The Correct Emphasis
One of my favorite preaching jokes is about the pastor who writes in the margin of his sermons notes, "Argument weak; pound pulpit; yell loud." Emphasis is important. Correct emphasis is even more important. For example in the oft quoted Philippians 4 passage, "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me," which word do you emphasize, the word I or the word Christ? It makes a big difference. Is it "I can do all things" or, "I can do all things through Christ?" On this 17th Sunday after Pentecost, we will learn what is to be emphasized in the familiar text before us.
This text clearly teaches us that we're to be merciful, forgiving. We're not to be counting up wrongs against us. We're not to be keeping score. Peter comes to Jesus thinking that if he forgives a brother who sins against him 7 times he has done well. The Jewish rabbis of the time limited forgiveness to 3 times, so Peter thinks forgiving more than twice as much as that should be more than enough. Jesus responds by using the exact expression Lamech a descendant of Cain used in Genesis. Lamech said, "If Cain is avenged 7 times truly Lamech seventy-seven times." The point Jesus is making is that just as among unbelievers there was no limit to hatred and vengeance, so among Christians there is to be no limit to mercy and forgiveness.
Jesus here commands us, orders us, requires us not to be people who count up sins against us, but to be like Psalm 130 says the Lord is. "If thou should mark iniquities, O Lord who could stand?" God doesn't have a blackboard in heaven where He is puts a mark every time we speak, think, or do something sinful. Christ Jesus had all our marks charged to His account and so wiped the board eternally clean with His blood.
Rather than be counters we are to be forgivers, and not just forgivers in words but forgivers from the heart. Feigned forgiving or forced forgiving isn't acceptable to Jesus. None of what you might have done as a child. A parent or teacher breaks up a fight between you and someone else. The other person is commanded to say they're sorry, and you're required to say, "I forgive you." That sort of grudging, bitter, halfhearted forgiving might do before a teacher or a parent, but it will not do before God. He requires forgiveness to be from the heart.
What happens if our forgiveness isn't from the heart? Jesus is real clear here too. He says, "This is how My heavenly Father will treat each of you..." You will be turned over not to the jailers, as our insert translates, but literally to the torturers. This is in accordance with James 2:13, "Judgment is without mercy to him that shows no mercy." Here perhaps we should turn to Dante or Milton or to Medieval paintings of hell where horrible, torturous suffering is depicted. Here perhaps we should turn to Luke 16 where the man in hell says he is so tormented by flames that just a drop of water would help, or to Revelation 20 and a lake of fire, or to Jesus' own words about each person in hell having a worm that doesn't die. This is the fate that awaits you if you refuse to forgive anyone who has sinned against you.
The text clearly teaches this, but the emphasis is not here. The command "be forgiving even as you have been forgiven" is all Law. The Law tells you what you are to do and what God requires, but it does not give you the power to forgive or the forgiving heart God requires. In fact, if you dwell on the Law, on the command to forgive, the less you will want to just as the louder your diet tells you not eat less the less you will want to.
The emphasis in this text is not on the fact that we are to be heartfelt forgivers. Neither is the emphasis where our synodical magazine The Lutheran Witness puts it. You cannot have missed this type of story. You find one 3 or 4 times a year about a person who has been terribly, horribly sinned against. Over the years I've read about a man whose daughter was killed by a drunk driver, about a woman who was raped, about a mother whose child was murdered.
These stories are true to life. Some of you have doubtless experienced such sins against yourself. People have done things to you that haunt you. The rise up in your thoughts or dreams at night daring you to forgive them. In the light of day when you read The Lutheran Witness, you find the person in the article being able to forgive the rapist, abuser, or murderer. And these articles in good Lutheran fashion always give all credit to the wonderful Gospel of Christ. It is the forgiveness that Christ won for the world that enables the person to forgive that person who sinned so grossly against them. Yet these articles leave me certain that it's impossible for me to ever forgive like the person in the article. Do you know why? Because they emphasize what this text does not, the size of the sin against the person.
Our text does just the opposite, and it does it in a huge way. The servants debt to his king is the equivalent of 60 million days wages. The debt the servant is owed by another is 100 days wages. In dollars and cents, the servant's sins against God, the king, amount to 2 billion 472 million dollars. The sins against the servant amount to 4 thousand 2 hundred and 10 dollars. This means, and this will sound harsh, but it needs to be said if we will ever be delivered from the grudges we hold. This means that people who have been sinned against by a drunk driver, a rapist, or a murderer are to regard such sins as pocket change when compared to their own sins. Isn't that what this text plainly teaches? Isn't that where the emphasis is in this text? How else will any of us ever be delivered from the grudges we feel we have a right to hold?
Friends, this is a regular occurrence in the ministry. A person will tell me about a horrible, terrible, wretched thing someone has done to them. It is the kind of thing that literally turns your stomach. It's the kind of thing that when I hear it I want to go out and kill the no count, scum-sucking, low-life who did it. It's the kind of thing that only an out and out fool would say to the injured, violated, humiliated person, "That's small change compared to your sins against God." But please tell me, in light of this text, what other thing can I say?
But I haven't always said it. I wasn't able to say it the first couple of times these sort of things were brought to me. The person's hurt was too great, too wretched, too barbaric for me not to side with them. I would think, "Yeah, how on earth could you ever forgive someone who did such a terrible thing to you." But don't you see? I was putting the emphasis on the wrong thing, on the sins done against them not on their sins against God, on the thousands of dollars someone owed them not the billions of dollars they owed God.
The only way I will ever help any of you to deal with the wretched things that someone else has done to you, the only way I will ever bring any of you to forgive from the heart is if I emphasize what Jesus does: the unfathomable hugeness of our sinful debt to God and His total, complete forgiveness of that debt.
The size of our sins against God are unimaginably huge. We must break with this feeling, this understanding that what we have done, thought or said is not that bad before God. Jesus uses 10,000 talents to represent our sinful debt to show us that none of us can rightly reckon it. None of us can get our head around it. Our problem is that while we all have something we have done that we would die of shame if anyone on earth ever knew, while our face gets red when it comes into our thoughts, we think that it's just that one thing. In reality, our whole life before God has been nothing but that sort of thing. It's not just this or that but everything we think, do and say has been that disgustingly sinful before the Almighty God. Isaiah says that even our righteousness, our religion, our best things are nothing but smelly, nauseating, filthy rags before God's holy nose.
Secondly, we must break from the illusion or delusion that we could ever pay God back. Notice the servant in the parable never does. He not only doesn't ask for forgiveness when confronted with his astonishing debt of sin; he promises to pay it off. Friend, you could live a perfect life from here to eternity and still not pay off God. You could suffer the ravishes of disease, the deaths of children, and the loss of all that you have, as Job did, and God would not be moved to forgive you even a little. You could give all your money to the Church, become a missionary in Bangladesh, and live on bread and water the rest of your life and not only wouldn't you pay off your billions of dollars in sins, you debt would actually be increasing.
What does God the king do? Although He wasn't asked for pity, He has pity on the servant, cancels the debt, and lets him go. Out of the blue in the text, He forgives the debt. Of course, we know that God didn't forgive the sins of the world, or yours and mine, out of the blue. As Paul says, "while we were still sinners," while were we still ungodly, unbelieving in debt up to our eyeball sinners, God forgave us for the sake of Christ.
God sent His only beloved Son, Jesus, into the world, loaded with the debt of the world's sins. He carried not a couple billion dollars in sins but trillions upon trillions upon trillions. He was a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief says Isaiah. You know what sorrows and what griefs have come into your life because of your sins; well imagine all that would come into your life if you carried the guilt and shame of a world's sins. God punished those sins on the back of His Son. All of His wrath was poured out on our sins there, all the sufferings of hell, all the pain of damnation, all the tortures that we can but imagine were suffered by God's holy Son. The temporal and eternal punishment that we confess every Sunday we deserve as poor, miserable sinners was borne by Christ, was suffered by Christ.
Imagine that someone has harmed you or one of your children. Imagine that they still boasted about it, laughed in your face about it. Can you imagine forgiving them under any circumstances ever? That was you and I. That's what Paul means when He says, "while we were still sinners Christ died for the ungodly." Though we boasted and laughed at the sufferings of Jesus, though we could care less about what He suffered for us, though we still lived under the delusion that we could somehow pay for our own sins, God had pity on us, canceled our debts and let us go scot-free.
And here we are. Not a penny do we owe God. He has said He has been satisfied by what Christ suffered in our place. We are free; those shameful sins that rise up to haunt us at night are forgiven. Those disgusting things we did or thought have been carried eternally away from us by Jesus. God knows of not one tinnie, tiny sin of ours that He has not forgiven, and forgotten for good. For Jesus' sake, He looks down upon us with nothing but a big smile. He can't wait for us to ask for something. He can't wait to shower us with blessings. For Jesus' sake, God is pleased by whatever we do. When we're sleeping, He looks in on us with nothing but love overflowing from His heart the way we look in on our kids at night.
My dear friends, see this joy-filled picture brimming over with forgiveness. Let it be big and bright in your mind's eye. Now turn around and see the person who has sinned against you. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Pentecost XVII (9-15-02), Matthew 18:21-35