Twenty-Second Sunday after Trinity
Observance of the Reformation, 1517-2018
St. Matthew 18.21-35
28 October 2018
Rev. Jacob Sutton, Pastor
+ In the Name of Jesus +
We talk about forgiveness a lot in the Church, certainly in the Divine Service, and in each Christian’s daily prayer life: “I believe in the forgiveness of sins” is confessed every day in the Creed, and “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us” is prayed every day in the Our Father.
Christians are identified by what we confess. What we confess is expressed in how we live, and how we pray. But if you sort of file forgiveness as a doctrine to put away in a drawer and ignore, or to have as a sort of valuable souvenir up on the bookcase or mantle to be admired from afar, only to choose to live a life disconnected from what you confess to believe or what you pray for, your confession and your prayer will ring hollow.
The most important article of the Christian faith – that truth upon which everything else depends – is the teaching that God forgives and justifies undeserving sinners by grace alone through faith alone, solely on the basis of His fatherly mercy in Christ Jesus, who took away our sins on the cross. This confession of the Gospel was and still is, after five hundred and one years, the central issue of the Lutheran Reformation between Rome and the churches of the Augsburg Confession, as this congregation is.
Here is how Lutherans confess this precious gospel in the Augsburg Confession, Article IV:
Our churches also teach that men cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works but are freely justified for Christ’s sake through faith when they believe that they are received into favor and that their sins are forgiven on account of Christ, who by his death made satisfaction for our sins. This faith God imputes for righteousness in his sight (Rom. 3-4).
Jesus teaches this gospel of the full and free forgiveness of sins in the first part of the parable that is before us today. A servant owes his master ten thousand talents. A talent of silver would be worth about ten thousand dollars by today’s measurement. This means the man owed his master about one hundred million dollars. This amount might as well be the national debt. Or perhaps the mega-millions jackpot. There was no way the man could pay such a debt. Since he owed more than he could possibly pay, the king, according to the legal custom of the day, ordered that the man, his family, and all his possessions be sold so that payment would be made.
The man pleads for mercy. “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” That was a vain promise if there ever was one. He couldn’t pay the debt. In his desperation, he promised what he couldn’t deliver. His master didn’t take his promise to repay seriously, but he took his plea for mercy seriously. He had compassion on him. He forgave him the debt. Note that he didn’t set down a payment plan whereby the servant and his heirs could repay the debt over a long period of time. No usury here. He forgave it freely without requiring any payment.
God forgives all your sins freely, without requiring any payment for your sins, not because no payment must be made, but because He has already paid the debt you owe Him. The master pays the servant’s debt. St. Paul writes in Romans 3.24 that you are “justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” Justification, or forgiveness, is impossible without redemption. In other words, in order for God to forgive you the debt you owe Him, the debt must be paid. He is the only One who can pay it. So He pays it for you. The price is the holy, precious blood, and the innocent suffering and death of His Son.
Jesus bought our forgiveness with His own perfect obedience and suffering. Jesus bought it. God freely gives it. Faith is the only way to receive it. That’s what the Reformation is all about. First we receive forgiveness through faith alone in Christ alone, not by our works, lest any man should boast. Then we are free in heart and mind to forgive those who have sinned against us. Those are the good works God prepares in advance for you to do. To forgive the neighbor.
But you cannot give what you don’t have. Only those who are forgiven know how to forgive. Those who don’t know how to forgive are those who have no faith. They can’t give what they don’t have. They don’t have the forgiveness that was freely given to them because they didn’t receive the forgiveness as a gift from a loving and gracious Father.
The servant who was forgiven a debt of millions of dollars refused to forgive a debt of a hundred denarii. A denarius was a day’s wage, so the debt that was owed this man was about three months’ wages. That’s real money. He wasn’t willing to pay it out of his own pocket. The man owed him. So he demanded payment. You know how the story ends. This unmerciful servant is put into debtors’ prison where he is tortured until he pays his debt of ten thousand talents, a debt he could never pay. And Jesus warns us:
So my heavenly Father will also do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses.
Forgiveness of sins is not just a doctrine to which we assent. Forgiveness of sins is the blessed reality of our lives. It is the beating heart of our existence. If God held you accountable for every sin of thought, word, and deed you have ever committed, you would have no peace, no joy, and no purpose in life. You would only think of being tortured in hell to pay an unpayable debt. Your life would be dominated by a futile effort to escape the inescapable judgment of God. What a wretched life that would be! Nobody can bear the burden of his own sin.
This was the life of Martin Luther as a monk before he was enlightened by the Gospel, counting his good works, counting with St. Peter how many times he had forgiven others, seven, or seventy times seven, and on and on, thinking of God as the terrible judge and executioner waiting for him to earn forgiveness. There is no room to forgive or be forgiven in such a way of thinking.
But how much more blessed is life under the Gospel, life that trusts in, depends upon, and lives under the forgiveness of sins that God freely gives us for Christ’s sake! For suddenly, God has done away with the grim calculus of figuring out what is owed to God, and figuring out what we owe our neighbor and what our neighbor owes us because of the wrong we have done to them and the wrong they have done to us. Jesus calls us to live with clean consciences and purified hearts, having the unpayable debt wiped clean by His blood, where in our Baptism everything has been made new for His sake. And in this forgiven life that He gives us, by the Holy Spirit’s work of sanctification, we will also not turn on our neighbor who owes us so little in comparison to what God has already forgiven us, but freely forgive those who sin against us.
Forgiving those who don’t deserve your forgiveness is how you confess your faith in the God who forgave you when you didn’t deserve His forgiveness. To be forgiven and to forgive others is the fruit of righteousness that comes through faith in Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God. Living as forgiven and forgiving sinners is to desire and see that you and your neighbor appear before the mercy seat of God pure and blameless at the coming day of the Lord Jesus Christ, that you and your neighbor join together in the glory and praise of God, both here in time where forgiveness is confessed and prayed for and received by grace, through faith, for Christ’s sake; and there in eternity, where the saints and angels sing their unending hymns of joy to the risen and ascended Lord Jesus, whose dazzling body bears the marks of the cross on which He wiped away our debt of sin and procured our eternal salvation.
+ In the Name of the Father, and of + the Son, and of the Holy Spirit +