifth observation: Too many of our congregations are masters at coping with sins but rarely forgive them. We deal with the nasty and sinful folks who are around us, but do we really confront sin for what it is with the sweet goal of applying Jesus’ blood and forgiveness to it? Christ’s blood has made us all forgivers of the sort that Joseph was in the OT reading. Christ’s forgiving love authentically and honestly applied could make our fellowships into beautiful and attractive places which this world needs. They don’t need another bickering bunch of sin-coping crabapples. 12
This parable concludes the fourth discourse of Jesus, he will have one more in which he speaks of the last things during Holy Week in chapters 23-25. We get some of those as we come to the end of this year and approach the new liturgical year on St. Andrews Day (Nov 30).
Possible Illustration: These come from a regular reader: Joe Hues who served as an Interim Pastor in Oregon – a 1991 novel and later film entitled “Saint Maybe.” Wikipedia has a plot summary at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Maybe.
Another recent film is “Manchester by the Sea” with Casey Afleck. I think both films touch on the issue of how difficult it is to love others when you cannot forgive yourself – the immense burden of our sins – the 10,000 talent debt is certainly when your drinking with your friends means you weren’t there to save your children when the house caught fire.
Both stories might be useful to the preacher who can go for the gospel of forgiveness for that “10,000 talent debt” we all probably have.
1. We have sin, lots of it. It is a burden which is far too heavy for us to carry and a problem far too large for us to solve. Our position is bleak without help.
2. I have nothing to offer in return for the help. My resources are thin on a cosmic scale. My debt load seems to be so great that I have no hope of escape but am doomed to the bankruptcy of Hell or the hell of Bankruptcy. My own self-reliance runs into a brick wall here. I have failed. Unable to accept that, many will simply turn away from this reality and pretend it is not so.
3. If the only solution to my deepest problem is help from outside, I am also troubled by the fact that there are very few times when I am genuinely treated graciously. Most of the time when someone does something nice for me it is because there is something in it for them. I live in a world in which genuine grace is hard to come by and so when I do see it, it is pretty hard to recognize it and accept it.
4. My difficulty in really grasping the grace of God means that I have no grace to offer to my fellow human being. It is so much easier and comfortable to live in the world of balanced accounts and getting even, despite the fact that my account cannot be balanced that way. As a result my life too often is a record of judgmental and vindictive actions, mean spirited words, and grudges nursed in a bitter heart. In Romans terms, we start to get narrow in our vision of what a real Christian is. He has to meet my standard of acceptability – my style of worship, my denominational brand, my particular outlook on life or he is somehow unworthy or less of a Christian and I start to pass judgment on him. I have forgotten that God has forgiven the whole world, whether I like it or not.
5. This turns me into something of a justification addict. I am always justifying my actions, and usually working pretty hard to de-justify your actions because in my warped world
view I am somehow “in” with God if I look good compared to my neighbor or if I can at least prove him wrong. It is an empty sort of satisfaction at best, leaving my heart bitter and cold, but when your own life is hollow, you take what you can get.
6. This sort of life is a reflection of the deeper reality. I don’t believe that God really loves the lost sinner that I am and without faith in that, I am utterly lost. My inability to forgive is a problem for my relationships with others, but it is a symptom of my deeper problem I have in my relationship with God.
1. Jesus has forgiveness, lots of it. The death of the only-begotten Son of God, sacrificially and unjustly on a cross so many years ago continues to have power and potency in this world. He died for the sins of the whole world. The entire lot.
2. His death and goodness are not for sale. It can only be had as a gift. There is a certain foolishness in trying to work off this debt. It is like paying a loan which no longer exists. I suppose the bank will happily take your money, but why do it?
3. God realizes that grace is a tough thing for us to get our heads and our hearts around. Remember he knows the realities of this human race rather well having taken up our flesh. This is why he creates the Church to be a gracious sort of place. Forgiveness, he knows, is something that will take time and constant reinforcement. It is like learning a new language – practice is required both in speaking and in hearing. So he believes in forgiveness immersion
4. The really interesting thing about this is that Jesus really did die for all the sins of the world – even my thickheaded rejection of his grace and the wicked fruit it has born in this place. I cannot commit a sin for which he did not die. The only sin he mentions which is outside is the sin against the Holy Spirit which seems to be a stubborn rejection of God’s love which perseveres until the grave. As long as life remains, even the most obstinate sinner can repent and be saved. And so I can be much more open in the way that I see the fellow Christians around me. I can delight in the mosaic of God’s people. They are all a little different shaped and colored, but together they form the face of Jesus in this world.
5. And so God is personally working on those tough old grudge bearing, score settling nuts in his basket. He will sometimes apply the pressure which cracks the shells. He will threaten to call the account (heart attacks can be a wonderful wake-up call.) The gracious Christian is there with a message of love and forgiveness for those moments of opportunity.
Sermon Theme: 14
1. Who am I? And just who are you? (Gospel – That the hearer would identify forgiveness as the signature of a Christian, it is what Christ has done to me and empowered me to do to another. It is my identity.)
A Christian does have some things that mark his or her life. Morality of course ought to be one of them, but Jesus is actually not as concerned about that. Just look at the scurvy bunch that he hung around with in his day that caused the religious types to get their noses all out of joint. No, it seems that the big thing for Jesus remains that we are transformed from the score settling justification addicts whose life is measured in comparison to my neighbor into a person of true grace and forgiveness. There is no sin, no problem, or no evil in this world for which Jesus has not already died and paid the price. I no longer need to settle any scores; I can be terribly wrong and still loved. It happens every day of my walk with God. Best of all, because Jesus has looked at the mountain of my sin and forgiven it all, I can look at the sin of any other human being and say that Jesus died for that too. Not only can I do that, but it is the essence of whom I am to do that. God has turned me into a forgiver of sinners. That’s who I am.
A justification addict is easy to see because he or she always has to be right. When he sees that his neighbor has a new television, the justification addict cannot but say that he got a better deal on his. Don Deffner wrote a marvelous short story/sermon illustration about Martin the Justification Addict. He finally gets caught speeding and has to appear before a judge. The word “guilty” is painfully croaked before the authority and power of the judge. But the grace the Judge shows Martin changes his life. If you have not ever read it, you might try to find a copy of it, if not this week, at least some time in the future.
This sermon is really about the identity of the Christian. We don’t’ have distinctive clothes, we are not all worshiping the same, we are not all abstaining from certain foods, but we are all forgiving. We are all loving with the love which Christ has shown us. This marks us as set apart. Be ready to point to some good things that your parish has done this way, encourage them to do more, and to be glad that Jesus is working through them.
2. I don’t get mad, I don’t get even, I forgive! (OT and Gospel – That the Holy Spirit would heal and impart a gracious health to the hearer, giving him/her the life which embodies the love of Christ.)
If you did not preach the forgiveness sermon last week, or you want to continue that theme, this might be a good place to go. Unlike the prior sermon which plays on identity, this sermon will simply assert that forgiveness is really the only way to live, because it is the very life of Christ living in us. This is more than healthy or therapeutic. It is life itself.
The title is a bit of a play on the old the adage, “I don’t get mad, I get even” All of us face problems in life, and especially problem people. Some of them are really a pain in the neck. Our opinion of others is about three feet lower. I can get even, I suppose, and 15
become just as much a pain in their neck (or three feet lower) as they are. But that just makes two of us miserable. I could internalize this whole thing and carry it around, nobly suffering, until I lash out at someone else. But that is neither terribly fun nor healthy. I could strive mightily to walk a mile in their shoes and understand why they are such a jerk. That might help, but it may simply be that they are a jerk and there really is no understanding some of the things that people do. There is a banality to sin.
I can forgive it. That means saying no to all the other options. It means admitting that I am not strong nor tough. It means forgoing the option of “getting even,” even those imagined scenarios where I am in control and they are begging for my help and I say “no.” It means I don’t have to understand what they did, I might not even want to. It means that I say about them and their deed that Jesus died for that. That reality will obtain in all my dealings with this person. I probably cannot do like God does in the psalm and forget about the transgression, but I can remember it red with the blood of Jesus. I can forgive it. My life can reflect the fact that Christ has born this burden and forgiven this sin, Jesus took that on Calvary. My life does not need all the scores settled, Jesus will do any score settling needed on the last day. My life does not need to be tough, it is connected to the very king of heaven and is resilient even through the grave. My life can be free, freely received from God and freely given to my neighbor. My life can be whole, made whole by God and wholly at peace with others. My life can be enjoyed, filled with the joy of Christ which spills over into all that I say and do. I don’t get mad, I forgive.
A necessary thing to say to your folks about forgiveness, especially if they are not used to doing this: The first time you try this, it will feel odd, almost smarmy, but trust me, after a week or two it will be the best thing you ever did. We really do need to practice at this, we need to say the whole formula. “I am sorry…” “I forgive you, Jesus died for that.” It will feel corny at first, but that quickly passes.
3. The Mosaic which is God’s people (Romans – that the Spirit of God would fill the hearts and minds of the hearer with God’s magnanimous charity which sees all people through the lens of the cross.)
God has a big picture of his Church – the mark of a cult is uniformity. It was the goofy guy in Antelope Oregon who made everyone wear red clothes. God does not dictate what we wear and what we eat, he fills our hearts with love for him and for one another, a love which can look at a man of a different color, a different sort of person and realize that God loves him or her just as much as he loves me. We are not a paint pot or a melting pot of people, but a stew pot, a mosaic. Each of us retains the beautiful thing that God has made us to be and we are fitted together with one another into a beautiful picture. That means that I need not look upon my neighbor who sings a different song in praise of 16
Jesus with judgment or disrespect, but rejoice that his song and my song are melded with angelic songs to form one united song of praise in heaven.
This is not easy. My human nature battles against this. Religions of every stripe have exhibited an impulse to uniformity. Some suggest that what we witness in Islam today is not so much a battle by Muslims against the west as it is an ancient internal fight for the soul of Islam itself. On one side there are the rigid conformists who want all Muslims to behave, dress, speak in certain ways. On the other is a much more diverse expression. This is simply a universal human expression of the religious impulse. Christians do this too. But God here in Romans is suggesting that we who have gone through death and resurrection with Christ through our baptism have put all these differences behind us. They were part of the old man, the old way. Renewed in our minds (Rom 12:2) we see things differently, most importantly we see each other differently.
There are many who seek to divide the body of Christ this way. But Paul paints another picture for us, not of division but of unity. I do not confess to like all of this, but the blood and sacrifice of Christ transcends this.
4. What Would Joseph Do? (OT and Gospel Lessons – That the Holy Spirit of God would empower the hearer to forgive even those who have done terrible things to us.)
The prior Monday before we preach this sermon is the anniversary of 9/11. A quick read through the news will bring us more instances of the atrocious behaviors of human beings to one another. Things have not changed since Joseph, whose own brothers sought to kill him. People who should have loved him, would have replicated the sin of Cain which starts this book of Genesis. They would have killed him.
Can we say that Jesus died for all who are involved in these events? Yes, Jesus died even for the misguided, evil, and deranged men who flew the planes into the World Trade Center or who committed the latest act of violence. If we cannot say that, what does that mean about the extent of God’s love and God’s forgiveness?
Joseph, confronted by the fear of his brothers, notices that their evil did not go beyond God’s ability to make good of this. This is hard and there are some who are probably not to that point yet with 9/11, but if Joseph could see a day when he could say that about the treachery of his own brothers, can we realistically say that God may lead us to that day? Surely it may happen.
Joseph does not want to be God. I think he knows he would be a nasty vindictive sort of god. Rather, he delights in God’s ability to love even stinkers, even those who do evil. He does not try to understand his brothers, he does not call their deeds good, or even errors. He calls what they did evil. Likewise we are not called upon to call the events of 9/11 justifiable or good. But with Joseph we can say that this evil was not greater than God’s forgiveness and his love. 17
The preacher of this sermon needs to be humble about this. I don’t have all the answers. I am not the one dispensing justice nor am I called upon to be that. I have one answer – Jesus died for the sins of the whole world, including this one.
God does bring good from evil, but it is not always and immediately obvious to us. I don’t know why this happened, nor do I know what good God will work out of this. But I can trust that he will.
You might also look at the sermon on identity and sermon #2 above. This is our Christian identity at the test here. How will we react to this? Who are we?
The preacher of this sermon needs to be aware that 9/11 remains a raw and very emotional piece for many folks. Such emotional topics are not always heard rationally, not always amenable to hearing hard things. Go easy here. Remember, you will have to get back in that pulpit next week and this folks will need to listen to you then too.
5. Forgive us our Trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. (That the Holy Spirit would guide and empower our prayers and our forgiveness.)
The Lord’s Prayer’s petition operates on the same principle as the Gospel reading today. The forgiveness we offer to one another is directly connected to the forgiveness which we receive from God. They are all one piece. It is not two forgivenesses. Negatively spoken, if there is no forgiveness in our inter-human relationships, there is no forgiveness for us either. But that is terrible Law. We should let that sink in, but we need to be ready with the rest of that equation. God’s forgiveness spoken and given to us empowers and guides our lives to be lives of forgiveness and love.
Here we need to point to absolution, baptism, sacrament, preaching, and the community of God’s people. These are the places where God speaks that Word of Christ to us.
In this Reformation year the preacher may want simply to have the people turn to the catechism, it is in the hymnal. Use that explanation of this petition to illustrate and build the sermon.
6. Seventy-Seven Times (That the Holy Spirit would assure the hearer that he/she has that much forgiveness to give – we will never run out!)
We too often us Matthew 18 as a by-law which guides and directs our church discipline, but in fact Jesus seems to intend this to be a program not of kicking people out but of forgiving them and regaining brothers.
That seems impossible to us, like it did to Peter who was stretching to forgive seven times. Jesus, however, in the parable of the unmerciful servant links the forgiveness of the 100 denarii sin with the very forgiveness of God, a bottomless well that forgives our ten-thousand talents of sin.