Sermon on Matthew 18:21-35, for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost 2020 (A), "Forgiveness from the Heart"
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. In today’s parable, “The Unforgiving Servant”, Jesus teaches about forgiveness. Forgiveness was a major theme in May, from John 20, where Jesus commissioned His apostles to spread His word of forgiveness to those who repent, and to withhold forgiveness (or bind sins) for those who do not repent. Matthew 18 today, is one of the major passages in the Gospel where Jesus deals with forgiveness and unforgiveness.
In the parable, a servant is forgiven an enormous debt. A debt that would have taken several lifetimes over to be able to repay. There is no way on earth that he could ever repay it, but he begs for mercy from his master and gets more than he bargained for…in an incredibly good way! While the servant was hoping for an extension or some leniency, instead his debt is cancelled in full. This unforgettable and undeserved act of generosity spoke volumes about his master. How could it be anything but life-changing?
But an unwelcome surprise follows—instead of becoming a changed man, and mirroring the magnificent generosity he received—the forgiven man goes and strangles a friend who owes him a small debt, that could easily have been repaid. He throws him in debtors prison, where the first servant truly belonged. Everyone who saw this was rightfully shocked and outraged. The master calls the unforgiving servant back in and revokes the mercy that he had first given and puts the unforgiving servant in prison. It was a gross violation of the mercy he had received to deny that same mercy to his fellow. After this turn of events, Jesus ends with this chilling warning: “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” Today I especially want to explore with you what it means to forgive your brother from your heart.
Some Christians say and believe that Jesus came as a “New Lawgiver”. Old Testament laws were too difficult, so Jesus watered things down or made them easier. Love your neighbor as yourself and similar commands are cited as evidence. Never mind that this was already an Old Testament command! But to put Jesus in the role of a “New Lawgiver”, really misses what God’s Word says about Jesus. For example, John 1:17 says, “For the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” Clearly there was a different role for Jesus—not to repeat or expand Moses’ job as Lawgiver. His uniqueness comes from bringing grace and truth. Also, to think Jesus’ commands are easier, seems to ignore how hard commands like this are: “forgive your brother from your heart” or descriptions like “Therefore you must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Jesus’ statements like these, or those that say anger in your heart is murder, seem to raise the bar enormously; do they not?
How hard is it to “forgive your brother from your heart?” I suppose we must contrast “forgiveness from the heart” with other close approximations or counterfeits of forgiveness. One counterfeit we may have used ourselves is laced with cruelty or bitterness: “I forgive you, but I’ll never forget!” It’s like taking away the very thing you pretend to be giving. Like saying to a person, “Oh, you’re thirsty?” and then spilling almost all the water on the ground in front of them. Give with one hand and take away with the other. It also says I’m burying my grudge against you deep—I won’t forget! True forgiveness says, “I forgive you, and I won’t hold this against you” or “I won’t let this stand between us.” True forgiveness is healing, not only for the receiver, but also for the giver of the forgiveness. Lord, forgive us if we have ever denied someone forgiveness from our heart, by holding onto our grudge against their sin! Fill us with your forgiveness, so ours may be truly from our heart! Lord, have mercy!
Do you see how hard it is then, to forgive from the heart? Even if we do say it, and want to mean it, that we won’t let it stand between us, it may still be a daily, ongoing challenge to live that out. We are always tempted to keep the sins that have been committed against us in our “back pocket” or store them up for a rainy day, when we can “weaponize” them against the person we supposedly forgave. As tempting as it may be, we have to let go of the sin, and lay down the weapons. I’m not going to retaliate, get even, or weaponize this against you in some future argument. That’s how hard it is to forgive from the heart. Lord, have mercy!
Another counterfeit forgiveness is the “brush off” or “ignore.” When we don’t even acknowledge the sin or face the wrongdoing. True: no one should make mountains out of molehills or a royal scandal about every little annoyance or unintentional slight. But when a genuine wrong or hurt has occurred, we should say as much, and seek forgiveness. If we are continually being sinned against, and instead of dealing with it, choose to “brush off” or “ignore”, it will pile up on us in an unhealthy way that may lead to some kind of crisis or breaking point. Anger, sadness, depression, revenge or something else. True forgiveness faces the wrongdoer and seeks their understanding and repentance for what they have done and forgives the sin. It takes a loving heart and a desire to repair the relationship to forgive. Lord have mercy!
Beyond these and other counterfeits of forgiveness, there are the outright failures to forgive, or unwillingness to do so. On social media you can find out that there are “unforgivable sins.” With a permanent history of the stupid things you or someone else said or did, publicly accessible online, there is a foul “treasure trove” of material for people to destroy your career or reputation or bully you. Apologies made are not apologies accepted, and sometimes people are blatantly refused “forgiveness” by those who wield the social power. Teens have been known to be brutal with bullying, and using pictures and videos to humiliate each other, some have even been bullied into suicide. In the advice of the U.S. Army to its soldiers—think before you post…I might add, “if at all.” And at the same time society is busy making new categories of unforgivable sins, it also tries to deny the sinfulness of a host of other “approved” sins. All manner of sexual license is granted, greed, selfishness, disrespect for everything, and abandonment of responsibility is all given a free pass. We are so confused about sin and forgiveness, that we whip back and forth between guilt and denial, judgment and indulgence, tolerance and intolerance. Society demands repentance for some sins but will never forgive—and at the same time scorns repentance for sins against God’s commands. Lord, have mercy!
Now, more than ever, people need to take full serious account of sin and to understand what genuine forgiveness is. The Bible only speaks of one unforgivable sin: blasphemy of the Holy Spirit, which amounts to rejecting faith and forgiveness. God can’t forgive those who reject their forgiveness! But He died to forgive all of us, and He wants all to receive that forgiveness through repentance and faith! To a world that doesn’t like to forgive or wants to hold some people’s sins over their head forever, Christ’s word of forgiveness breaks through, to show God’s forgiveness is real. God doesn’t deny forgiveness to those who want it, but as this parable teaches—if we deny forgiveness to others, we will forfeit it ourselves.
So again, to “forgive your brother from your heart” is an exceedingly high command. It’s more difficult than the outward keeping of such commands like “You shall not murder, commit adultery, or steal”. How can we do such a difficult thing as forgiving our brother from our heart? Thank God that Jesus didn’t come as a New Lawgiver but to bring grace and truth. First we must receive God’s magnificent mercy ourselves. We hardly can know or appreciate how vast the sum of our individual sin debt is before God. Like the unforgiving servant in the parable, not even the sale of ourselves and all our family into slavery could even scratch the debt. Thankfully, God neither desires nor commands any such thing. Instead He sent His precious Son, who was the only worthy sacrifice for our sins. Jesus took on the total bankruptcy of mankind, and our cosmic sin debt before God—all the evil and bloodshed of human history, all the hatred, the greed, the selfishness and pride, the neglect of duty and the failure to love and do what is good—Jesus took on all that awful bankruptcy of mankind. And He didn’t negotiate a payment plan or probation. He just paid the debt in full with His holy, precious innocent blood. And He sets us free with the expectation that we will be transformed by this unforgettable and undeserved act of generosity.
Go always back to the source! When you struggle to forgive your brother from the heart, pray: “Lord, have mercy!” Receive that mercy for your sin, remember your debt, and the great love of God. How can I then withhold mercy from someone who has wronged me? However great the sin, am I in the place of God to judge them and hold their sin against me, when they seek my forgiveness? Shall I stew in the bitterness of unforgiveness and anger, and so poison myself? No! Let the eternal, endless source of mercy and forgiveness, Jesus Christ, flush into your heart and wash out the poison, bitterness and anger. Again and again, return to Christ’s gifts. Here in worship we gather for His Word of forgiveness as we confess our sins. We gather for His body and blood for our forgiveness in the Supper. We gather to remember our baptismal calling to forgive, just as our sins were washed away.
Forgive your brother from your heart. It can’t start from your resources. Our love runs short very quickly when it is disconnected from the source of mercy and forgiveness and love. It all begins with Jesus and living constantly in that mercy. God has promised to give us a new heart by His Holy Spirit, and He will change your heart, and as often as you need to return to the Sacraments, to prayer, to private confession and the personal word of forgiveness from your pastor—as often as you need God’s mercy to flow down into your life, God is faithful in Christ Jesus to forgive. It’s only when we deny that mercy it’s place in us, and refuse it to others, that we do such damage to ourselves and others by unforgiveness. So always seek God’s love and forgiveness and be purposefully generous with your forgiveness as you forgive your brother or sister from your heart. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.