Preached at Red Mills Baptist Church, Sunday December 29th 2019
It is customary when crossing the year boundary to preach a sermon about fresh starts and resolutions; sermons of how “this year will be Different”. And while this sermon may to some extent be consistent with that sort of theme, today’s sermon is not that sort of sermon.
I suppose such sermons have their place, but in my experience, the BIG PUSH to do something new and difficult may work for a while, but that approach inevitably fails. I’m sure we have all had the experience of making new year’s resolutions like “I’m finally going to be nice to my sister” or “This is the year I will exercise.” And by a supreme effort of will, we begin to put on “The New Me.” But invariably, after a week, or a month of moderate success, we fall back into our old ways, no better than before, and perhaps a little worse. Such approaches fail because the reality is that we do what we want to do, and we only vary from this for a very short time.
The only way we really change, is by changing what we want, or by realizing that we’ve been going about it all wrong, and there is a better way to get what we want. I have nowhere seen this better articulated than in Thomas Chalmers’ essay “The Expulsive Power of A New Affection.”
Today’s sermon is about forgiveness. Forgiveness, true forgiveness, does not come easily to us. And it is all but impossible for the natural man. But even for the one on whom God has shed his grace, and quickened his heart, it is still not an easy thing. We find it difficult because deep down, we want something, and to forgive the one who has truly offended us, feels like we are giving up something…something valuable.
But as Jim Elliot, the martyred 1950s missionary, one said “He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep, to gain what he cannot lose.”
Understanding how our Lord’s high calling to forgiveness is a blessing will not make it easy, but if we can at least see why this is what we want, we will be strengthened to make real changes.
I’m going to talk first about “What is Forgiveness”, then “The necessity of forgiveness”, and finally, “The Blessing of Forgiveness”. Let’s turn in our bibles to the book of Matthew, chapter 18, and I’ll read, starting in verse 21 and to the end of the chapter:
|21||Then Peter came and said to Him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?”|
|22||Jesus *said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.|
|23||For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves.|
|24||When he had begun to settle them, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him.|
|25||But since he did not have the means to repay, his lord commanded him to be sold, along with his wife and children and all that he had, and repayment to be made.|
|26||So the slave fell to the ground and prostrated himself before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you everything.’|
|27||And the lord of that slave felt compassion and released him and forgave him the debt.|
|28||But that slave went out and found one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and he seized him and began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay back what you owe.’|
|29||So his fellow slave fell to the ground and began to plead with him, saying, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you.’|
|30||But he was unwilling and went and threw him in prison until he should pay back what was owed.|
|31||So when his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were deeply grieved and came and reported to their lord all that had happened.|
|32||Then summoning him, his lord said to him, ‘You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me.|
|33||Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way that I had mercy on you?’|
|34||And his lord, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him.|
|35||My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart.”|
The heart of this passage is forgiveness. God’s forgiveness of us, and our forgiveness towards one another. But what is forgiveness, exactly?
Let’s start with this working definition: “Forgiveness is choosing to accept the consequences of another person’s sin”
The slave in this parable had a great debt, 10,000 talents we are told. To get an idea of just what this means, the value of a talent could be as low as about $16,500 for a silver talent, and as high as $1.4M for a gold talent. That means this slave owed his king anywhere from $165M at a minimum, up to as much as $14B. Either way, it was an enormous debt.
But this slave could not pay his debt.
He was in way, way over his head, and there was no way he would ever get himself out. And all that he was and all that he had would not cover it.
Now, we must remember here, that the King had lent the money to the slave, and he had a RIGHT to be repaid. The money was really his, only on loan to the slave, and now the slave had lost or squandered it. The king had a right to the money, and a right to sell the slave, and his family, and all that he had, if the money could not be repaid. And under Roman law, he could also have the slave executed.
And this is what the king began to do, we are told in verse 25:
But since he did not have the means to repay, his lord commanded him to be sold, along with his wife and children and all that he had, and repayment to be made.
This right of compensation is true of you and me as well: when someone harms you, steals from you, or sins against you in any way, they incur a debt. There is a very real sense in which you have a right to be made whole by the offender. And it would be unjust of any third party to simply say “be quiet, you have no claim.” You do have a claim, and insofar as compensation has not been made, and the wrong not righted, it is unjust.
In order to really understand forgiveness, we need to understand that we start with someone who is owed something, be it money, or honor, labor or property, something is owed. And that person has a RIGHT to what is owed. In this case, what is owed to the king is so much money, that it can only be satisfied by selling the slave and his family and all that he has. The slave will be left with nothing, save perhaps his own life. And seeing just how desperate is his situation, he cries out to the king in verse 26:
So the slave fell to the ground and prostrated himself before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you everything.’
The slave is not asking for forgiveness, at least not in the complete sense, his simply asking for more time. We are not told if this was in any way a reasonable request. How much time would it take a slave in the ancient world to come up with $165M, much less $14B? How long would it take you or I today? I suspect it was a hope-against-hope sort of request. No amount of time would be sufficient, he was just hoping to forestall the inevitable.
But then we read verse 27:
“And the lord of that slave felt compassion and released him and forgave him the debt.”
Do you understand the magnitude of what just happened? Imagine that someone owed you millions of dollars, maybe billions. I don’t care how rich you are, that’s a lot of money. And then this person who owes you all this money says he can’t pay it. You feel compassion for this person, but that’s a lot of money, and it is going to hurt to just let it go. It is going to hurt a lot.
When this King releases the slave and forgives the debt, he is giving up his right to demand compensation.
That money is just gone.
Never to be recovered.
$165 million, up in smoke.
That means that if this king himself had debts to pay, or projects to do, he would have to do this without the $165M. Maybe some projects wouldn’t get done. Maybe this king will have to ask for an extension on his loan to another king. By forgiving the debt he is is giving up his right to that money – he is choosing to accept the consequences of the slave’s sin and renouncing his right to compensation.
So I’m going to expand slightly on our working definition of forgiveness: “Forgiveness is choosing to accept the consequences of another person’s sin and give up, or renounce, our right to compensation.”
But to what extent are we to forgive? What are the limits? When does it change from being grace to foolishness?
Our passage began with Peter asking Jesus “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?”
In asking “up to seven times?”, Peter shows he understands the bar is really high – forgive up to 7 times! Not just the first time, that would be a given if you’re any sort of decent person at all. And if your brother sins against you in the same way a second time, and asks forgiveness, well, we’re going to forgive a second time, because after all, we are supposed to be really good people right? But wouldn’t it seem reasonable that by the third time we start to question our brother’s sincerity? I mean, come on….were you just kidding the first two times? So by going to seven, Peter is suggesting that we should be really long suffering, forgiving our brother twice as many times as any reasonable person would allow – plus one!
Not to mention, 7 was the number of perfection, or completeness.
Peter probably thought he was being really spiritual. Maybe he even thought he might have gone too far…wouldn’t you have?
But Jesus does not commend this answer. Instead he says in verse 22: “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.” In other words, Jesus is saying “forgive without limit” or “There never comes a time when you have discharged your duty to forgive.”
In 2016, a movie came out, called “Silence”, which was about Jesuit missionaries to Japan in 1633. One of the characters in the movie, Kichijiro, repeatedly betrays his fellow Christians to save his own life only to return a scene or two later, repentant, confessing faith, and asking forgiveness. He is a tragic figure, but he represents a vivid picture of what Jesus is commanding here: we are to forgive without limit. Just as we are to love without limit.
So let’s update our working definition of forgiveness: “Forgiveness is choosing to accept the consequences of another person’s sin renouncing, our right to compensation, and keeping no record of the sin.”
The 99th time I forgive my brother is no different from the 1st.
But all this begs the question: Why are we to forgive in this way, and without limit? Why is forgiveness so important?
There are several answers to this question, the first of which is found here in the text: Jesus commands us to.
In verses 28 – 34, this same slave who was forgiven an impossibly high debt, then deals harshly with another slave owing him the much smaller sum of 100 denarii. There are 6000 denarii to the talent, so this is a sum of about $300, based on the silver talent, or $23,000 based on the gold talent. And when the king finds out how this slave treated his fellow slave, harshly and without compassion, even after he had shown him immense compassion, the king was enraged and as we see in verse 34, he “handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him.”
And then Jesus says in verse 35 “My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart.”
In other words, Jesus says that if you do not forgive your brother who sins against you FROM YOUR HEART, you will not receive forgiveness from The Father, you will bear the full weight of your own sin.
This phrase “From The Heart” means “from the innermost part of our being” and “without reservation”. From the heart means that we don’t just say it, but we really mean it. We need to amend our definition of forgiveness to include ‘from the heart’.
Forgiveness then, “is choosing from the heart to accept the consequences of another person’s sin renouncing our right to compensation, and keeping no record of the sin.”
Jesus commands us to forgive our brother. And that should be enough for anyone who calls Jesus ‘Lord’.
And if this sounds really hard, then you are paying attention, because it really is. But remember, what is impossible for man is not impossible for God. We can’t do this on our own, we need God’s spirit. So if you are struggling to forgive, ASK the Lord to change your heart so that you can. We cannot command our own emotions, but we can ask God to.
But there is a deeper reason why we must forgive in this way and without limit: because if you are a Christian, then you want to imitate Christ. Christian means “little Christ”, and one of the marks of the Christian is that we become more and more like Christ as we mature in our faith.
Consider the following passages:
Matthew 4:19 And He said to them, “Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.”
To follow is to imitate. We are to imitate Christ.
Romans 8:29 “For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren;”
We are predestined to be conformed to the image of Christ.
2 Corinthians 3:18 “But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit.”
We ARE being transformed into the image of Christ.
And so dear brother and sister in Christ, you have a desire to be like Christ, to imitate him, and be like him.
And Christ. FORGAVE. You.
Like the slave in this story, we each have an enormous debt, a debt that is hopelessly beyond our ability to repay.
The magnitude of our sin cannot be measured only by degree of harm, or the intensity of our feeling. The magnitude of sin also has to do with the one sinned against. To kill an ant may not seem like a crime to anyone, because an ant is a small and insignificant creature. But many more people would consider it a bad thing to kill a mouse that was not in your house. Still more would consider it a crime to kill a dog or a cat, unless there was significant justification for destroying the animal. But to simply wound a human without just cause would be regarded as sinful by pretty much everyone. It is a greater sin to sin against a greater being.
God is farther above us than we are above the ant. God is the greatest, most significant being that exists. God is infinite, so to sin against God, in even the smallest way, is a sin of infinite magnitude. And we have sinned against him greatly.
And justification plays into it as well. In the ancient world, it was understood that if someone killed your brother, you had a duty to avenge his death. Killing the murderer was not sin. But to kill another murderer, but one whose victims were not your kin, that would be evil, because YOU had no cause to kill him. But it would be more evil to kill a person who had committed no great sin. And it would be more sinful still to kill someone who was completely innocent of any wrongdoing. But most sinful of all would be to kill someone who had not only never harmed you, but been good and kind to you.
Even in our sinful, fallen state, God is good to us beyond belief. He sends his rain on the just and the unjust. By the power of his word, he holds the universe together. By his grace, we are given breath, and life, and blessing. He restrains evil, and blesses each one of us. To sin against one so good to us is a grievous sin indeed.
But we have sinned against God: first in failing to acknowledge Him as our creator, maker, sustainer, giver of life, and source of all blessing. He has given us life itself, and every breath we draw is by his allowance, yet we have robbed him of his glory and given it to another, whether it be ‘nature’ or ‘the universe’ or ‘ourselves’ or any other thing.
But we have further sinned against him in our violence to one another. Man was created in the image of God, and when we sin against each other, we sin against God. So every harsh word, every injury, every murder, is an offense against the God who created that person.
Consider the words of Jesus in Matthew 5:21-22
You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not commit murder’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell.
And like the king in the parable, God has the right to compensation. He has a just cause against each one of us. And because he is infinite, and infinitely good, our sin against him is of infinite magnitude.
How do finite creatures pay an infinite debt? We pay it in eternity forward. This is what is meant by ‘Hell’. It is an eternity of punishment because of the magnitude of our rebellion and sin against our holy and good God.
But thanks be to God, our God is compassionate. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” — John 3:16
Like the king in the parable, God has taken this enormous debt of ours and forgiven it. But here’s the thing: in the parable, when the king forgives the slaves debt, he’s out the money. For him to live with the consequences of the slave’s sin, he was going to have to suffer loss. Our sin does not incur a monetary debt. Our debt is a life debt, and can only be paid with an eternity of punishment.
For God to forgive us, to choose from the heart to accept the consequences of our sin, renouncing his right to compensation, and keeping no record of the sin, he had to absorb the consequences, which is why Jesus who is God, and is infinite, had to bear our punishment on the cross.
It cost Him everything to forgive us, and we are to imitate Christ, and so we too are called to forgive without limit, regardless of the personal cost.
But therein lies the power to forgive as well: because God forgave me this immense debt that I could never repay, because I am a recipient of His grace, lavished on me without measure, I am secure in my person, and I have a supernatural power to forgive others of their sins against me. Sins which, by the way, are much less significant than my sins against God. Because I am an ant compared with God. As a finite being, and a sinful one at that, sins against me are of limited magnitude, they are finite. So in forgiving my fellow man, I am forgiving a very small debt compared with my great debt which was forgiven by God.
I hope I have begun to show how forgiveness, though extremely difficult, is the path we really want to take. Because Jesus is our Lord, and we want to obey him and we want to be like him, so we take the hard but right way.
And this should certainly be motivation enough, but there is an addition blessing to forgiveness that you may not have thought about. It’s not as great a blessing as knowing that we are living the way Jesus wants us to, but it is a little more immediately tangible.
We feel that in granting forgiveness, we are giving up something…something valuable. And this is true, because the sin against us incurs a debt and we have a right to compensation.
But think about this: even if the king in the parable exercised every legitimate and just means of compensation, it is highly unlikely that he will recover more than a fraction of what he is owed. The consequences of this slave’s sin are enormous, and the king is going to have to live with these consequences, whether he accepts them or not. When someone sins against us, we suffer the consequences whether we forgive them or not. But that unforgiveness plants a root of bitterness that gnaws at us. It can twist us, and it can come to define us. When we forgive, the sin against us loses its power to harm our spirit, and we ourselves become freed from its corrosive influence. It’s a small thing, compared with the joy of pleasing our Lord, but my hope is that it will be a further aide for us in transforming our affections. Because in the end, we do what we want to do, but the greatest joy comes when we delight in the Lord.