17th Sunday after Pentecost
To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his own blood and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father — to him be glory and power for ever and ever. Amen. Dear friends in Christ, I was young, perhaps naïve, but very curious, always trying things, figuring things out, going places I shouldn’t, etc. It was fall quite a few years back. I was in boy pioneers (kind of like the scouts, but Lutheran) and we had a hayride at the Tesch’s farm. It was one of the highlights of the year. At one spot there was a big hill where the hay ride stopped for treats and hot chocolate and the kids like us could run around. On the other side of this big hill, out of the sight of the adults, some of us climbed and about 20 yards on the other side of this hill, there it was. And, being curious, I had to find out, it was almost like it was drawing me, I had to find out what it was like, so I reached out my hand and grabbed it, a wire, a wire of an electric fence, fortunately the electricity came in bursts so I could release my hand, but for that short moment, watching my muscles tense uncontrollably, I knew what it was like to hold on to something which if you didn’t let it go, it would kill you. There are many things today that people still like to hold on to that if they don’t let them go they will kill you: past wrongs, resentment, anger, bitterness, etc. We know we are to forgive people when we are sinned against, but, how much?
That’s the question that was on Peter’s mind when he came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?” Peter was being very generous. The current Jewish religious leaders taught that you should forgive someone once, twice, three times, but the fourth time: Do not forgive. Three times was enough for a good Jew. Peter more than doubled this with his seven times! How generous! Yet, perhaps no one was prepared for the answer Jesus gave, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” Jesus blasts away any kind of a numbering system, blows away a track record of past wrongs, and says your forgiveness is to be limitless and boundless. And if Peter ever doubted forgiving someone he is to remember this parable Jesus told, as do we.
A particular servant went out upset and hard hearted. He had been wronged. A fellow servant owed him a few dollars and didn’t pay him back. Who could blame him for being upset? He found his fellow servant and violently began to choke him and said, “Pay back what you owe me!” When the fellow servant pleaded for patience to pay him back, he had him thrown in prison. He demanded justice, restitution for the wrongs committed.
The picture of this stubborn servant is clear. We also have fellow servants, spouses, friends, coworkers, relatives, enemies who have offended us, sinned against us, wronged us. We were wronged, terribly wronged. They did something to us they should not have done and it hurt us. Don’t we have every right to hurt them back, get even? Ought we to demand justice, make them pay for wrongs committed, teach them a lesson? We could come up with a hundred reasons why not to forgive, right? “He needs to learn a lesson, I don’t want to encourage irresponsible behavior, I’ll just let her stew for a while, it will do her good. She needs to learn that actions have consequences. I was the wronged party- it’s not up to me to make the first move. How can I forgive when he’s not even sorry?”
There’s this thing that develops over time after we’ve been wronged. It’s called resentment. Literally it means, “To feel again.” It clings to the past and relives it over and over again. It picks each scab so that it will never heal. People carry with them grudges, knowledge of past wrongs, burdens of being refused forgiveness from someone else, anger at someone who’s wronged them. This resentment shows itself in our lives by sudden bursts of emotions, lashing out with biting words meant to cut down and hurt someone, always keeping a past wrong in the back pocked ready to bring it out at a moment’s notice whenever convenient. What comes naturally is anger, not forgiveness. Like grasping an electric fence we hold on to times when we’ve been wronged and won’t let them go and eventually they will kill us. And if there is anyone in this room who doesn’t think that the unmerciful servant doesn’t often resemble them, they’d only be fooling themselves.
Perhaps the most jolting truth of this parable is the result of not forgiving one’s neighbor, of holding on to a past wrong. “In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.” If the servant had no room in his heart to forgive his fellow servant why should the king forgive him? A stirring question each one of us has to ponder.
There’s this thing called reframing. It’s taking a step back, it’s pulling back the camera lens to take a look at the whole picture. Instead of focusing on one little aspect you see the whole big picture. It’s useful in our lives to help us consider the reasons or backgrounds of those who have wronged us and its something that Jesus uses in this parable. Zoom the camera back out, what do you see? Someone wronged much greater than this unmerciful servant. The very same unmerciful servant is standing before his king. Now it’s the unmerciful servant begging for patience. You see this same servant owed ten thousand talents to the king. In modern terms that amount is millions and millions of dollars, that is, 150,000 years worth of wages, 600,000 times more than what his fellow servant owed him. An impossible sum to pay back and the king ordered the man and all his property sold to pay back some of the debt. Had this servant thought this day of accounting would never come? Had he laughed every time he racked up more expense on the master’s tab? Now, he’s at his masters feet begging for mercy. Yet what does the king do? “The servants master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.” He set him free, released him, let him go, canceled his impossibly large debt, wiped his slate clean.
Literally the Greek word “to forgive” is “release, let go, hurl away, free oneself.” To let go of that electric fence that will eventually kill you. How much are we to forgive our neighbor? God wants our forgiveness to be limitless, boundless, an act of our will where we actually give up our right to get even and release that person who has wronged us.
God says take a look at the big picture, pull the camera lens back, take a step back and see what really is going on. Each one of us has an insurmountable debt of sin which we owe payment to God. This debt was accumulated by every sinful thought we’ve had, every wrong word we’ve said, every act we did that walked right over God’s commands. We are spiritually bankrupt. The thought of paying God back? IMPOSSIBLE! Our debt is too huge. All we could do is face paying off our debt to God with an eternal death in the prison of hell. When God brings us to that realization, He does the unthinkable. Like the king in the parable He releases us from the just punishment we deserve and completely cancels our debt, forgive us our sins- every one of them, releases us. Each one of us here has a big picture that includes a moment of release, a gift of staggering grace, none excepted.
God tells you as far as the east is from the west so far has he removed your transgressions from you, your sin has been cast into the depths of the sea, though your sins are as scarlet they shall be as white as snow. Notice God didn’t say to us, “That’s ok, don’t worry about, it’s no big deal.” Rather He said to you, “I forgive you, your sins are gone forever, I remember them no more, I release you.” Just like the king didn’t wait, so God doesn’t wait, in an instant He declared you innocent, not guilty, justified from all of your sins against Him. God’s unspeakable mercy and compassion always come first and melt our hearts of stone and cleanse us from all bitterness, resentment, thoughts of revenge. It’s God’s forgiveness that moves us to forgive anyone who has wronged us.
In a world where anger leads to anger like dominoes falling on each other God planted his cross deep into the angry ground- the Cross of Christ is the one place where all aggression can end. The worst crime in history. He had nails driven through his hands and feet after he had been beaten, scourged, laughed at, and mocked. He had every right to get even, it wasn’t his sin, it wasn’t his wrong, it wasn’t his punishment, yet in an act that surpasses human imagination he took upon himself the sum total of all rage, hate, bitterness, and sin of the world and upon the cross uttered the words, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” It is there on the cross where all un-forgiveness comes to a screaming halt. God took the first move, forgiveness began in his heart and he cancelled the insurmountable debt of sin of you and me. He said, “I forgive you.” It’s there where we cannot but help say to our friend, our relative, our coworker…our enemy, “Father, forgive them for they didn’t know what they were doing.” “I forgive you. I let it go completely. I release you, I release myself.” That’s forgiveness!