The Heart of Forgiveness

Twenty-second Sunday after Trinity
Matthew 18:21-35
October 23, 2016
Trinity Lutheran Church—New Haven, MO

In the name of + Jesus.

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If you treat the parables of Jesus like Aesop’s fables—that is, as little morality plays—you will never get what the parable is trying to convey. It’s always best to approach one of Jesus’ parables cautiously and to chew on it for a while before running off and making applications it was never designed to make.

First of all, a parable of the kingdom of God is not about you. A republic is defined by its citizens, but a kingdom is defined by its king. And so a parable about the kingdom of God is a story meant to convey a truth about the gracious activity of God in Jesus, the King. Anything a parable has to say to us as subjects of the King is secondary, and only because of a new knowledge or condition effected by the King.

The scene for the parable is set by Peter’s question to Jesus. Then Peter came to Him and said, “Lord, how many times will my brother sin against me, and I will forgive him? Up to seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you up to seven times, but up to seventy-seven times (vv 21-22). So we’re going to get story about forgiveness.

For this reason, the kingdom of the heavens is compared to a man who was a king, who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. And when he began to settle, there was brought to him a debtor of ten thousand talents. But because he could not repay, the lord commanded him to be sold, and his wife and children and everything he had, and to be repaid (vv 23-25). So the point of comparison for the gracious activity of God in Jesus Christ is a king who wants to settle accounts. So how does he end up settling them?

Now, at the outset we get an absurd detail—every parable has some absurd detail in it—this debtor owed his lord 10,000 talents. Let’s put that in perspective. A talent was first a unit of weight—26-36 kg (somewhere between 50 and 80 lbs). Then it became a unit of coinage—the value fluctuated, but one talent was always a large sum of money. One Bible dictionary estimates that 6,000 denarii—a day’s wage—equaled one talent. So That means that this worker owed the equivalent of 60 million days of work, or over half a billion dollars.

It’s absurd. No one individual has that line of credit—not a day laborer, and certainly not a slave. It would be like an employee of the New Haven Ice Cream Shoppe going over to Citizen’s bank and asking for a $400,000,000 loan. Sure, we’ll get right on that.

First, how was it possible that this man gets himself into such an astoundingly large debt? Well, the account is with the king, and in a couple verses, Jesus will describe this debt as a loan to the king. So that means that the king, unlike Citizen’s Bank, is generous in his terms. This parable assumes the graciousness of the king in allowing such a reckless debt that could obviously never be repaid. So the only solution would be to sell off the slave and his family (which, by the way, was actually forbidden by Jewish law), and to put the slave into debtors prison. But for the amount that he owed, he wouldn’t be able to work off his debt for a thousand years—more than ten lifetimes!!!

Then, throwing himself on the ground, the slave groveled before him, saying, ‘Be patient with me, and I will repay you everything!’ Because he had mercy on that slave, the lord released him, and he forgave him his loan (vv 26-27). Now comes absurdity upon absurdity. The slave begs for mercy, but he somehow thinks that he can repay everything! Ten lifetimes couldn’t repay the debt, and if the juice is running, his hardest labor wouldn’t even begin to pay the interest on this loan.

Then something completely unexpected happens. Not only is the lord gracious, but he is also compassionate. He has mercy on this slave and releases him from his debt. Not a single penny need be repaid. The king settles the account by paying this astronomical debt for the slave.

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The middle part of the story, though, takes a turn for the worse. But that slave went out and found one of his fellow slaves, who owed him a hundred denarii, and grabbed him and was choking him, saying, ‘Pay me what you owe!’ Then his fellow slave fell down before him and pleaded with him, saying, ‘Be patient with me, and I will repay you.’ He did not want this, but went and threw him into prison until he could repay the debt (vv 28-30).

There are a number of similar things that are similar to the first part, but also some striking differences. In the first scene, the relationship was slave to master; here it is fellow slaves. The first debt was obscenely out of control; the second debt—a hundred denarii—was not small, but also not insurmountable (think of it as modest car loan). In the first, the master was kind even when calling in his debtors; here the slave pursues his lendee with violence. The fellow slave responded with almost the exact same plea as the slave had used with his master in the first scene—but with one major difference. The slave with the astronomical debt promised to repay everything when it was clear that he could never do so. The fellow slave promises to repay, but is more realistic about his promise and his request for patience. And finally, the slave threw his fellow slave into prison, where he would have no chance to pay the debt back.

Now we come to the main point of the parable. Peter asks a question about forgiveness, wherein he counts the number of times he has to forgive. Up to seven times? Jesus’ response is that you shouldn’t keep track of forgiveness at all. That’s the point of His response. Because forgiveness isn’t about settling accounts. Forgiveness is about releasing a person from his debts. The contrast between the two scenes is astounding. The lord forgives this slave ten lifetimes worth of debt, and when he turns around he can’t find it in himself to forgive a few months of debt for his fellow slave. It shows that he never quit trusting in his own ability to repay what he owed.

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The final scene of the parable plays out thusly: When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were very distressed and went to the lord himself and explained in detail all that had happened. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You evil slave. I forgave you all of that debt, because you pleaded with me. Is it not necessary for you also to have mercy on your fellow slave, just as I had mercy on you?’ And his lord was wrathful, and handed him over to the torturer until he could pay back all of his debt. In this way also, My Father who is in heaven will do to you unless you forgive each of your brothers from the heart (vv 31-35).

This is where we must really raise our guard against turning Jesus’ parable into one of Aesop’s fables. The goal of this parable is so that we disciples of Jesus would forgive each other from the heart. Just what does this mean?

When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we’re accustomed to saying, Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Trespass isn’t the best word there; it makes us think of walking on someone else’s property. It would probably be better understood as, Forgive us our debts as we forgive those who are indebted to us. Just like in the parable.

In explanation to this petition of the Lord’s Prayer, the Small Catechism teaches us, We pray in this petition that our Father in heaven would not look at our sins, or deny our prayer because of them. We are neither worthy of the things for which we pray, nor have we deserved them, but we ask that He would give them all to us by grace, for we daily sin much and surely deserve nothing but punishment. So we too will sincerely forgive and gladly do good to those who sin against us (SC Lord’s Prayer: Fifth Petition).

To forgive from the heart means that our hearts must first be moved and changed by the forgiveness of our heavenly Father. The slave’s fatal error in this story was that he somehow thought of himself as worthy of the forgiveness he received, or deserved it because of his person or position or his negotiation skills. But it was the lord’s compassion that ruled the day.

Likewise, it is your Lord’s compassion that has forgiven an you astronomical debt, one that you could never hope to repay in ten lifetimes. You have been released from our debts before God. If that does not change your hear, then you are still bound in your trespasses. So forgive. And forgive. And forgive again. Seven times. Seventy-seven times. Seventy times seven times. Without counting. That is to say, forgive from the heart. Because,

To Forgive from the Heart Is to Know How Much You Have Been Forgiven

In the name of + Jesus.

Jacob W Ehrhard
VD+MA