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Is There A Limit To Forgiveness? (St. Matthew 18.21-35)

Twenty-Second Sunday after Trinity


“Is There A Limit To Forgiveness?”
Philip G. Meyer, Pastor Emeritus       

St. Matthew 18.21-35

13 November 2022



Previous to the events in this Gospel reading Jesus bestowed the keys of the kingdom on his Church through the Apostles. Jesus had spoken to Peter as the leader of the disciples about the matter. Only through the forgiveness of sins does anyone get into heaven. We are surprised by Peter’s question with regard to our neighbor:

“Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?”

After all, we have the benefit of the complete revelation of Scripture so we might be quick to judge Peter, but in reality, he is no different than we.

Peter as the spokesman for the other disciples asked this question. Perhaps they had discussed it among themselves after Jesus had discussed what to do with the brother who sins against you [18.15-20]. Peter asks, “Is seven times enough?” Seven is considered a holy number among the Jews. There is no “three strikes and you’re out” as we have today. The truth is that we think that forgiving the brother or sister who sins against us two or three times ought to be the limit. After that, all thought of mercy is gone. Forgiveness is gone. Time to cancel this person!

Jesus’ parable does not speak of a group of people forgiving, but of one receiving forgiveness from God and then individuals forgiving each other. Consider the position of the first slave. He owes a debt to his master that is simply incalculable. Some have extrapolated that 10,000 talents equates to over $20 million in today’s money, maybe more with inflation. What master allows a slave to build up that kind of debt? Yet, that is not the point. This slave, who has no hope whatsoever of repaying his master, throws himself at his master’s feet imploring mercy. He promises to repay, but the master knows that this is impossible. What shall he use to repay it? He has nothing. The master, out of mercy, released him and forgave his debt. The master absorbed the total loss himself.

You see clearly that this is what God has done for you in Christ. You cannot pay for your sins, your debts, as one translation of the Our Father has it. You have nothing and will have nothing even if you lived a thousand lifetimes. You have only this lifetime and your debt is enormous. The only payment to be made was made by the Son of God, our Lord Jesus Christ. He paid the debt you owed at the cost of his own innocent life. There on the accursed tree of the cross he died to pay your debt. That’s the way it works in the Kingdom of God. 

Debt is debt no matter the amount. However, we tend to mix up what we owe to God because of our sins and what we owe for our sins against each other. We pray many times in the Divine Service, “Lord, have mercy upon us,” which is really asking God to forgive us. We speak or chant it corporately but we mean it personally. “Be merciful to me, a sinner! Forgive me my sins!” And for the sake of Christ God does!

The parable is meant to teach us the great disparity of our sins against God with those against each other. There are people in the history of this world who amassed a debt to God that is enormous from a human viewpoint. After all, every sin is a sin against God even though many of them are committed against a neighbor, a fellow Christian. That lies at the heart of this parable. 

Take this first slave. Ten thousand talents—$20 million plus in today’s money. How could I owe so much? I’m sure this first slave continued to increase his debt day by day, compounding the interest, so to speak. Yet, there stand the Commandments and we haven’t kept a single one of them! Not for one day, not for one hour. When you look into the mirror of God’s Commandments you suddenly realize that the situation is hopeless. One can beg for more time, having the unrealistic hope that he can scrape together payment for his debt, but a thousand lifetimes would not be enough to pay the debt we owe God. What shall we use to repay it?

The master, out of mercy, released him and forgave his debt. You see quite clearly that this is what God has done for you in Christ. You cannot pay your debt with God. You and I are bankrupt. Yet that payment has been made by the Son of God, our Lord Jesus Christ. He is the only one who could pay it because only he had no sin. Out of sheer mercy He paid the debt we owed at the cost of his own innocent life. There on the accursed tree of the cross he died to pay our debt.

Some people think that God could not possibly forgive the sins they have committed. There have horrible sins, sins which we could never admit to others. Secret sins that only God knows. Their consciences work so well that they come to the point of despair. “How could God forgive me for the evil I have done?” they ask. Yet, our Lord Jesus Christ speaks to our guilty hearts:

“Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter, 29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.” [Mark 3. 28-29]

“All sins,” says Jesus, even the most horrendous ones you you have committed. 

I’ve mentioned this next item in yeas past but it illustrates the depths of God’s forgiveness. After World War II, Chaplain Major Henry G. Gerecke, and LCMS pastor, wrote a report entitled: “My Assignment with the International Military Tribunal at Nürnberg, Germany.” It covers November 1945 to November 1946, when he was called upon by the military to provide spiritual help to Nazi war criminals. Among the names of these criminals are those you would immediately recognize, 21 defendants in all. Six of them claimed membership in the Roman Catholic Church while fifteen listed preference for the Lutheran Church, one of the state churches of Germany. A Roman Catholic chaplain met with the Roman Catholics while Chaplain Gerecke met with the others. By the end of the trials a few of them confessed their sins and were absolved. They asked that Chaplain Gerecke review the Catechism with them about the Sacrament of the Altar. Gerecke wrote: “It touched my heart to see these three big men on their knees before the altar about the receive the Lord’s Supper. I am convinced that God worked a change in their hearts through the Word that had been read and preached to them, and they were ready, as every penitent Christian is ready, to ask God’s forgiveness of sins for Jesus’ sake. It was alone through the grace of God that they found life in the promises of the Word.”

Let’s move to the second scene in the parable. The slave with the huge debt was released—forgiven—the whole amount. Christ has placed no limit on the sins that his blood covers. None, except the sin against the Holy Spirit, that sin of shutting God out altogether, of refusing to believe the Gospel. The slave who had been forgiven an enormous amount then sought out a fellow slave who owed him about five days pay. The bulletin graphic displays it quite clearly. A picture is worth a thousand words. The first slave wanted no limits to the forgiveness of the master but then limited forgiveness for a comparatively paltry amount of money. The second man pleads the same words as the first but with a far different outcome. His fellow slave gave him no mercy, no forgiveness. He used legal means to get payment. 

The other slaves witnessed it all. They were “extremely distressed” at his actions. This first slave had separated himself from the mercy of the Master. That is the danger for each one of us, too, just as it was for Peter and the other disciples. In our sinfulness we limit the forgiveness that others ask for. Perhaps we think them unworthy for what they have done to us. Maybe such a person hurt our feelings and we carry around that hurt and anger refusing to forgive or even to have a forgiving attitude. 

Not all those who sin against you are going to ask for forgiveness, but that doesn’t mean you and I are off the hook, thinking that if he doesn’t confess his sin and ask for absolution I don’t have to forgive him. Maybe this person continues to hold a grudge against you. What then? Are you justified in treating him the way the first slave treated the second? 

To forgive has to do with releasing. To forgive then, is to let go of the desire to seek revenge, to let things up to God to deal with. To forgive someone is to release him from retribution and retaliation. This happens only when the forgiveness of God flows through you. As our children are taught in the explanation of the Fifth Petition of the Our Father: 

“To let God forgive us and to forgive belong together.” 

And then: 

If we can forgive and do forgive, this is a proof that we are God’s and that his Holy Spirit has not forsaken us. This gives us confidence to come to God and ask him again and again to forgive our daily sins of weakness.

So, to be in Christ, that is, receiving his forgiveness in Word and Sacrament provides the power to forgive those who sin against you. If you have Jesus, then you have forgiveness because without Jesus there is no forgiveness. If you have Christ living in you, then you can’t take your fellow servant by the throat and make him pay for what he’s done. Loving Jesus means forgiving others, having a forgiving attitude whether or not your fellow slave asks for forgiveness. It’s either Jesus and forgiveness, or neither of them. There is no limit to Christ’s forgiveness of you, so there can be no limit to your forgiveness with your fellow Christians. 

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

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