Bible Text: Matthew 18:21-35 | Preacher: Pastor Christian Preus | Series: Trinity 2022 | The kingdom of God is like a king who is settling debts with his slaves. That’s what Jesus says. That’s what the Church is now and what Judgment day will be. God settling debts with his slaves, with people who rightfully belong to Him, as the Psalmist says, “It is You who have made us and not we ourselves.” We are not our own. This should remind us that we all have a debt to pay. Obviously. Jesus says that men will give an account of every careless word they speak on the day of judgment. In Jesus’ parable, the debt of the slave to his master is enormous, outrageous, an almost unreal number – like the debt of the United States. We owe an unpayable debt to God. The greatest offense of the Roman Catholic doctrine of penance and purgatory, besides the fact that they simply made it up, is the very idea that we could pay to God what we owe. The papists actually use our Gospel lesson to say that this unforgiving servant gets sent to purgatory in the end and once he pays the myriad of talents he can get out. No, he’s never paying that, that’s the whole point. Jesus purposefully picked the most outrageous number imaginable, like saying a gazillion dollars, to prevent us from thinking we could ever pay it off. It has to be forgiven. The blood of God has to be shed for this. Every time you see that word “compassion,” Jesus had “compassion,” his master had compassion, know that there is pain involved, suffering, passion, that someone actually does have to pay the debt – you can’t just print money, it causes inflation, it hurts people – someone actually has to pay the debt. And when it comes to our sins, God pays the debt, He gives His dearest treasure, right dearly it hath cost Him. No one else can pay the debt. We don’t pay it. That servant, even though he begs for time to pay it himself, doesn’t and can’t pay it. His Lord doesn’t even let him try. He forgives the debt. He frees him. He takes the debt on Himself. That’s the beautiful picture of what God does for us in the cross of Jesus Christ our Savior and what we now experience at the words, “I forgive you all your sins,” and the words “the blood of Christ, shed for the forgiveness of your sins.”
The slave then goes to his fellow slave – that means his fellow Christian – and he demands that he pay an insignificant debt. I say insignificant because everything is insignificant in comparison to ten thousand talents. Every sin committed against me is insignificant compared to the debt I owe God. We should become masters at this art of comparison. A famous architect said recently about New Orleans that it is the best built, best planned city in all of the Caribbean. New Orleans is horribly planned; it’s built below sea level. But if you’re comparing it to cities in the Caribbean, well that changes everything. It matters a lot what you use as the basis of your comparison. Your debt to God is enormous. And He forgave it. And forgives it, every single day. Therefore the debt of your brother against you is tiny in comparison.
The unforgiving slave has his brother slave thrown into prison because of an insignificant debt. Now a hundred denarii is a lot of money, tens of thousands of dollars. It’s not insignificant if you compare it to the slave’s annual salary. It’s insignificant only when you compare it to the ten thousand talents, the gazillions of dollars. This is very important. The sins against you aren’t insignificant. They’re real. We sin against one another. People can be stingy, disrespectful, mean. They can lose their temper and say horrible things to you. They can go back on their word. They can gossip about you behind your back. They can even cheat you and betray your trust. Sin is real and it hurts and it certainly isn’t insignificant, especially when people commit it against you and you feel it and know its consequences. The point here is not that the sins committed against you aren’t so bad, so stop complaining. It’s beautiful how Jesus purposefully doesn’t go there. He doesn’t say the one slave owed the other only a mite, only a half denarius, a mere nothing. He goes with a large number. A hundred denarii. Tens of thousands of dollars. It is significant. It pales in significance only when compared to the ten thousand talents.
So learn this art of comparison well. And you will only learn it by genuine faith in the Gospel, taking this Gospel seriously, knowing in your heart that it is true, that you have sinned against the majesty of the Almighty God and that you have deserved His anger and His punishment, deserved horror and destruction, that your debt is unpayable and desperate and all you can do is plead for mercy, and know that He took the horror on Himself and the eternal Son suffered separation from His eternal Father, because God loves you so much and so He now forgives you that outrageous debt and will continue to forgive it, and for a seal of this He gives you the very body and blood of Jesus, the very payment for your sins, puts it in your mouth and proves to you the debt is paid in full. Believe this and experience it and think of it and dwell on it and make it your joy and you will forgive those who sin against you. You will make the comparison of your debt and theirs and you will find joy in forgiving as you have been forgiven.
The act of the hypocrite is to walk away from receiving God’s forgiveness and then refuse to forgive others. We call this hypocrisy because it’s acting. That’s what hypocrite means, an actor. If you walk away from having all of your sins forgiven and then hold your grudge against your brother, against members of your own church, against your own family members, against your own husband or wife, mother or father, son or daughter, then you were acting when you said “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” It’s all just some embarrassing religious drama. Look hard at that unforgiving servant, how wicked he is to be forgiven so great a debt and then to require his brother to pay for his little debt. That is the absurdly offensive picture of the Christian who refuses to seek reconciliation with his brother.
Jesus tells us this parable to make us certain that He means it, He’s serious, when He tells us to forgive others who sin against us. From the heart. Because it is divine joy to forgive. It is God’s greatest joy to forgive us, to have compassion on us, to show His love to us and save us. There is no joy in holding grudges. There is no joy in dreaming of vengeance. There’s no joy in making your enemy pay his due. There is divine joy in forgiving, in reconciling, in seeking peace and pursuing it. The Proverb says it, “The merciful man does good for his own soul. But he who is cruel troubles his own flesh.” Forgiving is not only the desire of faith, not only the natural expression of your gratefulness to God for His forgiving you, it’s good for your soul, it’s participating in the acts of God, it’s following in the beautiful ways of your Savior.
Now because people are always trying to weasel out of forgiving, some will hear what I just preached and dismiss most of it, with clever sayings like, “I can forgive, but I can’t forget” or “If everyone just forgives, then how can we ever punish people for stealing and murder and misbehaving?” So I’m going to address these right now and then again make the point that Jesus our Savior makes.
Forgetting sins committed against you is sometimes impossible if by forgetting you mean expunging the memory from your mind. Obviously. But if by forgetting you mean not holding a sin against someone, not bringing it up, not dwelling on it in your mind, that’s exactly what forgiving is. God uses no such excuses with you. He doesn’t say, I’ll forgive but I don’t want you around anymore, I don’t want to spend any time with you, I don’t want you talking to me or Me talking to you. That’s not what God does because that’s obviously not what forgiving is. So don’t let that enter into your mind. Don’t act like you can say, “I forgive,” but then insist that you’ll have nothing to do with the person you forgave. Forgiving doesn’t mean you have to be best friends with the person who sinned against you. It does mean you seek reconciliation and you love and speak kindly to those who have sinned against you and want to be reconciled with you.
Second, you always forgive, even when punishment has to happen. Examples of this are in the home and in the state. I forgive my son immediately for talking back to his mother. But I will also sometimes give him a whack on the bottom or a slap on his lips or time in his room for speaking disrespectfully. The two belong together. Discipline here is love, as the Apostle says, “What son is there whom his father does not chasten?” And the Proverbs say, “Spare the rod, spoil the child.” And “Do not withhold discipline from a child, for if you slap him with a rod, he’s not going to die.” It is the parents’ duty before God Almighty to discipline their children and demand respect from them and punish them when they do wrong. That doesn’t mean screaming at them by the way. That’s not how you discipline. That’s lazy and all it does is teach the children to scream. Disciplining means getting up and going to the naughty kid and making sure he knows by word or by spank or by timeout that he’s not going to behave that way. It’s also the parents’ job to forgive their children and love them and to show it with words and actions, and these do not contradict each other in the least. You discipline because you love, without any hatred or meanness, but because you want the best for the child and everyone else in your home and your school and your church.
The same goes for the state. The judge has to punish criminals. Obviously. He does not bear the sword in vain, God says. But if he can, and it is in everyone’s best interest, the judge lessens the punishment. He has mercy on those who show remorse. He gives probation instead of jailtime. He lessens the fine. And even when he gives the extreme penalty, the judge certainly isn’t supposed to punish out of hate and because of some personal vengeance, but only because the law and justice require it and it is the best, most merciful thing for society and even for the one who committed the crime.
There are, in other words, no exceptions. And the Christian doesn’t want exceptions to forgiveness. What a horrible thought. We swim in forgiveness. We soak it up. We live by it. Our debt was paid by God’s own blood. Our robes are white because of the blood of the Lamb. This is pure joy. It’s our goal not only to receive forgiveness from our Lord Jesus but to give it out, because we’re overflowing with it, we’ve received double from the Lord for all our sins, we have more forgiveness than we know what to do with. What a beautiful thing it is to crucify your pride and your zeal to get your own way and to drown all hateful resentment and instead to revel in forgiving and showing mercy. This is the way of God.
Jesus expects us to be horrified at the thought of not forgiving and not seeking reconciliation. When the other slaves see what the unforgiving slave does, how he refuses to forgive the debt of his fellow slave and instead throws him into jail until he pays the debt, they are greatly grieved. The text says, It saddens them to the extreme. They can’t bear to see it. They complain about it to their master. The prayers of the faithful rise to God against false Christians who refuse to forgive, who seek vengeance instead of mercy and hold grudges without repentance. There are all sorts of sins that we need to bear with in the Church. All sorts of sins that we will commit against one another in our weakness. But as long as there is forgiveness, we remain the church, the unbroken body of Jesus, bound by His love and then by our love for one another. Forgiveness is the one thing we can never lose, because to lose forgiveness is to lose God Himself. Hold on to forgiveness, and you grasp hold on God with all His favor and all His blessing and everlasting life with Him and with all the faithful.
This is why you will, by God’s grace, always hear the words “mercy” and “forgiveness” and “Jesus’ blood,” and “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” ringing out constantly in this church and from this pulpit, from the heart. It is our greatest treasure. He who says he has no sin deceives himself and the truth is not in him. But he who confesses his sin, God who is faithful and just will forgive his sin and cleanse him from all unrighteousness. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and gave His Son to be the payment for our sins. Brethren, if God has so loved us, we also should love one another. In the name of Jesus. Amen.