St. Matthew 18:21-35
November 17, 2019 A+D
In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Earlier in Matthew 18 Jesus made it clear that on this side of glory His disciples will struggle with sin. They must resist it. “If you hand causes you to sin, cut it off” (18:8). In this same chapter and just before Peter’s question He established the process for restoring and forgiving erring brothers (18:15-18), promising that when sins are loosed from sinners in the Church they are loosed in heaven (18:18).
Given this context, Peter’s question makes perfect sense. He is asking how much we should put up with, seeking some practical advice. But he doesn’t get any. Instead Jesus tells him, in essence, that we are to forgive as often as sinners repent, without number, even as we ourselves are forgiven. Jesus doesn’t want us counting one another’s sins. He wants us to keep on forgiving even as we are forgiven.
The parable illustrates this reality. The Kingdom of Christ consists in forgiving one another as we are forgiven, and thus it may be compared to a King who wished to settle accounts not by demanding payment but by forgiving enormous debts. The Kingdom of Christ is not like earthly kingdoms, but instead is established and maintained by the King’s generosity, by His on-going, ridiculous and extravagant forgiveness. You cannot be a citizen of this Kingdom or a servant of this King without forgiveness. Those who are not shaped by this, whose hearts and lives are not changed, who will not forgive, are not truly His servants or citizens and they will be handed over to the devil.
Now, you may be thinking, that forgiveness doesn’t flow out of you that well, that you are prone to holding a grudge, that you are prideful and self-righteous, that, in fact, you want those who have hurt you to be punished. I can hardly imagine how you would think that. And if that bothers you, good. If it doesn’t bother you: repent. It should. For if you think that you do not need to forgive others, then you are no Christian. The only people who think that they don’t need to forgive are those who do not value or truly believe in Christ’s forgiveness or who think they are not actually forgiven.
The principle that Jesus establishes is hard: if you don’t forgive your brother, you will not be forgiven. This bothers you not because you think it is ridiculous but because you actually want to do that. You want to be like Christ in this way and you aren’t quite there. Thus you are disturbed at this saying. This isn’t a sign of doubt but of faith. You love the forgiveness of Christ. You love His Word. You want His forgiveness and you want to be defined by it. You are bothered because you do not fully live up to it and you do not fully live up to it because you are still infected with original sin. You still need forgiveness. You are forgiven, but you are not yet without sin so you need ongoing forgiveness.
In this forgiveness, you strive to forgive. You cooperate with the Holy Spirit. You decide to forgive. You make a choice to forgive. You set your will to forgive. Thus you try to let go. You try to stop obsessing and daydreaming about vengeance and making passive aggressive remarks. You set the sins committed against you into God’s hands, not only because vengeance is His and all sins are ultimately committed against Him, but also because you believe that Jesus died for the sins of the whole world and that God Himself wants to forgive all sinners. You want what He wants. You love what He loves. You trust what He says. So you want to be truly reconciled to your enemies and those who hurt you, you want them to be saved, and you work at forgiving as you have been forgiven.
Of course, the old man in you that doesn’t want to forgive, that is why he is being drowned by daily repentance and contrition and a new man, who loves nothing so much as the grace of God in Christ that forgives sins, rises and emerges to live before God in forgiveness. We live in this forgiveness, in the Blood of Jesus. He has paid a debt for us that we could never repay. He has suffered in our place. He has set us free. We are forgiven and in Him we extend that forgiveness to others.
On this side of glory, faith is always a struggle against the flesh. Our good works and our forgiveness are yet imperfect as we ourselves are imperfect but they are still real and they are still good. Our faith is hope in things not seen. You are waiting on God. You are trusting in Him. Your struggle to forgive, to live like Christ, is a sign that His Word is true and that your sins are forgiven. For He is one who taught you to pray for this and who says that if you forgive one another you are in fact His and are forgiven. The Name of Holy Baptism rests upon you.
This all needs to be said because this statement about forgiving seventy times seven times can easily be misunderstood and misapplied. Jesus’ point is that we are forgiven and are marked by forgiveness. This is forgiveness flows through us to one another. Even as His generosity has no bounds neither should our generosity to one another. This He states as an overarching principle, defining His Kingdom and our faith.
That being said, Jesus does not get into the exact ethics of it. It is similar to His statements about not judging and not swearing and calling no man father. Despite the clear words of Jesus in those places, there are times and places when we must judge, we must swear, and we must call men father. We do this for the sake of our neighbors and to make a good confession in the world. Jesus laid down those things as principles that have to be applied in different situations and which must be understood in the broader context of Holy Scripture. In the same way, there are times when we should retain sins, namely, when people are impenitent.
There are also nuances of forgiveness that aren’t spoken here. Jesus is not advocating that a man who steals a bicycle shouldn’t return it or that sincere, repentant repeat offenders shouldn’t be offered help in dealing with their addictions and weaknesses beyond the absolution or that children shouldn’t be disciplined or that convicted, yet repentant, child molesters should be treated as though nothing happened and given a Sunday School class. There are consequences for sin on this side of glory. There are godly punishments and disciplines and boundaries for Christians. Those things do not negate forgiveness but should be understood as merciful chastisements and helpful tools for curbing the flesh.
Again the overarching principle, the defining character of Christ’s Kingdom is that He does not mark our iniquities. They have all be set down upon the Christ. He settles His accounts by forgiveness. Thus we can stand and we do have hope for with the Lord there is forgiveness that He may be feared.
In +Jesus’ Name. Amen.